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A woman of five and twenty

The Bookseller's Wife, eBook release date 13 March 2024

Based on a true story, The Bookseller’s Wife tells the story of Dorcas Turton, the great grand-daughter of the Honourable Sir John Turton, Baron of the Exchequer and Justice of the King’s Bench. Dorcas’s mother was so proud of her lineage that she kept her maiden name in the only way a woman in the eighteenth century could – by marrying a man with the same surname. Her husband Samuel had a fortune of his own, and the family should have been comfortably off, but owing to his ‘unhappy turn for gaming,’ Samuel was forced to turn to trade. Even after setting himself up as a saddler’s ironmonger, he couldn’t give up gambling. Jemima Turton didn’t live to see her husband’s financial ruin, dying in early 1773, when Dorcas was twenty-three, and the sole surviving child of six – a statistic that seems shocking now, but when she was a child, over 74% of children born in London did not live to see the age of five. Doctors were fighting a losing battle against diseases including typhus, dysentery, measles and influenza. Smallpox alone accounted for 10% of all recorded deaths in the year 1753 – 1754.

A pivotal age for woman

In her 1688 poem, A Virgin Life, Jane Barker wrote that she hoped was able to remain ‘Fearless of twenty-five and all its train, / Of slights or scorns, or being called Old Maid.’ At the beginning of The Bookseller’s Wife, with the average age for marriage standing at seventeen, Dorcas would be passing from a young singlewoman to Old Maid. With no dowry to her name she would have been painfully aware that her marriage prospects were decreasing rapidly. And if not absolutely everything to an eighteenth century woman, marriage and motherhood came close.

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Setting aside her own desires

Forced to sacrifice her own desires, (for not everyone shared the view expressed by Mary Woolstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Men that marriage was little better than ‘legal prostitution to increase wealth or shun poverty’) Dorcas’s immediate concern was to fend off their creditors and, beyond, that to support herself and her father. All at the same time as running the household. She did so by making use of the skills she possessed, taking in needlework and opening a day-school for young ladies. She taught merchants’ daughters the skills expected of wives and mothers, the very things she assumed would be hers. I doubt the irony would have escaped her.

A popular book of the time was Sarah Fielding’s The Governess which gives an insight of the education the daughter of a gentleman might expect.

‘To cultivate an early inclination to Benevolence, and a love of Virtue in the minds of young women, by trying to shew them that their True Interest is concerned in cherishing and improving those amiable Dispositions into Habits and keeping down all rough and boisterous Passions, and that from this alone they can propose to themselves to arrive at true Happiness in any of the Stations in Life allotted to the Female Character.’

I don’t know about you, but already I find myself chaffing – and that is before we learn that ‘Mr Teachum was a very sensible man who took great pains in improving his wife.’

Despite improving literacy rates, there was scant provision for the education of girls. Children generally were taught to recite texts ‘parrot-like’, without any real understanding. No child should be prepared for a position above their station, and for girls this meant absorbing the skills required for running an efficient household. Jane Austen did not exaggerate in her depictions of barely literate young ladies.

Women’s minds, it was thought (admittedly, chiefly by men) were not adapted to absorbing the principles of mathematics and physics. (A little basic maths, perhaps, so that she might keep the household books. Enough chemistry so that she might apply it to culinary success.) And yet women were exposed to botany and other natural sciences including astronomy – a popular pastime, which in 1731 led to William Hershel’s discovery of Uranus. His sister Caroline, who started out as his assistant went on to discover eight comets and gained recognition from the King, who paid her a salary as a scientist, the first woman to have such favour bestowed upon her. Those who were reluctantly forced to accept that some women had the capacity for serious matter still maintained that there was little purpose in teaching women arts and sciences. After all, when on earth would they have the opportunity to apply such knowledge?

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, via Wikimedia

Early supporters of women’s education

But changes were afoot. Towards the end of the century, support for the education of daughters was mounting. The growing merchant class saw the importance of educating daughters so that they could take active roles in the running of family businesses. Early campaigners who believed that daughters’ education should equal that of sons included Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Mary Shelley.

Like Dorcas, Mary Wollstonecraft was born into prosperity to a father who squandered the family money. And like Dorcas, Mary Wollstonecraft opened a small girls’ school. She would go on to write A Vindication on the Rights of Women and Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, arguing that education should be universal and freely accessible, so that women could cultivate their minds, learn skills and gain financial independence.

James Lackington’s memoirs tell us that Dorcas was ‘immoderately fond of books, and would frequently read until morning… who having acquired a few ideas, was at that time restless to increase them.’ The picture he leaves us with is of a young woman who is curious, intelligent, practical and resourceful. I like to think that although Dorcas turned to teaching out of necessity, she would have shared Mary Wollstonecraft’s views and made an equally passionate and inspirational teacher, and planting in her pupils aspirations and ambitions beyond the domestic sphere.

Excerpt from The Bookseller’s Wife

“You have day-pupils, Miss Turton?” This from Mr Lackington.

Thrust back to the centre of attention, Dorcas feels blood rush to her cheeks. “A dozen or so girls come to me for their lessons.”

He looks at her, quite directly. “And you teach them to read?”

Conscious that her father’s eyes are also on her, she replies, “Among other things.” She is teaching her pupils to tame every natural instinct they were born with, all their indignation, effrontery and rage, just as she was taught to subdue her own.

“Reading is everything, don’t you think? Teach someone to read and you may wake a latent genius.”

“Sadly, my pupils’ parents’ chief concern is that I improve their conversation so that they might better support their future husbands.”

Mrs Lackington stills her cutlery to gaze upon her husband. Once again her face is transformed. “That’s not to be underestimated. I’m happy to be a support to Mr Lackington.”

There is an honesty about her that is so sincere it might be called naivety. Not wanting to appear hostile, Dorcas says, “I don’t disagree. All the same, I take issue with the notion that a little Greek and Latin will somehow make our young women less agreeable wives.”

“Well, I say that genius is something Almighty God bestows,” Mr Lackington declares. “And that being the case, it seems a sin not to exercise it.”

Dorcas hadn’t imagined she might find herself favourably disposed towards him. She selects a woman of intellect, someone so famous he’s bound to have heard of her. “Italy’s scientist, Laura Bassi, can hold her own with any man, and was given a post at the University of Bologna.”

“An honorary post!” Her father’s face has reddened. He cannot resist; he must belittle a woman’s achievements. “Besides, Bassi’s an exception! Why else would people travel to hear her lectures?”

“That is my point, Father.” Dorcas keeps her voice level, lest he accuse her of high emotion. “If girls were afforded the same opportunities as their brothers –”

“Come now, daughter,” with a detectable undertone he cuts her short, “Don’t embarrass your guests. I cannot imagine Mr or Mrs Lackington had the advantage of a governess, yet they air no complaints.”

Dorcas smarts as surely as if she has been slapped. Rather than choose an intellectual, she should have selected one of several women of Father’s acquaintance who have applied themselves to business.She need have looked no further than Chiswell-street, where Mrs Caslon manages her late husband’s type foundry. Except that Father would say, ‘Co-manages. Elizabeth Caslon and Sons.’

But Mr Lackington gives a laugh. “Fear not on my account, Mr Turton – though I admit, until I was apprenticed, I could barely read. ’Twas listening to my master’s family discourse around a table, admittedly not as handsome as this one,” his lively gaze roams their faces, “that my ignorance became an embarrassment. You have to wonder what drives those who’d deny women learning. Was not Eve tempted by the prospect of knowledge, when Adam would have remained blissfully lacking?”

Her father splutters. As the flame of a candle dances, he exhorts, “See how that ended!”

Quite undaunted, Mr Lackington ploughs ahead. “In the short term, I agree, the consequences were devastating. Yet in the longer term…” He lifts his shoulders. “Eve may have been the visionary, but it was Adam who reaped the benefits.”

Dorcas cannot deny a fizz of excitement. She has missed verbal fencing, especially when the combatants are evenly matched.

“No, no.” Her father wags a finger. “I cannot accept that argument, Mr Lackington. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had everything they could possibly require.”

“But think how dull life would have become. How fat and lazy they would have grown, and how soft and idle their offspring. Why, mankind would have died out!”

Dorcas brings a napkin to her lips to disguise what she senses is closer to a smirk than a smile. Imagine if she’d said what Mr Lackington seems to have got away with. For a moment her eyes meet Mrs Lackington’s. The look that Mrs Lackington gives her is amused, conspiratorial, as if they are already allies.

“For my own part,” Mr Lackington goes on, oblivious. “I am much inspired by women. So often, with all the advantages showered upon sons, daughters are driven to self-learning.” Something about his wit, his natural charm, that on first impression Dorcas thought rustic, elevates him beyond his appearance. “You mentioned Bassi, Miss Turton, but would her potential have been realised had she not been exposed to books? I imagine you yourself are a great reader.”

Dorcas opens her mouth but again her father cuts across her. “Ha! She never has her nose out of a novel. She sits there of an evening with her needlework, and goodness only knows how many times she pricks her fingers, because she cannot bear to tear her eyes away from the page.”

On hearing her only comfort reduced to a character flaw, she forces a smile. “A slight exaggeration. I must prepare for my pupils’ lessons, though I admit I’m especially fond of novels.”

Mrs Lackington bows her head.

Says her husband, “For ourselves, we tend towards volumes on self-improvement.”

Doubtless they have been warned by some cleric that novels have a corrosive effect on the soul. Tempted to leap to the novel’s defence, Dorcas might say that on its pages she has found wiser counsel than ever she learned from her governess, and experienced things she will most likely never encounter in her own lifetime. She might even remark upon the number of novels aimed at young women that reinforce the work of the clergy, preaching that the reward of virtue is marriage. But one look at Mrs Lackington confirms that her mind is settled.

If a cloud is cast over the small party, her father blusters it away. “And what is your line of business, Mr Lackington?”

“We also have a shop.” Mr Lackington says this as if it sets him on a familiar and equal footing, a presumption her father won’t appreciate. “I’m a shoemaker. Ladies’ silk shoes are my specialism, but I also work in leather. That said…” He looks to his wife as if seeking permission. “We are branching out.”

“Into books,” gushes Mrs Lackington.

Given her reaction to the merest mention of novels, the announcement takes Dorcas aback. “You’re booksellers?”

“We are but minnows in the world of bookselling. But,” Mr Lackington shrugs in an approximation of modesty, “I have hopes.”

Mrs Lackington’s glance at her husband is full of pride, but Samuel Turton lifts the pitcher of ale, and raises his eyebrows in challenge. “That you’ll become a bookseller who occasionally makes shoes?”

Instead of rising to the provocation, Mr Lackington laughs heartily as he slides forward his glass. “I know what you’re thinking, Mr Turton. Sutor, ne ultra crepidam.”

Dorcas feels curiosity awakening, something she has not experienced since the days before supper guests became a rarity. “You speak Latin?”

“Alas, that’s my only scrap, and I’m not altogether sure my recall is correct.”

“Your recall is always correct.” His wife’s protest is proud and indulgent. “Old ladies of our neighbourhood considered my husband a child prodigy because he could recite several chapters of the New Testament,” she says. “Even now, he only needs to read something once, and he can say it right back to you.”

As she talks about him, Mr Lackington reaches for his wife’s upper arm and gives it a light squeeze. “Let us ask Miss Turton.” He leans towards Dorcas. “Did I have it correct?”

“Sutor, ne ultra crepidam. Shoemaker, not beyond the shoe.”

“There you have it!” he exclaims, delighted. “With a little word in Saint Crispin’s ear, a shoemaker may become Lord Mayor of London, or he may become a bookseller.”

“But not everyone who loves books sells them,” Dorcas says.

“True, Miss Turton, true! Once I acquired a taste for reading, I sacrificed much for it, spending my money at the bookseller’s and subsisting on the good Lord’s fresh air.”

Mrs Lackington tilts her head. “And bread and water.”

“See how my wife keeps me honest. I shall tell you how it came about. About a year after we came to London, one of Mr Wesley’s people –”

“Mr Boyd,” says his wife.

He captures the name in his fist. “Mr Boyd! He had a small shop on Featherstone-street, and thought that if I took it over I might set myself up as a master shoemaker. The minute he mentioned his shop, the idea popped into my head: I would also sell books.”

Samuel Turton frowns, as if he himself has never had an impulse. “Just like that?”

“I confess there was a little more to it. I’d noticed how the number of old book shops in the parish was increasing. The more readers there are, the more bookshops are needed, at least that’s how it seems to me. But my prime motivation was that if I sold books, I’d never be short of something to read.”

“And Mrs Lackington approved of this plan?” her father asks, somewhat disapprovingly, though he rarely puts much store in the opinion of women.

“Certainly I did.” Dorcas studies Mrs Lackington’s face as she speaks. (She cannot study the husband’s in the same open way.) Can she be as saintly as she appears? “In the past, many a time when I sent Mr Lackington out to buy food, he came home with a book in his pocket.”

Mr Lackington shakes his head as if he can scarcely believe it of himself. “Last year, we had Young’s Night Thoughts in place of Christmas dinner.”

In Dorcas’s admittedly slim experience, women are vastly more constant than men. Still, she makes the effort to join in with the laughter.

“If a wife is unable to separate a man from his vices,” says Mrs Lackington, smiling, “what can she do but bring them together in a way that’s profitable?”

“You allow your wife to chastise you in public?” Dorcas’s father, who would never suffer to be contradicted by a man, let alone a woman, pretends that his indignation is mock-indignation.

Mr Lackington is all cheerfulness. “You say chastise, I say she reins in my wandering mind and adds a little punctuation to what might otherwise turn into a rambling monologue.” Having disagreed in so agreeable a manner, he turns once more to Dorcas. “I admit, Miss Turton, it affords me the greatest of pleasure to find another soul as enamoured with reading as I am.”

Publication details

eBook publication date 13 March 2024.

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Paperback release date 15 April 2024

Tarde Paperback ISBN: 978-1-838034832

Print on Demand ISBN: 978-1-8380348-4-9