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.