“Poverty is the only Devil that I fear, but if I can only get up my health and spirits, I’ll e’en defy him.”
Elizabeth Sharples Carlile to Thomas Cooper, 23 April 1850
In the summer of 1849, Eliza Sharples Carlile sat down to write a letter addressed to poet and Chartist Thomas Cooper, calling on ‘the consideration of all progressive spirits.’ Single and poverty-stricken, she sought to outline ‘the exact situation of the children of one who laid it down as a fundamental principle that a man ought to sacrifice private interest to public good.’
The ‘one’ Eliza referred to was radical publisher and champion of press freedom Richard Carlile (1790-1843), who had spent close to a decade of his life imprisoned for publishing works deemed blasphemous, seditious, or obscene (including birth control literature), and to whom Eliza had been married – though not legally – from 1833 until his death. Theirs had been a ‘moral union’, due in part to their shared objections to the institution of marriage, as well to the fact that Carlile had already been – and technically still was – married, though separated. Besides scandalising many of Carlile’s own radical admirers, the couple’s status meant that their three children were illegitimate, so when Carlile died intestate in 1843, Eliza was left with almost nothing. What she did retain, however, was a fierce devotion to the principles of freethought and the rights of women, as well as a profound belief in the radical legacy of her partner Richard Carlile.
Lancashire-born Eliza Sharples Carlile (1803-1852) was a freethinking writer, editor, and lecturer, who began life as the daughter of a prosperous Bolton manufacturer. In common with a number of other radical women in the nineteenth century, her early years were deeply pious – this youthful steeping in religion and the Bible lending force to the withering criticisms of superstition and priestly hypocrisy she would ultimately express. With a typical combination of self-assurance and self-deprecation, she wrote of leaving:
a happy home and comparative affluence, to launch the frail bark of my intellect, my soul, my genius, my spirit, on the ocean of politics.
One freethinker of the next generation, Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner – whose pioneering secularist father Charles Bradlaugh was taken in by Eliza as a teenager following his own embrace of freethought – later wrote that it was ‘perhaps the excess of ardour with which [Eliza] had thrown herself into her religious pursuits’ as a young woman which ‘made the recoil more easy and more decided.’ This recoil had been confirmed in her late twenties through correspondence with Carlile, whose writings she had come to admire and whose causes she wished to make her own. In January of 1832 she had travelled to London to do just that.
There, Eliza Sharples lectured in the Blackfriars Rotunda (a place ‘long devoted’, wrote the Christian Advocate, ‘to the purposes of radicalism and infidelity’) where she castigated Church and state with equal ferocity. With Carlile still imprisoned, she threw herself into his defence, fired by the twin principles which would animate her life and work: the strident pursuit of knowledge and the unhindered right to free discussion. Organised Christianity, Sharples argued, was a barrier to both, and Carlile a martyr in their name.
From the Rotunda stage Sharples declared herself ‘a free and independent woman.’ In the press, she was branded the ‘Pythoness of the temple.’ That year, Sharples also became editor of The Isis – a weekly paper dedicated ‘to the young women of England for generations to come, or until superstition is extinct’ – through which her ideals were further expounded. The Times asked bitingly: ‘Would not the place of the housemaid, or servant of all work, in some decent family, serve her purpose better?’ adding, ‘She is strong enough for either, and neither of them are so laborious as the tread-mill.’
The rejection of such gendered roles -especially the exclusion of ‘respectable’ women from the political and radical arenas – and a willingness to suffer in the promotion of their ideals were the central elements of the Carliles’ shared philosophy. The perceived inequality of traditional marriage partly accounted for the couple’s declared ‘moral union’ – a meeting of minds, and of equals.
Seventeen years on from The Times’ unsympathetic reports, Eliza remained passionately devoted to her partner (‘A nobler, a greater, a better man never breathed than Richard Carlile’) and to her principles. For a woman though, and from 1843 a widowed one (in her eyes, if not those of the law), her activism had by necessity been side-lined due to her family circumstances. ‘Many have said’, she wrote ‘“Why not devote yourself to public usefulness, for after all reform must commence with woman?” My answer is because my helpless family demanded all my attention.’
The Carliles had three surviving children (their first son, Richard, having died in infancy). In her 1849 letter to Cooper, Eliza introduced Julian (‘quiet, steady, sedate’), Hypatia (‘delicate’), and Theophila (‘born to lead, a very Nelson of a woman’). Though venerating the memory of Carlile (who had been dead for six years), Eliza sought help. ‘Mr C. died’, she wrote, ‘leaving the three children entirely unprovided for’ and so ‘subjected to every degree of wretchedness, often without food.’ Her firm feminism was still in evidence, but she was acutely aware of her own precarious position: ‘Alas! For woman,’ she wrote, ‘hard indeed is her lot to want in her last hour what she has expended her health and her strength in bestowing.’
The forced shrinking of Sharples’ concerns, from those of humanity at large to the realms of the solely domestic, irked. Nonetheless, speaking of ‘woman’ in the third person, she still viewed her own hardships in the wider context of her sex: ‘[W]hither the tide of public prosperity ebbs and flows, she remains forlorn and obscure: so poor and bereaved, and neglected, that her misery can scarcely be affected for the better or the worse by national change.’
A year on from her first letter to Cooper, having been aided by sympathetic friends and radicals, Eliza was established at 1 Warner Place, Hackney Road, ‘struggling with every difficulty to make this place successful as coffee, reading, and discussion rooms.’ Though by her own admission ‘very inefficient as a coffee server’, she hoped that in the Warner Place Temperance Hall were the means of ‘propagating those catholic principles for doing which I have had all my sufferings.’ Still echoing her words from the Rotunda, Sharples determined: ‘I must ever have for my motto “Free Discussion” let happen what may.’
Over half a century earlier, Mary Wollstonecraft had questioned how women could be expected to be truly virtuous without the freedom and education allowed to men. The year after Sharples’ second letter – and just a year before her death – Harriet Taylor Mill would argue (under her husband’s name) that ‘What makes intelligent beings is the power of thought’, adding that ‘the stimuli which call forth that power are the interest and dignity of thought itself, and a field for its practical application.’
Echoing the title of Wollstonecraft’s best known work, and anticipating Mill’s arguments, Sharples wrote to Thomas Cooper that ‘Many very sensible men laugh at such an idea but all reform will be found to be inefficient that does not enhance the Rights of Woman’. She continued: ‘I must object that until woman assumes the place in society which good sense and good feeling alike assign her, human improvement must advance but feebly’.
Less than a year later, on 11 January 1852 – and two decades on from her maiden lecture as ‘Lady of the Rotunda’- Eliza Sharples Carlile died in her Hackney home. Her children, Julian, Hypatia, and Theophila, went to America (assisted by sympathetic friends), where Julian died during the American Civil War, and Hypatia in poverty in Chicago. Theophila survived, married, and – fulfilling an ambition of Eliza’s – wrote a biography of her father. In it, she paid tribute also to her mother, quoting from letters in which Eliza had positioned herself as ‘an enemy to every kind of subordination and persecution.’ ‘I am a female reformer,’ she boldly announced, and ‘I feel proud in being called an Infidel, and wish that all mankind felt as I do.’
Eliza’s two letters to Thomas Cooper, held today in the Bradlaugh archives of the Bishopsgate Institute, are radical in their expression of a working, though well-educated, woman’s fierce advocacy of freedom in thought and religion, yet tragically commonplace in their depiction of her ‘blighted prospects.’ They offer a rich glimpse into the line walked by so many female radicals in the nineteenth century and beyond, who struggled to present themselves as respectable while advocating major social and societal change. They also serve as a reminder of just how many freethinking women have undoubtedly been lost to history. As perhaps the only two surviving documents in her own hand, they are also a unique and tangible connection to this remarkable thinker’s lived life: rare and radical objects.