Sunday, 24 November 2013

Joanna Southcott: a Bloomfieldian canard

In a letter of 4 October 1814, Bloomfield informed T.J. Baker that
My wife is a staunch diciple [sic] of Johanna Southcott (Letter 294).
A note appended to the Romantic Circles edition of the letters explains
Joanna Southcott (1750–1814), a Devon servant who proclaimed herself a prophet and the mother of the new Messiah, the returning Shiloh, attracted a cult-following numbering in the tens of thousands.
Before 1813 Joanna Southcott had pursued a public ministry of the written word—sixty-five “communications” gathered together and published in separate volumes between 1801 and 1814. A conservative estimate puts the number of copies of her writings published during this time at 108,000. Southcott was thus one of the most widely read authors of the early nineteenth century. A figure of ridicule to cultural elites in her own day as well as in ours, she preached a simple message of personal reform and national repentance—though one stigmatized by E.P. Thompson as an icon of the chiliasm of despair that seemingly drove working English men and women into sterile fantasies of supernatural deliverance after the political repression of the 1790s (Juster 250-51). Dorothy Thompson comments on those Marxist historians who "projected their own preoccupations into the past", being "more concerned with what the working class ... ought to have been doing than what it was actually doing". Could she have been thinking of her late husband?

From Bloomfield’s simple statement have been derived ever more elaborate stories about how all his money was given to the Southcottians amid claims of his wife’s “madness”. John Lucas, for example, notes with apparent conviction
Bloomfield’s May-Day with the Muses was published in 1822, a year before his death. By the time he came to write it he was more or less destitute—his wife had given the bulk of his money to Joanna Southcott’s cause—and he had become disenchanted with Shefford, the town to which he had moved with such high hopes some years earlier (123).
What evidence is there for such a claim? Indeed, how could it possibly have occurred? What access could Mary Ann Bloomfield have had to her husband’s savings? I think we can be confident that Robert Bloomfield didn’t have a bank account—and even if he had, his wife would have been unlikely to have had access to it. But I also think it unlikely that he kept his earnings in cash—there was no handful of guineas in a box under the bed.

The most likely form in which Bloomfield would have held his earnings from his poetry would have been in the form of promissory notes from his publishers. One imagines that he held a bundle of promissory notes in a strongbox. Such notes were widely in use at that time as a means of generating credit. Under this system, the drawer (in this case the publisher) gave the acceptor (the author) a written promise (a “promissory bill”) to pay a stated sum on a stated date. Banks were prepared to pay ready money (but less than the full sum stated in the bill) to the acceptor, in exchange for the bill. At the due date, the bank then claimed the promised sum in full from the drawer, thus in effect reclaiming (with interest) a loan of ready cash made on the security of the promissory note. If the publisher had not been keeping his part of the bargain by repaying the banks when the promissory notes became due, these, in effect, post-dated cheques to Bloomfield would have bounced.

Vernor and Hood, Bloomfield’s first publishers went bankrupt in 1812, involving Bloomfield in severe financial loss. Benjamin Crosby, bookseller at 44 Stationer’s Court, near Paternoster Row, bought the rights to Bloomfield’s works, after the failure of Vernor, Hood and Sharpe, but died in 1815 after his own firm went bankrupt. Any promissory notes issued by Crosby instantly became worthless and Bloomfield would have lost all his savings without the need to postulate gifts to Joanna Southcott. (I should welcome correction from people better informed about how writers kept their savings.)

In September 1814, Joanna Southcott announced that she was pregnant with the Messiah. Like Mary Ann Bloomfield, tens of thousands of men and women found the prospect of a miraculous birth compelling enough to invest their hopes and their pennies in her cause. And it was just pennies.

We find a number of references to Joanna Southcott in the annotated letters and essays on the Romantic Circles website. Thus, in his essay “The Talk of the Tap-Room: Bloomfield, Politics, and Popular Culture”, Peter Denney writes
In a series of letters of 1821, Lloyd Baker demanded that the poet, then experiencing severe poverty and ill health, clarify his beliefs for the peace of mind of his supporters. The letters implied that Bloomfield’s wife’s devotion to the provincial servant-prophetess, Joanna Southcott, had somehow rubbed off on the poet, leading him to forgo church attendance, as if religious heterodoxy were a natural stepping stone to infidelity.
Joanna Southcott insisted throughout her life that she was a loyal daughter of the Church of England. The Southcottians were also anxious to affirm their political orthodoxy. Southcott declared in a pamphlet published in 1807, “His majesty has no better subjects in his kingdom, or who wish more for the perfect happiness of the nation, than the true believers in my visitation”. The police magistrate Sir Richard Ford agreed that there was little to fear from them. He remarked to a fellow magistrate, “The principles of these Gentlemen (however erroneous) seem founded with so much Love to their fellow Creatures, and the Good of the World at Large; that was it not for my Official Capacity—I should think it no Disgrace to Belong to men of such Inoffensive principles” (Hopkins, 191).
Note how the Romantic Circles writers refer to Southcott
“His wife, never an easy presence, had become a follower of the self-proclaimed prophet Joanna Southcott”.—Tim Fulford
Bloomfield, Mary Ann, née Church: Bloomfield’s wife, ... a follower of the self-proclaimed prophetess and mother of Shiloh, Joanna Southcott.—Index of People
Whence this irritating description of Joanna as “self-proclaimed” (Romantic Circles) or “self-styled” (other writers)? Aren’t all prophets self-proclaimed? Certainly, in the Old Testament, both Elijah and Elisha style themselves prophets.
Then said Elijah unto the people, I, even I only, remain a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets are four hundred and fifty men (1 KINGS 18:22).
And it was so, when Elisha the man of God had heard that the king of Israel had rent his clothes, that he sent to the king, saying, Wherefore hast thou rent thy clothes? let him come now to me, and he shall know that there is a prophet in Israel (2 KINGS 5:8).
“Prophet”, “prophetic”, “prophesy”—these are key words too for William Blake, occurring eighty-eight times in his writings. In his Annotations to Bishop Watson, Blake explains what the word means to him
Prophets in the modern sense of the word have never existed Jonah was no prophet in the modern sense for his prophecy of Nineveh failed Every honest man is a Prophet he utters his opinion both of private & public matters / Thus / If you go on So / the result is So / He never says such a thing shall happen let you do what you will. a Prophet is a Seer not an Arbitrary Dictator (E 617).
In America (1793) Blake identified his own work as “prophecy”—and he identifies himself as “prophet” in “The Little Girl Lost” (I prophetic see) in the Songs of Experience of that same year.
Nobody ever refers to the prophetic writer Lady Eleanor Davies (1590-1652) as a “self-styled prophetess”. Nor thus to Jane Leade, Philadelphian, nor Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent, nor to “Our Lady of Ipswich”, a sixteenth-century child prophet.

Only Joanna Southcott is so dismissed. The reason is obvious. It’s there in Peter Denney’s “provincial servant-prophetess”. She had worked as a maid-servant and so English snobbery reveals itself again. The casual unthinking snobbery apparent in E.P. Thompson’s famous claim
I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity (12).
It’s a bit condescending, is it not, to describe Southcott's followers as “deluded”. From a broader historical perspective, the life of Joanna Southcott does not appear as aberrant or fantastical as it did to Southey, or to E.P. Thompson following Southey. She's a working-class Englishwoman writing directly about her spiritual experiences in a tradition that stretches back to Mother Julian of Norwich. I'll give Susan Juster the last word
Even after the bitter disappointment of her death, the Southcottians continued to be a force in British millenarian culture, supporting first one then another of the many claimants to her prophetic mantle who appeared in the 1820s and 1830s. And in many private and (to historians, at least) obscure moments, women and some men continued to have visions of spiritual communion that can only be called mystical (287).

Tim Fulford & Linda Pratt.—The letters of Robert Bloomfield and his circle.—A Romantic Circles electronic edition.
All Bloomfield’s extant letters plus a selection of those written to him.

John Goodridge & Bridget Keegan, eds.—Robert Bloomfield: the inestimable blessing of letters.—A Romantic Circles Praxis volume
A set of essays published as a companion to the edition of Bloomfield’s letters.

James K. Hopkins.—A woman to deliver her people: Joanna Southcott and English millenarianism in an era of revolution.—Austin TX: University of Texas Press, 1982.

Susan Juster, “Mystical Pregnancy and Holy Bleeding: Visionary Experience in Early Modern Britain and America”, The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 57, No. 2 (April 2000), 249-288.

Dorothy Thompson.—The dignity of Chartism.—London : Verso, 2015.

E.P. Thompson.—The making of the English working class.—London : Gollancz, 1963.

Simon White, John Goodridge & Brigid Keegan, eds.—Robert Bloomfield: lyric, class, and the romantic canon.—Lewisburg : Bucknell University Press, 2006.
Essays including: John Lucas, “Hospitality and the rural tradition: Bloomfield’s May-Day with the Muses”, 113-141.

1 comment:

  1. As ever, fascinating reading, Keri. Another uncovering of the kind of unreflecting knee-jerk snobbery that hindered our understanding of Catherine Blake for so long. Another factor leading to Bloomfield's poverty at Shefford through no fault of his wife was his generosity to a myriad of relatives from 1800 through to the 1810s as evidenced in the letters.

    I'd also be interested to recover more of the life of Mary B, her family (the Churches) and her life post Bloomfield, her impoverished time in London with her children before her committal to an asylum in Bedford. Looking forward to more attention and discussion on Joanna Southcott and Mary Ann Bloomfield, nee Church.