Oxford £35

Biography: Wilberforce: Family and Friends, By Anne Stott

The greatest of his generation

William Wilberforce, the campaigner who first worked for the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire and then for the end of slavery, must have been good company.

The multi-dimensional private man whom Anne Stott presents in admirable detail was a cheerful optimist. He was also principled, slight of stature and he adored his wife and children. A deeply committed Evangelical Christian from his twenties, he was a man of integrity – and self-doubt, humility and indecision – who commanded respect privately as well as publicly. Robert Southey, the poet, described Wilberforce as a man who "frisks about as if every vein in his body were filled with quicksilver".

Wilberforce lacked business and financial acumen, however. Although he was born to the wealth of a successful trading family in Hull, most of his money had gone by the end of his life (he lived to be 74), and widowhood was not easy for his wife Barbara (née Spooner). Often inappropriately generous, he was inclined to see the best in everyone. He was habitually unrealistic about the faults of others, such as his profligate eldest son, William – aptly dubbed by Stott "the Lupin Pooter of the family". The quality Stott calls his "incorrigible open-handedness" was also what made Wilberforce "so loveable – and so exasperating".

But this book isn't exactly a biography. Clearly related to Stott's 2003 book Hannah More: The First Victorian, it is a study of the circles in which Wilberforce lived and worked "with the emphasis as much on gender, sexuality, intimacy and feelings as on the great public causes", as she explains.

So, we meet the beloved aunt and uncle who almost converted Wilberforce to Methodism in his teens, and his cousin, Henry Thornton, with whom he shared a Clapham home even after Thornton married the feisty Marianne Sykes, whose point of view Stott often focuses on.

Marianne Thornton, the great-grandmother of E M Forster, became the effective leader of the Clapham Sect women. James Stephen, the great-grandfather of Virginia Woolf, married Wilberforce's beloved sister Sally after she was widowed, and Zachary Macaulay (father of the historian Thomas Babbington Macaulay) became a stalwart abolitionist and friend to the Wilberforce clan after serving in Sierra Leone. It is telling just how many of these people were the forebears of writers and thinkers in subsequent generations.

The network around Wilberforce was complex, and Stott, who is strong on the dynamics of the Evangelical, closely bonded Clapham Sect (most of whom didn't live in Clapham, but the shorthand title has stuck) helpfully maps the relationships in three family trees at the outset. She tells her compelling story with great sympathy, and has a gift for insightful comparisons. She likens reading the papers on Wilberforce's impending financial near-ruin, for example, to helplessly watching a car crash about to happen unbeknown to the driver.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Jess Glynne is UK number 1

music

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor