My historical fiction is not about real people; that is, I’m not telling the story of a famous, infamous, or obscure historical figure, much as I love novels like that. Still, as I’ve gone through this long process of a serious attempt at historical fiction, I’ve read about some really interesting figures. I thought I’d share a little about them.
Last time, I wrote about Dido Belle, the inspiration behind Madeline Keegan. Today, I want to tell you about Jane Harry, who I read about in Daniel Livesay’s dissertation Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Migration from the West Indies to Britain, 1750-1820, which I read for research.
Jane Harry was the daughter of Thomas Hibbert, who was a judge and a member of Assembly in Jamaica. He was from Manchester, England, and arrived in Jamaica in 1734. He had a relationship with a free mulatto woman named Charity Harry, who in 1775, applied to the Assembly to have privileged rights, meaning all the rights whites enjoyed, except for holding office and voting. She was granted these rights, along with land and wealth from Hibbert, putting her at the top of Jamaica’s free colored society.
Hibbert built Hibbert House in Kingston, which still stands. Today, it is the Headquarters of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.
Hibbert House, Kingston, Jamaica. Photo by Dan Livesay.
Jane was born in 1756 in Kingston, Jamaica. In 1770, she and her sister were sent to England to live with their father’s business partner, Nathan Sprigg. Jane’s sister was sent to boarding school, but Jane stayed on with the Spriggs. She was artistic; the Spriggs introduced her to Samuel Johnson and Mary Knowles and took her on trips to spa towns like Cheltenham.
Her sister died a few years later and Jane turned to spiritual matters to console herself. She became good friends with Mary Knowles, a prominent Quaker, who introduced her to Joshua Reynolds. Jane, being an artist, learned a lot from Reynolds and won a cash prize from the Society in London for the Encouragement of the Arts and Commerce for an original painting.
There is no portrait of Jane Harry and no remarks on her color or complexion, which might mean that she was light-skinned. Her West Indian origins were referred to far more than her color.
Soon after, Jane converted to Quakerism, which isolated her from the Spriggs and from the social circles she had been accepted in. Hibbert died in 1780 and Jane wrote to his heir, her cousin, for a portion of her father’s estate–she received some money which she was supposed to split with her mother, who still lived in Jamaica. At the same time, her cousin wrote her several letters where he told her that her father did not consider her to be his true daughter and to not ask for more money. Jane then grew interested in returning to Jamaica and freeing her mother’s slaves.
Jane worked as a governess for a time, then married Joseph Thresher, a surgeon. They married in 1782. She gave birth to a son in 1784 and died three months later.