Fenwick, Eliza

Fenwick, Elizabeth Jaco (1766-1840)

Eliza Fenwick married John Fenwick (1757-1823) sometime in the mid-1780s. After their arrival in London they soon moved in a circle that included such literary and radical figures as William Godwin  (the Fenwicks first appear in his diary in 1788), Thomas Holcroft, and the Unitarian bookseller/publisher, Joseph Johnson. By the mid-1790s, Eliza Fenwick had become friends with Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, Elizabeth Inchbald, Mary Robinson (Eliza and her children lived for a time with Robinson at her Surrey home in 1800), Charlotte Smith, and later other writers, such as Elizabeth Benger and a young Henry Crabb Robinson. Fenwick achieved some notice with her Jacobin novel, Secresy, or, The Ruin of the Rock in 1795, and her politics, like that of her husband (he had been active in the London Corresponding Society) were decidedly for parliamentary reform, abolition, and individual rights, especially for women.  The Fenwicks had two children, Eliza (1789-1828) and Orlando (1798-1816).  John Fenwick was a writer himself, publishing Memoirs of General Dumouriez, a translation, in 1794. His  literary abilities were noted by many of the Romantic writers, especially his friend Charles Lamb, who contributed essays to one of Fenwick's last literary ventures, the short-lived paper, The Albion (1801). He struggled to maintain a consistent means of income, and, when combined with his worsening alcoholism, eventually produced a separation between himself and Eliza in the first decade of the 19th century.  She spent the remainder of her life in a valiant struggle to provide for her children: she worked in her brother-in-law’s drapery shop in Penzance; served as a governess and school mistress (her first effort in this regard began in London in 1799); wrote for young and adolescent readers (she published some 10 works of this kind between 1804 and 1813, though sometimes under a nom de plume); and briefly managed Godwin's Juvenile Library in 1807. After a stint in Belfast as her daughter's chaperone during the latter's first significant acting venture in 1809, Eliza Fenwick became governess for the Moses Mocatta family, first in Wyck Street and then in Tavistock Square, London, from July 1810 to April 1812. She then removed (with Orlando) to an estate near Cork, Ireland, where she served the Robert Honnor family, brother of a close friend of the Mocattas, and experienced financial security for the first time since her marriage. Prior to her removal, Fenwick’s daughter Eliza joined an acting troupe in Barbados in 1811 and shortly thereafter married a fellow actor, William Rutherford (1783-1829), thus establishing a connection in the Western Hemisphere that would ultimately determine the final 25 years of Fenwick's life. In early summer 1814 Eliza left Ireland, returned to London for a few months (the last time she would see Hays and England) and then set sail with her son, Orlando, for Barbados, where she and her daughter and son-in-law established a boarding school in Freetown. Orlando died of yellow fever in November 1816, and William Rutherford deserted the family for England in July 1818, leaving Eliza and her daughter to care for the children and take care of a large school. In 1822 the hope for better prospects eventually led Fenwick and her family to establish schools in America, first in New Haven, Connecticut, and then in New York (where they primarily operated an upscale boarding house on Fifth Avenue). In 1829, the year after her daughter's death, she took her four grandchildren with her to Niagara, Upper Canada, and York, what would become Toronto in 1834. Her two grandsons, William and Thomas, died there by drowning on 12 April 1834. In 1838 she removed to Providence, Rhode Island, to live with the Duncan family; her retirement from labor and care was short-lived  however, for she died there in 1840. The letters that passed between Fenwick and Hays between 1798 and 1828 and Eliza Ann Fenwick to her mother after her departure to Barbados in 1811, along with other materials, including letters by Fenwick to her friends, the Moffats in New York City, can be found in the Fenwick Family Papers, 1798-1855, New York Historical Library, New York City. These letters formed the basis of A. F. Wedd's Fate of the Fenwicks in 1927, and were eventually returned to surviving members of Fenwick's family in America after Wedd's publication. For a biographical account of Fenwick, see Isobel Grundy's "Introduction" to her edition of Fenwick's Secresy (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1998), 7-35. The first complete biography of Fenwick is forthcoming by Lissa Paul, Eliza Fenwick: Early Modern Feminist (University of Delaware Press, 2019); see also Lissa Paul, "A Place to Call Home: Journeys of Eliza Fenwick (1766-1840)." Book 2.0 8, 1 & 2 (Fall 2018), 35-47.