Biography of Selina Davenport by Louise Watkins, May 1998
Selina Davenport was born Selina Granville Wheler in London on 27 June, 1779. Throughout her life she would often use the name Granville as her surname. She was the daughter of a Captain Charles Granville Wheler who was born in June, 1741 in St. Olave Hart Street, London. He later married a Mary Annesley in St. Martin in the Fields, Westminster, on 9 June, 1764. However, in a letter by Elizabeth Gaskell of 1854, which details a conversation between her and Selina Davenport, we are told that Mary was not Selina's mother: 'her father's second (or it might be, his first, but not Mrs Granville's mother) wife was a daughter of that kidnapped Earl of Annesley' (Chapple and Pollard, 1966: 265).
Mrs Gaskell is referring to a James Annesley whose life story is remarkable, to say the least; details of it in the Dictionary of National Biography make thrilling reading. It all stems from whether his claim to be Lord Altharn's son and rightful heir was legitimate or not. I'll refrain from detailing in full the information I have as regards this, as it does not really concern us here, except to say it involves him being kidnapped and sent to America as a slave, also being tried and acquitted of murder and rioting at a horse racing festival!
Reverting now to my main protagonist, Selina. Her mother's identity has so far eluded me. I have not been able to discover the records of Selina's birth or baptism which may have given me a name. This is because the only details I have as regards her place of birth is that it was in either Middlesex or London. The International Genealogical Index does not mention Selina and my only other recourse was to trawl through the Parish Records for the whole of Middlesex and London. I have found no evidence to imply that her father was married more than once, which would suggest the possibility of Selina being illegitimate. This theory is perhaps backed up in that there is no mention of Selina's mother in documents where her father is mentioned, for example Mrs Gaskell's letters or The Royal Literary Fund Archives.
As regards Selina's father, he was the great nephew of Sir George Wheler, a revered traveller and collector who later became a Rector. Sir George Wheler owned an extensive estate in Otterden in Kent, which was passed down the male line. Selina continued to receive money from this estate throughout much of her lifetime. Robert Surtee's History of Durham, published in 1816, details the Wheler genealogy. Charles Granville Wheler, Selina's father, is interestingly described as 'died unmarried'.
Selina's childhood was possibly spent in Durham. The Whelers had many connections there and her aunt Mary-Garway Wheler married a John Taylor of Durham. Perhaps then she resided with them. Mrs Gaskell gives credence to this theory in that in the same letter as the one above, she details how she had made enquiries regarding Selina's family of a Mr George Taylor (any relation to James Taylor, Selina's uncle?),'who was acquainted with some members of the Wheler family in the County of Durham. He confirmed the truth of her story' (Chapple and Pollard, 1966: 265).
Mrs Gaskell again in the same letter informs us that Selina was, in childhood, very friendly with the sisters Anna Maria and Jane Porter, both later to become successful writers in the early 1800's. Anna Maria was actually born in Durham in 1780 and perhaps their friendship began there. The sisters were educated in Edinburgh but eventually moved to London in about 1803. The friendship between Jane Porter and Selina persisted despite these relocations and until her death in 1850, Jane helped Selina, in particular as regards her writing, but also financially. Selina herself tells us this in a letter of 1850, found in The Royal Literary Fund Archives. She talks of the 'great and unceasing kindness of my valued friend' (File 1247, doc. 2).
Jane Porter's early diaries, which might have provided me with further information, are inaccessible to me here as they are held at the Folger Library, Washington D.C. Also, the Porter sisters don't appear to have had biographies published on them (a job for another academic!). The result of this means that we only have Selina's assurance that the friendship existed.
On 6 September, 1800, Selina was married to Richard Alfred Davenport (1777? to 1852) at St. Mary's Lambeth. In Mrs Gaskell's letter we are told that she did so to 'disoblige' her family (Chappel and Pollard, 1966: 266). As far as I can be sure they had two daughters, one born in Chelsea in 1803, named Mary, and one born in Putney in 1806, named Theodora. They later married and became Mary Jones and Theodora Peers. My slight uncertainty as regards Selina and Richard's children comes from the fact that in the Royal Literary Fund Archives there exists details of a son J. S. Davenport, who was the sole beneficiary of his father's possessions after his death in 1852. Indeed, in Richard's case file there is even a letter from this son who at the time was living in France (File 236, doc. 16). The letter is informing the committee of his father's death.
I don't believe that Selina was the mother of J. S. Davenport, firstly because she doesn't list him on her applications to the Fund when asked for details of her children and secondly because when describing to friends how her husband left her nothing, she talks of all his belongings being left to his 'natural son' who suggested he would help 'his fathers widow' but 'neglected to do so' (File 1247, doc. 14). However, I have found nothing to suggest that Richard was married twice, so perhaps J. S. Davenport was illegitimate.
Richard Alfred Davenport was a scholar and, like his wife, a writer. The Dictionary of National Biography describes his life and says, 'We find him engaged in literary work in London at an early age, and here he seems to have spent the whole of a long and exceptionally laborious literary life' (DNB 562). Besides composing verse himself, which is described as worthy of merit, Richard also edited a number of the British poets. He also wrote many historical pieces including The History of the Bastille and of its Principle Captives in 1838 which was several times republished. He compiled biographies, translated and also wrote critical articles regarding contemporary literature. In Mrs Gaskell's letter, Richard is described as a protege of Edmund Burke. He acted as kind of a private secretary to Burke and had a great deal to do with the historical part of The Annual Register. He used to be a great deal at Beaconsfield and wrote the historical portion of the Annual Register under Burke's supervision (Chapple and Pollard, 1966: 266).
Selina and Richard were separated for much of their married life. Selina, in a letter dated 1850 to the Royal Literary Fund committee, said that they had been apart for forty years, which would date their parting to about 1810. Evidence would suggest that it was a very acrimonious split. Selina described Richard to Mrs Gaskell as a 'very bad husband' and Mrs Gaskell thinks very ill of him. However, in the Royal Literary Fund case files of both husband (236) and wife (1247), we are given different details. Richard had been informed of Selina's application to the fund and wrote a 'vitriolic' attack on his wife trying to prevent the fund from paying anything 'to the worthless creature whom I have the misfortune to call my wife' (File 1247, doc. 6).
He goes on to say how he feels he was justified in calling himself a widower because of her terrible conduct. Selina apparently opened a school in Greenwich which failed and left her with debts amounting to 150 pounds. She then left in the middle of the night, giving her creditors Richard's name and address; as her husband he was liable for the money she owed. Richard describes how he had prevented Selina and her 'swindling' father from starving, how her father had been in jail, how she had been destitute and, lastly, how the two of them had relieved him of several hundred pounds, the result of which was virtual financial ruin for him. The end of the letter is quite heart-rending. He talks of how he should be deemed a fool to have put himself in such a situation but that she 'pretended to be passionately attached to me' (File 1247, doc. 6). In Richard's own case file (he applied to the Fund four times and received a total of 131 pounds), we see comments which probably allude to his wife: 'my pen has never been prostituted to unnecessary purpose and my difficulties have not arisen from my own misconduct' (File 236, doc. 3) and that he had suffered 'losses from misplaced confidence in the honour and gratitude of some whom in early life, I sincerely valued' (File 236, doc. 8).
All of this would suggest that Selina was quite a character and not a good one at that. Strangely, however, in Selina's case file (1247), on her fourth application form, she relates how Richard provided her with a small annuity right up until his death in 1852. An act of a man still in love with his wife despite her betrayal? Or perhaps Selina wasn't guilty of the crimes that Richard suggests? Perhaps, as John Britton wrote to Octavian Blewitt, 'there were faults on both sides' (File 1247, doc. 5). An additional point here is that it is suggested under Selina's entry in The Feminist Companion to Literature in English that Richard had a dislike of educated women. (Blain et al, 1990: 267).
Richard's last years were certainly lonely and he found comfort in laudanum. He complained a great deal of ill health (RLF Archives File 236) - a pitiful end for a man who seems to have been a well regarded in the literary world.
The 1851 census return finds Selina living under the name of Mrs Granville at 88 King Street, Knutsford in Cheshire. It is my belief that she came here to live with one of her daughters: the names Jones and in particular Peers were very common in Knutsford at this time. I travelled to Knutsford and was able to find their home which is now a hairdressers. The census informs us that Selina was living with her two daughters, Mary and Theodora, who were both now widows. Selina is described as a small wears dealer and her daughters are both milliners. Needlework appears to be Selina's main source of income at this time. In Mrs Gaskell's letter to Marianne Gaskell, dated 15 November, 1852, she says, 'About the night gowns, they are at Knutsford, being made by poor old Mrs Granville, whom it won't do to hurry' (Chappel and Pollard, 1966: 208). In Selina's Royal Literary Fund Case File (1247) we are told of the many ways that Selina and her daughters tried to support themselves, including running a coffee house and then a dance school, teaching music, and, of course, Selina's writing.
During the 1850's, Selina, now elderly and eyesight failing, relied more and more on the benevolence of local people such as Lucy and Mary Holland (Mrs Gaskell's cousins) and Emily Leycester of Toft Hall. She applied to the Royal Literary Fund six times between the years of 1850 and 1856 and four times was relieved, the total amount donated being 85 pounds. People supporting her applications were those above, Mrs Gaskell (known for her generosity), the Vicar of Knutsford, Selina's landlord Henry Barber, a surgeon, a solicitor, the chaplain of Knutsford's House of Correction, and various local trades people. This would suggest that Selina was deemed a worthy recipient and Mrs Gaskell describes her as 'very ladylike, and simple in her manners, spoke well and with a pure accent, and, (although she was 74, and had no fire except for cooking dinner in the house during the greater part of the previous winter,) she maintained a sort of dignity' (Chapple and Pollard, 1966: 265).
This description of her seems much at odds with that previously provided by her husband, Richard Davenport. I'm not sure which to believe: a woman down on her luck definitely, but an honest or conniving one?
The correspondence towards the end of the Royal Literary Fund Case File suggests increasing illness and poverty. The family left King Street and moved to an address simply cited as 'Heathside, Knutsford'. In 1855 Mary, Selina's oldest daughter, died and was probably buried at St. John's Parish Church, Knutsford. Funeral costs resulted in Selina owing six pounds and there is talk of the work house. The last document on the file is a letter from Selina dated 16 December, 1856, to the Committee, thanking them for their last donation.
I have discovered the headstone of Selina's second daughter Theodora Peers at the St. Cross Church, Knutsford. Her inscription reads:
the Sacred Memory of
Selina died a little over a year after Theodora and was buried on 14th July 1859 aged 80 years, a good age, especially considering her much reduced circumstances. Her body rests at St. John's Parish Church, Knutsford. There is no record of a headstone.
Selina Davenport seems to have led a varied but difficult life, struggling to make ends meet. Having said this, she had connections of a high literary level - Burke, Gaskell, the Porter sisters - and seems to have come from a relatively good family, although there are uncertainties regarding her legitimacy.
An enduring question in my mind is why Selina and her husband Richard were never formally parted by divorce. Although I am aware that divorce was rare at this time and the more obvious choice would be to call oneself a widow or widower (which they both did), they were both relatively young when they separated and could have maybe remarried. I am also incredibly curious to know who Selina's mother was, the truth about Selina's marriage and more generally about her life, work and family. More time, money and luck would maybe fill in the not insubstantial gaps.
J.A.V. Chapple and Arthur Pollard, eds., The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, Manchester University Press (1966) 1997.
Royal Literary Fund Archives.