Robert Southey, John Wesley and scandal-mongering in the 1820s
by Dr Ian Packer
Since 2006 I have been one of the co-editors of an enormous project devoted to providing a complete edition of the letters of Robert Southey (1774-1843). This is an online, open access source and you can find it here: https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/southey_letters (CLRS). Southey was a fascinating figure and a central one to early-nineteenth-century cultural and intellectual life. He started his career as a radical and a poet, but gradually developed into an idiosyncratic conservative who turned his attention mainly to prose, producing everything from biographies of Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) and John Wesley (1703-91) to histories of the Peninsular War and of Brazil, as well as a great deal of travel writing, translation and controversial commentary on contemporary politics, society and religion.
Southey was also an indefatigable letter-writer and our project has identified, and is currently publishing, over 7000 letters from more than 200 archives all over the world, from Rio de Janeiro to Tomsk. They throw an enormous amount of light not only on Southey’s life, at home and at work, but on how cultural activities in the early-nineteenth-century interacted with the worlds of government, religion, social commentary and journalism. In 2017 we published Part Six of the Collected Letters, which, though it only covers the years 1819-1821, still contains 546 letters – 314 published here for the first time and 76 published in full for the first time. Their contents range from the details of how an early-nineteenth-century middle class household was conducted, to Southey’s literary endeavours, including his completion of the final volume of the first English-language History of Brazil (1810-19) and his increasingly ferocious hostility to contemporary radicalism, whether in Britain or abroad.
One of the most important of Southey’s works to be published in this period was his Life of Wesley (1820). This was the first biography of the great evangelist and founder of Methodism to be written by someone who was not a follower of Wesley. The book had much to say in favour of Wesley’s achievements, but took a critical, or at least non-committal, view of Wesley’s ‘enthusiasm’ and belief in divine intervention in his career. The book necessarily produced a great deal of opposition from Methodists (and some non-Methodists) who argued Southey was far too sceptical about the validity of Wesley’s religious experiences – though some devout Anglicans welcomed a less than hagiographical approach towards the founder of a rival church.
However, our edition reveals for the first time that Southey could have published much more explosive material about Wesley, had he been inclined to do so. One of the correspondences that his book initiated was with John Banks Jenkinson (1781-1840), the Dean of Worcester. Jenkinson was an exceptionally well-connected clergyman – he was a cousin of the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool (1770-1828), with whom Southey had a slight acquaintance – the two had met on one of Southey’s rare visits to London in 1820. On that occasion, Liverpool had told Southey how much good he felt the Life of Wesley would do by providing a reasoned critique of Methodism (CLRS 3507). His cousin clearly hoped that Southey would be prepared to go much further and to publish, and lend his authority to, some information that would severely dent Wesley’s reputation for piety. Jenkinson possessed parts of a copy of a letter, which he claimed was from Elizabeth Briggs (1751-1822), a young female follower of Wesley, in which she reproached Wesley for making improper advances (CLRS 3603). This allegation played into one of the most common charges that his opponents brought against Wesley – that his movement stirred up uncontrollable passions, including licentiousness.
Southey’s response, though, was cautious. He did not rush into print with Jenkinson’s news, but instead wrote to the person whom the Dean informed him still possessed the original of Miss Briggs’s letter, asking them to confirm that the original letter survived and to provide a copy of the sentences missing from Jenkinson’s fragment (CLRS 3596). The reply that Southey received confirmed he had made the right decision to try and check his sources. His correspondent revealed that he only possessed a copy of the letter, like Jenkinson. Southey was immediately suspicious and wondered if there was no original, only a plot to discredit Wesley, possibly even one that originated with Wesley’s disaffected wife, Mary (1709-81) who, as Southey had outlined in his biography, had stolen Wesley’s letters and accused him repeatedly of adultery before finally leaving him in 1771 (CLRS 3626). In these circumstances, Southey declined to take the matter further, though he could not resist relating the tale in letters to several of his acquaintances.
This incident provides some important new information on two points. Firstly, some at least in the Church of England hierarchy still felt it might be possible to undermine Methodism, even in the 1820s. While they had abandoned attempts to introduce legislation to curb the new organisation’s growth since the failure of a bill against itinerant preaching in 1811, the Church still saw Methodism as both an unwelcome competitor and a fundamentally illegitimate attempt to attack its role as the national church. Southey’s correspondence reveals that senior figures, like Jenkinson, were not above underhand tactics to try and discredit Methodism’s founder. Secondly, this matter says much about Southey’s working methods. The attitudes he struck and the polemical nature of his writings were often criticised and, as a biographer, he was not averse to revealing intimate details of the lives of his subjects. His Life of Nelson (1813) was the first biography of the naval hero to touch on Nelson’s affair with Emma Hamilton (1765-1815). But Southey was also an assiduous researcher, and he was unwilling to lend his name to allegations that he could not substantiate. While he was a controversial writer, his professional pride and conservative views meant he was anxious to distinguish his output from the libellers and ‘seditious’ radical journalists who he felt dominated the popular press and satirical reviews. But, even though Southey refused to participate in the practice, scandal-mongering was a feature of conservative public discourse, too, as this incident shows only too well.