In the eighteenth-century women were largely viewed as subservient, a commodity, a man’s possession, much like their house or dog. An object for men to do with as they saw fit, including – in extreme cases – beating or raping if they wished. In upper-class households, it was not uncommon for the man to take a mistress if he chose and his expectation of his wife was to produce children, to ‘look the part’, to be talented in the arts and to oversee household management. For working-class women, life would be incredibly tough as they helped to support the family financially, bore and raised numerous children and tried to keep the family from the workhouse door.
So how did our ‘Georgian Heroine’ fit into either scenario? Well, she simply didn’t. Mrs Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs, known as Charlotte, fell between two worlds, neither upper nor working class, and almost obsessively private.
Charlotte first crossed our path whilst researching Peterborough House, Fulham and Grace Dalrymple Elliott. We came across a story by the author and poet, Marius Kociejowski who had researched part of Charlotte’s life and were hooked; we had to find out what became of this teenager. We began to retrace Kociejowski’s work and piece together her life from a document she had written (Kociejowski refers to it as Charlotte’s Testament, the original of which he still owns; he has also kindly written an introduction to our book).
As a teenager living in Lambeth, Charlotte lost her first love when he set sail for India, where he found great fame as a military man, never to return. She was then abducted and raped, held prisoner and even bearing a child to her captor until she found the courage to escape. Charlotte’s abduction and rape had parallels with a novel written some thirty years prior to her abduction; Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson, bears many similarities to Charlotte’s story. Unlike Clarissa, Charlotte didn’t have a fortune, but her captor undoubtedly wished to possess her, both body and soul.
After this horrendous ordeal, Charlotte travelled to France, becoming trapped and imprisoned during the French Revolution. She showed amazing resilience and subsequently reinvented herself as a peculiar form of female spy, working for the British government while travelling backwards and forwards to France, reporting upon the state of the nation in the years following the revolution, even suggesting plans by which Napoléon Bonaparte might be thwarted. Charlotte spoke fluent French and could pass for a native of the country. Returning to England, she became an author, a minor playwright and had works published anonymously including, A Residence in France during the Years 1792, 1793, 1794 and 1795, the manuscript of which she cleverly manipulated to suit both her own political views and appeal to the public at large.
Charlotte held strong opinions which she wanted to have voiced. Clearly, she couldn’t speak publicly, so had to find other ways of getting her opinions heard. She used the power of letter writing and we unearthed copious numbers of letters, mainly to politicians and peers of the realm. Charlotte was never afraid of offering her opinion as to what they should do about certain matters and seemingly they respected and took note of her, great men including Nicholas Vansittart, Chancellor of the Exchequer and William Wilberforce who acted as her mouthpiece on at least one occasion in the Houses of Parliament.
Although her identity was known to the men to whom she wrote, a combination of ‘female modesty’ and a fear of not being taken seriously should her sex be revealed induced Charlotte to an obsessive level of public anonymity. In her later years, she almost single-handedly orchestrated King George III’s golden jubilee celebrations – again with her identity protected – and was in contact with George III’s daughters for whom she acted as a courier.
Charlotte’s life took many twists and turns and piecing it together has been no mean feat. We are amazed at how this unfortunate young girl grew into such a determined and articulate woman in a world where this was not the norm for her gender.
There was a Mr Biggs, but it appears to be largely a union of convenience for both he and Charlotte. Unable to track down a marriage, we suspect that Charlotte used the appellation ‘Mrs’ for her own protection within society, giving her a veil of respectability which allowed her to move freely both in England and France without raising suspicion. The final clue as to Charlotte’s marital status appeared in her will, which suggested she was a spinster and not a wife.
Linda Colley, in Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837, referred to Charlotte as ‘a middle-class widow from the Welsh borders’. She was in part correct, but Charlotte was much more than that, she was an enigma who until now has remained off the radar of history, a woman in a man’s world. Had she been male we would certainly have heard more of her before today. Despite her many misfortunes, she continually reinvented herself, manipulating the world and men around her but never publicly having ownership of her voice or her words during her lifetime. We felt it was time to give her back ownership of that voice.
Old Westminster Bridge from Lambeth by R. Paul. City of Westminster Archives centre