By the late 1780s, James Gillray was England’s leading political satirist. His caricatures, prepared as prints and etchings, were enormously popular and demonstrably capable of influencing public opinion. It is of note, however, that Gillray rarely took sides; or rather, he would satirise both sides of any given issues—for example, caricaturing both George III and the Prince of Wales, or presenting William Pitt as either a hero or a villain, according to whether his topic was international or domestic. Gillray’s work was heavily influenced by that of William Hogarth, and in addition to politics per se he produced any number of confronting images about various grim realities of contemporary life, often opposing the excesses and immorality of the upper classes with the miseries of the poor. The third stream of his work, the one that most concerns us at the moment, finds its subject matter in the scandals of the time.
“The Gunning Mystery“, as it was called, inspired Gillray to three different caricatures. The one which we have already highlighted, The Siege Of Blenheim; or, A New System Of Gunning Discovered, not only combines outrageous images and obscene jokes (“Mother, mother, my masked battery is discovered!” exclaims the spraddle-legged and obviously underwear-free Elizabeth Gunning), but is an example of Gillray’s habit of presenting both sides of an issue. Although the Gunnings were the main target, the barrage of faeces emanating from Blenheim Castle is an acknowledgement that many people believed that the Duke of Marlborough or his son, Lord Blandford, were not as innocent as they claimed. Meanwhile, the reverses suffered at this time by the British army, widely blamed upon a corrupt and incompetent command, are referenced in the words given to John Gunning, as he slinks away from the scene of his family’s disgrace: “I find our Stratagem won’t take effect, & therefore I’ll be off; & manoeuvre;—any common Soldier can lead on, to any attack, but it takes the skill of a General to bring off his forces with honour after a defeat…”
The Siege Of Blenheim is a comparatively straightforward effort. Far less so is another of James Gillray’s attacks upon the Gunnings, which ties them to an earlier 18th century scandal. In my post addressing Dan Cruickshank’s The Secret History Of Georgian London, we touched briefly upon the bizarre story of Elizabeth Canning, who in 1753 claimed to have been kidnapped and forced into prostitution, but who was eventually proved to have made up the whole story. In Betty Canning Reviv’d, Gillray recasts the Canning scandal with members of the Gunning family; beyond the sheer similarity of the names “Elizabeth Canning” and “Elizabeth Gunning”, both scandals involved a young woman of good family solemnly swearing to the truth of their version of events and then being proved a liar. Betty Canning Reviv’d is an example of Gillray’s more complex humour, not only requiring people to understand the connection he was making, but to spot the various subtle visual details scattered around his image. The signpost to Blenhein in the background is clear enough, but in addition we have such touches as Elizabeth Gunning kissing a deck of cards instead of a bible as she swears an oath. My favourite detail, however, is the presence of a copy of that best-selling novel, “Waltham Abbey by Peg Niffy”.
This particular caricature introduces into the Gunning scandal Margaret Minifie, the sister and aunt respectively of Susannah and Elizabeth Gunning: that’s her on the far right in Betty Canning Reviv’d. She is even more prominent in Gillray’s third Gunning caricature. Here again he works the Gunnings into a different context, in this case referencing “Margaret’s Ghost”, a popular ballad from the first half of the century about a young woman who dies of a broken heart, and then appears as a ghost to reproach her lover with his broken promises and false oaths. In Margaret’s Ghost, Elizabeth Gunning’s “Auntee Peg” comes to break the terrible news that “Dishonourable-infamous-false-accusations” have been made against the three of them.
I have been unable to come up with any specific reason why people were so convinced that Margaret Minifie was involved in the plot of the forged letters…which makes me wonder whether the rapidity with which the public seized upon the three women as the perpetrators of the forgery was that all three of them were novelists?
If this is true, we can understand why Susannah Gunning might have felt she had to defend herself by denying that she was guilty of the heinous crime of novel-writing…although the sad reality is, her doing so certainly made things worse, and not better, for herself, her daughter and her sister—besides confirming all Society’s worst suspicions about women who write.
The first novel to emanate from the Minifie household was The Histories Of Lady Frances S—, And Lady Caroline S—, which was published in 1763. Below is the title page.
How on earth could she think she’d get away with it?