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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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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.
- 15th March 2020 The influenza pandemic of 1788
Mary Ann was in Lancaster in the summer of 1788 when the epidemic caught up with her. The night before she fell ill she had been playing Lady Randolph in John Home's tragedy Randolph.
The influenza of 1788 was sometimes known as the Russian disease from the early accounts of the devastation it caused in the Ukrainian city of Kherson. As it moved westwards newspapers told of distinguished sufferers…31st December 2019 The Long Letter -- a play based on Mary Ann's story
A couple of days ago I sent the text of George Canning Is My Son to Unbound so that the editing process can begin. I don't know how much will have to be done and how long it will take, but I'm told the provisional publication date is before the end of 2020. We'll see. But supporters who so kindly showed faith and subscribed to the book are that much closer to getting it in their hands.
Meanwhile…19th October 2019 Publishing by subscription
Many thanks to all who have subscribed to George Canning Is My Son and helped it to reach its funding target. It is hoped to bring it out before the end of 2020, which happens to be George's 250th anniversary year.
When George Canning was born his parents had a house at the eastern end of Queen Anne Street. It was not the fashionable, more expensive end, but still they were living beyond their…11th October 2019 Parliamentary language
There are detectable signs that towards the end of his life George Canning softened in his attitude towards his mother. At the same time his public conduct became fiercer, and his temper was described as 'volcanic'. This resulted in sharp confrontations in parliament, of which the most famous occurred in 1823.
Having begun his parliamentary career by abandoning his radical and reformist beliefs…30th September 2019 October 1792: Mary Ann and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
In a talk on Sunday 13 October I shall be discussing Mary Ann's life from the perspective of Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Details of the talk are available here.
October 1792 was a low-point in Mary Ann's life. Her husband refused to maintain her, she had given up her career, she had eight children to support, and was living with her aged mother in Somerstown, just…25th September 2019 George Canning and Boris Johnson
People are drawing comparisons between George Canning and Boris Johnson, partly because of the possibility that Johnson will displace Canning as the country's shortest serving prime minister. (See for example the front page of today's Daily Mirror.) There are other points of similarity. Both made a name for themselves as schoolboys at Eton, for example. In parliament Canning was highly controversial…22nd September 2019 Talk about Mary Ann, Hackney 13 October
This may be of interest to Londoners who like lavish teas and stimulating conversation on a Sunday afternoon. At 2pm on Sunday 13 October I shall be giving a talk on Mary Ann for "Bluestocking Teas" in the Crypt at St Peter de Beauvoir, Northchurch Terrace, N1 4DA (seven minutes walk from Haggerston Overground Station). Tickets for the tea cost £20 and can be bought from https://ticketlab.co.uk…17th September 2019 Such a Capital Actor
In 1827 there was a new and controversial prime minister, George Canning. More than half a century earlier his mother, Mary Ann, had appeared at Drury Lane Theatre. A month after Canning took office, and two months after Mary Ann's death, a London newspaper, The Age, published a copy of a play-bill from her 1774 benefit night, along with the following explanation: "Many of our readers are not probably…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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