Margaret Fison, 1817-1866: Mid-Victorian Reformer.


Margaret Fison deserves to be remembered for what she wrote, what she did, and who she was. (1) A social reformer, she championed workingmen and women and criticized the upper and middle classes for their indifference to working-class problems. Her Handbooks about the new organizations supporting the natural and social sciences show her optimism about the future. (2) However, modern readers may be jolted by the anti-Catholic evangelical Protestantism that Fison combined with her mid-Victorian enthusiasm for science and social reform.

As well as being a writer, Fison was an activist who took to the field as an organizer for the related causes of health and temperance. Her life illustrated what a young widow from a provincial town could achieve. Her early death at age forty-eight helps explain her undeserved obscurity.

Born in a small market town in Norfolk the daughter of a prosperous merchant, Fison married a clergyman cousin when she was nineteen years old and was widowed by age twenty-nine. Beginning in 1845, Fison published a mixture of substantial volumes and short booklets, all of them infused with her Protestant religion and often anti-Catholic. Her earliest big book described her travels in western Europe with a dying husband. Her second major book proposed a plan for the self-education of young adults. She later published her best-known works, the two Handbooks popularizing the achievements of the natural and social sciences. Although well-read in four languages and something of a polymath, she modestly aimed, not at originality, but at being useful. In the 1861 census, Fison listed her occupation as "Author. Social Science."

Fison's early death and the miscellaneous genres in which she wrote help explain why she is not better remembered today. If she had written novels or poetry, an enterprising graduate student might have devoted a thesis to her. Instead, other than a few didactic tales, Fison wrote non-fiction, and modern scholars who quote from her miscellaneous array of books fail to provide context. (3) The only reference work acknowledgment of Fison's existence are five short lines in Brian Harrison's Dictionary of British Temperance Biography (1973), and even that entry lacks a date of birth. This paper shall attempt to reintroduce Fison to modern memory by providing an overview of her life, family, and good works. It shall acknowledge her anti-Catholic writings, but then also demonstrate her importance as a writer and an activist. Fison's Life

Born October 25, 1817, Fison descended from an old Suffolk family that numbered many prosperous farmers, but her father James Fison (1784-1844) had relocated to Thetford in Norfolk, where he became the epitome of the thriving, provincial middle class. (4) He was an alderman in the borough and once served as its mayor, while in business he was described as the emperor of wool buyers. In 1838, he led a resistance to high wool prices. A champion of Norfolk four-field agriculture, he contributed an article to Chamber's Journal on its behalf. (5) At the time of his death his property was probated as worth just under [pounds sterling]10,000. James Fison was a Wesleyan Methodist, and his daughter chose as executor of her will a brother described as a Dissenting minister. Despite this upbringing, Margaret Fison married an Anglican clergyman.

On January 10, 1837, Margaret Fison wed her first cousin once-removed, the Rev. William Fison (1804-1847), so her birth and married surnames were the same. Her husband had studied at St. John's College, Cambridge, where he received the B.A. degree in 1829 and the M.A. degree in 1832. The 1841 census records the couple as residing in Wilby, Norfolk, and by then having three children, twins (a boy and a girl) born in 1838, and a second son born in 1840. The Fisons lived in a tiny community, as in 1841 the civil parish of Wilby had only twenty-two inhabited houses. In 1842, William Fison became perpetual curate at

New Buckenham, Norfolk, which at the time of the 1841 census had a population of 716, including many Methodists.

In most ways, Fison was a woman typical of her time and class. In her belief, sacrifice of self was the duty of the Christian. "Your first step ... must be to curb your own spirit," she wrote as an admonition to an older sister seeking to guide her younger siblings. (6) In one of her last publications, she insisted that the most important role for women lay within the "sacred institution of the family." (7)

Her husband's ill-health occasioned Fison's first major book, Letters from the Continent to a Beloved Parent by a Clergyman's Wife. It took the form of thirty-one letters, and included her watercolor illustrations. Published in 1846, it was a substantial volume, 457 pages. Publication was subsidized by subscription, including many purchases by the Fison clan, one of whom purchased twenty copies. The Church of England Magazine published extracts from the letters, including one about Rome in the May 13, 1847, number. The magazine editor praised Fison for being alive to the dangers of popery.

During her German travels, she relied mostly on French, "as we are but slightly acquainted with German." (8) Presumably this handicap was for spoken German, as she quoted German writers extensively in their own language. While there, she exchanged lessons with a German woman who was anxious to learn English. Fison must have been familiar with German-language scholarship, as in the epigraph of her book she endorsed a saying common in mid-nineteenth-century German theology: "The form that is untrue in its essentials, cannot contain the truth." Her book's English printers mangled the German of the epigraph, making it unintelligible. (9)

Letters from the Continent may be considered an early autobiography. Despite her youth, Margaret Fison took responsibility for the details of a lengthy trip. To help her husband convalesce, the couple travelled in western Europe for a little over a year in 1843-44, leaving their young children with her parents. Margaret Fison was confident that they would enjoy an upbringing like that which she had enjoyed.

Beginning in Belgium, the couple travelled to some of the German states, Switzerland, Savoy and other Italian states, and finished in France. German spas and a Mediterranean winter did not help Fison's husband. Due to his ill-health, William Fison had difficulty walking distances or climbing many steps, so he had to enjoy the sights from a carriage. His wife sometimes walked without him, either alone or with a European companion.

For her husband, the months on the continent were uncomfortable. He slept poorly, and consequently he sometimes arrived at the German spas at six in the morning. He was given a cup of boiling mineral water that he was often too ill to drink. As the season advanced, the Fisons decided to prolong their European trip to try a mild winter in Italy. They often struggled to find apartments with carpets, a fireplace, good beds, and not many steps to climb.

The Letters from the Continent depicted travels by train, coach, and boat, the scenery that Fison enjoyed and the architecture and works of arts in the great cities, particularly Florence and Rome, that impressed her. In the printed version of her letters she added excerpts from other authors in lengthy footnotes. She provided information not in the usual guide book: for instance, the price of produce at the market. She was excited when melons were on sale.

At a German spa, she and her husband became friends with an old French aristocrat who lived in retirement at Wiesbaden. This count had exiled himself from France with the Bourbon king at the time of the Revolution of 1830 and then had entered the service of a German prince.

When he retired, he had received an ample pension, most of which he devoted to charity. Fison never mentions the count's religion, but it seems unlikely to have been other than Roman Catholic. She emphasized that he was a gentleman, with the "politeness which characterized the old Regime," always happy to do what he could for the invalid and his wife. (10)

Other details hint at Fison's values. Although she admired the industriousness of German peasant women in farming, she regarded their homes as dirty. She deplored the lack of education in Italy for the poor, but in her opinion the quick-wittedness of the people made up for the absence of formal schooling. In Rome, while Fison was away on an errand, her husband traveled alone in a carriage that came upon a pool of blood, the site of a guillotine that had ended the life of a criminal. Not too tender-hearted, on several occasions Fison mentioned seeing galley-slaves who, she assured readers, were men guilty of serious crimes, as opposed to being religious or political dissenters. She was a determined sightseer. In a trip to Vesuvius, she described the group riding donkeys part of the way. When the beasts could go no further, Fison's husband rode in a chair. When this made him uncomfortable, the guides carried him in their arms to the mouth of the volcano.

Although Fison dedicated Letters from the Continent to her mother, the beloved parent to whom the letters were addressed was her father. He had been to Paris but not to the other places she visited, which explained her detailed descriptions. She wrote her first letter from Brussels in May 1843, and the last from Le Havre in May 1844. Her father awaited her return at Brighton. He died on June 21, about a month after her arrival. She wrote the preface to Letters from the Continent in October 1846 at her Cheltenham home. A few months later, her husband, whose ill health was the reason for their continental travels, died in greater London on February 5, 1847.

When William Fison died, he left his wife a widow at the age of twenty-nine. His will is not available, but whatever Margaret Fison received from him was not her sole income. When her father died, he had left her the rents of...

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