George Canning Is My Son

The biography of Mary Ann Canning (later married name Hunn) will be published on 18 March 2021 by the crowd-funded publisher Unbound. The publisher's information sheet is available here.

The book is written primarily for a general audience and I am not a professional historian, but it is based firmly on extensive research carried out over more than 25 years. The principal source is Mary Ann's own account of her life, written in 1803. This is supplemented by George Canning's letters to his mother, and by much digging around in contemporary memoirs and newspapers.

Mary Ann Canning (1747/50-1827) was the mother of George Canning (1770-1827, twice foreign secretary and briefly prime minister). She had eleven other children. For fifteen years she was an actress; she also wrote a novel and marketed a patent eye ointment. She was separated from George when he was six. From the time he was 17 he provided for her as well as he could, and all his life he kept in touch with her, but would not allow her to mix socially with his wife or have more than a few fleeting glimpses of his children. Mary Ann emerges as a determined, intelligent woman, and her story has much to say about the plight of women in a man's world, as well as throwing light on the eighteenth century theatre and on the complex and controversial character of her famous son.

Women's history

Mary Ann was an early and enthusiastic reader of Mary Wollstonecraft and immediately saw the application of the Vindication to her own predicament. It is not easy, however, to align her view of her life with 21st century feminism. As my title implies, she was inclined to sum herself up as the mother of George Canning. The details of her life that I have uncovered show that she was underestimating her achievements both as actor and writer, and as a strong-minded, resilient and intelligent woman who negotiated the obstacles put in her way by an unequal society and a succession of selfish, weak, feckless men. The first part of the book describes her struggle to support herself and her children in a hostile world, and the second chronicles the many twists in her long relationship with her son. In their often bitter struggles George was inevitably the stronger; he dictated the terms of their relationship, but he did not always have things his own way.

Political history

The book does not say more about Canning's politics than is necessary to give the context for his dealings with his mother. But what is revealed about his personal and social insecurity, his need to be always in the right and his compulsion to control those around him casts light on some of the decisions that affected his career. Almost against my will, a slightly more sympathetic picture of Canning the man emerges than one would expect from looking at his political life alone.

Theatre history

Mary Ann worked as an actress for fifteen years, making her first appearances at Drury Lane, but spending most of her time in Ireland, Devonshire and the North of England. The book contributes to our knowledge of stage practices in the 1770s and 1780s, particularly in the provinces. It also casts new light on certain well-known incidents and personalities, in particular the actor Samuel Reddish, with whom Mary Ann lived for six years, and who was the father of five of her twelve children. In discussing Mary Ann's decision to go on the stage, and George's determination that she should leave it, the book examines contemporary attitudes to the theatre and finds them more nuanced than is sometimes suggested.

A human story

When I started my work on Mary Ann's life I thought it would be a story of a woman victim in a patriarchal world, and in particular I expected Canning to emerge as a villain in his private life as he was in politics. That story is still there, but over 25 years my ideas have changed – I may have softened, or succumbed to Canning's charm, or it may be that the force of the evidence has persuaded me. What I have ended with is a story of two flawed, passionate, but basically decent and affectionate people, mother and son, negotiating over many years the complexities of a situation which neither of them created.

Julian Crowe (jfec1947 [at] gmail.com)

10 March 2021