Women worth Emulating/Chapter 7


Misses Jane and Anne Taylor
(Mrs. Gilbert)

There are two poems—sweet true poems, though written for infant lips—made, like the flowers, to delight all minds, which are probably more familiar to millions of readers than any verses in oar language. They are—"My mother," by Anne Taylor; and "Twinkle, twinkle, little star," by her sister Jane.

These sisters were members of a sweet, congenial, united family, nearly unique in the annals of literature. They inherited from a line of ancestors, distinguished in a far nobler sense than by mere worldly rank, acute and penetrating intellect, energy and decision of character, accompanied by great self-control and perseverance. These are the qualities which, under the Divine blessings lead to eminence.

In the year 1781, a young married couple, aged respectively 23 and 22, set up their first home in lodgings at Islington. Their marriage dower consisted of love and faith towards God and each other, superior intelligence, and habits of industry and frugality. Isaac Taylor, the husband, was an engraver, with no other certain income than half a guinea a week for three days' work, weekly provided for him by his elder brother, who was afterwards known as "the learned editor of Calmet's Dictionary ." This income, with thirty pounds in hand, and a hundred pounds in stock possessed by Mrs. Taylor, and furniture enough for their two' pleasant rooms, comprised their pecuniary means for starting in life. Both these young people were endowed with those distinctive qualities which we call a character. Both were sincerely religious, showing forth their principles in their daily life.

In January, 1782, Anne, their gifted eldest child, was born. A year and nine months after, September, 1783, Jane, destined to be so well known and loved, was added to the household. A removal had taken place from what then was a rural suburb of London, to Red Lion Street, Holbom, and here their first son, who did not survive childhood, was given to them.

If the father had now to toil very hard to maintain his family, the mother^s exertions were quite as great. She never allowed herself, any recreation. and might have broken down both her mind and body in mere household drudgery, had not a friend wisely and kindly advised her ever to strive to be her husband's companion in higher things. This advice she so firmly acted on that she commenced a practice of reading aloud to him daily, which was of the utmost mental benefit and pleasure not only to herself but her young family. She became that rare thing then—and not too common now—a good reader, and exercised her mind on intellectual topics suggested by her reading.

Some threatening of ill health; and the expense of rearing a family in London, determined MrTaylor to take a very resolute step, and remove himself and family into the country. After many inquiries, a spacious old-fashioned house and good garden were found at Lavenham, in Suffolk, for six pounds a year! No such dwelling could be found now for treble that price. Here, far from all ordinary postal or coach communication, amid humble, kindly, sensible neighbours, and in wholesome retirement, began a system of domestic living and home instruction for the children, which, whether judged by its immediate or after results, must be pronounced as admirable as it was uncommon.

Mr. Taylor, whose Christian zeal was most earnest, set up a Sunday School for the poor children of the place—about the time when Mr. Baikes of Gloucester began the great work there, which has led to such wonderful results. Sunday School work led to his giving addresses, which were prized by the parents and others; and so, without intending anything but Christian usefulness to his neighbours, he almost unconsciously became a preacher of the gospel. Evidently he was one of those called of God, and led by a way he had not anticipated into the Christian ministry.

In 1848, Anne (then Mrs. Gilbert) wrote in the Sunday School Magazine an account of her father's beginning a Sabbath School sixty years previously. Mrs. Taylor had with very great reluctance, amounting to anguish, consented to the removal of the family to the country. Soon the garden and rural beauty around "won her heart." She lived fully to assent to the words of one of her daughters, that it was "a happy seclusion." Here the children, the sisters especially, made their own amusements. Jane asked to have a brick pig-sty (!) given to her, which she cleared out for a house, and here the study and the play of the two little girls went on most joyfully. The finding out occupations for themselves, and a certain independence in the selection of pursuits, aided by great activity, made them very happy children.

Mr. Taylor pursued his profession as an engraver, having continuous employment from London, which of course he had occasionally to visit. Except at these absences, the children were the companions of their parents; they listened to their mother's reading aloud, picked up subjects of thought and conversation, and were thus being educated in the best sense of intelligent yet deferential familiarity; good manners, kindly feelings, and useful arts were all gained in that happy household.

The family had to mourn some losses of infant members; but one brother was born at Lavenham, whose name holds an honoured place in the best literature of this age: Isaac Taylor, the author of a long list of most valuable and suggestive books.

The times between 1789 and 1795 were hard, in every sense. Provisions were dear, taxation high, labour ill remunerated, and persecution, both religious and political, rampant. In such a time the fine arts could not flourish, nor could a Dissenter, however mild and blameless his life, escape insult and danger from an ignorant and excited populace.

Mr. Taylor had gained great mastery in his profession, and during some part of the time he resided at Lavenham obtained large sums for his engravings, some of which became celebrated; one in particular, from Opie's historical picture of the murder of David Rizzio.

But troubles came. A dangerous illness brought the dear father to the brink of the grave; and the anxious wife and mother, always of an extremely sensitive, tender nature, was worn to a shadow by her incessant cares, even though she knew better than most where to go for strength. It is not promised that the Lord^s people shall escape trials; many of the very best have to struggle on " through great tribulation." But help comes to them in the struggle. Mr. Taylor recovered, and his ministrations were so valued, that his spiritual teaching was sought after and spoken of far beyond Lavenham, The Independent Church at Colchester gave him an invitation, which he accepted; the family leaving their Lavenham home with sincere regret, but yet as a call of duty.

Anne and Jane were respectively fourteen and thirteen when they went to reside at Colchester. Quiet, observant, graceful girls, very merry among themselves, yet with those bashful, retiring manners not so much seen now as in former times.

They had already begun to use their pens; and they neglected no opportunity of improvement which came in their way among a more extended circle of young friends; always being careful to form friendships with the best companions.

In study, in a full share of household duties, in the care and teaching of their younger brothers, superintended in all things by their admirable parents, their first years at Colchester were passed. One indulgence they had—which, in their own estimation, they considered was a valuable aid in the formation of their mental and spiritual characters—a little separate study for each. It might be, and was, but a slip from an attic chamber, a lumber closet cleared out, or a recess partitioned off; but each of the girls and boys, as they could use it, had respectively this kind of retiring-place of their own. How much of individuality and thoughtful habit was doubtless promoted by this plan! In "Home Education" [1] this opportunity of seclusion is insisted on as most essential to the growth of a reflective character.

During this time, as indeed always, Mrs. Taylor may be called the governess, and her husband the tutor, of the family. The latter, carefully reflecting on the difficulties of the times, resolved to give his daughters knowledge of an art by which they could gain their own living if he were taken from them. So, in 1797, when Anne was sixteen, the father brought the girls into his workshop (studio we should now call it) and taught them drawing and engraving. Art education for girls was then not thought of; but the father in this household was a man beyond his age in many things, and his gifted daughters amply recompensed by their progress the pains he took with them.

No apprentices could work more continuously than did Anne and Jane with their graving tools and etching needles. They had an hour for dinner, half an hour for tea, and when the evening hour of release came, and they were free to follow their own pursuits, the time seemed so short which they had for reading or composition, that they acquired, during all that time of year when daylight aided them, the valuable habit of early rising.

The faculty of verse was soon manifested by both sisters, and greatly delighted in by them; but the higher gift of poetic feeling and perception of the beautiful in nature, in human life, and in art, was also theirs. Anne was the first that ventured into print; some stanzas in "The Minor^s Pocket Book " induced her to attempt something of the kind. A prize of six copies of the work was offered for some rhymed solutions of enigma or charade. She wrote what was required, under the name of "Juvenilia," and had the joy—a secret pleasure then—to find she was successful. To this little work she continued to contribute for some years, afterwards became its editor, and only gave it up on her marriage.

Children's books were then very rare, and very poorly executed. Dr. Watts seemed to have no successor in teaching great truths in simple language to the young. Messrs. Darton and Harvey were then the publishers of children's books, and the writings of "Juvenilia," and afterwards of the same contributor under the name of "Clara," attracted their attention. Some plates for their juvenile works were executed by the sisters Anne and Jane, and an oSer was made them, in 1800, to exercise their talents in writing for the young.

Never were youthful aspirants more fitted for the sweet and important work of giving instruction to the opening mind. They had feeling, fancy, tenderness, piety; and thus the joint work began, which, as "Original Poems for Infant Minds," was to enjoy such a well-deserved popularity, and to remain unsarpassed, after three-quarters of a century eminent for its literary activity and excellence.

It is characteristic that the sisters—though well knowing, by its want, the worth of money —were comparatively indifferent to pecuniary recompense. The delight of composition, the joy of finding they were doing good to the young, and the approval of many contemporaries, whose name and fame they had admired, without ever thinking they should know and be known by them, was a priceless recompense.

The "Hymns for Infant Minds" was a still higher effort of genius. Brecognised as among the best writers for the young, from the time of its publication and great success, constant literary work was engaged in by both the sisters. It was a beautiful trait that each esteemed the other better than herself. No such feeling as rivalry was at all possible in such lovely natures, so elevated by grace and truth. Somehow, the world was led to ascribe rather the higher attributes to Jane. It arose from their supposing many of her sister^s best poems to be hers. But in a careful analysis it would be very difficult—and surely where each is so excellent, needless—to assign any superiority. The elder was permitted to live out a long and most complete life; the younger died in the zenith of her power; and it may be that the loving reverence, both of relatives and readers, so hallowed her memory, that the survivor, for a time, was overshadowed by the radiance of her fame.


Both sisters wrote clear, graphic, elegant prose, as well as poetry. Jane's "Contributions of Q.Q." and her story of "Display," and other writings, prove her skill. But Anne was a journalist and a reviewer. She wrote for The Eclectic in its palmy days, when some of the leading minds among our great men—as Revs. John Poster and Robert Hall— were contributors. It was not until the recent publication of Mrs. Gilbert^s Life, one of the most interesting biographies of our time, prolific as it is in this department of writing, that her real genius was known.

Removal to Ongar, in Essex, and the residence there during the last eighteen years of their father's life, has caused people to speak of the household as if Ongar was the only locality associated with their celebrity. It certainly was a very dear and memorable residence to them all, consecrated both by life and death.

On December 24, 1813, Miss Anne Taylor was married to the Rev. J. Gilbert, then the classical tutor at Rotherham College; and for some years after, though her literary pursuits were never entirely relinquished, the cares of a rapidly-increasing and large family demanded her attention, and she proved to them and to their father, a tender guide, instructress, helper, companion, friend—the same inestimable wife and mother that her own early home had possessed. At Rotherham, at Hull, and finally at Nottingham, she was the centre of a household that emulated and inherited her virtues, and of a wider circle that loved and honoured her.

Jane was for some years after her sister^s marriage more closely associated with her beloved brother Isaac, and the most tender friendship subsisted between them. As Isaac's health was delicate,—and the youngest child of the family at Ongar was a daughter, Jemima, who became the devoted attendant on her mother,—Jane went with her brother to Devon and to Cornwall. At Marazion, in Mount's Bay, many of Janets later works were written; and it was no small comfort to the good father in his declining years, and to the mother, as delicacy of health, increased by her deafness, pressed on her, that Jane was realizing an independence by her writings.

It is strange to read that although their father wished to make his daughters artists, he at first shrunk from their being engaged in literature. "I have no wish that my daughters should be authors," he had said, when their honourable career was first opening before them. He lived to retract that wish; for not only his daughters, but his wife, when released by years from the pressure of domestic cares, became a very successful writer on domestic and educational subjects. Her pen was the solace to Mrs. Taylor's infirmities; and the substitute for the companionship of her children, as they had to leave the "old house at home."

In the year 1823, Miss Jane Taylor's health began to fail. She had symptoms of a painful malady; but her patience and hopefulness prevented her family for a long time from thinking her case so serious as it was. Her brother Isaac was to her the same devoted friend that she had, during his illness, been to him. After trial of other places, in search of health, Jane returned to Ongar; and, as her strength declined, it was her beloved brother who carried her up and down stairs, and tried by every means, aided by the solicitude of the tenderest parents, to cheer the sufferer. And she was cheered; for heavenly support was given her, and her mind was stayed in perfect peace.

The decline was so gradual, that the end was rather sudden. She herself was the first to announce the change she felt. On the 13th of April, 1824, she cheerfully said, "Put me on a clean cap, and set the room to rights, for I am going." In answer to an inquiry of her father's, she said, in a firm voice, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil;" and then lay quite still. About a quarter of an hour before her death, her youngest brother, Jeffrey, asked her if she felt any pain. She replied, "No, dear; only a little sleepy;" and soon after, with one long sigh, she died[2] to the deep grief and loss of her parents and family—to her own eternal gain.

One shrinks from thinking what the grief of such parents must have been for such a daughter. But they were true Christians, and therefore their consolations were not few nor small.

Not quite five years after this loss, the family were bereaved of their beloved father. He was, notwithstanding several attacks of illness, full of mental vigour to the last. He died suddenly, on December 12th, 1829. His wife—his other self—did not linger long after him. In five months her spirit was released from the fetters of the body, and went to join her husband in praising that dear Redeemer in heaven, whom they had so long devoutly loved and followed on earth. Mrs. Gilbert, as before stated, lived what may be called a complete life. She sustained every relationship and responsibility—daughter, sister, wife, mother, widow, friend—excellent in all. She retained her youthful feelings and cheerful sympathies to the age of eighty-four. Her latest writings showed no abatement of mental power, while her noble minds enlarged by her greater experience, hailed every sign of progress in female education, in social and political reforms. She was not visited by any severe illness, nor, except a slight deafness, with any infirmity. Still she was ready; her lamp ever burning, and her spirit waiting for her Saviour's call.

She wrote up her diary, had settled all her yearly accounts, for Christmas was approaching; and with a smile, kissing her daughter twice,—saying, first—"That's for 'thank you;'" and then again—"and that's for 'good-night,'"—she retired to rest.

The next morning, the family could not rouse her. She slept gently on—still slept. The day wore on to night, and still she gently slept; once there dawned a slight shadow of a smile—then the breathing was a little heavier—and then, with a single sigh, the land of clouds and death was left for that of light and life, on December 20th, 1866.

"Oh! not 'till brittle walls,
'Till life's gay glittering show,
'Till each in ruin falls,
Shall the freed spirit know
Its growth, its strength, its native skies.
Poor captive soul, awake, arise!"

Butler & Tanner, The Selwood Printing Works, Frome, and London.

  1. By Isaac Taylor.
  2. Autobiography and other Memorials of Mrs. Gilbert, vol. ii. p. 49.