It cannot have escaped the reader’s observation, that, in the picture of my life, I have omitted the representation of one object, which is generally esteemed the principal figure in a domestic drawing: I mean my wife. This solecism in point of attention is not to be imputed to any want of respect towards that lady. My dear Mrs G— knows that I have the utmost veneration for her virtues, and the tenderest affection for her person: but after the commission of so great a folly as matrimony, the best thing a man can do is to cast a shade over it, as Ham and Japhet did over the nakedness of their father, and conceal it if possible from the knowledge of the world. It is now too late, I confess, for me to screen myself, beneath such a cloak. Mrs G— has already published our union to the world, and I might justly be accused of rudeness and a want of gallantry, were I to deny a connexion with so charming a woman. Her sprightly wit has beguiled the insipidity of many an hour (for she certainly is a woman of extraordinary genius, though she has the modesty to deny it); and it is to her happy invention and romantic enterprises that I may attribute the downfall of my family, and the honour I have acquired in becoming the laughing-stock of the nation…
In the background section of my post on Barford Abbey, I commented of the author’s husband that, “John Gunning is a story unto himself.” It turns out that this was something of an understatement: the Gunning family is a story unto themselves.
This has been a strange year for seeking out obscure 18th century novels and then discovering that they are related to a piece of contemporary historical research and part of a bigger picture. Following on from discovering the debate about the true identity of “Mrs Meeke” as a consequence of researching the publication of The Mysterious Wife, my examination of Barford Abbey led me to a recent reassessment of the scandal – scandals – that engulfed the Gunning family during the early 1790s.
In 1792, a short publication appeared that promised an explanation of the circumstances that had forced John Gunning to flee England for Naples – though as it turned out, An Apology For The Life Of Major General G—, Containing A Full Explanation Of The G–NN–G MYSTERY, And Of The Author’s Connexion With Mr D–BER–Y’s FAMILY Of SOHO-SQUARE is barely an explanation, and certainly isn’t an apology.
And in 2012, the small publisher Tiger Of The Stripe released an edited and annotated edition of An Apology For The Life Of Major General Gunning, which not only reproduces the original text of the Apology, but also sets the story in its historical and social context and offers a potential solution to the so-called “Gunning Mystery”. The person responsible for this edition is recorded as Gerrish Gray, although elsewhere we find the comment, “Gerrish Gray is a retired historian who prefers to remain pseudonymous.”
John Gunning, as we have seen, was the younger brother of the famous Gunning sisters. Despite his celebrity connections, John seems at first to have lived in relative obscurity: he joined the army, rose through the ranks and, in 1775, was mentioned in despatches after the Battle of Bunker Hill. Overall, however, his military career seems to have been undistinguished. Gerrish Gray gives us a glimpse of Gunning’s social career by quoting an early 20th century American historian, Harold Murdock, whose specialty was the War of Independence. Murdock’s Earl Percy’s Dinner-Talk, from 1907, contains this reconstruction of a dinner-party:
The Earl is chatting with a strapping officer on his left whose handsome face is a fair legacy from the race of which he comes. This is Lieutenant-Colonel John Gunning of the 43rd Foot, who has the honour to be the brother of the famous Gunning sisters, and through them a brother-in-law to the Duke of Argyll and to the Earl of Coventry. “My sister the Duchess,” and “My sister the late Countess of Coventry,” are well-worn phrases with Colonel Gunning, and within a year his pride has been stirred again by the marriage of his niece with Lord Stanley, the heir to the affluent Earl of Derby…
Meanwhile, no-one seems to be able to account for John’s own marriage to Susannah Minifie, the daughter of a Somerset clergyman, who had neither looks nor money as a recommendation. It seems a peculiar step for a young man who had already contracted some very expensive habits. The marriage produced a daughter, Elizabeth, who in 1790 became the pivotal figure in a scandal that rocked British society.
As a young woman, Elizabeth lived predominantly with her namesake aunt, the Duchess of Argyll, and apparently became romantically involved with her cousin, George Campbell, the Marquess of Lorne. When the Duchess died in 1790, Elizabeth returned to her parents; after which (and assuming there had really been anything going on to start with), the Marquess of Lorne seems to have cooled off.
Meanwhile, newspaper gossip linked Elizabeth with an even greater marital prize, the Marquess of Blandford, the heir of the Duke of Marlborough. What happened next, no-one can ever be sure—though it has been suggested that Elizabeth and her mother were the source of the rumours about Lord Blandford, a story concocted to reignite the interest of Lord Lorne. However, the matter did not stop at gossip: in 1791, a letter supposedly from the Duke of Marlborough to General Gunning expressing his approval of the proposed match between Lord Blandford and Miss Gunning was denounced as a forgery. Other letters subsequently emerged that suggested an amorous correspondence between Elizabeth and Blandford, which the latter denied being involved in.
The newspapers pounced upon this juicy story and gave it a thorough airing, much to the shocked delight of society at large. Various factions emerged, condemning and supporting the different suspects. The sheer senselessness of the attempted imposition seems to have baulked some commentators, who were inclined to dismiss it as a malicious prank rather than a serious attempt either to force Blandford into marriage by compromising the Churchill family, or to provoke a proposal out of Lorne by making him jealous. However—it was widely observed that neither Elizabeth nor her mother was exactly conspicuous for brains, and there were many who were certain that one or both of them had taken this outrageous step in an attempt to capture an heir to a dukedom; any dukedom. Other observers were inclined to put the blame upon John Gunning, seeing the forgery as part of a campaign to aggrandise his sadly-lagging branch of the Gunning family.
John Gunning’s response to this was to turn his wife and daughter out of his house.
Whatever people thought about the matter, Gunning’s attempt to save his own skin at the expense of his womenfolk was widely condemned. The Gunning ladies were taken in by the Dowager Duchess of Bedford (aunt to the Marquess of Blandford), and from this refuge Elizabeth wrote a letter to her father protesting her innocence, and also swore an official affidavit to the same effect.
Conversely, Susannah Gunning was doing her daughter’s cause no good whatsoever. In her own account of the matter, she not only denied being involved, but went so far in trying to prove her own honesty that she also denied she had ever written fiction: a statement which, given that her name could be found by this time on the title page of several novels, was to say the least counterproductive…
Why have the combined plotters, for none but the tools of mischief would so meanly employed themselves, amongst their other ridiculous assertions, in the news-papers accused me of Novel writing; particularly a book called Waltham-Abbey; which is made up they say of tricks, of stratagem, and of forged letters. I must assure them their mistake is a very palpable one, for though to have been the author of that book might possibly have done honour to my genius; yet, as I never have seen such a book written, I cannot without great injustice, and greater presumption, lay any claim to the credit of being its author.
Presumably by “Walthan-Abbey” she meant Barford Abbey: was she pretending to be so divorced from the publication as to not even know its correct title? Curiously, the novel, as we have seen, does not involve “tricks, stratagem and forged letters” at all. My own observation is that, based upon their mutual and highly idiosyncratic addiction to italics, Susannah Gunning and “the author of Barford Abbey” were certainly one and the same.
(Waltham Abbey is a real place, by the way, a town in Essex.)
Speaking of novel-writing— Another party to weigh in on the scandal was the sister of the Marquess of Lorne, the then-Lady Charlotte Campbell, whose letters not only reject the idea that there was ever anything between her brother and Elizabeth Gunning, but contain several spiteful references to Miss Gunning’s lack of physical attractions; their very hostility suggesting that she saw something to worry about in that direction. Years later, twice a widow and needing to support the four children from her two marriages, the Lady Charlotte Bury turned to novel writing, becoming a leading practitioner of the so-called “Silver Fork” school.
Meanwhile, in conjunction with denying her own guilt, Mrs Gunning was busy denouncing her husband as the author, or at least the originator, of the forgery. Her version of events adds yet another bizarre twist to the story, as it brings into proceedings a certain Captain Essex Bowen, a relative-by-marriage and hanger-on of John Gunning. Mrs Gunning seems to have believed (or pretended to believe) that letters were forged by one or other of the Bowens at the instigation of John Gunning, either to make Lord Lorne jealous by suggesting that Elizabeth was being courted by Lord Blandford, or to divert Elizabeth’s affections away from Lord Lorne by dangling an even more attractive suitor before her. (Both of these contradictory scenarios were offered up at different times.)
Without attempting to plumb the depths of these bizarre accusations, we should note that Captain Bowen plays an indirect role in another remarkable bit of history: his mistress was one Mary Ann Talbot, who – or so the story goes – disguised herself as a boy, “John Taylor”, and enlisted in the navy in order to stay near her lover. After Bowen was killed in battle she maintained her disguise, being wounded twice and serving time as a prisoner of war. It was not until after her discharge, when “Taylor” was seized by a press-gang, that her sex was discovered. Or so, as I say, the story goes; her version of events has since been demonstrated to be inaccurate, to say the least.
The Gunning scandal gripped the public imagination for quite some time. Correspondence from the period preserves a variety of opinion upon the subject. For example, our old friend Horace Walpole clearly believed that mother and daughter were in it together. In a letter to his friend, Miss Agnes Berry, he gave an account of a supposed confrontation between Susannah Gunning and the Marquess of Blandford:
…she inquired where the Marquis was, and pursued him to Sir Henry Dashwood’s: finding him there, she began about her poor daughter; but he interrupted her, said there was an end put to all that, and desired to lead her to her chaise, which he insisted on doing, and did. I think this another symptom of the Minifry being accomplices to the daughter’s enterprise…
Accomplice-s, because by this time another common assertion was that Elizabeth’s aunt, Margaret Minifie – another novelist – was also part of the conspiracy.
Public reaction to the Gunning scandal reached its apotheosis in a series of outrageous illustrations by the caricaturist James Gillray. In particular, the one titled The Siege Of Blenheim; or, A New System Of Gunning Discovered shows a bloomer-free Elizabeth astride a cannon which is firing letters into the stronghold of Blenheim Palace, while the Duke of Marlborough retaliates with a barrage of—well, perhaps we shouldn’t inquire too closely into that…
At the time the “Gunning Mystery” remained unsolved, and eventually the scandal died away; or at least (as we shall see) got supplanted by a different scandal. In his edition of An Apology For The Life Of Major General Gunning, Gerrish Gray examines the evidence on all sides and weighs the potential guilt of all parties (pointing out that there could have been more than one forger at work, given the contradictory nature of the letters in question), before bringing new evidence to the table; or rather, putting the forgery scandal into the context of later events which, in his opinion, make the guilt of one particular person highly likely, if not exactly certain.
In 1803, a certain Mrs Plunkett was arrested on charges that she had “committed divers forgeries, and among others issued bills on Major Plunkett, her husband, as accepted by him, but which acceptances he denies to be in his hand-writing”. The complainant, a money-lender named King, eventually dropped his charges, presumably after financial intervention from the defendant’s relatives. A month later, Mrs Plunkett was back in court on similar but separate charges, this time in company with her husband. After investigation, Major Plunkett was discharged, but Mrs Plunkett was held in custody. However, as not infrequently happened under the prevailing laws, although there was plenty of evidence of the lady’s guilt the grand jury declined to proceed with a case where a guilty verdict would send a woman to the gallows, and she escaped a second time.
We know Mrs Plunkett rather better as Elizabeth Gunning.
No-one at the time seems to have connected the “Gunning Mystery” with Mrs Plunkett’s penchant for signing her husband’s name. Whether it was a case of the former Miss Gunning learning nothing from her experiences, or whether she thought what was sauce for the goose was sauce for the gander, it is hard not to agree with Gerrish Gray that this revelation about her after-life puts a different complexion upon the earlier scandal.
Meanwhile, another consequence of what we should probably call the first Gunning scandal was that John Gunning found himself unable to hold off his creditors. By this time both of his ennobled sisters were dead, and his in-laws wanted nothing to do with him. Gunning ended up in a debtor’s prison, from which ignominious position he was rescued by a James Duberley, who had a contract to supply uniforms to Gunning’s regiment. In fact, Duberley not only paid Gunning’s debts, he invited into his own home until he got back onto his feet.
John Gunning proceeded to repay his benefactor by seducing his wife.
The affair was eventually exposed, and Duberley brought a suit against Gunning for “criminal conversation”, as it was called. Despite no lack of evidence, the judge (who seems to have been a man rather ahead of his time) suggested to the jury that since Duberley himself was keeping a mistress, Mrs Duberley’s infidelity shouldn’t be treated too harshly. The jury, however (a far more traditional bunch), rejected this liberal interpretation of the situation and awarded five thousand pounds damages.
Those damages were never paid, though: John Gunning fled the country, taking Rebecca Duberley with him to Naples. Abandoned to their fate, both Susannah and Elizabeth Gunning, like many other women before and after them, turned to (or turned back to) novel-writing, in order to earn a slender living.
After all this, you might be surprised to hear that we have not yet hit rock-bottom with respect to the Gunnings. John Gunning’s crim. con. trial and his abrupt departure from England occurred in February, 1792. A couple of months later, British society was scandalised yet again by the publication of An Apology For The Life Of Major General G—, Containing A Full Explanation Of The G–NN–G MYSTERY, And Of The Author’s Connexion With Mr D–BER–Y’s FAMILY Of SOHO-SQUARE.
While it is possible that John Gunning was indeed the author of this bizarre document, it seems unlikely that he would have gone to the trouble of publishing something, the sole purpose of which seems to be to expose him as an even bigger skunk than everyone already thought he was; although it is just possible that, desperate for money (and having no particular track record of sensitivity or tact), he too picked up a pen. Far more probable, as Gerrish Gray suggests, is that the thing was a hoax, perpetrated by someone close enough to the Gunning family to get most of the details right: not only does this narrative offer anecdotes from the General’s life that are actually plagiarisms of old Spectator stories, but certain peculiar details in the text only make sense if the thing was meant as a joke.
And surely at this stage of the game, however much he used to like bragging about his background and titled relatives, John Gunning himself could not be so utterly oblivious to reality to pen the line—
It would be superfluous to mention my birth and splendid connexions…
In its original format, An Apology For The Life Of Major General Gunning was 114 pages long. Imagine my horror when it turned out that a full 75 pages of that were given over to an account of the General’s apparently infinite seductions and betrayals, in a manner horribly reminiscent of the rogue’s biographies of the 17th century. We can hardly be surprised at the outcome of the War of Independence, given how the British military evidently spent most of its time:
…my friends, alarmed at the dissipated course of life I was leading, and apprehensive of the ruin which threatened me, procured me a commission in the army—in hopes a change of place and difference of society might cure me of my extravagance. But this was only removing me from the stream to the fountain head. I had before tasted of folly; but here I drank my fill, and was initiated into the more refined mysteries of the debauchee. I now despised my former superficial knowledge of iniquity, which had been gleaned in the brothels, gaming-houses, &c. in the metropolis; and sat down to study methodically a system of seduction…
Gunning (or at least, “the author”) then favours the reader with numerical tallies of both his affairs and the numerous progeny resulting from them, as well as describing the lengths to which our military Casanova was prepared to do to gratify his desires:
As it suited my convenience, I have been an atheist and a devotee – a philosopher and a rake – a parson – a player – a cynic, a conjuror – a patriot – a courtier – a footman – a mountebank – a pedlar – a mendicant and a prince – and almost every other character that is to be found in the extremities of human nature.—I have been of all religions, and all sects – I have kneeled with the Roman catholic at the figure of her saint, and cursed with the pious protestant, in the devotion of my heart, all idolatry and superstition.—I have raised my voice with the violent declaimer of eternal damnation, and – have groaned in spirit, and professed charity towards all mankind, with the self-humiliated quaker.—I have renounced the articles of faith, and talked of predestination; and have broke the bread and drank of the cup of the modest puritan.—Nay, I have been drenched in a consecrated horse-pond, for the sake of a pretty anabaptist; and actually suffered the pain of circumcision, to obtain a fair jewess, who possessed some of the prettiest diamonds and sweetest features that I ever met with in any one woman…
It is during the tallying of the offspring that the Apology‘s tongue seems furthest in its cheek. An affair with a sour old maid (just to see if he could) produces a son “begotten in disgust, and brought forth in a fit of spleen”:
I have paid severely for my curiosity, by giving being to a dogmatical cynic, that has been pestering the world with his schisms and quibbles ever since he could snarl. This extract of verjuice seems only to delight in the contempt of the laws, the ruin of nations, and the rooting up of monarchies; and we may say of him, as some wit said of the famous Dr Kenrick, “He drinks aqua-vitae, and spits aqua fortis.” The fellow appeared at first with a tolerable share of Common Sense, but it has all evaporated, I fear, in his ridiculous fables of the Rights of Man…
It seems impossible to take that as anything but a swipe at Thomas Paine – who was born three years before John Gunning.
Eventually we get around to discussing the scandal of the forgeries:
The Marquis of L— was still backward, and there was only one way to bring him to the point desired; and that was, according to my dear Mrs G—‘s opinion, to write a few passionate epistles to her daughter, with the signature of the Marquis of B—, and dispose of them in such a manner that they might fall into his rival’s hands, and thus leave him no alternative.
I was now too far engaged in the business to recede, or boggle at trifles; I therefore gave my consent and assistance in the affair. The letters were written in Mrs G—‘s best manner, and might probably have met with the most flourishing success, had not some evil spirit counteracted our design, and, by conveying some intimation of the plan to the Marquis of B—, ruined the whole project at a blow…
From this failure we pass to the Duberley affair:
It may be justly said, that a life of gratitude, devoted to the service of such a man, could scarcely repay him for such exalted and disinterested friendship; but my heart, shut to the tender feelings of humanity, and hardened in the most depraved scenes of the world against every sentiment of gratitude, sought but the gratification of its own unjust desires, and means to accomplish the infelicity and dishonour of my benefactor…
Mr D—, little suspecting what serpent he was fostering in his breast, still continued his attention to my ease and welfare, and gave me a general invitation to his house, where I used constantly to dine &c. when I had no particular engagement elsewhere, I was by this means able to indulge my passion for Mrs D— in all its licentiousness…
The account of John Gunning’s trial in the Apology, seen indirectly through a commiserating letter from a friend back in England, seems to mix sufficiently shocking fact with outrageous fiction. Firstly (truly), we hear that Gunning’s defence repeatedly presented him as older than he was (over sixty, as opposed to the real fifty-two), and too crippled and full of disease to have possibly seduced Mrs Duberley. Simultaneously (falsely), an affair between Duberley and Mrs Gunning was hinted at, with a scandalous suggestion of spouse-swapping, or at least quid pro quo. The defence also apparently tried to argue (truly) that a damningly disturbed living-room was the result of a strenuous game of blind man’s bluff, rather than the result of an equally strenuous roll on the carpet. This defence evaporated (falsely? – we don’t know!) in the face of what we might call a piece of Clinton-esque evidence left on the carpet:
Your old friend Betty H— swore like an angel, and rolled you on the carpet with admirable dexterity. The game of blind-man’s-buff went off with infinite eclat; and though Erskine mauled you most divinely, I really believe we should have come off with flying colours, in spite of the crusty old puts on the jury, had it not been for that damned sacred deposit.—Why, ’twas like taking the earnest of your ruin!—Ah! General, General! no other man would ever have split upon that rock; but you men of honour, forsooth, can never, as you yourself say, even in the most desperate situations, deviate from the punctilio which is the rule of your conduct…
The letter ends with reassurance to Mrs Duberley that they are appealing the verdict, and thus holding the whole business up for as long as possible; meaning that her child will be born while she is still married to Duberley and therefore be legitimate in spite of everything:
A-propos, I beg I may be looked upon as the sponsor of the sweet embryo that is coming. I claim the preference in this particular relationship in principle.—As it will be the child of iniquity, where can you find so proper a god-father for it as an attorney?
So there’s the Gunning family for you, people!—from whom you’ll be hearing rather more in the future: I have added Susannah Gunning, and Elizabeth Gunning, and Margaret Minifie to my “Authors In Depth” list—being unable to resist the temptation of reading their sentimental / didactic fiction in the light of nearly fifteen years of continuous family scandal…