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Saturday, 11 December 2010


My 5x great grandfather has a genuine claim to fame as the inventor of a system of shorthand; I don’t know why I haven’t written about this yet, and perhaps I will soon. It was while looking into the origins of Gurney, as his system became known, that I became aware of his appetite for marriage proposals.

Thomas Gurney (1705-1770)

I wrote earlier about the unpopularity amongst his many children of his second wife, whom they almost entirely erased from the family history: she is referred to only as Miss R. Their mother was his first wife Martha Marsom, daughter of John Bunyan’s prison companion Thomas Marsom (of whom I have also written). Tom married Martha in 1730. But today I was reminded of an even earlier attempt at marriage, which he used to joke about with his children.

After an evening meal, perhaps during the week (surely not on a devotional Sunday, for he was a devout Particular Baptist) his eye would catch that of Martha, Mrs Gurney. He might wink; she might blush; the children – young Martha, young Thomas, Joseph and John – might smile. They knew what was coming and had heard the story many times.

“I’ve been married to your mother these twenty years now, you know, thanks be to God. Never a cross word!” (Pause for laughter.) “But you know, I should have been married much earlier, if I’d not taken so long before I made my offer. Oh, not to your mother.” (“Oh Tom! Honestly!” chipped in mother Martha.)

“Fools rush in,” he may have added, “where angels fear to tread. Praise the Lord that I was not as fleet as I then wished I had been.” He undid a button of his waistcoat, settling into the tale.

"When I was a young man," he continued, "a dear friend of mine died while still in his prime, leaving a very smart widow." He emphasized the description, and Martha feigned offence at an insult he had feigned at every telling of this story. "I thought to myself, she would make a very desirable wife." (More tutting and eye-rolling from Martha, and grins all round from the teenage children.) "What’s more, I felt that she would not be long without an offer. 

"Therefore I called upon her the day after the funeral –  (“The day after? Really, father! So soon!” his eldest son Thomas interjected dutifully.)  – and I told her all that was on my mind. She immediately broke out, 'Oh, Mr Gurney! I wish you had mentioned this before.'  (“And we wish you hadn’t,” muttered his youngest, John.) 'I wish,' " Thomas Gurney pointedly pressed on in a comic high voice with his recital, " 'I had had any idea of your intention. There is not a man in the world for whom I have so great an esteem, or with whom I should have anticipated so much happiness.' Not a word of a lie, my children, those were her exact words." (Groans of disbelief.)

"Well, I may tell you that I expressed my surprise and confusion that, feeling thus, she should have refused me. She then added by way of explanation, “I am engaged! I am sorry, but I couldn’t help it. You remember Mr So-and-So who was at the funeral yesterday? He returned here afterwards; he stayed and took tea with me; and I could not get rid of him without making him a promise. I am sorry for it, but I must keep my word.'

"Well of course I had to consent that this was her proper course – as you know, my children, one must always keep one’s word, whether one wishes to or not. Never make any rash promises, children." (“Or proposals, father!” his daughter piped up.) "I took my leave; and at the end of three months, she put off her widow’s weeds and arrayed herself in wedding garments.

“I don’t recall,” Thomas Gurney concluded, “that I’ve ever told you that story before. But I am every day thankful that Providence ordered it so; for it has given me, by waiting, one of the most excellent of wives.” (“Only amongst the most excellent?” protested John. “To our most excellent mother!” Joseph raised a glass, and was joined by all present.)

And Martha sat back and smiled, basking in the warm love of her husband and children, but perhaps also in the knowledge that she had later met Mrs So-and-So the very smart widow, and heard her version of the story.

(The version I have, from which most of the above comes verbatim, is the one told by Thomas' grandson William Gurney, who presumably got it from his father, Tom's son Joseph.)

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