Corvey Project Database: Women's Writing 1790-1840; Author Web Page; Eliza Parsons; Biography

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Parsons Biography


Eliza Parsons, nee Phelp, was born in Plymouth around 1740. The daughter of a wine-merchant, she married Mr. Parsons, a Stonehouse turpentine distiller and had a large family. Until the American war Mr. Parsons, a government contractor for naval stores, kept the family in affluence. However, two of his ships, full of merchandise, were seized by colonists and he had to dispose of his contracts on the London markets at a loss.

The family moved to Bow Bridge in London and Mr. Parsons put the rest of his money into a turpentine distillery, warehouses and labourers' houses, but a fire in 1782 destroyed the works and goods which were awaiting shipment. Mr. Parsons was away from home and it is said that Eliza's quick thinking and brave action to have the workmen's houses pulled down saved the town of Bow, though the Parsons family faced ruin. They were not insured, so Mr. Parsons had no capital to build up his business once more. Through the offices of the Marchioness of Salisbury he got a place in the Lord Chamberlain's office at St. James's but his constitution had been weakened by tragedy. As well as the business catastophes, his eldest son, a Captain of the Royal Marines, had died shortly before in Jamaica. Mr. Parsons had a stroke which made him an invalid and three years later, in 1789, he suffered another stroke and died, leaving Eliza with eight children to support.

Mrs. Parsons took a post in the Royal household as seamstress, for which she would have been paid forty pounds a year - already too little to bring up such a large family - but, as she complained to the Royal Literary Fund when asking for money, the Palace was tardy in paying her, at one point in the seventh quarter of arrears with her wages, and she finally decided against her better judgment, to become an author.

Her works were mostly novels, though she did write one play, staged at Covent Garden, called The Intrigues of a Morning (1792), based on a play by Moliere, Monsieur de Pourceaugnac. That she was a prolific and popluar writer is evident from the fact that, of the seven "Horrid Novels" mentioned in Northanger Abbey, two were written by her. She published until the turn of the century with William Lane's Minerva Press, and her novels included Gothic romances such as The Castle of Wolfenbach (1793) and works of contemporary life, like Woman as She Should Be (1793). She also wrotte Love and Gratitude (1804) which claimed to be a translation of six novels by Augustus La Fontaine.

Contemporary reviewers praised her talents, but occasionally took her to task for grammatical errors and lack of fine writing, in which she was compared unfavourably with Ann Radcliffe. All agreed, though, that Eliza Parsons wrote moral works with credible characters. A review of The Voluntary Exile in The Monthly Review of 1795 considered Mrs. Parsons "better qualified to delineate characters in the middle and lower classes of society that to describe the manners of high life" and thought her writing style better adapted to suit "the ordinary run of novel readers" than those of refinement, and, as such, they were highly successful.

Round the turn of the century, Eliza Parsons left the Minerva Press and published with Norbury's Brentford Press. She continued writing, but became steadily poorer, as her debts were such that she had continually to sell her copyrights and made less from her writing than she would otherwise have done. She applied on a number of occasions to the Royal Literary Fund, explaining in her applications that she had been prevented from wriitng or sewing by a compound leg fracture which kept her bedridden for five months, and had bouts of illness during which time her debts mounted, and her numerous family still had to be fed. She moved further out of town, from Leicester Square to Wandsworth and beyond. She narrowly escaped the King's Bench prison, a circumstance she greatly feared, due to the "profligate, low and imposing" people she expected to find there, but had been under house arrest for two years in 1803 when, at the age of 62, she asked again for help from the Royal Literary Fund.

She was brought before the Serjeant at the Surrey Sessions of 1804 accused of obtaining goods under false pretences and not declaring taxable earnings from her work at the Lord Chamberlain's office, but was acquitted of the first charge, and, being allowed to change her schedule in court, was discharged. To a woman of such sensibility, this disgrace must have been deeply felt.

She wrote nothing more until 1807 (though an anonymous work of 1805, Rosetta, has been attributed to her) when she published her final novel, The Convict or Navy Lieutenant. By now, her works had altered in tone. Her early novels were prefaced by dedications to noble or royal ladies, and ended with the marriage of high-born young people, but around 1799 the dedications ceased and her works concentrated more on bourgeois values, often making reference to Rousseau's ideas on the noble savage. In one instance, (The Mysterious Visit of 1802) the heroine is a young girl of unknown origin, whose circumstances are never discoverd, and in another, The Valley of St. Gothard (1799), characters include a goatherd adopted by a gentleman who not only gives the boy his own name, but makes him his heir and sees him married to a girl of good family. The hero of her last novel is a naval lieutenant of lowly birth, and the heroine is the illegitimate daughter of a noble man and gentlewoman who marries another naval lieutenant. Eliza Parsons, it seems, was capable of originality of thought and something like political comment, not always content to follow the herd.

She moved out to Leytonstone in Essex, where she died on February 5th, 1811, survived by only four of her eight children, all daughters.