Mariana Starke was christened at Epsom Parish Church on 23 October 1762. On 19 June, barely four months earlier, and three years into their marriage, her parents had buried their first-born child – a son, John – in the church’s graveyard. Mariana was to be an only child for six years – until the birth of her brother, Richard Isaac Starke, in 1768 – and to be an only daughter until the birth of her sister, Louisa, in 1772. Although there is no record of other children having been born in the years between the births of these living children, the gaps are significantly long, suggesting the possibility that Mary Starke may have suffered miscarriages. Certainly Richard’s father, John Starke, while leaving his eldest son only Hylands House in his rather punitive 1763 will, seems to have expected him to sire at least five children – to all of whom the grandfather was prepared to leave handsome legacies.
We know no firm details of Mariana’s early life as she grew up in Epsom. She may have had a governess, but more likely was taught by her mother, who from her letters appears a competent, amusing woman, interested in literature and the world. The only extant reference I have found to the hiring of a teacher occurs in one of Mrs Starke’s letters, in which she mentions that she is thinking of engaging a music master for her daughters.
This letter written, probably, in 1781, is to Mrs Hayley, wife of William Hayley, an influential man of letters and, in his life-time at least, a highly-regarded poet, patron of William Blake, friend of Cowper, of Romney and of Mariana Starke, who was to him his ‘dear poetical daughter’. The earliest letter in the extant correspondence between the Starkes and the Hayleys dates from 1779 and it is clear from the tone and language employed by the writers that the two families were on close and affectionate terms – and would appear to have been so for some time. There is no indication, however, of how or when the introduction between the families took place. Mariana’s earliest letter in the sequence, dated 22 December 1780, is to Mrs Hayley inviting the Hayleys to ‘a little Hop’to be held by her family early in the new year – on Monday 8 January – and to dinner the day before. At this time the Hayleys lived at Eartham in Sussex, about 45 miles south of Epsom. Hylands House was on their route into Town; in another letter Mrs Starke mentions that she could look out for their chaise as it passes along the Dorking Road. When she wrote this letter of invitation Mariana was 18 years old and entirely at ease in corresponding with the older woman.
From her mother’s letters we can catch glimpses of this youthful Mariana. In November 1780 (?) when Mrs Starke suffered a a bout of illness, during which exertion ‘produced a spitting of blood’, she was ‘an affectionate un-wearied attendant under Providence’ ‘her tenderness contributes materially to my recovery….I can read a little, and so my daughter ransacks the circulating library for my amusement and has brought me the life of Garrick, written by Davies, the materials supplied by Johnson and the whole regulated by him. Tis very entertaining; it contains a history of the Theatre for 36 years. I remember many of the persons mentioned. It likewise comprehends an account of the contemporary dramatic Writers. What an assemblage of opposite qualities met in ‘Dr Goldsmith’ without one particle of common sense to rectify the composition.’ Davies’ life of Garrick was first published in 1780, suggesting that the Epsom circulating library was quick to offer the latest published works and that Mariana had been prompt in her ‘ransacking’. From the list of books catalogued when the stock of the Epsom circulating library [as far as I can establish this was the only circulating library in Epsom during this period] was put up for auction in 1823 it is clear that there was no shortage of reading matter likely to appeal to both mother and daughter. For instance, quantities of novels and book of travels dating from the 1780s were still held in the stock of the library at the time of its sale – novels such as Aspasia, the wanderer (1786), Alfred and Cassandra (1788), Letters of an Italian Nun (1789) and Adeline the Orphan (1790).
By the 1780s Epsom’s heyday as a spa town had passed but, in a healthy position close to the Downs and close to London, it attracted well-to-do merchants quite prepared then – as now – to commute into town on business. Although he had no necessity to make this journey regularly, ‘Governor Starke’ – by which slightly inflated version of his former title Richard Starke is often named in contemporary accounts – still some had business with the East India Company. By virtue of his stock holding in the Company he was able to vote for candidates to the Directorate of the Company and probably made periodic visits to their headquarters in Mincing Lane – a stone’s throw from the house in which his grandfather, Thomas Starke, the slave trader, had lived 100 years before. It is interesting – if useless – to speculate as to whether a knowledge of the lives of his forebears was incorporated into his perception of the world. Did he know – as we shall never – that his father had turned to India because he did not wish to be involved in the trade in Africans of which Thomas was a pioneer? Or, what is more likely, did he know that John Starke had seen that the Virginia tobacco trade was taking a downward turn – and was tediously prone to litigation – and that India was the new Virginia? Whatever his thoughts as he walked along Mincing Lane Richard Starke would have been well aware of the importance in Starke family history of the church of St Dunstans in the East, just three minutes walk away, down towards the river. Besides his grandfather – and all the late-17th- c infant Starkes buried there, it was here that his own mother had been interred in 1730 and here, five years later, that his wife, the daughter of a merchant, had been christened. That, at least, should have inculcated a proprietorial feeling for this small area of the City in a man who had spent his working life in India and now lived a rather secluded life in Surrey. Again, idle to speculate, but surely, on occasion, Mariana would have been taken to the City. Would she not have been curious to see the streets where her forebears lived?
For Mariana, we know, was in her youth passionate about ‘antiquity’. In 1781 her mother, writing to Mrs Hayley, mentions that they had visited ‘Cowdry’ [Cowdray, a Tudor house in Sussex that in 1793 was reduced to ruins by a fire but whose magnificence was still intact when the Starkes visited], remarking that ‘The outside is striking, fine, venerable and claims respect, but within tis unequal and disappoints the expectation. Perhaps altogether no ill emblem its owner. Marian was pleased; I am not so rapturously fond of antiquity as she is. At her age I was, but my passion for gothic structures, and tragedy, expired at the same moment. When the gaiety of youth is fled, lively scenes become necessary.’ So, here is a glimpse of a Mariana swept up in the zeitgeist for the gothic – her ‘sensibility’ a counterpoint to her mother’s ‘sense’.
‘Sense’ was, I am sure, a virtue with which Mariana’s closest contemporary companion of her youth was liberally endowed. Millecent Parkhurst, who was a few months younger than Mariana, lived with her parents in Abele Grove on the other side of Dorking Road from Hylands – on the way into Epsom town. Then an elegant house, with coach house, stables and grounds of about 1 acre, Abele Grove is now, rather bizarrely, the Epsom Central branch of the Premier Inn chain, But it is there still – as is Hylands House – and you can still walk along the Dorking Road between the two- either on your own two feet or, thanks to Google Street View, on your computer.
Millecent’s elderly father, John Parkhurst, had inherited valuable estates around Epsom and, although a clergyman, of the high Anglican variety, felt neither the necessity nor inclination to seek preferment. His life was devoted to scholarship; amongst other writings he had published both Hebrew/English and Greek/English Lexicons (the latter to the New Testament). When, in 1798, after his death, a new edition of this work was called for, it was published with Millecent as editor. In the preface to the 5th edition, a later editor recorded that she was ,’reared under the immediate inspection of her learned and pious father, by an education of the very first order, [and] has acquired a degree of classical knowledge which is rarely met with in the female world’. In a 1787 letter (to be considered at greater length in a subsequent post) Mariana mentions ‘the almost paternal regard that [Mr Parkhurst] has for me.’ It would, I think, be safe to assume that Mariana spent a considerable time in that household, that she was at home in John Parkhurst’s library and, with Millecent, benefited from his teaching. See here to view portraits of John Parkhurst and his wife – held at Clare College, Cambridge. If the date (1804) attributed to the paintings is correct they were commissioned some time after the pair had died – John in 1797 and Millecent in 1800.
The Rev Parkhurst was not only Mariana’s advisor and critic but, with William Hayley, was responsible for inducting Mariana into the literary world. In 1781 she was among the subscribers to Ann Francis’ Poetical Translation of the Song of Solomon, from the original Hebrew, published by J. Dodsley. John Parkhurst subscribed six copies and it is to him that the book was dedicated, with a credit for supplying Notes. Among the female Epsom subscribers were Mrs Foreman, Mrs E. Foreman, Miss Foreman and Mrs Phipps. The latter ladies, who were presumably of a literary incline, were unlikely to have been those of whom Mariana wrote to William Hayley on 1 October 1781, ‘I spent an afternoon a short time since in company with Mrs Francis. She appears perfectly good-natured and unaffected – our Epsom Ladies were quite astonished that she should be in the least degree like other people – one observed that she really dressed her hair according to the present fashion, another, that she had a very tolerable cap, and a third that she certainly conversed in a common way, in short they spoke of her, as tho’ they had expected to have seen a wild beast instead of a rational creature, & I felt myself very happy that they were perfectly ignorant of my ever having made a Poem in my life.’ In her preface Ann Francis had felt it necessary to defend her translation of this particular text on two counts – in case it might ‘be thought an improper undertaking for a woman [since] the learned may imagine it a subject above the reach of my abilities; while the unlearned may incline to deem it a theme unfit for the exercise of a female pen.’
Besides John Parkhurst, the other male Epsom subscriber to The Song of Solomon was the Rev Martin Madan, who the previous year had raised considerable controversy with his publication of Thelyphthora; or a treatise on female ruin. In this Madan argued the social benefit of polygamy as a means of countering the evils of prostitution. He had been chaplain at the Hyde Park Corner Lock Hospital – a hospital for those afflicted with venereal disease – and may be considered to know of what he spoke. His treatise immediately attracted a series of ripostes. It was clearly a book – and, therefore, a subject much debated at this time and in the same 1 October 1781 letter to Hayley Mariana writes. Have you met with a book entitled ‘Whisper in the ear of the Author of Thelypthora’? The author Mr Greene did me the honor of sending it to me, and was it small enough to be enclosed in a frank, I would sent it to Earthham; tho I do not imagine it is a Book that would amuse either you, or Mrs Hayley much.’ Why, one wonders, did 40-year-old Edward Burnaby Greene send his work on this subject to 19-year-old Mariana Starke?
Greene was a translator and poet – though even in his lifetime not held in much regard – and at some time point his social or literary life must have intersected with that of Mariana to occasion this ‘honor’ . For, while the Ladies of Epsom may have been ignorant of the fact that they harboured a young Poet in their midst, her literary mentors were not – Mariana was in the custom of enclosing poems in her letters to Hayley. And to Hayley she made clear her feelings about Epsom society, writing at the end of a 7 January 1782 letter, ‘Pardon this hasty and stupid scrawl, as I am going to dress for an Epsom Party, the very thought of which, has benumbed my faculties.’ Both Mariana and her mother doubtless felt more stimulated at gatherings at which literature and ideas took precedence over discussions of hairdressing and caps. Not only did they utilise the circulating libraries but when in Town they made a point of visiting booksellers. In a letter to Mrs Hayley, dated 2 August 1781, Mrs Starke wrote, ‘Marian and I were at Dodsley’s the other day. The counter was covered by Mr Hayley’s poems, nothing sells so well. Dodsley did himself great credit with us, by his manner of speaking of Mr Hayley, second to none, now living, or that ever did live!’
Dodsley – whose shop was in Pall Mall – had recently published Hayley’s Triumphs of Temper, a didactic work illustrating the usefulness of a good temper to a young woman in search of a husband. See here for a Dulwich Picture Gallery page setting Romney’s portrait of Hayley alongside one of his illustrations from Triumph of Temper
The literary Epsom ladies maintained their interest in furthering the publication of interesting new works by women, subscribing to two important works of the period. In 1785 Millecent Parkhurst (‘Miss Parkhurst, Epsom’) and ‘Mrs Starke, Epsom’ were subscribers to Poems by Ann Yearsley, the Bristol milkwoman and protegee of Hannah More and in 1786 Mariana, her mother and Mrs Parkhurst were all subscribers to Helen Maria Williams’ Poems. The women may well have supported other publications, their connection not yet brought to light by the digital scanner. We can, however, be certain that these were two works that, along with The Song of Solomon, Hayley’s poems and that oddity, Whisper in the ear of the author of Thelypthora’?, were definitely on the shelves in Hyland House in the late 1780s. It was not to be long before Mariana, together with Millecent Parkhurst,- put her own pen into public action.
Sources: William Hayley Papers, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge