J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, June 09, 2022

The Adventures of Mrs. Charlotte Biggs

From the essay I quoted yesterday I learned that Britain’s celebration of George III’s Jubilee in 1809–10 was “the brain-child of a middle-class widow from the Welsh Borders, Mrs Biggs.”

I wanted to learn more, and it turns out there’s a recent biography of Rachel Charlotte (Williams) Biggs (d. 1827) by Joanne Major and Sarah Murden: A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs.

Young Charlotte Williams’s early life reads like a novel—specifically, an imitation of Samuel Richardson. She was educated in France, a sign that her family had at least a toehold in the genteel class. She was about seventeen years old in the late 1770s when a lumber merchant abducted and raped her—repeatedly.

After escaping from that merchant, Williams fell in love with another young man, only to watch him head off to India to make his fortune.

She married Benjamin Hunt Biggs. The couple went to France during the first years of the republic, only to end up in prison during the Jacobin regime. After getting out and getting back to Britain, Mrs. Biggs published her first book, A Residence in France during the Years 1792, 1793, 1794, and 1795.

In quick succession Biggs wrote a play titled What Is She? and a pamphlet on agricultural policy. In the early 1800s she went back to Napoleon’s France, ostensibly for her poor health but gathering information she shipped home.

Politically, Biggs was a voice of loyalty to the British government under William Pitt. The same sentiment was behind her proposal for a nationwide celebration of the sixtieth year of George III’s reign. She claimed to have written hundreds of anonymous letters promoting the Jubilee.

Peace in Europe after the Battle of Waterloo left Biggs in France without government support. According to Benjamin Colbert at British Travel Writing:
In her last letter to Vansittart dated 21 April 1816, her attempt to underline her value (at a time when open access to the continent was no doubt depreciating it) strikes a gothic tone. She describes an unknown hand throwing a packet into her carriage unseen by the coachman. Opening it in the secrecy of her chambers, she finds a note warning her off her inquiries. Hardly has she read it when it spontaneously combusts (‘some chemical operation’), leaving no evidence of its existence.
Again, Biggs’s life story reads like a novel, at least in part because she wrote it that way.

TOMORROW: The connection to Revolutionary Boston (because of course there had to be one).

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