Birth

You might think it rather odd that Florence Marryat’s birthdate warrants a page all of its own. However, this is a vexed issue, to say the least. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (and therefore most accounts) states her birthdate as 9th July 1837, but no birth certificate exists. Although the registration of births became mandatory eight days before Florence’s supposed arrival, many people resented this bureaucratic intrusion into their lives and didn’t always make the trip to the register office. It wasn’t until 1875 that it became a legal requirement to register births within six weeks, and records became far more reliable thereafter.

There is, however, a record of the christening of one Florence Marryat on 21st August 1833, daughter of Frederick and Catherine Marryat. It took place at St Nicholas’ Church in Brighton, not far from where the family used to stay.

Andrew Maunder, in his excellent introduction to Love’s Conflict, has also argued for this earlier date on the grounds that it is cited in both her divorce records and death certificate. The former makes repeated references to Florence having been a month short of her twenty-first birthday when she married Thomas Ross Church in 1854. The files also include her original marriage certificate, giving the same age. Her death certificate states she was 66 years old when she passed away in October 1899.

I also now have a copy of her second marriage certificate from June 1879 when she married Lieutenant Colonel Francis Lean. Here, her age is given as 39, thus giving her yet another birthdate of 1839! It’s not unheard of for a woman of a certain age to shave off a few years when preparing to both marry for the second time and go on the stage.

Much of this confusion must be down to deliberate obfuscation on Florence’s part. The answer seems to lie in the The Daily News obituary, which says “Mrs Marryat (sic) was born at Brighton, though in what year nobody outside her family was ever allowed to know”. It goes on to say:

During a professional tour in America, in 1884-5, there was some curiosity evinced on the point of her age, and it came to her knowledge that it had been put down as much as sixty. In the account of this trip she afterwards gave in a book entitled Tom Tiddler’s Ground, she alludes to this and admits that she has herself to thank it she gets somewhat over-credited. “I once played a trick on that subject,” she writes, “which has risen up like an unlaid ghost to haunt me at various points of my existence. Many years ago the proprietors of a popular periodical, which professes to give the names, dates of birth, and various other uninteresting details concerning the lives of men and women who have made their mark in the world, sent me their prospectus for insertions and corrections. My pen went swimmingly enough until it came to the statement of my age, and then I argued with myself, ‘What good shall I effect by telling the date of my birth to the public? I might wish to recall it at some future period, when they might refuse to forget it.’ So I inserted a wrong date. Several years in succession did these sheets lie on my desk, and each time I wrote a different age, but never the right one. After a while the proprietors possibly discovered the fraud, for they never asked me for any further particulars concerning myself. But these ages have risen up against me again and again. Sometimes I am fifty-six, sometimes I am forty-four, and sometimes I am sixty. The only consolation I have under this series of blows is that no one has ever hit on the right numerals yet. They will have to wait until my name appears in the dispatch columns of The Times, and I dare say they will declare then that I am lying after I am dead.”

The christening record, divorce files and death certificate are all incontrovertible evidence to prove that Florence Marryat made her first appearance in 1833. An account of her funeral published in The Era also mentions that the birthdate on her coffin was 9th January 1833. Perhaps Florence lost count of her age with advancing years? Then again, there’s a strong possibility that she was simply being mischievous.

Unfortunately, many scholars continue to refer to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and thus the incorrect birthdate is perpetuated. The ODNB has now confirmed that they will amend Marryat’s birthdate in the next edition.

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