George Canning Is My Son

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In 1771 Mary Ann Canning (née Costello) was left a widow. She was twenty-one. Her husband bequeathed her his debts, a few books of poetry, a one-year-old son (George, the future statesman) and another child on the way. She had no support from her own family, and almost none from her husband's. For two years she investigated ways of earning a living, but all apparent openings proved illusory. She refused an advantageous offer of marriage and came to a firm resolution not on any terms to take a place as a servant. In the end she fell back on something she had rejected at the beginning of her quest: she went on the stage.

After three years of struggle she gave up her attempt to establish herself on the London stage, but for more than a decade up to 1789 she worked with some success in theatres in the West and North of England. At a particularly low ebb in her acting career she published a novel, The Offspring of Fancy. (The text of this novel is available on the website of Chawton House Library -- PDF file.) In the 1790s she set up in business marketing an eye-ointment.

Of her three children by her first husband, two died in infancy. In the course of her time at Drury Lane Theatre she became the mistress of the leading actor Samuel Reddish, living with him for six years and bearing him five children. While she was the principal actress at the theatre in Plymouth she married a local draper, Richard Hunn, who unwisely sold his business in order to follow her onto the stage. With Hunn she had four more children.

Shortly before her final disaster at Drury Lane her surviving Canning child, George, was adopted by her late husband's brother, who sent him to Eton. After Eton George went to Oxford and then almost immediately into the House of Commons, becoming an under-secretary at the Foreign Office at the age of 25. As soon as he came into a small inheritance he began paying his mother an allowance, which he increased when he came of age, and increased again when he started earning a salary. When he moved from his Foreign Office post in 1799 he was awarded a pension, which he made over to his mother and her daughters.

As George rose in political life and became wealthy through marriage to an heiress, he supplemented Mary Ann's pension with emergency gifts and advances. He also used his position to find jobs and do favours for her sons and sons-in-law. He wrote to her almost every week, visited her every year or so, and took a close interest in all that affected her comfort and well-being. But at the time of his marriage he undertook that his wife would have no connection with his mother. He kept to this resolution through the next 27 years. Because of her liaison with Reddish and her five illegitimate offspring he declared her unfit to occupy a mother's and grandmother's place in his family.

This bare outline of Mary Ann's life has always been known, but the story has never been told from her point of view. The biographies of Canning portray her in terms of stereotypes: the pretty girl trying her luck on the stage; the middle-aged harridan badgering George for money and favours; the garrulous old woman boring her friends with talk of her glorious son. Her own account exists in the form of a 65,000 word letter that she wrote to George in 1803. From this she emerges as an intelligent, eloquent, talented woman of enormous energy and endless resilience.

The book

George Canning Is My Son is based on Mary Ann's account, set alongside the 2,000 or so letters that George wrote to her, together with other family papers and a range of published sources including contemporary memoirs and newspaper accounts. I have stuck close to the sources, pointing out where the evidence is contradictory or missing, but have tried not to let such discussions of evidence hold up the flow of the narrative. In writing a study based on a large body of letters there's a risk of allowing the raw material to dictate the shape of the story. There's a tyranny in documents. Sometimes you have to step outside the archive to see the trajectory followed by the lives you are trying to explore. Sympathy and imagination have helped in the sorting and interpretation of the material, but I have avoided anything approaching fictionalisation.

Apart from a handful of minor antiquarian issues the book does not include any historical revelations. The story it tells has always been in plain view, but it has been largely ignored and its implications have never before been teased out.

The book, of course, differs from other books on Canning because it concentrates primarily on his mother. It fits into the growing category of books about strong women of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, such as Hariette Wilson, Mary Wollstonecraft, Caroline Norton, the Duchess of Devonshire or Mrs Rudd, who all in one way or another defied the conventional restrictions on womenís lives. Mary Ann was a powerless woman confronting a powerful man, and this has to be stressed in order to understand the social context of the story, but I have avoided casting her as a victim, or George as a villain or a bully. Such an approach would over-simplify the relationship and ignore her capacity to take control of her own life. For example, in order to justify herself she argues that she went on the stage as a last resort, forced into it by circumstances and the behaviour of her husband's family, and this tends to disguise the extent to which it was a positive choice driven by an active determination to make the most of her talents.

From a modern feminist perspective it may be that the book is not clear enough in its representation of the systematic injustice of Mary Annís position. If so, it is from a wish to see things so far as possible with her eyes. She knew she was appallingly treated by a succession of men. Her novel represents the situation of women at the mercy of selfish, cruel or ineffectual men. She read and admired Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman when it first appeared. But, crudely put, her ideal solution was not that women should not be dependent on men, but that men should behave better towards their dependants.

Among the minor characters in the story of Mary Ann and George there are several who are of wider historical interest. There are major historical figures, of course, such as Sheridan, Liverpool and Castlereagh, but also some less well known, like the diplomat Melchior Guy-Dickens, Zephaniah Holwell, a survivor of the Black Hole of Calcutta, and Nelson's favourite, Edward Parker; theatre people like Garrick, Reddish, and Hopkins the prompter; and some others at one remove from fame, such as Sarah Siddons's sister, Constantine Phipps's brother and Cardinal Manning's father. George Canning Is My Son includes significant glimpses of theatrical life, in both London and the provinces. It also provides a practical commentary on passages in Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication, exploring the options available to a strong-minded and intelligent woman forced by circumstances to make her own way in a hostile or indifferent world. Finally, Canning's relationship with his mother emerges as more complex than is sometimes suggested in the biographies, and possibly more important as a factor in his controversial career. These are three good reasons why the story deserves to be read, but the strongest reason is simply that Mary Ann was a fascinating and brave woman who ought to be better known.


The letters between Mary Ann and George, and to and from other members of the Canning family, are among the Canning papers, the property of Lord Harewood, which were until recently held in the West Yorkshire Archives in Leeds and are now back at Harewood House. Other material, including a portrait of Mary Ann, is still held by the West Yorkshire Archive Service.

Just as I was completing the research for the book the Harewood Estate withdrew the Canning papers from the West Yorkshire Archive and they are no longer accessible. Fortunately I had already, during visits spread over almost ten years, gathered very nearly everything I needed. I have been able to fill some gaps from the notes and transcripts made by the late Cedric Collyer, who was the historian entrusted by the current Lord Harewood's grandmother with the task of cataloguing the Canning papers. At the time of his death Cedric was engaged on a Life of Canning.

There are numerous sightings of Mary Ann's theatrical career in contemporary newspapers, including a series of letters she wrote to the Morning Chronicle about events surrounding her final disastrous appearance at Drury Lane. She also crops up now and then in memoirs of the time. These are all useful in order to supplement and adjust her own account of her life.

There is of course a vast amount of primary and secondary material about George Canning. I have not attempted to write his Life, beyond what is necessary in order to understand his relationship with his mother, why he treated her as kindly and as badly as he did, and what effect if any it had on the ups and downs of his career. In addition to material in the Harewood archive, such as Canning's letters to his wife, I have consulted standard biographies, such as that of Wendy Hinde, and contemporary memoirs and published letters.

25 September 2015