Thursday, July 03, 2014

Quaker Alphabet Blog 2014 - M for Mary Southworth Mollineux

Mary Southworth was born in 1651 and brought up in Lancashire, possibly in Warrington. She was an only child and, her cousin tells us, was 'much afflicted with weak eyes, which made her unfit for the usual employment of girls, and being of a large natural capacity, her father brought her up to more learning than is commonly bestowed on our sex, that she could fluently discourse in Latin, made considerable progress in Greek, wrote several hands well, was a good arithmetician, a student of several useful arts, understood physic and surgery and the nature of plants, herbs and minerals, made some inspection into divers profitable sciences and delighted in the study of nature.' Mary also began to write poetry from the age of eleven.

She was convinced while she was still young and in 1684 was imprisoned in Lancaster Castle for attending Quaker meetings in Warrington. It was there that Mary first became acquainted with Henry Mollineux, although they had seen each other before. He says that at this time 'I believed that she should be my wife; but never intended to express any thing thereof, whilst we were both prisoners there; and after she was released, I saw her, and was in company with her several times, before I expressed anything of my concern to take her to be my wife; several considerable men having before attempted to prevail with her on that account.'
Lancaster Castle in 1778

Eventually they were married at Penketh, now a suburb of Warrington, on 10th April 1685. They had two sons to whom they gave the unusual but biblical names, Othniel and Elleazor. The family lived first at Ormskirk and later at Liverpool. Both Mary and Henry suffered persecution during their marriage. Henry was imprisoned for not paying tithes and Mary disputed with the bishop of Chester about the injustice of this.

In general though Mary did not speak out in public. She wrote poetry as personal advice to those who came to her for support. Her talent was low-keyed, not fiery or controversial. Mary's epistles, meditations and contemplations are all of an improving nature, with an emphasis on homely domestic virtues, and were given to her friends and relations as a message of kindness, affection and sound advice on behaviour.

Mary was not writing for the public and would not allow her poetry to be printed during her lifetime. Her friend Trial Ryder says, 'I remember that several years ago, when she was a single woman, upon perusal of some copies of her verses which she gave me, I felt such unity of spirit with them that I said I thought they might be of service if made public in print, but she was not then free that her name should be exposed, she not seeking praise amongst men, but to communicate the exercise of peculiar gifts amongst her near friends and acquaintance.'

Unfortunately this embargo was not destined to last for long as Mary died in 1696 at home in Liverpool at the age of 44. During her last illness she spoke of her regret at leaving 'her little lads', then aged eleven and nine. She sometimes spoke in Latin, not to impress others with her learning, but in order to communicate privately with Henry when company was present. Soon after her death Henry published her poems as a tribute and testimony to her and as a help to others. The volume proved extremely popular and Fruits of Retirement; or Miscellaneous Poems, moral and divine went into six editions in the course of the eighteenth century.

It was most unusual for Quakers to write poetry at this time and even more so to publish it, so that Mary's cousin, Frances Owen, felt that some justification was necessary. 'And though verse is not so commonly used in divine subjects as prose, and but too much abused by the extravagant wits of the age; yet she, like a skilful chemist, had learned to separate the purer spirits and more refined parts of poetry, from the earthly, worthless dross, and made use of her gift rather to convince and prevail upon the mind, to affect and raise the soul upon wings of divine contemplation, than to please the airy fancy with strains of wit, and unprofitable invention, which she was ever careful to avoid.'

Although Mary's poems are not on the whole to our taste today, their popularity during the century following her death show as that her family's hope for them was not groundless. Here is a short extract from one of her poems Meditations in Trouble which gives some idea of her style.
O Whither is he gone? Or where
Shall I go mourn, till he appear,
Who is my life, my love?
Alas, how shall I move
Him to return, that’s secretly retired
Like unto one displeased,
Who, till he be appeased,
My heart cannot be eased?
He is one lovely, and to be admired!

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