On a quiet street in the Parish of St. James in the English community of Westminster stood the home of a gentleman tradesman, Thomas King, and his wife Jane Moss. Prince Street was located in a fashionable section of the city, for Thomas was a successful builder, and his large house was a prime example of the quality of his work. The yard that had been previously filled with the voices of playing children was now quiet, for they had been called by the housekeeper to assemble in the downstairs foyer to await an announcement by their father. The three children stood together, anxiously anticipating his appearance at the top of the stairs. Edward, the eldest, attempted to keep the younger two children in line as he tried to subdue his own excitement. His sister Hannah, the second child of the Moss family, was teasing little Thomas, the baby of the family, and their giggling was contagious. But Edward understood, more than his younger brother and sister, just what his mother had been about, for he had experienced it twice before. Staunchly he resisted the temptation to lose his deportment; after all, was he not the master of the house when his father was away? As Thomas King left his wife and before he quietly closed the door to attend to the children waiting below, he glanced back into the master bedroom. What he saw warmed his heart. He was more than relieved Jane had come through the ordeal of delivering a child for the fourth time. He often marveled at her ability to accept each new arrival as if this were the most unique child to come into the world. Even more amazing was her uncanny insight into each personality.
Jane Moss sat in the big four-poster bed holding her fourth child, Mary Frances. Life was perfect at that moment, and she was satisfied with a new daughter. Sons could be lost to wars. The upheavals in France kept every British mother worrying about her sons.
Jane Moss, Laura Keene’s mother.
Jane was an exceedingly bright woman, and her husband was willing to discuss the political and social climate of the times with her. Both of them were determined that their children should be well educated. Under this unusual freedom, she must have kept the library in their home stocked with interesting texts. The books would have included histories of the age of revolution, which had begun during her mother’s lifetime in the British colonies in 1776. As monarchs were toppled, new men had come to power with revolutionary thoughts about novel forms of government, particularly republican and constitutional government. These drastic changes occurred mainly in the United States and France, but they aroused debates in every country, including Britain.
Jane Moss must have determined that good directives to raise thinking young women should be easily accessible in the library of Thomas King, and if not there, certainly these books could be had at the home of their aunt, actress Elizabeth Brunton, the wife of Frederick Yates. One of these enlightening texts was probably Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman written in 1792 when the early accomplishments of the French Revolution made people optimistic that they could initiate rational reforms.
Wollstonecraft wrote several important books on the controversial topic of women’s education. “It was the first sustained argument for female emancipation based on a cogent ethical system.”3 Her ideas influenced many nineteenth-century men and women and are considered the foundation for women’s equality:
The conduct and manners of women, in fact, evidently prove that their minds are not in a healthy state; for like flowers they are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty; and the flaunting leaves, after having pleased a fastidious eye, fade, disregarded on the stalk, long before the season when they ought to have arrived at maturity. One cause of this barren blooming I attribute to a false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men.4
The power of generalizing ideas, of drawing comprehensive conclusions from individual observations, is the only acquirement, for an immortal being, that really deserves the name of knowledge. Merely to observe, without endeavoring to account for anything, may (in a very incomplete manner) serve as the common sense of life; but where is the store laid up that is to clothe the soul when it leaves the body?
This power has not only been denied to women; but writers have insisted that it is inconsistent, with a few exceptions, with their sexual character. Let men prove this.5
Ah! Why do women—I write with affectionate solicitude—condescend to receive a degree of attention and respect from strangers different from that reciprocation of civility which the dictates of humanity and the politeness of civilization authorize between man and man? And why do they not discover, when “in the noon of beauty’s power,” that they are treated like queens only to be deluded by hollow respect, till they are led to resign, or not assume, their natural prerogatives? Confined, then, in cages like the feathered race, they have nothing to do but to plume themselves and stock with mock majesty from perch to perch.6
More than likely writings similar to Wollstonecraft’s, were available to an insatiable and impressionable young mind like that of Mary Frances Moss, for such ideas can be seen in the way she was raised and in her decision-making processes in later years.
True to the new laws of domesticity, Jane Moss assured the individual education of all her children, not just the boys, but her daughters as well. Mary Frances was a sunny little girl with auburn hair and large, honey-brown eyes. Filled with energy, she would bounce into a room, and immediately her parents or siblings would come alive with her enthusiasm. Her brothers and sister adored her, and as the baby in the family she was fussed over and pampered by them all. Still, any suggestion of the possibility that she was not as mature as they sent a black cloud of gloom over her usually sunny disposition. Mary Frances was to be taken seriously, and if her parents smiled when she mispronounced words in her recitation of Shakespeare, she used to go off by herself and rehearse it until she could recite the passage perfectly.7
As she grew into a beautiful young woman, her education proved remarkable. Not only was she trained in matters of deportment, as was common for young ladies of the time, but she had been given dance, piano, and voice lessons. She passionately absorbed and practiced each skill, and her mother, observing her accomplishments, fondly called her “Birdie.” She availed herself of the libraries in her aunt’s home and her father’s. It was not unusual to find her there with her head bent over a book in serious contemplation. She was highly accomplished in her knowledge of history and literature, as those who experienced it firsthand would say of her.
When glorious weather made the days in the library too confining, Mary Frances could be found in the company of her uncle, an artist, whose studio was in the culturally stimulating neighborhood of St. James Palace and Theatre. While perching on a stool, keenly watching him work on a canvas, she waited for the moment when he would wipe his hands on a rag, run his long fingers through his hair, and lay down his tools. It was then she usually questioned him about all kinds of art and coax him into allowing her to try her hand with his utensils. To her uncle’s delight, she developed a discerning eye and a delicate touch. Proudly he often told people that she was talented enough to serve as a retoucher of “old masters” in the St. James Gallery.
It was at that gallery that she was to become fascinated with the paintings of J. M. W. Turner, which would greatly influence her stage designs in later years. She was thrilled with his treatment of nature, his preoccupation with air, light, and golden mists in a world that seemed to float in endless fantasy. For a bright, beautiful young woman the study of his works held endless appeal. She used to come home and share her wonder with her family who would sit listening raptly to all she had experienced and felt. They were a close-knit, culturally refined family who enjoyed each other’s company in a home filled with laughter and love.
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