One of the various (often contradictory) personalities applied to the eighteenth century is that it was ‘polite’; an age of manners and civility. Genteel folk (to use Amanda Vickery’s captivating term in The Gentleman’s Daughter) minded about how they behaved, keen to present the correct deportment and feelings in a polite world centred on new recreations of shopping, leisure and assemblies. And in these more moneyed professional and landed gentry ranks the people who were most required to behave appropriately were women.
Yet there were many women who didn’t live according to genteel conventions. Enough, I think sometimes, to plead for us to stop using the language of exception when we discuss them. One who jumps out from people I’ve researched is Jane Gomeldon. I’ve already written here about her manipulation of a relatively new form of communication, the local press, to air her marital difficulties. Indeed when their marriage broke down in 1740, Francis and Jane Gomeldon publicly attacked each other in their local Newcastle newspapers and Durham church court. Jane defended herself against Francis’s suit for the restitution of conjugal rights, which aimed to force her to return to him, by bringing her own suit for separation on the grounds of his cruelty. These suits required particular kinds of evidence about spouses and it is possible to learn which aspects of the couple’s lives were firmly in the public sphere.
And the couple’s sphere was socially important in north-east England, so appearances surely mattered. Francis was a gentleman and Captain Lieutenant in His Majesty’s Regiment of Foot, with an income from his commission of £200 per year and property and estate worth between £300 and £500. He was well connected with the powerful men of Newcastle. Jane’s entry in the DNB describes him thus:
‘a well-connected officer in Sir John Bruce’s regiment, who was on friendly terms with the coal magnate George Bowes’.
An account of his wife includes several other notables in his social circle including Sir Henry Grey, Sir Walter Blackett and Sir Thomas Clavering. Jane, it emerges, must have been somewhat different since she was a Quaker. Quakers were known for rejecting social hierarchies, so perhaps this helped shape her apparent blindness to several gender and social conventions.
In both newspapers and matrimonial litigation, after all, Jane was extremely forthright in showing herself to have been wronged. When you realise that much of this was done while she was pregnant, the sheer force of her personality is overwhelming. Her main accusation was that Francis was cruel to her after her mother died on 26 October 1739, four years into their marriage, because Jane refused to surrender her inheritance to him. By law husbands took possession of any inheritance their wife received, unless it was protected by separate estate. And her, perhaps equally strong willed, mother had done just that. Her mother was Isabella Middleton and her will left most of her estate in trust for Jane and specified that no part of it was to be liable to the power, control, debts or engagements of Francis or any other husband that Jane took.
Jane stated in her libel, the document setting out her accusations, that when she refused to acquiesce to his demands Francis beat and grossly abused her, bruised her limbs and warned her
‘that he would daily abuse her in the like manner and would have her Life’.
Jane did not buckle and in April 1740 she told the court that she left her house and family in order to preserve her life. She then accused Francis of entering her deceased mother’s house with several men, all carrying fire-arms and weapons, turning out her mother’s servants, and laying possession of the house and its effects. Francis denied this and says that he and Jane already lived in her mother’s house for several years and all he did was continue to live there, paying rent, taking any goods and plate which were in his custody.
I didn’t find the sentence from the case, but it is evident that the Gomeldons got their wish and separated. Did Jane uphold her legal right to her mother’s bequest? I’m still not sure. She made a will in March 1748, six years after the separation suit ended in court and though she was separated she was still defined as the wife of Francis. Isabella had left her daughter a house and grounds, and the working tools and stock of a glass house near Newcastle. Jane set out that £200 was to go to her ‘esteemed friend’ Eleanor Lyon, a spinster, and £300 to her nephew. The rest of the estate was to go to Jane’s children ‘in case I shall have issue living at my death’. So clearly the children she’d had with Francis had all died. If she had no living children or grandchildren, then half was to go to her niece and nephew as long as they remained Quakers. She also left £20 to the governors of the Royal Infirmary. I hope that she kept her bequest and there is evidence since she lived a financially independent life, thereafter. I can’t be certain though as I haven’t seen Francis’s will. He died not long after in 1751 and was buried at Gibside. His death also left Francis free to live as she wished.
Still, even for a widow with means, social approval mattered. And Jane carved out her own version. She became a local notable and women of letters and used these literary works to stake her claim in the age of charity. In 1766 she published a series of essays (The Medley) intended to raise money for the Lying-In-Hospital in Newcastle (these were voluntary institutions set up as maternity hospitals for married women) and no doubt was delighted when the governors publicly congratulated her in December 1768 for raising £53 10s 7d for their charitable endeavour. She appeared in print again in 1773 when her poem Happiness was published and 1779 with her Maxims. In these she offered her own stance on gender relationships. In one she wrote
‘I allow the Ladies, if married, to wear the Breeches, but must beg a Petticoat be worn over them’ (Horsley, Eighteenth-Century Newcastle, p. 188).
A suitably cynical declaration of how to manage men, this neat little aphorism also takes on more amusing connotations in the light of a myth that arose about her in local annals, described in more detail below. Horsley says that the
‘high-spirited lady found her husband and his friends too sedate for she very soon left him and, as he pursued her from place to place, she donned men’s clothes and went to France’ (p. 185).
Historians of women will not be surprised that Jane’s real cause for leaving her husband and her legal rights are completely forgotten here, leaving only her charm and prettiness!
Jane did not die for another thirty-two years, when she was around 68, buried in the Friends Burial Ground. An epitaph in the newspaper in 1780 announced that Mrs Gomeldon had died at Newcastle declaring her
‘a lady of great consequence amongst the people called Quakers, and of a very liberal education. She was a great adept in natural history and philosophy, a warm friend the interests of her country, and a generous benefactress to the poor, with the most anxious desire to please, and conciliate the good opinion of the world. She was infinitely superior to every unworthy prejudice; as a proof of which, when some too rigid people of her own religious persuasion were finding fault with her having concerts and musical meetings at her house, she sent her carriage to her coach-maker’s (for this too had given them offence) and placed on it the following motto, which she retained to her death, “Let them talk”.
Clearly, “Let them talk” was the motto of Jane’s life. She managed to combine some features of polite sociability with her Quaker roots, promoted her writing through her benevolence, yet always asserted her own personality. Indeed several of the most charming stories later reported in local histories would suggest that making society talk was a part of her joy. A history of ‘Newcastle Ladies’ describes Jane as notably proud of her good looks. She had her portrait engraved so that she could distribute copies of it amongst her friends. In later life, as her teeth fell out with age she had them mounted in jewellery as further gifts for those lucky enough to know her. Even more tantalising is the story that when she left her husband she put on men’s clothes and travelled to France. Here she ‘caused consternation’ [I bet she did] in her cross-dressed form by courting a nun and almost persuading her to run away with her. She certainly made society talk!
For further reading about Jane see:
Her entry by Helen Berry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
P M Horsley, Eighteenth-Century Newcastle (Newcastle, 1971)
I use the image of Jane which is on http://martleweb.co.uk/gumbleton/people/L0052a.html