Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Of briars, thorns and an angel

Exactly a quarter of a millennium ago, on 7 October 1758, a Sussex shopkeeper named Thomas Turner turned to his diary to moan and groan at some length about his wife, and about domestic disquietude, and a marriage that had turned to ‘briers and thorns’. Three years later his wife was dead, and he was writing in his diary, ‘Let them whoever lost an angel, pity me.’

Thomas Turner was born in Kent in 1728, but when still a child his father took over a shop in Framfield, Sussex. Little is known of Turner’s education, but it seems he soon followed in his father’s footsteps by running a general store in East Hoathly. He married his first wife, Margaret ‘Peggy’ Slater, in 1753, but she died before reaching the age of thirty (their only child having also died, in infancy). Turner went on to marry again, and have several children, three of whom survived into adulthood.

For eleven years, starting soon after his first marriage and ending soon after the second, Turner kept a daily diary, often very trivial, but also sometimes very revealing, filling 116 memorandum books, of which 111 are extant and held by Yale University Library. Angst, guilt, depression and too much drinking are all recurring themes in the diary, as is the failure of his marriage to live up to expectations. Charles Dickens quoted from Turner’s diary in All the Year Round; and Arthur Ponsonby (author of English Diaries) says the diary ‘is an amazing production, containing, as it does, the most outspoken confessions combined with almost ridiculous penitence and pretentious moralising’.

Wikipedia and Ye Olde Sussex Pages have a little information about Turner, and The Diary Junction has some links to online texts of the diary. Here is Turner, writing exactly 250 years ago, bemoaning his life, wife and marriage, with colourful reference to his ‘tumultuous breast’ and the ‘purple current in his veins’!

7 October 1758
‘Oh, how happy must that man be whose more than happy lot it is to whom an agreeable company for life doth fall, - one in whom he sees and enjoys all that this world can give; to whom he can open the inmost recesses of his soul, and receive mutual and pleasing comfort to sooth those anxious and tumultuous thoughts that must arise in the breast of any man in trade! On the contrary, - and I can speak from woful experience - how miserable must they be, where there is nothing else but matrimonial discord and domestic disquietude! How does these thoughts wrack my tumultuous breast, and chill the purple current in my veins! Oh, how are these delusive hopes and prospects of happiness before marriage turned into briers and thorns! But, as happiness is debarred me in this affair, I sincerely wish it to all those that shall ever tye the Gordian knot. Oh woman, ungrateful woman! - thou that wast the last and most compleatest of the creation, and designed by Almighty GOD for a comfort and companion to mankind, to smooth and make even the rough and uneven paths of life, art often, oh too, too often, the very bane and destroyer of our felicity! Thou not only takest away our happy ness, but givest us, in lieu thereof, trouble and vexation of spirit.’

But life with Peggy can’t have been all bad. Two years earlier, Turner had written this.

15 October 1756
‘This is the day on which I was married, and it is now three years since. Doubtless many have been the disputes which have happened between my wife and myself during the time, and many have been the afflictions which it has pleased GOD to lay upon us, and which we have justly deserved by the many anemosityes and desentions which have been continually fermented between us and our friends, from allmost the very day of our marriage; but I may now say with the holy Psalmist, ‘It is good for us that we have been afflicted;’ for, thanks be to GOD, we now begin to live happy; and I am thoroughly persuaded, if I know my own mind, that if I was single again, and at liberty to make another choice, I should do the same - I mean, make her my wife who is so now.’

And here is Turner writing on the day his wife died.

23 June 1761
‘About five o’clock in the afternoon, it pleased Almighty GOD to take from me my beloved wife, who, poor creature, has laboured under a severe tho’ lingering illness for these thirty-eight weeks, which she bore with the greatest resignation to the Divine will. In her I have lost a sincere friend, a virtuous wife, a prudent good economist in her family, and a very valuable companion. . . I have lost an invaluable blessing, a wife who, had it pleased GOD to have given her health, would have been of more real excellence to me than the greatest fortune this world can give. I may justly say, with the incomparable Mr Young, ‘Let them whoever lost an angel, pity me.’

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