Sarah Perry’s Essex Girls
The 2019 Harriet Martineau Lecture

Author of The Essex Serpent and Melmoth, Sarah Perry, delivered this year’s Harriet Martineau Lecture at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival. Sarah explores the notion of the ‘Essex girl’, invoking unexpected moments from history and popular culture. You can listen to the entire lecture on this week’s podcast or read the transcript below.

This year’s lecture was made possible thanks to the support of The Martineau Society.

Hosted by Steph McKenna and Simon Jones from the National Centre for Writing at Dragon Hall in Norwich.

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Music by Bennet Maples

Lecture transcript

I’ve given this afternoon’s lecture the title “Essex Girls”, and since I’m only really a storyteller I will be telling the story of three women who seem to me to encapsulate a particular kind of reckless spirit, heedless of reputation, and consequently likely to be the subject of censure or contempt, or both, which categorises the modern idea of the ‘Essex girl’.

But first.

I have just returned from Australia and New Zealand and was intrigued and delighted to find that at the opening of every event they would begin by acknowledging the spirits of the ancestors on whose stolen land we were holding our events. In New Zealand in particular this was an incredibly moving moment: we had a ceremony with some Maori leaders who sang and invocated and acknowledged the spirits of the ancestors, and left us all very conscious that this was, as the New Zealand Maori poet Robert Sullivan has it – who incidentally is published by a Norfolk press – a meeting on respected grounds.

So I want to begin with formally acknowledging the spirit of Harriet Martineau, in whose memory this lecture takes place. Summoning here, if you like, because I’m afraid that if I do not she will materialise beside me in fifteen yards of black silk and pick me up on some of my facts.

Harriet Martineau was born in Norwich in 1802. I’m indebted actually to Stuart Hobday’s excellent biography of her, which describes her as “a participant in, an observer of, and an inspiration for some of the greatest movements humankind has ever seen.” She was prone to illness all her life. As a child she lost her sense of taste and smell. As a teenager she lost her sense of hearing and began to use an enormous ear trumpet. Her peers described her as being like an insect who would turn its proboscis towards whoever she was speaking to.

She began writing in her twenties, immediately demonstrating a radical political bent. By the 1830s she was an admired, feted and respected figure in London’s political circles. Interestingly, she was courted by politicians and radicals.

She had a completely indomitable spirit. She spent five years, more-or-less, in bed because she was ill. During those five years she wrote a biography of the Haitian slave rebellion leader Toussaint Louverture and several books for children. She was a passionate advocate for matters which remain urgent and unsolved even today. For example, she spoke about sustainable living, adequate and compassionate hospital provision, for racial equality and for human and women’s rights. She collaborated with Frances Nightingale, was friends with the Wordsworths, the Arnolds, though I gather not entirely happily with George Eliot. She was a confirmed and practising atheist. Eight years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species she published correspondence in which she was openly condemning and contemptuous of the idea that man was created according to the Genesis myth.

However, for women it has never been easy to secure a lasting reputation, since it seems to me to be predicated as much on being liked and being assessed against a series of subtle and often fairly punitive social norms, as much as on one’s work. I was actually quite moved and distressed to read that on her death in 1876, Harriet Martineau, who was a great devotee of scientific progress, offered both her brain and her ears to medical science to be dissected. Both were politely declined.

In subsequent years, as Hobday says in his biography, the most esteemed biographers of the Victorian age have either cast her in a decidedly unflattering light with gendered language – calling her a ‘gossip’ and a ‘spinster’ – or reduced her to a kind of cipher in the chapters which are particularly reserved for the women of the age.

AN Wilson, who has a certain waspish tone in his writing, wrote that her works were “wooden and cliche-ridden” and accused her of having “all the right views; that is the views espoused in the Metropolitan intelligentsia.” Which is such an extraordinary statement and characterises a lot of today’s political discourse. As if being educated and being in large urban areas with people from all over the world makes you less equipped to comment on current affairs, rather than more? But I shall let that hobby horse ride past me.

Hobday wonders if Harriet Martineau was deliberately written out of history. How can we account for this diminution at the time of her reputation? It seems to me to have had something to do with a failure to conform to what is expected of a woman. In her old age she scandalised locals by wearing hobnail boots and smoking cigars. She had no interest in romantic attachments: in fact some biographers have wondered if she was a lesbian. She may well have been, but it’s a shame to think that we would rather never think of a woman as being more a creature of intellect than of passion, and it may simply have been that she was not interested in the romantic side of life.

it’s a shame to think that we would rather never think of a woman as being more a creature of intellect than of passion

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of her, that she is a “large, robust, one might almost say bouncing elderly woman, very course of aspect and plainly dressed. She is an atheist and she thinks, I believe, that the principle of life will become extinct when her great, fat body is laid in the grave.” To give Hawthorne his due, he also says that “her face was so lively and so pleasant he would rather look at it than the face of a great beauty.”

Dickens, meanwhile, wrote rather sardonically that she was “grimly bent on the enlightenment of mankind.” It’s very different to see how a man with similar ambition would have been chastised for that, but here we are.

So, what do we have on our hands? An opinionated, talkative, intelligent, plain woman, chronically ill, disabled, fat, absolutely un-enamoured with men, heedless of the need to make herself attractive and agreeable: a true radical both politically and personally, who care more for her principles than her reputation and a fit, presiding spirit for us here.

Martineau summoned among us, and I hope kindly disposed towards me, we will turn shortly to the idea of the ‘Essex girl’. But first I want to appeal to your imagination. I’m going to tell you about a woman who is still alive today, who was born into a family of enormous wealth but even more enormous inherited trauma. She is Armenian, an ethnic group subject to a brutal genocide in the first part of the 20th century which all but eliminated the language, stories, myth and methods of worship of her nation.

In her youth, a betrayal of trust saw her publicly humiliated which has always been the particular preserve of women, and her reputation ruined. With enormous strength of character she overcame this public shaming and established herself as a highly successful entrepreneur and she set about using her power and her influence to overturn miscarriages of justice. For example, she was instrumental in securing the release of an abused woman of colour who had been wrongly imprisoned for many years. She began to try to restore to the public consciousness the Armenian genocide, which is still officially denied. She took out an advertisement in a broadsheet newspaper which had published another advertisement denying the genocide. In this advertisement she wrote that “we must call for nations to bear witness to the horrors of the past”, and noted that “in 1939, a week before the Nazi invasion of Poland, Hitler said ‘who, after all speaks today of the Armenians?’

We do, we must.”

Take a moment to think about this woman. Intelligent, driven, a passionate advocate for social justice. Think about her clothing, her tone of voice, her demeanour. And now I should tell you that she is, as some of you may have already identified, the American reality TV star Kim Kardashian. I have chosen to invoke her, and it amuses me to think of her sitting now with Harriet Martineau, each a bit bemused by the other’s choice of dress but getting on well enough, because she represents the apex of the ‘Essex girl’. She is the Essex girl elevated to her purest form, displaced from Southend to Los Angeles, hyper-sexualised, irredeemably vulgar, a body presented to an avid and insatiable male gaze in the fashion which is sort-of-gratifying and confronting at the same time, materialistic, and adopting a manner of speech which is irritating to the ruling classes.

I think it’s possible to see Kardashian’s political conscience and her active engagement with social justice not as running bizarrely contrary to her persona, but of being all of a piece. That a woman who will shrug off the demand that she be respectable, that she guard her reputation, is intrinsically a radical. I feel she may have met the cautious approval of Mary Wollstonecraft, who in the chapter of her vindication entitled, slightly sonorously, ‘Morality Undermined By the Sexual Notions of the Importance of a Good Reputation’, wrote “It has long since occurred to me that advice respecting behaviour and all the various modes of preserving a ‘good reputation’ which have been so strenuously inculcated on the female world were specious poisons; a constant attention to keep the varnish of the reputation fresh and in good condition is often inculcated as the sum total of female duty.”

I’m not sure all that much has changed. Reject one female duty and you may feel to reject them all.

I was born in Essex, in Chelmsford, in 1979. I can’t recall when I was first teased about being an Essex girl, but I do recall being both insulted and puzzled. They would say “where are your white stilettos?” “Do you go to the disco and dance around your handbag?”

My husband asked me to take this out but I’m leaving it in. I was told a joke which commences: How does an Essex girl hold her liquor? The punchline of which cannot be repeated in polite company, and which I did not understand for some years.

None of this was meant particularly unkindly, but it did seem odd to accuse me of a fondness for stilettos and discos because at an age of 10 – and now – I was part Victorian dairy-maid and part dust, Edwardian clergyman. But the jokes persisted, and in time I came to welcome them. Nowadays I allow my Essex accent, which I began to train myself out of at the age of about 11 because I knew it would do me no favours.

I haven’t really been able to satisfy myself as to the origins of the epithet. In Wikipedia it’s defined as “a female” – though for the purposes of this lecture I think people of any gender can and should aspire to be an Essex girl – “a female viewed as promiscuous and unintelligent, characteristics jocularly attributed to women from Essex.”

Interestingly, it’s a very modern phenomenon. The Oxford English Dictionary dates its first use to 1991. I looked at the Google engram tool, which allows searches to locate words and phrases in a huge mass of published data by date, and there’s a brief usage in 1957 and 1962, then nothing, and then a very sudden increase from 1989. So I tried some first-hand research.

I’m the youngest of five Essex girls and I was astonished to find that the two eldest had no experience at all of being mocked for being Essex girls. They were in their teens and their early twenties before the idea of the Essex girl took hold in popular imagination. I spoke briefly to my husband about this – he’s from Basildon, which makes him as much of an Essex boy as you can possibly get – and he thinks that politics may have had a part to play. During the reign of Thatcher, Essex did very, very well and tended to vote Tory. So at a time when other working class communities were really suffering, Essex thrived and people who were not terribly well educated suddenly began to have lots of money. The Essex boy began to be demonised by the upper classes, who resent ‘new money’, and by working class communities which were suffering in a way that Essex wasn’t.

The Essex girl origin myth that most appealed to me was the proposition that you must look back as far as the Jacobean which trials, of which Essex had a slightly larger number than the rest of the UK. I sought out a number of first person accounts of the assises at which women were tried for witchcraft, imagining I would find accusations levied at women because they had shown a reluctance to worship, or had been too free and open with their sexual desires, or because they were menopausal, or perhaps because they lived in a sort of mossy cottage in a dark wood dispensing wisdom and herbal remedies – which is my ultimate aim in life.

It was therefore a bit dispiriting to find that matters of witchcraft would normally begin with, for instance, a stolen glove, or failure to repay a loan, and often, if not usually, the slighting by a woman by a woman, frequently neighbours, between whom disagreement had festered for years. The small irritations of small communities, exacerbated by poverty, superstition, educational limitations and the more-or-less theocratic state, metastasising into a fatal social disease.

There’s an extraordinary document called ‘A Detection of Damnable Drifts’. It’s an account of the trial of three women at the Chelmsford assises in 1579 and we find one Elizabeth Frances confessing to having gone to her neighbour to ask to borrow yeast, been turned down, then on the street encountered a devilish spirit in the form of a white dog and sold her soul in exchange for a white crust of bread.

As an aside, if you will allow the part of me which is a dusty Edwardian clergyman to come forward, there is no evidence that the Puritans had much of a hand in the witch trials. Matthew Hopkins, the witchfinder general, was not a puritan, whereas George Gifford, the famous Puritan Essex minister who wrote two books on witches, thought the whole thing was a dreadful disgrace and a matter of poor spiritual care, strongly deprecated the treatment of women. Other affirmed Puritans either never mentioned the matter at all, or did so with enormous scepticism.

It’s not possible to say now precisely how the Essex girl pejorative came about, or why. It is very certain that it relates to a particular kind of visible and confronting feminine agency that hinges on a flagrant disregard for the approval of the establishment and a willingness to place personal freedom above public reputation. It is in that case intrinsically radical, if you’re to accept that the personal is political, to adopt modes of dress which are mocked, to speak in an accent which is not the accent of the ruling classes, to display newly-acquired wealth, to exercise sexual freedom and to care nothing of the specious poison of a chaste reputation that Mary Wollstonecraft identified.

I suppose I may be taken to task for suggesting that there is a genuine, in fact a radical, feminist power in the women of the Only Way Is Essex making financial and social capital out of qualities which have never been admired but I do believe it. They may be attempting to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, but at least they’re trying. It’s better to break a window than to suffocate.

there is a genuine, in fact a radical, feminist power in the women of the Only Way Is Essex

Rebecca Solnit in her collection of essays Men Explain Things To Me, writes about the power of moving even a short distance down an apparently interminable road. She says something extraordinary about the whole feminist project: that so much change has been made in four or five decades is amazing. That everything is not permanently, definitively, irrevocably changed is not a sign of failure. A women goes walking down a thousand mile road; twenty minutes after she sets forth they proclaim that she still has 999 to go and will never get anywhere.

So, we are going to summon another spirit, who walked very, very early on that thousand mile road. Her name is Rose Allen. She was born in the Essex village of Much Bentley in 1537. She lived with her mother, Alice Mount, and her stepfather William and she was a Protestant during the reign of Mary Tudor. On the 7th March 1557, the first Sunday in Lent at two o’clock in the morning, Rose and her family were woken by one Master Edmund Tyrell, together with a Bailiff of the Hundred and two constables. It was immediately apparent that they were to be interrogated for practising their faith in a manner which was illegal at the time and indeed considered treasonous.

Alice Mount was ill. Rose asked if she could take a moment simply to fetch a glass of water for her mother. As she returned to the room, carrying a jug of water in one hand and a candlestick in the other, she was stopped by Master Tyrell, who told her that really she ought to be a good Catholic and called her, using a very gendered insult, ‘a gossip’. Reminding her that the penalty for a gossip who insisted on treason was that she should be burned alive, he took the candle she was holding, gripped her by the wrist and began to pass the candle back and forth against the back of her hand, in the shape of a cross, until – so onlookers said – “the very sinews cracked asunder.”

Later, imprisoned in Colchester castle, Rose said to a visiting friend: “While my one hand was burning, I, having a pot in my other hand, might have laid him on the face with it, if I would, for no man held my other hand to let me therein, but I thank God with all my heart I did not.”

This is not to say that she lacked courage. On being asked her opinion of the seven Catholic sacraments, she said “they stank in the face of God,” and when she was taken back to her cell she was heard to be singing. On the 7th August 1557 at sometime between 6 and 7 in the morning, Rose Allen, an Essex girl, having not been persuaded that any man or any authority had the power to make her act in a way that ran counter to her conscience and her will, was taken to a piece of hard ground by Colchester city wall, tied to a stake with her mother and her stepfather, and was burned alive.

This account, as I’m sure most of you have realised, is taken from Fox’s Book of Martyrs, a book which has done more to develop the English consciousness than any other, except for the King James Bible. John Fox, a devout Protestant who escape to Europe during the persecutions of 1555 to 1558, returned to England to find many of his friends, family and contemporaries gone, numbering among the 300 men, women and children burned by a Queen who wanted to reverse the Reformation and return to the faith that she felt very devoutly and very deeply.

He’d already been at work on a history of Christian martyrs under the Roman Empire, and when he returned he began to collate accounts of the arrest, trial, torture and martyrdom of the Protestants, publishing the first edition of his Acts and Monuments in 1563. It was an instant success, in some ways the first bestseller. It ran to swift reprints and expansions and it was co-opted by the court of Elizabeth I who had a very obvious and clear motive to blacken the reputation of her predecessor, and it contributed to the persecution of the English Catholics in the following years.

I keep thinking of the Larkin quote: “Man hands on misery to man; it deepens like a coastal shelf.” And when you see the persecution of one ethnic or religious group by another, you begin to realise over the course of hundreds of years that it’s been handed back and forth as the misery just deepens and deepens.

The book was almost instantly a matter of furious contention. Fox would respond to accusations of inaccuracy by deluging his accuser with masses of corroborating information and, when very occasionally persuaded of error, he would remove it. Its hold on the public consciousness cannot be underestimated. It was placed in churches alongside the King James Bible and noble families were instructed to make sure there was a copy for the staff to read. It began to affirm a sense of English exceptionalism, of a valiant island nation, indomitable, Protestant, free from the grip of the Catholic Church.

Having thus applied a pinch of salt to the story of Rose Allen, there is still a great deal about it which I find thrilling. I’ve been familiar with this story for many years. My father had a 17th century edition, a vast thing, which I would open and read on my knees as a child of seven or eight, looking for the most unpleasant woodcuts showing torture and cultivating a gothic imagination.

What I know now, and didn’t understand for years, is that these were religious martyrs but, more importantly, they were political radicals. It’s very difficult to understand that our Essex girl Rose Allen took this stand without grasping the significance of her desire to read the Bible in English, which was a capital offence. The King James Bible, dozens of copies of which can be had for two or three pounds in every charity shop in the land, is a radical, political text. It represents an act of furious dissent against the state, furnishing ordinary men and women with the means to equip themselves with the kind of knowledge that could only undermine the power of the ruling classes.

It’s very important to remember that the majority of the Protestant martyrs were ordinary people. In a letter to Bishop Bonner, who undertook many of these burnings, one inquisitor spoke repeatedly of the martyrs as “poor, ignorant wretches. One finds among the martyrs illiterate women, butcher’s boys, tradesman, weavers, shoemakers, a blind man, and a blind boy.” The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles. It has always been in the interests of an oppressive government to keep the people in a state of ignorance. It’s worth bearing in mind when, for example, schools are defunded to the point of teachers asking parents to bring in pens, libraries are sold off and higher education is commodified.

When copies of Tindale’s New Testament in English, which was a foundational text for the King James Bible, was smuggled across the channel in wine barrels, the Bishop of London found them and burned them on the steps of St Paul’s. Rose Allen was a woman of faith, it is true, but her death is particularly precious to me because it is the death of a young, Essex woman. An ordinary girl who would rather die than permit the state to dictate her conscience.

I still find her an animating force, and a reminder that one need not be particularly equipped with education or status to set your face against injustice, or to insist on the value of the individual. It’s very tempting to think that our small, solitary acts count for nothing. But radical action, particularly for oppressed groups, don’t need to be of the kind that are recorded in the history books. Audrey Lorde, for example, a woman of colour and a lesbian, recognised that for people oppressed on the grounds of race and sexuality the mere act of caring for themselves is “not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Those of you who are members of the LGBT community or from minority groups or who are subject to structural oppression by virtue of any aspect of your identity can lay claim to a radical life more-or-less simply by being.

Richard Holloway, in Godless Morality, speaks lucidly and with great compassion about the engines of state and religion and how they have operated at the cost of women and children in particular. He wrote “The great traditions have all had their casualties of course. Women and children were probably the ones who paid the highest price, since they have always been the ones who were most vulnerable to the abusive power of the systems that enclosed them.”

Having sent Rose Allen to her place, beside Kim and Harriet, I’m going to ask you exercise your imagination again.

it’s vital that we don’t allow history to become so stale that it’s no longer salutary

I’m going to describe to you a concentration camp. Now, I know you will be already be only too familiar with what took place in those camps. They are very well documented and you will already be picturing the bunks and the wire. But I really believe it’s vital that we don’t allow history to become so stale that it’s no longer salutary. I’m going to ask you to picture a camp in which women and children are kept together in conditions so desperate and so unsanitary that sickness such as typhus and dysentery goes completely unchecked.

Children and babies are dying at a rate of one every twenty-five minutes. There is no soap. The water is filthy and disease-ridden and it is almost impossible to boil it and make it clean because there is no fuel. And anyway, there is no container to boil it in. In the summer it is unspeakably hot and everything is covered in black flies. In the winter crowds of starving inmates are seen huddled by a railway line in the snow.

There is a particular photograph I want to describe to you of a child called Lizzie, who was systematically starved to punish her father for an infraction against the demands of the authorities. The joints of her knees are grossly swollen against the dwindling-down bones of her legs; her ribcage is vaulted high above a sunken stomach; she is completely bald and her eyes have dropped down deep into her skull.

I want you to picture the camp commanders. Picture the guards and their uniforms, picture their accents while they speak, picture the authorities in their tailored suits as they sign the affidavit that set in motion the policy that led to the starvation of that child.

I must tell you that those are the uniforms of the British army. The authorities that signed the documents were in Westminster. And the accents heard in the camps issuing instructions and administering punishments are British accents, from Essex and Yorkshire and Scotland. The camp is in Bloemfontein in South Africa, it is 1901 and these are the concentration camps invented by the British to confine the wives and children of the men who are fighting the British forces.

Earlier this year the Conservative politician Jacob Rees-Mogg, speaking on one of the BBC’s flagship current affairs programmes, spoke briefly about the concentration camps of the Boer War and said that they were “created to preserve the safety of the families of the South African men who were fighting”, and that the death rate there was at any rate “no higher than the death rate in Glasgow at the time.”

It’s not possible for me to say whether this statement arises from carelessness or total mendacity, or which of these is more troubling in a serving MP, but the facts are these: The British, under Lord Kitchener, burned down South African farms, slaughtered their livestock, salted their land, poisoned their wells and displaced and imprisoned around 115,000 Boers, which is about one sixth of the entire white population, mostly women and children, and at least 20,000 black South Africans. Of the combined populations of 45 camps for Boer prisoners and 64 for black South Africans, around one in four died – of whom around 22,000 were children. The death rate was in fact ten times that of the city of Glasgow at the time.

The novelist Damian Barr has just written a remarkable book called You Will Be Safe Here which talks about the concentration camps and their legacy in contemporary South Africa, and after Jacob Rees-Mogg lied on television he arranged for a copy to be couriered to his offices. Alas, he does not strike me as much of a reader of novels.

Before I summon another Essex girl, I think it’s really vital to pause and consider the moral power of the act of bearing witness. Particularly difficult, as I know it is, to bear witness to atrocities which are either historically or currently carried out in governments that serve under our name, or which we have elected. In his 1776 treatise Common Sense, Tom Payne wrote the following: “Society in every state is a blessing. But government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil. In its worst state an intolerable one, for when we suffer our calamities are heightened by reflecting that we furnished the means by which we suffer.”

We’ve had two elections recently, here in Norwich, and I dismally suspect more may be on the horizon, and I really think it’s crucial to ask ourselves either by action or inaction, furnishing the means by which we and, importantly, others suffer.

Now, it’s 1926, in the coastal village of East Wittering. A woman of 66 is living with her maid Ella in a cottage from which she can hear the tide coming in. Her healthy is not good and she can feel very keenly the failing of her faculties. She wrote this melancholy letter to a friend: “All the morning as the slow dawn crept on I have lain listening to the long moaning of the sea, as the waves break upon the shingly shore. It seemed as if daylight and Ella would never come, yet tonight thank Heaven I had no pain or cough but only the weakness – which seems to me worse than pain. To raise myself in bed becomes an effort and I can no longer get up, light my stove and make my coffee as I want.”

There is a photography of this lady showing a delicate-featured woman, seeming much older than her years, wearing a vast black bonnet of a style that had long gone out of fashion. She is wrapped in a fur coat against the cold and her thin hands are clasped in her lap. Her eyes are very deeply set and they seem to have a very melancholy and perceptive quality. She looks very steadily out at the observer. She is, or at any rate seems to be, the epitome of a spinster caught between the wars, bearing a degree of physical suffering with gentile fortitude and unsuited to any climate beyond the doors of her cottage.

This is Emily Hobhouse. Not, I confess, an Essex girl, except in spirit, but a Cornish girl. Born in 1860 to an upper-middle class family. She was the daughter of the Arch-Deacon of Bodmin and an English gentlewoman. Her life for its first three decades was very typical of that of an intelligent and dutiful Victorian girl. In her youth she founded a library, worked with her family for the poor in the parish and walked very long distances to aid the needy. When she was twenty her mother died, leaving her the sole carer of her father, so until her mid-thirties all her intellectual ambition dwindled down necessarily to the domestic sphere. Her true nature revealed itself immediately on the death of her father, after which she took off for Minnesota to check on the we

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