The Excellent Mrs Fry: Unlikely Heroine

 Alyson Brown on the biography of a 19th-century prison reformer  

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Reviewed by: Alyson Brown
Author: Anna isba
Publisher: Continuum
Price (RRP): £25

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Elizabeth Fry was a formidable woman whose devotion to institutional and particularly prison reform during the first half of the 19th century brought her a national and international reputation that has endured. Making extensive use of diaries and memoirs, Isba effectively draws the reader into Fry’s personal deliberations, contradictions and anxieties. 

The Excellent Mrs Fry is an evocative and affectionate consideration of why and how, over several decades, a mother of 11 children devoted herself to the reformation of criminal and outcast women and children. Fry’s fundamental achievement was to develop an administrative approach using committees of women visitors to prisons and other institutions which improved discipline and order and brought religion to those who had little reason to trust or welcome it.

Fry had many social advantages. As a Quaker minister her community accepted her public speaking and extensive travelling, as a wealthy woman from a well-connected and influential family she was able to finance and promote her causes. She was an impressive woman, but whether she was a hero, as this book claims, is debatable. Isba establishes that Fry pushed the boundaries of gender roles but did not challenge them. She had a strong sense of social responsibility but she didn’t question the contemporary social structures that resulted in huge variations in income and advantage. However, unlike most of her contemporaries, she recognised the vulnerability of women and children and the abuses they suffered in prisons and in life.

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Dr Alyson Brown is reader in history at Edge Hill University