Selina Countess of Huntingdon by Faith Cook, BOT, £19.95.

A new rival to Seymour’s work

     Faith Cook is well-known as a chronicler of the lives and times of Christian worthies of the past and her biography of Selina Countess of Huntington has been eagerly awaited. The work is a solid, sound, honest portrait. Nevertheless, it lacks the bounce, sparkle and catching narrative of Aaron Seymour’s two volumed, indexed biography, republished shortly before Mrs Cook’s book appeared. This was bad timing. If the Banner of Truth had produced the book before the long-announced reprint of Seymour, it would have been without a rival. Now it seems that the BOT aimed at just that – to produce a rival. This is verified by the scathing and quite unfounded criticism of Seymour’s work appended to Mrs Cook’s book.

     So, comparisons with Seymour are inevitable. Faith Cook is a chronicler, whereas Seymour is a story-teller. Mrs Cook describes the intimate, day by day problems of Lady Huntingdon’s personal, domestic life but Seymour dwells more on choice anecdotes which arose from them. Mrs Cook relates soberly and with great care the development of the eighteenth century revival, recording her selected facts as they come. Seymour presents us with choice highlights which makes a believer jump for joy. The new material in the book, though widely announced, is disappointing. It does not present a ‘new’ Countess Selina though it fills some chronological gaps. Thus Mrs Cook still has to rely heavily on Seymour for her major documentation as she does on Tyerman, at times merely summarising the latter’s work.

 

 The dilemma of a good biographer

     Obviously one can hardly write enough about this key 18th century figure and one over whom the critics have always quarrelled. Great men of God such as Toplady, Grimshaw and Romaine viewed Lady Huntingdon as God’s finest gift to England whereas the only matter that ever united the Fullerites, Arminians and Huntingtonians was their joint harsh criticism of Lady Huntingdon and her Connexion.

     The problem is what to choose and what to leave out. Mrs Cook scarcely mentions the alternative opinions of fellow scholars who differ from her in her historical reconstruction of the Countess’ life, particular with reference to her birth, upbringing, conversion, handling of problems relating to theology, Christian outreach, Dissent and her practice of putting noble privilege and tradition before the law. Our present churches are sadly engaged in yet another Antinomian-Neonomian controversy and as this controversy was also rampant in Lady Huntingdon’s day, it would have helped readers to understand the modern problem if Mrs Cook had explained Lady Huntingdon’s part in the 18th century debate. The authoress merely mentions in a footnote that “some have even accused the Countess herself” of being an Antinomian. It would have been opportune to hear why even such moderate Calvinist as John Ryland Junior, in his defence of Gill, Brine and Toplady against accusations of Antinomianism, named Lady Huntingdon’s Connexion especially as being tinged with the error. Furthermore, the long controversy with the Huntingtonians is only mentioned in a footnote in which Huntington is called a Hyper-Calvinist although he was a Sublapsarian who wrote widely against Antinomianism and was a Free Offer man in the Marrow Men style. Furthermore, one misses comment on the great scandal which split the Huntingdonians (as opposed to the Huntingtonians) down the middle when the Countess’s protégé Martin Madan published his best-seller promoting bigamy.

 

 Some well-presented characters

     Owing to her care for detail, a number of characters are well-portrayed whilst other authors display them as mere background silhouettes. I was particularly struck by Mrs Cook’s handling of Thomas Haweis (pronounced ‘Haws’ to rhyme with ‘Paws’, Mrs Cook tells us), who has so often been neglected or played a side-role in 18th century church history. So, too, the character of much neglected Benjamin Ingham comes through sharp and clear. Mrs Cook shows rare skill in laying out a panorama view of Lady Huntingdon’s influence throughout England and Wales. She sets the reader on a high vantage point and he is able to look down and see what is happening in England’s South, Midlands and North almost all at once before gaining a bird’s eye view of the work in the Welsh valleys and mountains. The work at Trevecca is documented extremely well and the best account this reviewer has read. So, too, the relationship between the Countess and the Wesley’s is given a major place but very often the Wesleys’ biographies cut far too deeply into Lady Huntingdon’s own story. On the other hand, her Ladyship’s coteries which even featured John Gill as a preacher are not treated in depth.

Doing more by doing less
 
     Mrs Cook’s book is too long-drawn-out. She has very good material and excellent quotes, which, although she complains of their 18th century language give life to the work. Mrs Cook censures Seymour strictly for ‘rambling from one subject to another’ but, in order to link her narratives, Mrs Cook often plods on in a heavy, slow style. If she had cut out these tedious links of small talk, culled mostly, it seems, from material Seymour wisely left out, her book would have compared well with Seymour’s. This is perhaps as much the editor’s fault as is also the presence of a relatively large number of uncorrected grammatical ‘howlers’ in the work. This book rid of the ballast, halved in bulk and price with better paper (white not yellow) would have presented Seymour with strong competition.


 Mrs Cook measures herself against Seymour

     In Mrs Cook’s appendix on the Countess’ biographers, Seymour is accused of inaccuracy, over-deferential regard for aristocracy, fusing events and even letters, relying on the Countess’ copyist instead of originals, not being able to read her ladyship’s writing, being in the infancy of biography in the modern sense etc.. Mrs Cook further criticises Seymour for making the Countess more than she really was, giving as her sole example Seymour’s comment that his “illustrious subject of the present memoir was an example of piety, benevolence and zeal.” What is lacking, however, in Mrs Cook’s criticism is solid, scholarly evidence that her stricture are valid. She, herself admits difficulty in reading her Ladyship’s handwriting and, as her Ladyship made copies of these letters, slight differences inevitably occur. Nor has Mrs Cook had access to Seymour’s sources as she states that “the majority of letters written by the Countess and cited by Seymour are no longer extant.” Regarding fusing events, this is a device used widely in modern biography when treating the subject thematically rather than chronologically. Indeed, what marks off Seymour from Cook as a biographer is his modern, spirited, biographical style. Reading Mrs Cook is like reading Hannah More. This is a most positive appraisal but it turns negative in Mrs Cook’s case as she believes she is presenting the Countess in a more modern and therefore more acceptable garb. Furthermore, though this reviewer could not call himself his Ladyship’s unqualified admirer, he yet believes that Seymour’s summary of the Countess’ character, quoted negatively by Mrs Cook, is just, exact and well-expressed. Concerning Seymour’s kow-towing to a member of the aristocratic Hastings family, this is clearly a misunderstanding on Mrs Cook’s part. The Hastings scarcely rose higher than the abbey knights that they were, whereas Seymour was of a long line of Royalty.

 

Huntingdonian Foster on one side, critic Edwin Welch on the other

     Mrs Cook mentions Cheshunt College and the Cheshunt archives but does not mention that J. K. Foster of the college, an expert on the history of the Connexion, wrote two long introductory essays to Seymour’s 1839 first edition, affirming its accuracy and recommending it strongly without reservation. Thus cries of inaccuracy against Seymour should be treated warily. On the other hand, Mrs Cook obviously relies heavily on Edwin Welch a fierce critic of Seymour. Welch has become the guru of Huntingdon scholars for reasons not apparent. His criticisms of Seymour are flimsy and superficial, and derived from secondary sources whose authors such as Knox, Reynolds and Overton knew less of Lady Huntington than Welch himself. Welch’s animadversions against Seymour’s research methods, which Mrs Cook takes over, reveal rather sound methods on Seymour’s part which have preserved the bulk of our knowledge of the Countess. Welch claims that Seymour is wrong because he cannot find corroboration in writers who have done less research than Seymour. This is naive and unscholarly. The fact that Mrs Cook, where she challenges Welch herself, finds him wanting, ought to have made her dubious concerning Welch’s further criticisms.

     For those curious to read up on Lady Huntington, I recommend Helen Knight’s Lady Huntington and her Friends for a starter, Seymour for the main course, and Faith Cook for the pudding. Then the full story, like the readers, will be well-served.