Today is International Woman’s Day and although we’re a museum that celebrates the lives of three great men, behind every great man is a network of great women!
Here’s a spotlight on Molly White, one of my favourite members of Gilbert’s Family.
Molly White was born in 1759, the daughter of Mary Yalden and Thomas White, Gilbert’s eldest younger brother. Molly’s mother died when she was four years old. Molly began regularly visiting her uncle in Selborne aged 15, to be tutored by Mrs Etty, at the Vicarage across the road. She was describes as tall, fair and handsome, and she and her uncle became very good friends. She would have probably enjoyed the company of her cousin Jack White, who lived at the Wakes. Her father was a keen amateur scientist and was based in London, after her education Molly, kept house for her father and Gilbert became close pen friends, with Gilbert sharing all the village gossip for his young niece.
‘I address you now as a prudent and experienced mistress of a family.’ –Gilbert White to Mary White April 13th 1778
Molly would have been quite at home at Selborne she frequently returned even after she married for Christmas and to attend events. She once walked up the Zig Zag to get to a Ball held at Richard Yalden’s Barn. She married her cousin Benjamin White in 1785 when she was 26. Benjamin eventually took over his father’s Natural History book publishers business in the literary heart of London. Through Molly’s father’s she was also very acquainted with London’ scientific circle (her father was a member of the Royal Society) and her new husband would have introduced her to many writers and scientific brains.
As an opinionated and very intelligent young woman, who was arguably her Uncle’s favourite, she was ideally placed to become very influential in the writing of The Natural History of Selborne. Molly acted as copy writer and was praised for her accuracy. After marrying Benjamin she took on the role of sub-editor. Gilbert sent the pages of the manuscript to her to read over and correct whilst she sent her son Benjamin, and later Thomas, to Gilbert to look after.
‘In return for your care about my brat, I have pleasure to inform you that your boy is perfectly well and brisk.’ Gilbert White to Mary White 13th March 1788.
The book she edited became a classic, that would inspire naturalists for hundreds of years and never go out of print. Molly died in 1833 aged 74, and unlike her uncle Gilbert (1720-1793) who would never live to see the success of The Natural History of Selborne, Molly would have seen it go through different editions, be translated into many different languages and see her uncle go down in history. At Selborne we are very lucky to have the manuscript of The Natural History of Selborne, which features four different people’s handwriting, Gilbert’s handwriting is unmistakable, but the lighter very precise handwriting that frequently appears is likely to be Molly’s who would have spent hours copying out and editing old letters into the Manuscript. So it seems fitting that her portrait sits opposite the manuscript keeping a close eye on it in the 21st century!
‘Your hand-writing is very fair, and handsome: pray keep it up; don’t scribble it away. Nanny Barker is a very good correspondent; but spoils her hand by writing too fast. A little patience would also make her a good pen woman.’ Gilbert White to Mary White Oct 19 1778.