Biography, Women's History

Women’s History Month: Marianne Farningham

On this day, 16 March, 1909, the writer Marianne Farningham (Mary Ann Hearne) died, at the age of 75, in the Welsh sea resort of Barmouth.  The following day her obituary in the Times described Marianne as having been ‘for half a century well known and very popular amongst a large section of the religious public’.  She loved her work, commenting in old age that she would be happy if she had ‘a firm table, a fountain-pen, a good fire and an easy chair’.

Marianne is of particular interest because of her journey from working class village life to public career and house owner, but also because of the development of her opinions.  Her life and writings can thus be used to track changes in popular evangelicalism during the second half of the nineteenth century, whether in theology, such as the fading belief in hell, or of social attitudes, including towards women’s suffrage.  Neglected and unknown today, she deserves to be rediscovered.

As well as writing and editing, she ventured into the public arena as a lecturer, delivering a series of talks such as ‘The Women of Today’  and ‘The Rush and Hush of Life’. In addition, for six years from 1886, Marianne was the only female member of the School Board in her adopted town of Northampton, commenting years later: ‘I was not at all sure that all the members of the Board were glad to have me there’! She also taught a Sunday school class for young women aged 15-24, with up to 200 participants, effectively working as an unpaid pastor for many years and opening her home to the girls during the week. A woman of much energy and many talents!

The eldest of five children, Marianne was born Mary-Ann Hearn, on 17 December 1834. She later took the name of her native Kent village, Farningham, as a pseudonym. Her parents were members of a Baptist chapel in nearby Eynsford, and she always remained a Baptist. Sadly, her mother died young, which contributed to the haphazard nature of Marianne’s education, as she had to keep house and help her father, the village postmaster. She continued to learn, however, ‘burning the midnight tallow’ and even setting her bed on fire on one occasion. She also began to write poetry.

When, in 1857, the weekly paper the Christian World was launched, Marianne was invited to contribute a poem, beginning an association which lasted over fifty years. She was employed full-time from 1867. At its peak in 1880 the paper had a circulation of 130,000, and her name became known in thousands of Nonconformist homes. Her pieces included pious reflections, hymns and poetry, topical items, and fiction, some of which were issued later as collections.  She published other work, mainly dubious biographies, under a second pseudonym, Eva Hope, and from 1885 to her death she also edited the Sunday-School Times and Home Educator.

Her writings reveal an intriguing mix of the conventional and the unusual. On the one hand, Marianne shared the Victorian sentimental view of the home, and believed in its benefits, expressed in such poetic gems as ‘God bless our home’:

O snug little nest in a shelter so cheery,
O place of sweet rest for the troubled and weary;
No spot is so dear to the heart, nor is any
Ignored by so few, or beloved by so many;

whilst on the other, she was emphatic that women, especially single women like herself, should be financially independent. ‘Why should we be dependent on fathers or brothers’ she wrote in 1869: ‘Why not live to some purpose, benefiting ourselves, and thereby all who are dear to us?’  

Marianne continued to assert the importance of work, declaring in an editorial in 1895 that: ‘some of the merriest, happiest homes are those in which women have to be the breadwinners of the family, either because there are no men to fill the post, or they are unable, or perhaps, unwilling, to do it’, an attitude which reveals her working-class background as much as her feminist sympathies. 

She admired women who had broken new ground on behalf of other women. In Queens of Literature (1886) written under the name of Eva Hope, she explored the lives of several women including Frances Cobbe, Harriet Martineau and Mary Somerville. The latter, she asserted, had ‘demolished, once for all, the idea that a woman’s brain is less strong than that of a man’s’. She also, amusingly, suggested that these women, along with George Eliot, would find a place in heaven. Lack of adherence to Christianity seemed not to be an obstacle to this in her eyes, although she herself remained a believer. Faith was a vital part of her life, at the heart of all she believed, permeating everything she did. The mixture of traditional and feminist attitudes found in her writing were all rooted in her faith, as well as being partly a response to her cultural environment.  

She led a full life, but regarded death as the entrance to heaven, portrayed by her as a kind of homecoming.  Her final words, on 16 March 1909, to her nephew Frank, were reported as ‘it has been a long day, and a beautiful one, but it is over.’  Her fascinating autobiography is called A Working Woman’s Life, and love of work, as well as friends, family and faith, characterised this remarkable woman.

Further Reading

Linda Wilson, Marianne Farningham, A Plain Woman Worker, (Paternoster, 2007).

Linda Wilson is a distance learning tutor in Church History with the University of Gloucestershire. She lives in Bristol with her husband, cats and rather a lot of books.

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