Francis Jenkinson and the quiet storm

This pandemic-inspired blogpost tells the story of how, in December 1891, a third outbreak of the so-called ‘Russian flu’ in Britain brought about a personal crisis in the life of Francis Jenkinson, Cambridge University Librarian 1889-1923.

Jenkinson

In December 1891, Francis Jenkinson, 38, confided in his friend Ida Darwin a momentous piece of news. He had fallen in love with Mildred Wetton, a twenty-eight year old governess who worked in London, and they were considering becoming engaged to be married. It was a secret love that no one else must know about for the time being, and Ida would understand why.

Jenkinson’s position as Cambridge University Librarian was the job he had been born to do. He had been mentored by a previous holder of the post, Henry Bradshaw, and knew the contents of every book in the library, still in its original location in the Schools building near King’s College. The Old Library was ‘a chaotic but atmospheric medley of disparate rooms, uneven floors and dark places for which readers could borrow lamps to light their way’ (Whitelock). In this dark place, Jenkinson had a warmth and generosity that made him as popular with his colleagues as he was with scholars and students. He also had what seemed an uncanny, almost symbiotic connection with the library itself. One friend recalled how ‘he would rise from his bed when his subconscious mind told him there was a window left open, and go down in the small hours to shut it’ (H.F. Stewart). But during the darkest part of the winter of 1891-92, Jenkinson seriously considered giving it all up for love.

When Jenkinson was appointed Cambridge University Librarian two years previously he was delighted, but it was also a time of great personal sadness for him. His first wife, Marian Sydney Wetton, had died suddenly aged thirty in January 1888, just six months after they married. Marian was one of seven sisters from a musical family who lived in Surrey, and her older sister Jennie was married to Jenkinson’s close friend, the Irish composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who was also the organist at Trinity College. After Marian’s death, Jennie Stanford and her unmarried sisters remained in regular contact with Jenkinson, often dropping in at his home on Brookside, near the Fitzwilliam Museum, to play the piano and sing together. Francis and Mildred Wetton had become close in their shared grief.

Twenty-seven-year-old Prince Albert Victor was the eldest child of the Prince and Princess of Wales. What Queen Victoria privately described as her grandson’s ‘dissipated life’ began while he was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge in the early 1880s. It’s not known what Francis Jenkinson thought of him, but one nameless tutor complained that the Trinity College’s royal student ‘hardly knows the meaning of the words to read‘ (Magnus, 178). No one knew what to do about irrepressible Eddy, the future king. After an unsuccessful stint in the army and lengthy trips overseas, it was decided that what the Prince needed was to find a sensible wife and settle down. It was decided that his distant cousin, Princess Mary of Teck would fit the bill perfectly, and their marriage date was set for 27 February 1892.

Albert_Victor_late_1880s
Prince Albert Victor, late 1880s

The royal engagement was the good news story that the nation badly needed. That winter the papers were full of reports of a new wave of influenza that was killing people in Britain in ever larger numbers. The country was in the grip of the second of two epidemics that followed on the heels of the so-called ‘Russian flu’ of 1889-90, the pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands worldwide. Everyone was affected by fears of contagion. Winston Churchill was a fifteen-year old schoolboy at Harrow, when he wrote a poem called ‘The Influenza’ about the flu in 1890: ‘The rich, the poor, the high, the low/Alike the various symptoms know/ Alike before it droop.’

As the medical historian Mark Honigsbaum writes in his essay ‘The Great Dread: Cultural and Psychological Impacts and Responses to the ‘Russian’ Influenza in the United Kingdom, 1889–1893’,

the Russian flu was extensively documented and seen to spread rapidly between European capitals via international rail, road and shipping connections in a westward progression that was the subject of widespread commentary in both the daily and periodical press.

According to a report published by the Wellcome Institute, the winter of 1891-1892 was characterized by ‘a marked excess of deaths from influenza and pneumonia.’ It was a frightening time for people of all social classes, as the young Churchill was aware.

During December 1891 Ida Darwin was worried about the influenza infecting her husband Horace, so often poorly with mysterious illnesses, and their small children as well as their household staff, who one by one were falling ill. She also knew that, if word about Jenkinson’s engagement got out, it would cause a scandal in Cambridge that would be almost as shocking as Albert Victor’s rumoured visits to Cleveland Street. Under the Marriage Act of 1835, it was still illegal in the United Kingdom and colonies for a man to marry the sister of his deceased wife. In his book, Marianne Thornton 17971887: A Domestic Biography (1956) E.M. Forster wrote about how much unhappiness this law caused, describing it as  ‘yet another example of the cruelty and stupidity of the English Law in matters of sex’ (see my article here). Throughout the Victorian period the issue continued to be hotly debated every year in parliament, but Anglican bishops in the Lords helped to ensure that the prohibition remained until the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act of 1907.

In 1891 Ida knew that, despite Francis and Mildred’s hopes, the law was unlikely to change imminently. The Jenkinsons would have to go abroad to marry, and would be ostracized if they ever returned to England, and any children they might have would be considered illegitimate in the eyes of the law. Also, Ida feared that if others heard rumours of the engagement Jenkinson would lose his job as University Librarian. The situation would have to be managed in the most inconspicuous way possible. Ida needed to stay at home to care for her household, and so was not able to go to Brookside to see Francis in person, and persuade him to rethink his engagement. So she did the only thing she could; she wrote to him, hoping that she could change his mind.

All through December and into January, letters flew back and forth, sometimes several times a day, between Brookside and the Orchard. The normally mild-mannered, bookish Jenkinson raged against the Anglican Church and its bishops, while Ida remained calm and sympathetic, soothing him like a feverish child. The only other people who knew about the crisis were two family members who could be trusted to be discreet: his sister Nelly Jenkinson, and his distant cousin Daisy Stewart who lived in Grantchester. Daisy had grown up in Edinburgh, but now worked as a music tutor in Cambridge. She had been in love with Francis for years, but accepted that he saw her only as a good friend. She hated to see him so unhappy.

Why did Jenkinson behave so recklessly, and risk losing the job he had worked so hard for? I think that the answer might lie in how the repeated flu epidemics affected the way that people thought during this time of national crisis. Jenkinson’s appointment as University Librarian in 1889 had coincided with the ‘Russian flu’ pandemic, which was the first recorded outbreak of influenza in England since 1848. Four million Britons fell ill and 127,000 died, and the country was hit be another major wave of flu in May 1891. In December of that year, as the third epidemic reached Cambridge, Jenkinson must have wondered if he would live to do the work that he wanted to do. Overwork and anxiety were considered to be contributing factors in those who caught the flu, and for all his energy, Jenkinson had frequent bouts of illness. In 1890 The Times warned that the influenza’s impact on the imagination was ‘disproportionate to its actual destructiveness’ (Honigsbaum), but the fear that gripped everyone was very real. The number of deaths peaked in London in the third week of January 1892, when it was recorded that over five hundred people died of influenza and pneumonia.

The poor suffered most, of course, but no one was safe. Prince Albert Victor became ill with flu symptoms at a shooting party at Sandringham in early January 1892. Pneumonia set in, and he died on 14 January 1892, one week after his 28th birthday. There would be no royal wedding that year, and the nation went into a prolonged period of mourning. In the months following Albert Victor’s death, his younger brother George, the Duke of York, became close to Mary, his (almost) sister-in-law. Because she and Albert had not married, there was no taboo on their love, and just over a year later, in May 1893, George and Mary married with Queen Victoria’s blessing. In 1910 he was crowned George V, and she became Queen Mary: the present Queen is their granddaughter. Some recent historians have rather unkindly suggested that Albert Victor’s early death was ‘a merciful act of providence’ (Magnus, 239) allowing his sober brother and his equally responsible wife to steer the country through the crises of World War One and the depression of the 1920s and early 1930s.

By the middle of January 1892 in Cambridge, there was a gap in the storm clouds for Ida, as her household slowly recovered from the flu. Now she decided to take action about Jenkinson. First, she wrote to Mildred, who replied with a subdued note of thanks and promised not to visit Brookside for a while. Then she wrote to Mildred’s older sister Jennie to tell her of the possible engagement. Jennie’s husband Charles Stanford’s mother and two of aunts had died of the flu just a few weeks before, and Jennie herself had been very ill, so it’s likely that Ida did not want to involve them earlier. But now the Stanfords took charge. It’s likely that they persuaded Francis to give up his plans to marry Mildred, and their secret engagement was quietly dropped.

The storm had passed, and most of Francis and Mildred’s friends, family and work colleagues never even knew that it had happened. Jenkinson would continue to work as University Librarian for the next thirty years, until shortly before his death in 1923. His contribution to the library was immense. He sorted and catalogued valuable acquisitions, including 140,000 fragments of the ancient Cairo Genizah and the contents of Lord Acton’s library.

Francis_J._H._Jenkinson,_1915
Francis J.H. Jenkinson by John Singer Sargent (1915), Cambridge University LibraryF

Jenkinson was known for his support for women’s rights, and he appointed one of the University’s first woman librarians, the Sanskrit scholar and former Girton student, C.M. (Caroline Mary) Ridding. In 1910 he was sent a collection of suffrage posters, which he carefully preserved in the library’s archives. This rare collection was recently displayed at the UL to mark 100 years since some British women got the vote (read more here). Unusually for the time, Jenkinson was passionately interested in collecting ephemeral matter such as flyers, postcards, and posters. He felt that such “unconsidered trifles” told stories about people’s lives that would be lost otherwise. During the First World War he gathered a huge collection of this so-called ‘disposable’ literature, and his War Reserve Collection is now an invaluable source for researchers. In 1915 the American artist John Singer Sargent was commissioned to paint Jenkinson’s portrait to mark his twenty-five years as University Librarian, and this beautiful painting still hangs in the library today.

In 1902 Jenkinson married his ‘dear friend’ Daisy Stewart, and the couple spent over twenty happy years together, travelling to the Alps with Ida and Horace and marking Mozart’s birthday with a piano concert at Brookside on 27 January every year. Mildred Wetton never married, but continued to teach English literature, and eventually she became headmistress of her own private school in Kensington. In his biography Francis Jenkinson (1926) Hugh F. Stewart reflects that, until his second marriage, his brother-in-law lived a solitary life on Brookside, ‘save for the occasional presence of his sister, or of a sister-in-law, or of a scholar on bibliography intent.’ Perhaps this casual mention of ‘a sister-in-law’ is a quiet acknowledgement of Mildred Wetton’s ephemeral, but important, place in Jenkinson’s life.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, December 2021 (all rights reserved)

Notes: My warm thanks to Frank Bowles, Karen Davies, Carolyn Ferguson, Eve Smith and Jill Whitelock for their help. Any errors are my own.

Online sources (all accessed 2 April 2020):

Karen Bourrier ‘If this be error: marrying the sister of a deceased wife was illegal in Victorian England’ History Today, 11 April 2018, https://www.historytoday.com/history-matters/if-be-error

Stephen Gaselee, ‘Francis Jenkinson, 1853-1923: an address to the Bibliographical Society, 15 Oct. 1923’, Trans. Bibliog. Soc. . N.S.; v. 4, no. 3, Oxford, 1923

Mark Honigsbaum,  ‘The Great Dread: Cultural and Psychological Impacts and Responses to the ‘Russian’ Influenza in the United Kingdom, 1889–1893’, Social History of Medicine, Vol 23, Issue 2, August 2010, Pages 299–319 https://doi.org/10.1093/shm/hkq011

Mark Nicholls, ‘A Reason for Remembering: Francis Jenkinson and the War Reserve Collection’, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41154886?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

Jill Whitelock, ‘M.R. James and the ghosts of the old University Library’, Cambridge University Library Special Collections blogpost https://specialcollections-blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=18923

‘Albert Victor, Prince, duke of Clarence and Avondale (1864–1892)’ and ‘Jenkinson, Francis John Henry (1853–1923)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://www.oxforddnb.com/

‘Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health, London 1892’, https://wellcomelibrary.org/moh/report/b18252412/1#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=4&z=-0.3124%2C1.3883%2C0.6249%2C0.2439

‘The modern library’ on Cambridge University Library’s website; https://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/about-library/historical-sketch/modern-library

‘Francis John Henry Jenkinson’ memorial on Trinity College Chapel website http://trinitycollegechapel.com/about/memorials/brasses/jenkinson/

‘Mr F.J.H. Jenkinson’, obituary in The Times, 22 Sep. 1923.

Books: Margaret Clifford Jenkinson, A Fragrance of Sweet Memories [Reminiscences of Francis Jenkinson], unpublished memoir, Cambridge University Library; P. Magnus, King Edward the Seventh (1964); H. F. Stewart, Francis Jenkinson: a memoir (1926); Francis John Henry Jenkinson by H.W. S[impkinson], Marlborough , 1923 [1 v.] ; 19 cm. Repr. from The Marlburian, 28 Nov. 1923.

Cambridge University Library Archives: Jenkinson, FJH to Ida Darwin, MS Add 9368.1: 16513 & ff.; letters from Jenkinson, Margaret Clifford ‘Daisy’ (1858-1933) née Stewart to Ida Darwin, MS Add.10286/1/40; from Jenkinson, Eleanor Louisa ‘Nelly’ (1855-1948) to Ida Darwin, MS Add.10286/1/42; Wetton, Mildred to Ida Darwin, MS Add.10286/1/70; Stanford, Jennie to Ida Darwin, MS Add.10286/1/67; FJH Jenkinson’s diaries and letters held at Cambridge University Library.

‘Marianne Thornton’, E.M. Forster’s biography-memoir

Slightly FoxedE.M. Forster’s novels continue to be read and loved around the world. However, his final full-length book, a biography of his great-aunt Marianne Thornton, has been largely overlooked by critics and forgotten by readers since its publication in 1956. That’s a shame, as it shows that Forster was a brilliant writer of nonfiction too. It connects themes familiar from his fiction – including a home loved and lost, forbidden passions, second chances – and its final section is the only published memoir he ever published of his own young life. ‘Prayers Before Plenty’, my essay on this fascinating book, appears in Issue 58 of Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly They have kindly given permission for me to reprint it here.

Marianne Thornton

Prayers before Plenty       Ann Kennedy Smith

In 1953 the writer E. M. Forster, then aged 74, was sorting through old family papers and thinking about the past. He had recently moved back to King’s College, Cambridge, and the high-ceilinged spacious room where he sat was filled with treasured objects from his previous homes: shelves overflowing with books, framed family portraits on the walls and blue china plates neatly arranged on the mantelpiece. Letters gathered in a drift around his shabby William Morris armchair as he pored over his great-aunt Marianne Thornton’s diaries and recollections. She had died when he was 8, but it was thanks to the money she left him that as a young man he was able to study at King’s and later to travel to Italy. It was Marianne, more than anyone else, who had helped him to become a writer, and now he wanted to tell her story.

When Marianne Thornton, 17971887: A Domestic Biography was published three years later, it was greeted as a literary event. It had been five years since the appearance of Forster’s Two Cheers for Democracy, his collection of critical essays (see SF no. 44), and he had not published a novel since A Passage to India in 1924. Marianne Thornton was widely reviewed, for the most part warmly, although some critics confessed to feeling puzzled by its subject matter. Why, wondered the Spectator, did Forster want to cast his considerable charm on the Clapham Sect, that ‘particularly uncharming clan’? The New York Times critic admitted that only the writer of A Passage to India could have persuaded him to read ‘a conversation piece about English family life among the suburban dynasties’.

In the sixty years or so since Marianne Thornton’s first publication, it has been leafed through by biographers and scholars rather than read. I think this is a shame, and that this book deserves to be better known. In 2000 it was reissued as part of the Abinger edition, and in her introduction Evelyne Hanquart-Turner describes Marianne Thornton as a portrait of a modern Britain in the making, with illuminating glimpses of banking, Parliament and politics, the Church of England and the spread of popular education over nine decades of the nineteenth century. I would add that at a time when British identity is being much discussed, it is a book that seems more relevant than ever.

I discovered it in a King’s College archive, where I was working on a book project last summer. It was just before May Week, that con­fusingly named time in June when the students celebrate after their exams are over, and a marquee was being put up on the front court lawn. The sounds of heavy machinery and men working drifted in through the open window and made it hard to concentrate on hand­written letters, so I took down Marianne Thornton from the shelf and began to read. Within minutes I was transported back to another June day in 1806, and a horse-drawn carriage with election ribbons fluttering, going home to Battersea Rise, the house at the heart of this story.

Marianne was born in 1797, the eldest of nine children of Henry Thornton, a wealthy merchant banker and Member of Parliament, and his wife Mary Ann Sykes. Their home was Battersea Rise, an enlarged Queen Anne house on the north-west edge of Clapham Common in south London. The Thorntons belonged to the ‘Clapham Sect’, a close-knit group of friends that included William Wilberforce, Zachary Macaulay, Granville Sharp and James Stephen, who brought their combined influence, intellect and evangelical zeal to social reform. Their place of worship was Holy Trinity Church on the Common, presided over by the charismatic Reverend John Venn, and their social centre was Battersea Rise, where lively meetings were held in the oval library with a view of a magnificent tulip tree in the garden.

Battersea Rise was a perfect playground for Marianne and her younger siblings. ‘It satisfied in them that longing for a particular place, a home, which is common amongst our upper and middle classes,’ Forster observes: ‘some of them have transmitted that long­ing to their descendants, who have lived on into an age when it cannot be gratified.’ Writing this in his college rooms, he was think­ing of Rooksnest, the cottage in Hertfordshire where he had lived as a child and which he later commemorated in his novel Howards End. He had mourned its loss all his life; King’s College had provided him with somewhere to live, but it did not feel like home.

From the first pages of the book it is plain that Marianne Thornton is as much about Forster as it is about his great-aunt. Threaded through the book are his wry observations, teasing out connections between past and present and poking gentle fun at his illustrious forebears. At times he is combative, reminding us that although the philanthropic Clapham Sect cared passionately about abolishing the slave trade, they were supremely complacent when it came to in-equality within their own society. ‘When the slavery was industrial they did nothing and had no thought of doing anything.’

But this is a domestic biography, Forster reminds us, and the Thorntons did home life exceedingly well. Adored friends such as William Wilberforce – ‘fragile, whimsical, inspired’ – and the intel­lectual ‘bishop in petticoats’ Hannah More regularly dropped in for dinner. ‘Prayers before plenty,’ Forster observes, ‘But plenty!’ Conver­sations around the table ranged from parliamentary politics to missionary work, from economics to education, and little Marianne was encouraged to take part. Her father taught her about finance and brought her along to his election hustings and George III’s opening of Parliament. Despite the constant fear of a French invasion there were long holidays at the seaside, ‘comparable with the jauntings of Jane Austen’ in their elaborate organization. Fear of Napoleon Bona­parte was the only cloud over this sunny childhood, and Marianne vividly pictured him striding into Battersea Rise and chopping down their beloved tulip tree. Nonsense, her young friend the future his-torian Thomas Babington Macaulay assured her: when ‘Old Boney’ came, he would simply stab all the children in their beds.

The world-changing historical events of 1815 were overshadowed for Marianne and her siblings by painful personal loss when both Thornton parents died within the year. Forster skips over the ‘super­abundance’ of long, pious letters from this period and instead describes 19-year-old Marianne’s first trip to France, where she and other British tourists flocked after Waterloo. There she fell in love with all things French, and this gave her, Forster is convinced, her Gallic insouciance towards class differences which lasted for the rest of her life.

Her brother Henry, three years younger, was more straitlaced, but brother and sister ran the Thornton family as a team. Together they fought to save the bank where he was a partner when it was hit by a financial crisis in 1825: told through Marianne’s recollections, the story is as exciting and dramatic as any novel. Henry coped less well when their younger sister Laura fell in love with a poor Irish clergy­man. ‘Money must marry money, as it had always done hitherto,’ Forster observes drily, and he cheers when, thanks to a particularly spiky letter from a bishop, love wins the day. Laura married the Reverend Charles Forster, and among their ten children brought up in a ‘happy insanitary’ rectory in Essex was Eddie, the future father of the writer.

Marianne remained unmarried and devoted herself to Battersea Rise and to Henry’s three children after he was widowed. The young Forsters often came to visit, and the garden was filled with the sounds of laughter and games. Even sensible Henry occasionally entertained the family with his favourite trick before setting off for work at the bank: after setting fire to a newspaper, he would place it on the seat of his leather armchair then sit down firmly to put the flames out. ‘The vision of that substantial extinguisher descending cheers me,’ Forster writes: ‘the sun comes into the library again, the trees wave freshly on the lawn, tiny cousins collide and jump . . .’

Then Henry fell in love with Emily, his unmarried sister-in-law, and everything changed. Their marriage was not sanctioned under existing British law (the Marriage Act of 1835 made it illegal for a man to marry the sister of his deceased wife) and the ensuing scandal broke the Thornton family apart. The law would remain unchanged until the twentieth century, and writing in Cambridge in the 1950s, when homosexual love was still outlawed in Britain, Forster’s anger flashes off the page. It was, he writes, ‘yet another example of the cruelty and stupidity of the English Law in matters of sex’. Victorian disapproval did what Bonaparte and the banking crisis had failed to do: it destroyed Battersea Rise.

Marianne Thornton immerses us in a lost nineteenth-century world and, as Forster asks, ‘Where else could we take such a plunge?’ It is an invitation to enjoyment, demonstrating Forster’s brilliance as a non-fiction writer and providing us with links to our personal, cultural and national past that otherwise would be lost. Marianne’s story unfolds against a rich historical background, from Georgian England to Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, in which the Thorntons played an active role.

However, I think that this warm and engaging book is about more than British history and the decline and fall of an influential suburban dynasty. By choosing Marianne as his subject, and telling her story in the way that he does, Forster stresses the importance of personal relations, and the life of the heart and mind rather than public life. He connects his own story to his great-aunt’s, and the book’s delightful final section is both a memoir of his young life and a love letter to Rooksnest, his childhood home. ‘I took it to my heart,’ he writes, ‘and hoped, as Marianne had of Battersea Rise, that I should live and die there.’ It was not to be, but by writing his great-aunt’s story he was able to see that kindness and love were what mattered in the end, and to let go of the past. King’s College was his last home, and he was among friends there.

Battersea Rise was swallowed up long ago, and the lawn on which the tulip tree once stood is now covered by houses and streets. Holy Trinity Church still stands on a corner of Clapham Common though, and I went there recently, carrying my copy of Marianne Thornton. With its high steeple surrounded by tall, waving trees, the church looks much as it did in the Thorntons’ time, and as I approached the imposing portico, the sound of south London traffic seemed to fade away. On an outside wall a stone plaque scarred by Second World War shrapnel commemorates the evangelical and abolitionist work of the Clapham Sect. Then, as I arrive, there is the human touch. A friendly notice on the porch welcomes rough sleepers, and inside a caretaker is boiling a kettle. On a far wall a small brass plaque to Marianne Thornton glints in the shadows.

Ann Kennedy Smith lives in Cambridge and is working on her first biography. She is not related to the Kennedy dynasty, so far as she knows.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 58, Summer 2018.

This article first appeared in Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 58, Summer 2018.

The independent-minded quarterly that combines good looks, good writing and a personal approach, Slightly Foxed introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal. Good-humoured, unpretentious and a bit eccentric, it’s more like a well-read friend than a literary magazine. Single issues from £10; annual subscriptions from £40. For more information please visit www.foxedquarterly.com