- The Excellent Mrs. Fry: Unlikely Heroine
Elizabeth Fry is an important figure of early-nineteenth-century social reform who has remained on the perimeter of the history of social work despite her involvement in some of the most pressing social questions of her day. Negotiating between biography and social history, Anne Isba claims she wants to “mak[e] Fry’s career, rather than the woman herself, into the hero of the piece” (xi), though she can’t resist some heroizing (it’s in her title, after all). And indeed there is much that is heroic in Fry’s life: few women in the nineteenth century earned international fame for social work, and fewer still ended up on the five pound note. But if Isba’s treatment of Fry leans toward popular history rather than scholarly inquiry, the subject herself deserves our attention, as do some of this book’s excursions into less-explored but important reform history.
The book begins simply enough with Fry’s so-called awakening, her calling to social conscience, pieced together in fairly large excerpts from the various memoirs of Fry that were themselves excerpted from Fry’s many diaries. She was born in 1780 into the influential Gurney family of Norwich, a historical seed house of socially minded philanthropic families and a center of Quakerism. The Gurneys were “gay” Quakers (4)—socialites and industrialists—though they remained close to important concerns like abolition and women’s rights. Fry was more evangelical by disposition. [End Page 153] When she met the American Quaker William Savery in 1798, Fry took quickly to his “‘plain’ Friend” influence (13). Rejecting “worldliness” and her family’s gayer sensibilities, she devoted herself to charitable concerns (116). At eighteen she reluctantly married Joseph Fry, never feeling herself equal to domestic life. (She suffered from postpartum depression after the birth of almost all of her eleven children.) Indeed she found family life an interruption from her sense of social vocation and was quietly disappointed that her husband, though himself a plain Quaker, did not share her energy for extra-domestic affairs. In 1811, after the birth of her seventh child, Fry became an “acknowledged” minister in the Society of Friends, a rare and important public status that allowed her to increase her sphere (41). In 1813, she visited Newgate prison, a “hell above ground” where her humanitarian reforms really began (xiv). Isba treats this episode as a primal scene, giving it its own chapter and tying it to Fry’s international work on penal policy.
Isba describes Fry’s earliest practical measures for improvement of conditions for incarcerated women and children, which reduced recidivism, increased literacy, and protected the health of the most vulnerable inmates. (Isba passes lightly over the messier ideological underpinnings of moral management; for example, that Fry, a meliorist, was more interested in promoting hard work and cleanliness than in agitating against the death penalty.) In part two Isba shows us a fascinating document of reform, the 1818 House of Commons report on London prisons, in which Fry gave lengthy testimony before the Select Committee on London prisons on conditions that few in power understood. She was the first woman to give testimony before a Select Committee, doing so in 1818 and then again in 1835. Both resulted in major legislative reforms, the 1823 Gaols Act and the 1835 Prisons Act. Ironically, as Isba observes, both helped obviate philanthropic intervention by giving central government greater authority to act.
The evolution of centralized state welfare in the nineteenth century, from prisons to education, began with largely individual efforts by amateur, religious-minded, female humanitarians sticking their noses where they were told they didn’t belong. But, as Isba reminds us, such women weren’t simply well-meaning “nuisances” (201). Though an amateur, Fry had an extraordinary capacity to think systematically about reform, a fact made clear in her “manifesto” (69), Observations on the Visiting, Superintendence and Government of Female Prisoners (1827), a manual for how to work in prisons that rivals Florence Nightingale...