George Canning Is My Son

By Julian Crowe

Biography | History
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This is the story of Mary Ann Hunn, actress, novelist, purveyor of patent medicine, and mother of the politician George Canning. Many books have been written about George, which either ignore his mother, or dismiss her with a few patronising words.

Mary Ann’s own story is available in her own words, written in 1803. Her 65,000 word letter to her son is at the heart of my book, together with the 2000 or so letters that George wrote to her over almost fifty years.

It’s a story of hardship, humiliation and resilience, of a mother and son forced to follow widely different paths over half a century, never entirely reconciled, and yet never losing their natural affection for each other. The book follows Mary Ann’s youth and marriage to a penniless poet, her fifteen years in the theatre, her eleven pregnancies, many years of bitter conflict with her son George, followed by twenty years of retirement in Bath. It is tempting to turn the tables on the Canning biographers and leave the glorious George out of Mary Ann’s story. Mary Ann is the star and heroine, but we must tell something of George’s life in order to feel the texture of their long and intense relationship.

The book explores the background to the perennially controversial career of George Canning, and makes a small but significant contribution to the history of the eighteenth century theatre, but above all it is the story of a strong and intelligent woman.

Mary Ann read and admired Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman as soon as it came out, and her story provides a vivid illustration of Wollstonecraft’s ideas. Father, husbands, lover, father-in-law, all the men in her life, were weak, selfish, and inadequate, and yet society placed her in their power, helpless except for her own strength of character. Only George didn’t quite let her down, and although she felt he did not love her enough, in the end she admitted that in her long, eventful life the balance of good predominated – ‘For George Canning is my Son’. 

I came across the story by accident twenty-five years ago, and have been immersed in it ever since. The result is a long book, which will cost a lot to publish. If you pledge in advance to buy a copy (or several) you will help bring Mary Ann’s life into the light of day.

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1st edition paperback, eBook edition and your name in the list of Super Patrons in the front of the book.
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2 x 1st edition paperbacks, eBook with two names in Super Patrons list in front of book
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  • Julian Crowe avatar

    Julian Crowe

    I am 72 years old, and although I have been writing all my life this will be my first published book. Mary Ann’s story is the one topic that has entirely captured my imagination. Mary Ann is a woman who suffered and survived much, and her life-story deserves to be known, both for her own sake and as an example of the hidden women of history. I came across Mary Ann in 1994 when I inherited the working papers of Cedric Collyer, the first historian to study the Canning archive belonging to the Earl of Harewood. Cedric planned a massive biography of Canning, but did not live to complete it. Amongst the mountain of material that he left was a transcript of the long letter in which Mary Ann told George the story of her life. I took it with me to read on the train home to Scotland, and although I have re-read it many times since, I still remember vividly the immediate impact it made that first time. Mary Ann’s description of her chaotic life was unmistakably authentic. Her personality fascinated me, and her tale of suffering and survival moved me to tears. It affected me enough to keep me working away for twenty-five years producing what has turned out to be a long book on her extraordinary life and tempestuous relationship with her son.

  • Angry and dismayed at her son George’s refusal to receive her as part of his household, Mary Ann wrote him a 65,000 word letter explaining and justifying those actions which he claimed made her unfit company for his wife and children. Her letter, known as ‘the Packet’, is the principal source for the first 27 chapters of the book, and the first 53 years of Mary Ann’s life. This chapter covers the twenty weeks that it took her to complete the task. It summarises her arguments and gives examples of her writing style.

    Chapter 28: The Packet, January to June, 1803

    ‘My Beloved George,’ she began. ‘At last I have acquired courage to sit down to the task which I have so long meditated.’ Courage was needed to face uncomfortable truths, and because so much hung upon the reaction of her one reader, beloved George. The ‘Injured Woman’ letters of 1776 demonstrated Mary Ann’s capacity for special pleading and her skill at marshalling facts. Back then she had concentrated on the events of just a few days. Now she had a whole lifetime to work with, to present in such a light that George would have to withdraw the charge that it would be ‘contamination to suffer his wife to visit her’. All the injustices she had suffered would be cancelled if she could only enjoy ‘the Embrace of Nature’. Like many of the phrases she and George used, this is more impressive than precise. It sounds as though she were asking just a limited thing – a meeting, a sight of her grandchildren, an embrace, nothing more substantial – but the phrase stood for a future in which she would enjoy her natural place in the life of his family.

    Without losing sight of her purpose, Mary Ann clearly enjoyed the process of remembering and writing. She enjoyed the performance. It was her birthday, 27 January, and her opening paragraph at once presents an intriguing mystery: ‘This day completes my Fifty third (or Fifty Sixth— for I am not sure which) year ...’ And the letter goes rattling on for another 65,000 words of anecdote, revelation and rhetorical appeal, until some twenty weeks later she brought her ‘long and heartbreaking manuscript’ to a close, writing the final paragraphs to the accompaniment of a summer thunderstorm. The events were often painful, rousing her to indignation or wringing tears from her eyes, but still there was pleasure to be had in recalling incidents, turns of phrase and snatches of conversation. She took pride in her professional skill, her ability to face facts, her self-reliance and resilience under the buffeting of events; she was vain enough to enjoy placing herself at the centre of things, persecuted by the mighty, suffering the enmity even of the king himself, calm and strong in a crisis. There was artistic satisfaction too. The letter was written with almost no revisions or corrections – a few words changed or added above the line, a single sheet inserted with a newly recalled incident, a final section added after a break of two months – but for all its spontaneity it is a well-crafted production. She knew how to tell a story, hold an audience, and play upon her reader’s feelings.

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  • 14th August 2019 Mary Ann Hunn - Always something new

    The National Portrait Gallery in London has recently acquired a political cartoon from 1820 in which a devilish George Canning, his face alive with malice, envy and ambition, is shown with bellows labelled "Mother Hunn" fanning the flames beneath the three witches' cauldron, the three witches being (I think) Lords Castlereagh, Liverpool and Sidmouth.  The King and the Duke of York look on, while the…

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