I first discovered the Newdigate family when I was a Ph.D. student. Elizabeth Newdigate’s medical letters to Sloane read like a soap opera, filled with heartache and family disapproval. But it wasn’t until several years later that I realised just how dysfunctional the family was.
This week, I’m giving a paper on her father, Sir Richard Newdigate, who wrote a curious pamphlet that gives a fuller picture of the family’s problems: The Case of an Old Gentleman, persecuted by his Own Son (1707). For several years, he had been embroiled in legal difficulties with his children, including financial disputes, an attempt by two of his sons to have him declared a lunatic, and a complaint by four of his daughters in the House of Lords about his “cruel Severities and unreasonable Usage and Practices”. Newdigate hoped to defend his tarnished reputation.
Throughout his account, Newdigate referred to himself as an “Old Sick Gentlemen” – which indeed he was. When the troubles started in 1701, Newdigate was in fine health. He had just undertaken a lengthy tour of France with no ill effects. But his health steadily deteriorated at pace with the arguments, leaving him a broken old man before he died in 1709. Although Newdigate did not mention the physical pains of ageing, he repeatedly identified himself as “old” and used terms of emotional suffering (“persecuted”, “afflicted”, “lacerated”). What seemed to wound him most was the attempt to have him declared a lunatic. This would have removed all his legal authority over his estates and person.
Sir Richard emerges as a sympathetic character in his account, an old man who was being bullied by his children. The story evokes images of King Lear, although Newdigate specifically referred to the Bible (Genesis 9: 18-29): Ham’s shaming of Noah by refusing to cover his father’s nakedness. In pursuing their demands, the Newdigate children had allowed their father to be roughly assaulted by ruffians, chipped away at his paternal authority, accused him falsely, and stopped providing care. Fear and social isolation exacerbate physical pain and cause emotional suffering. Newdigate’s accounts centered on two main anxieties associated with old age: the steady decline of authority and the absence of caring children.
Biographers of Newdigate, such as Eileen Gooder (The Squire of Arbury: Sir Richard Newdigate, Second Baronet and His Family, 1644-1710) roundly condemn Newdigate’s children, providing evidence of what a good father he had been – of course basing their interpretation on Newdigate’s accounts of himself as a poor old man. But the story may not be so simple. Two adult children had also been committed, hinting at a real strain of mental illness in the family. And the suggestions in medical records that the daughters’ darker allegation of “unreasonable Usage and Practices” might have been true. Tracing the truth of the story through the Newdigate family records is part of my ongoing research.
Sir Richard Newdigate’s success in fashioning himself as an elderly victim reveals much about the wider cultural anxieties about aging. The real suffering that came with old age was not mere physical discomfort, but the fear of being abandoned or preyed upon by one’s family. Newdigate drew on these concerns to elicit sympathy from his readers and to re-establish his reputation: who could blame an “Old Sick Gentleman” who had been vulnerable to his demanding children?
On Sloane’s assistance to Elizabeth Newdigate, see my article, “Reassessing the Role of the Family: Women’s Medical Care in Eighteenth-Century England”, Social History of Medicine 16, 3 (2003): 327-342.