Fricker, Edith (1774–1837)

Southey’s first wife. The third surviving child of Stephen Fricker and Martha Rowles. Southey and Edith met as children in Bristol. They married in secret on 14 November 1795 at St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol. As her sister Sarah later explained, Southey ‘left ... [Edith] at the Church door’ and the following day departed for Spain and Portugal. Edith spent the early days of her marriage living with the Cottle sisters and using her maiden name, only reverting to ‘Southey’ when the secret became public in early 1796. Recent biographers of Southey have questioned the state of his marriage, particularly given his lively — even flirtatious — friendships with Mary Barker and Caroline Bowles, who became his second wife in 1839. Compared to these other women, or to her sister Sarah, Edith is a relatively shadowy figure, plagued by physical and mental illness. The deaths of four of her eight children, in particular that of her daughter Isabel in 1826, hastened her decline. She suffered a complete collapse in 1834 and was taken to The Retreat, the pioneering, Quaker-run asylum in York, where she was diagnosed as of ‘unsound mind’ and treated with ‘purgatives, remedies, [and] leeches’. She was released in 1835 ‘as admitted’ — that is, uncured and incurable. Edith spent her final years at her home, Greta Hall, where she was cared for by Southey and her daughters Bertha and Kate. Southey described her death as a release from ‘a pitiable state of existence’.

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