Averil's Blog

Research, musings and finding inspiration.

Elizabeth Fry as a Muse

Engraving of Elizabeth Fry by J. J. Hinchcliff

I’m not the only person who has been inspired by the story of Elizabeth Fry. Her compassion was noted by many of high profile. Here are some notable examples.

Lord Byron

Lord Byron felt that Mrs Fry looked after the poor but neglected the upper classes and took her to task for this in his satiric poem Don Juan which he started writing  in 1819.

From Don Juan

Oh, Mrs Fry! Why go to Newgate? Why
Preach to poor rogues? And wherefore not begin
With Carlton, or with other houses? Try
Your head at harden’d and imperial sin.
To mend the people’s an absurdity.
A jargon, a mere philanthropic din,
Unless you make their betters better: – Fy!
I thought you had more religion, Mrs Fry.

Teach them the decencies of good threescore;
Cure them of tours, hussar and highland dresses;
Tell them that youth once gone returns no more,
That hired huzzas redeem no land’s distresses;
Tell them Sir William Curtis is a bore,
Too dull even for the dullest of excesses,
The witless Falstaff of a hoary Hal,
A fool whose bells have ceased to ring at all.

Tell them, though it may be perhaps too late
On life’s worn confine, jaded, bloated, sated,
To set up vain pretences of being great,
‘T is not so to be good; and be it stated,
The worthiest kings have ever loved least state;
And tell them – But you won’t, and I have prated
Just now enough.

[Canto 10 LXXXV – LXXXVII]


Gilbert and Sullivan

The popular comic operas by Gilbert and Sullivan even pay homage to Elizabeth’s family. The respect of the Gurneys, as bankers, in the City of London was reflected in Trial by Jury. W.S. Gilbert based the libretto for Trial by Jury on an operetta parody which he wrote in 1868.

Verses from Trial by Jury

In Westminster Hall I danced a dance,
Like a semi-despondent fury;
For I thought I should never hit on a chance
Of addressing a British jury –
But I soon got tired of bread and water;
So I fell in love with a rich attorney’s
Elderly, ugly daughter.

The rich attorney, he jumped with joy,
And replied to my fond professions:
“You shall reap the reward of your pluck, my boy,
At the Bailey and Middlesex Sessions.
You’ll soon get used to her looks,” said he,
“And a very nice girl you will find her!
She may very well pass for forty-three
In the dusk, with a light behind her!”

The rich attorney was good as his word;
The briefs came trooping gaily,
And every day my voice was heard
At the Sessions or Ancient Bailey.
All thieves who could my fees afford
Relied on my orations,
And many a burglar I’ve restored
To his friends and his relations.

At length I became as rich as the Gurneys –
An incubus then I thought her,
So I threw over that rich attorney’s
Elderly, ugly daughter!
The rich attorney my character high
Tried vainly to disparage –
And now, if you please, I’m ready to try
This Breach of Promise of Marriage!


Rev George Crabbe

The poet, Rev George Crabbe was inspired by Elizabeth Fry and wrote:

From The Maid’s Story in Tales of the Hall (1819)

Thus conscience; A and she then a picture drew and bade me think and tremble at the viewOne, I beheld a wife, a mother, go
To gloomy scenes of wickedness and woe;
She  sought her way through all things vile and base
And made a prison a religious place:
Fighting her way – the way that angels fight
With powers of darkness – to let in the light:
Tell me, my heart, hast thou such victory won,
As this, a sinner of thy sex, hast done,
And calls herself a sinner! what art thou?
And where thy praise and exaltation now?
Yet, she is tender, delicate and nice,
And shrinks from all depravity and vice;
Shrinks from the ruffian gaze, the savage gloom,
That reign where guilt and misery find a home;
Guilt chained, and misery purchased, and with them
All we abhor, abominate, condemn –
The look of scorn, the scowl, th’ insulting leer,
Of shame, all fixed on her who ventures here,
Yet all she braved; she kept her stedfast eye
On the dear cause, and brushed the baseness by. –
So would a mother press her darling child
Close to her breast, with tainted rages defiled.


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