Reading between the Lines
Reading an outline of Henry's life, it is fascinating to combine this with the numerous family letters that have survived, to try and understand what kind of a person he was. Henry's father John Gent married Sarah Booth in 1786 when he was twenty five and she thirty five. The reason was her dowry of £1,000. But this was carefully protected, so that it was for the benefit of her children. John Gent was a captain in the yeomanry during the Napoleonic wars, and according to family tradition was a drinker - one story claims that when drunk he once rode his horse into the house and attempted to go upstairs. His wife did bear him five children. Henry, the youngest, was born when she was forty three. The children were all close to her, and letters indicate their awareness of their father's weaknesses. The eldest son in his will he left his mother the benefit of all his estate 'to and for her sole separate and absolute use and behoof without being in any wise subject to the control debts Acts or engagements of her husband my esteemed father ' Esteemed?
Sarah Gent tried to bring up all her children to a better station in life, ensuring they were educated - two became doctors - and implanting high expectations. Were those expectations unrealistic? Their eldest son, John, was constantly reminding the family of the importance of status. His sister Mary, in particular, was constantly subjected to strictures, and he was highly critical of his youngest brother, Henry. According to their cousin Randle writing from Liverpool in 1811,
'I see by Mary's letter Henry would not like to be a sailor. I suppose you are too much afraid of him, but I would by all means put him to what his inclination leads him to. I wish we were settled [his father had died a month before] as I have not the least doubt but what I could make him very comfortable with me, that is, if you should wish him to go into an office in this town. I think he is very active and likewise well calculated for a merchant or broker.'
When Henry went out to join his brother John in Tortola, in the West Indies, in 1813 Sarah wrote to her son John admonishing him to care for him well:
'I hope you will receive your brother with all the affection and tenderness of a parent; he has refused a gentlemanly good opertunityes of fixing himselfe to come to you and I am afraid you will find very deficient in his learning but in that respect you ought to have Compassion for him as you know what opertunities he has had and how he has been imployed at home and he has been imeadately at home ever since he came from Liverpool and he has added very much to the agreeableness of our family while we have had him with us. You will consider he is grown a man and you must not keep him at a distance as though he was a boy. I don't doubt but that you will be very happy together and you will find his wonderous worth for he is an exelent youth. But if he does not keep his health I hope you will send him home in time Now if you don't treat Henry well and respect and make him comfortable it will be very disgracefull in you. It is by you he must learn his buisness and no other. He was considered as a treasure at Mr Vaunet's School, Mr Hollins's at Liverpool and at home where he will always be regretted. Your father is gone for Mary from Knutsford to see Henry as he is to leave in a day or two. We have write for Brian to come '
In reply John wrote from Tortola on June 8th, 1813:
'I hope by this time he is on his way, it shall be my study to make him as pleasant as possible and have not a doubt but he will not considerable improvement '
John then betrays his snobbishness:
'I shall be very happy to hear how you like Middlehulme. I hope you will form a pleasant genteel society in the neighbourhood Request Mary to let me know how she is coming on in Botany as I am paying a little attention to it myself '
Two years later Henry had returned to England and John wrote to his mother:
'I am extremely sorry to hear of Mary being gone to London as I don't conceive the slight acquaintance she had with Mrs G[rimaldi?] authoris'd a visit of this sort nor can Mrs G - introduce her to any family who I conceive proper acquaintance. Mary has had a genteel education and ought to make good use of it and when once she lowers herself in the opinion of her friends it would have been better had that expense been saved. I am astonished you would trust her in a place like London under the protection of people you are not in the least acquainted with - remember the hints I gave you of a certain French relation of ours who was in London Henry gave me such an unfavourable account of his Mother and family that has induced me to act as cautiously as possible. I have more to relate which is as well not mentioned Had he not been neglected he would have done well and no doubt he will yet I should like to hear from Brian, I would write to him but don't know his address. If Joseph should like to come out don't on any account send him until you have informed me as I would procure him a situation in some other island. In a while I sincerely hope it may be in my power to come home next year.'
Is this a priggish elder brother? Was anybody good enough for Mary? Were his parents not quite 'arrived'? Was his brother Joseph such an embarassment?
Henry cannot have stayed too long with his brother, perhaps eighteen months. On November 27th, 1815 John wrote again to his mother:
'It gives me peculiar pleasure in finding that Henry by this time is in London. By the last Packet I enclos'd him a Bill of Exchange for one hundred pounds sterling which sum with what he expected from his father would be amply sufficient (with economy) to give him a Degree in Physic in Edinburg and as that gives a man a little more consequence particularly in this part of the world it would certainly be more desirable to attain it I never hear from Mary of late I have not comply'd with my promise yet but if she will write me a short Thesis on Botany (choosing any subject she pleases) in French I will immediately comply. I hope she does not neglect her education as perhaps sooner or later she may move in a different society to what she now does, therefore you are well aware the more refin'd her mind is the more pleasing will be her company I bought a small island the other night containing about twenty acres of land. It belonged to a poor man whose property was levied upon and sold at Marshall's sale It is called Necker Island.'
Less than a year later, John was dead. He must have been taken seriously ill, for he made his will on 23rd September, 1816, 'being somewhat indisposed of body,' and the will was proved five days later. In it, after leaving his estate to his mother, and allowing for his sister to inherit half his estate and his three brothers the other half, he stated, ' it is my wish and desire that my brother Henry be wrote to, to come to this country to make out and settle my accounts.' Henry did leave England for Tortola, as is evident from a letter he wrote there the following June, but he only stayed a few months. He wrote a note in his scrapbook:
'Left Tortola 7th September, 1817 in a boat; became calmed on the West end by Doctor Donovan's and remained so until Sunday 8th; at two o'clock that day made Mr Hill's bay; went ashore and remained until a signal was hoisted in the boat; the next day got to St Thomas's, that night slept at the inn; the victuals was dirty and the bed swarmed with bugs.'
He also drafted an advertisement:
'To Surgeons, etc. A young Medical Practitioner, a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons, who has spent some time in attending an Hospital, wishes for a partnership or respectable employment; the most satisfactory testimonies of regular habits and medical and Surgical knowledge can be produced. Apply by letter post paid etc.'
In his last letter from the island he wrote to his mother:
'The most accomplished and finest young lady in this island I hear is just dead; she has been sick, I am told, about one day. The society will be very poor in this island; two or three of the most respectable families are lately left, it is supposed that that family will now leave for Trinidad.'
He appointed Arthur Belisario as his agent to collect in all the debts that were owed to his brother John, and to sell off the estate. The debts proved difficult to collect, as proper records had not been kept, and the house and land proved difficult to sell. Belisario eventually, it is believed, became a bankrupt, and the family never profited much from John's exertions, ambitions and sacrifices. In the family it was always seen as Belisario's fault, an untrustworthy agent who took advantage of the long distance between Tortola and England. In fact, Belisario wrote in May, 1816, in response to a letter from Brian Gent:
'You are well aware of the exertions that have been used to dispose of the house and sea lot, and of their failure. I have now seven or eight tenements, large and small, which are not half tenanted and cannot procure a purchaser for any.'
He had also sent Henry £257 11s 0d in addition to £437 1s 81Ú4d Henry had already received.
In March, 1819, Brian wrote a remarkably hostile letter to Henry:
'We have just received yours in which you express a wish to hear more frequently from your friends which I consider rather absurd when you are aware you have acted quite the contrary and have been written to at every opportunity. Your neglect in not writing for nine months is altogether unpardonable as you must imagine both from prudent motives and the business in which you have been deputed to interest yourself is almost in committing an act of depravity as you give no sufficient reason for your silence. The few words in your letter relative to the business in Tortola is quite as undecisive as the first mention of it and after entrusting a man of whose character you must be well acquainted should be no plea for the mismanagement of the concern. And it now appears to me as it has from the commencement of your writing that it is not likely to turn out altogether satisfactory Allow me to wish you to attend to your penmanship and mode of writing as it is not exactly professional.'
Mary added in her portion that:
'I some time since gave you the particulars of the only letter we have yet had from Belisario. I hope he will get forward with the business and settle it to the satisfaction of all parties. Probably it would have been as well had you given us a more particular account of the state of the affairs when you left the island and of the way in which we were to proceed with Belisario.'
In August Mary wrote to Henry:
'We received a letter from Mr Belisario informing us he had lately sent you two hundred dollars ';
but on September 21st, 1819 nature took a hand when Tortola was devastated by a hurricane. There is a detailed house-by-house account in a letter from Belisario including:
'Gent's: one half the roof of the dwelling house down and very much injured in the other parts - no building standing in the yard, of course - the opposite shop scarcely a vestige remaining - the sea took it off.'
So the property was even less likely to sell.
Mary wrote again in March, 1821:
'Brian wrote to Mr Belisario at the same time but he has not answered the letter nor have we heard from him at all of eighteen months when he gave us the account of the hurricane My poor brother John has now been dead four years and a half and in his lifetime he took great pains to save the money and to secure it to the family, but I am sorry to say we have had no comfort of it at present; however I know you will exert yourself to bring this business to a close as soon as possible and as you well know we have occasion for whatever there is to receive, it is a pity it should be lost for want of attention.'
Henry must have been irritated by Brian's attitude, as is indicated by a further letter to him from Mary in April, 1821:
'You say something of Brian coming out to settle the affairs in Tortola which proposal you certainly do not expect him to accept; the passage to the West Indies and back would cost a considerable sum I intend writing to Belisario by this post but I cannot help imagining that he is either dead or has left the island or he would certainly give us some information about the business The times are very bad here just now, farmers' produce has not been known so low of thirty years; as our income is chiefly in land you will be aware that we must feel it considerably As my father was disappointed of having the money from Tortola he was absolutely obliged to sell the small farm
On June 12th, 1823, Henry's friend from Tortola, Daniel Donovan, wrote to him from Liverpool. Britain was in the grip of a major depression, banks were collapsing, agriculture suffered, and the story of decline continued:
'All the news that I can collect from Tortola are, that the Country is going fast into decay, which will be hastened by the Bill in Parliament to emancipate all negroes in the British West Indies, and that Bill they say is sure to pass, but nothing definitive can be done for a year or two. Mr Pickering is at present in Tortola, he is there for the purpose of removing three hundred negroes from his estates to Trinidad where he has purchased two very fine properties, in which island, they say will give three hogsheads sugar to negro, the soil being so very rich and the weather so seasonable, but not so healthy as Tortola. My brother has got the attorneyships of Martin's and Robertson's estates besides Miss Thelfall's; in these hard times people ought to take whatever they can get. I dare say you recollect F. Ingram, the late Collector of Tortola, he's now in this town, we are together every day, he intends going out with me to pay a visit to Abraham M[ ] Belisario Esq. Notary Public. M[ ] to know what is become of [ ]700$ which is owing him by that gentleman. The fact is, Belisario whenever he lays hold of money he can't part with it without being forced.'
It seems Henry returned to Tortola in 1821, for he wrote on 22nd September to two of his fellow executors, asking them to take charge of collecting the debts, and appointing a Mr Fraser in place of Mr Belisario:
'As Mr Belisario has not given up the books, papers, etc. I beg you to obtain them from him All monies received transmit to my Father The house I would wish you to sell immediately for as much as it will fetch; the rents owing by Dr Ross and Mrs Shannon they are willing to give their notes without interest as I am totally unacquainted with business I will thank you to attend to it.'
Henry stayed twelve years in North America until the Spring of 1829. He was involved in the Quaker community in Alexandria, Virginia, and then in Auburn and Skaneateles, Cayuga County, near the Niagara Falls, made friendships and courted many young ladies. But he appears to have returned to England disappointed in life and love. For example, he wrote to Nancy J - in 1828:
'Pardon me, if I take the liberty, which the effects of the moment and my sanguine, ardent passion propels me to. When I was in B - I was much struck with the appearance of thy eldest, which still continues to haunt my imagination, night and day, and induces me to make this application to thee, to know if I can be permitted to write to her, as I do not wish to do so without thy permission '
Is this a case of a faint heart? What on earth was he trying to say? What was it that made him so gauche? Why the hiding behind incomprehensible verbal excesses? The letter, with its thy and thee, betrays his connection with the Quakers, formed during his American sojourn. He continued going to Quaker meeting on his return to England. Their letters reveal rather dull people with rather dull lives and interests. Were they kindred spirits to Henry, or did they leave their mark on him? He wrote on 21st January, 1829, to Nancy P - in Baltimore, in a last-ditch attempt:
'It is with an interesting anxiety I wish to hear from thee, before I go from this country; but as I am written for in the most intersting terms by my Mother and Sister, I am willing thou shouldst know my anxiety to hear from thee, before I leave this interesting country, lest I reflect on myself hereafter, as I am touched with the detail of their letter to return home Probably thou wilt not write to me in consequence of what I wrote to thee in my last letter but if an overture of that kind would be agreeable to thy wishes, nothing would be more pleasing to me '
The answer must have been no, and Henry made a fresh start in Cheshire, now aged thirty four.
In amongst the mass of papers inherited from previous generations, there are a few more unusual items that give us a hint of people's personalities. For example, we have a cruel poem that was sent to Dr Henry Gent to reject his declaration of love. The date must be in the 1830s, after his return.Mister Jint is a man of amazing gentility;
He took lessons in taste from a chief of the Pawnees;
He then came to Cheshire to spread his ability
And squatted down here as the Prince of the Journies.
Nature made him an Ass, his Pa made him a Doctor;
And the two things united have formed an odd Mule;
Of thoughts in high Dutch he's a mighty concoctor,
But his speech is no more than the bray of a fool.
He's a beetle in brain, and a Dodo in gait;
With a coat that a Hottentot would not acknowledge;
And in riding or walking he looks so sedate;
As if just dubbed the chief of an Indian College.
To curse him more deeply than nature intended,
Some Imp in a dream whisper'd - "Jint be a wit:"
And some raving and slavering follow'd, which ended,
In the poor creature's faith in a poetic fit.
He star'd and look'd wild in contortions most awful;
And almost in agony spoke what he meant;
But his brain being barren he took steps unlawful,
And stole a stray thought that he could not invent.
After lab'ring for weeks in a furor divine,
Sad was the scene; the catastrophe just;
He brought forth a leaf that he call'd sibylline,
But the small stock of brain that he had went to dust.
And yonder he lies! A sad proof that a wit,
Can't be made of materials so gross - and alas!
Beneath are the lines that he wrote in his fit,
Oh read them and sigh! - they're the words of an Ass.
Reading through Henry Gent's personal notebook, which contains poems and drafts of his letters written in his twenties and thirties, it is possible to recognise some of the traits that were cruelly caricatured in that poem, which obviously accompanied the return of one of his romantic efforts. He had written a poem in February, 1836, which may well be the one that elicited the wicked reply:
Nearest dearest to my heart
Give me back my fond desires
I fill for you a wretch's part
Your nescient look my hurt conspires
Still my feelings do retain
And take me with yourself to reign.
Holy anthems that you sing
Are breathed with aspirations pure
But my feelings firmer cling
And are bound to you more sure
Then my feelings do retain
And take me with yourself to reign.
Hoping that you will not strive
Against the oracular decree
You are the only one alive
That was meant by heaven for me
Then my feelings do retain
And take me with yourself to reign.
'You are the abstract of all that I possess - unless my feelings were entirely yours I should be loth to trouble you. That mine is not a chaotick make with cared fire that first prompted me for your love all my feelings show. And as my affections are centred in you, I hope fervently you will let me have an answer and not leave me in this state of doubt.'
Why was it that he was the only one of his family to marry, and then only because he made his servant girl pregnant when she was only twenty and he fifty two? Whatever the circumstances that summer in 1846, when Esther Warburton was seduced or raped by her master, fortunately for his descendants he did the decent thing and married her, and thus continued the family, but the marriage was a very unhappy one. Esther's four subsequent conceptions, also according to family tradition, were the consequence of very occasional conjugal bed-sharing, usually when the house was full of guests, or they were staying elsewhere - George Frederick was almost certainly the product of their trip to the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. There is another clue to his character, a pornographic poem he kept, written on June 20th, 1811, by a P. M. Petitt, in the West Indies, and entitled Copy of a Song from one in possession of a n[ine-in]ch Cock. It is highly classical in its allusions, and delicate almost to a modern reader, but also gives a rare glimpse into the private thoughts of young men of that time. Henry Gent was a man with passions, but unable to relate with confidence to the opposite sex.
Henry Gent has left little trace of his thought and feelings for the last forty years of his life. There are few letters, kept by his maiden sister Mary. For example, he wrote to her on 27th October, 1850:
'Esther was confined on Tuesday the 15th; on the 17th she was covered with the smallpox. The infant was affected two or three days after. Esther seems as if she would recover. The child we lost today. I have written to open the same grave as the other child's, and to be there to inter on Tuesday, 29th October at 12 o'clock I should be glad of £5 0s 0d on that day to pay expenses.'
There is no betrayal of affections or emotions. Similarly, he wrote to Mary on 2nd January, 1859, after the birth of his youngest son. He requested her help, after mentioning finances and giving brief details of kin: 'You can write to Mr Turner if you wish and call this child just what you like, without the Francis.' He didn't get his way, his son was christened James Francis Turner Gent, but he hardly seems to have cared. He signed a letter to his sister in 1864 rejecting a request for financial help, justifying this 'with the duty I owe to my own family.'
Henry's marriage to Esther must have been scandalous at the time, in a small, provincial town such as Knutsford. The romantic view purveyed by Mrs Gaskell in her novel Cranford conceals the cruelty that lay below the surface of polite society. There is yet another poisonous poem, written in about 1852, and addressed to Henry Gent:Five years had passed, and what was Henry then?
The most repining of repenting men;
With a fond, teasing, anxious wife, afraid
Of all attention to another paid;
Yet powerless she her husband to amuse,
Lives but t'entreat, implore, resent, accuse:
Jealous and tender, conscious of defects,
She merits little, and yet much expects;
She looks for love that now she cannot see,
And sighs for joy that never more can be.
On his retirements her complaints intrude,
And fond reproof endears his solitude;
While he her weakness (once her kindness) sees,
And his affections in her languor freeze,
Regret unchecked by hope, devours his mind;
He feels unhappy, and he grows unkind.
"Fool! to be taken by a rosy cheek,
And eyes that cease to sparkle or to speak;
Fool for this child my freedom to resign,
When one the glory of her sex was mine;
While from this burthen to my soul I hide,
To think what fate has dealt, and what denied.
What fiend possessed me when I tamely gave
My forced assent to be an idiot's slave?
Her beauty vanished, what for me remains?
Th'eternal clicking of the galling chains."
One terrible episode of which we have a record is sad and distressing. His daughter Mary Sarah died on Saturday, 23rd April, 1864, aged sixteen. On April 9th, 1865, Esther wrote to her sister-in-law Mary Gent, still on black-edged notepaper:
'I hope you will forgive me for not answering your kind letter to me after dear Mary Sarah's death. I assure you it makes a great difference in the house one pair of hands less and I am always so much cast down. I cannot do now like I could then for I am so unhappy without her. I feel there is nothing but my two children that court my stay here. I feel daily as I wanted to die. Then of all people I am most miserable when I think what would become of my two boys. I feel as though I can neither live nor die. I have not been able to eat or sleep and often think I shall meet death gladly. I am more grieved when I think she had nothing done till it was too late. Mr Gent indulged his temper and gave her nothing till one o'clock when her teeth had been set two hours or more. I sent for Mr Wagstaff at ten in the morning and told him she was dying but he said nothing was the matter with her. She asked him if she would die, he told her as well as me she would soon be all right, nothing was the matter with her. She told him she had been wicked, and I told her to pray. She said, 'Ma, you pray for me.' In a few minutes she said she wanted to go to her father, and said, 'I shall have to pass that great multitude.' She only spoke a few words after he left. He said he would give her something in a while, but it was two o'clock in the afternoon, she could take nothing then. No tongue can tell my feelings night and day. I cannot tell how Mr Gent can live to let his own child die for want, but he did it to grieve me, but I have nothing to reproach myself for. I have been a good wife but he will not [ ] till it is too late. I have thought to write many times but it grieves me so to think of that unhappy day. It has robbed me of my only comfort.'
Within a few years Henry must have had the stroke that left him partially paralysed and suffering from senile dementia. The large house was given up in 1873, and he was nursed by Esther. She wrote to her son Fred on 9th April, 1874: 'Your Pa is in a nasty youmer. He shouted at me till I left the room.' His death, when it came in the presence of his wife Esther, and son, Frank Turner Gent, on 27th March, 1875, must have been a release for him and his family in many ways. We have no portrait or photograph to remember Henry Gent by, only this impression of him formed from reading his correspondence, but despite his inadequacies in his personal life, we should let stand the brief eulogy by his son quoted on page three:
'He was of choleric temper, but unassuming, unambitious, frugal in his own personal expenses, yet generous, hospitable and just, never charging patients whom he thought too poor to pay.'