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Eminent Women: Jane Nugent Burke

By: Amy Tanner Thiriot - October 23, 2013

Jane Nugent Burke is the third Eminent Woman who had her proxy work done in the St. George Temple, since her husband’s biography was one of the earliest entries in Evert Duyckinck’s Portrait Gallery, Vol. 1, the source for Wilford Woodruff’s list of names. In the biography, Jane is called “Miss Nugent,” so that is how her temple work was done. Her baptism proxy was Lucy Bigelow Young; the endowment proxy was Caroline Hardy Blake.

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Edmund Burke is one of a group of Irish-born politicians featured in Duyckinck’s biographies. Due to his lasting influence — he is considered the founder of modern conservative thought — his life and contributions have been examined and reexamined.1 It was not until recently, however, that attention turned to his wife, Jane Mary Nugent Burke, and her place in his political career. Elizabeth Lambert’s book Edmund Burke of Beaconsfield helps situate Burke in the context of his home and family, and that gives many insights into his career and relationships, both personal and political.

Jane Mary Nugent first met Edmund Burke when he sought treatment from her father, Dr. Christopher Nugent, in Bath, England. Both families were Irish.

Sometime after their initial meeting, Edmund, or “Ned,” as Jane called him, dashed off this description of his ideal woman, in what is generally understood to be a close description of Jane Nugent.

I intend to give my Idea of a woman. If it at all answers any Original I shall be pleased; for if such a person really exists as I would describe, she must be far Superior to any Description. … She is handsome; but it is a Beauty not arising from features, from Complexion and Shape. She has all these in an high degree [he hastens to say]; but … ‘[t]is all the sweetness of Temper, Benevolence, Innocence, and Sensibility which a face can express, that forms her beauty. … Her Eyes have a mild light, but they awe you when she pleases. … Her stature is not tall. She is not to be the admiration of everybody, but the happiness of one [he says hopefully]…. Her Smiles are … inexpressible. Her Voice is a low, Softmusick; not formed to rule in publick Assemblies, but to charm those who can distinguish a Company from a Croud. It has this advantage, you must come Close to her to hear it [he says with nearly audible zest]…. No person of so few years can know the world better; no person was ever less corrupted by that knowledge. … She has a steady and firm mind. … Who can see and know such a Creature and not love to Distraction? Who can know her, and himself, and entertain much hope?2

The two married in March 1757 at St. Bride Church, Fleet Street, London.

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A year later Jane gave birth to a son, Richard, named after Edmund’s father and brother. Ten months after that, she gave birth to a second son, Christopher, named after Jane’s father. After one or two miscarriages, Jane had no more children.

As Edmund’s political career developed, Jane became a vital part of his political life. Similar to Abigail Adams, she kept up an extensive correspondence with her husband and his political allies, providing valuable social and political support and advice.

Edmund and Jane were members of the Church of England, but they both had family ties to the Catholic Church, so at the time of the Gordon Riots Edmund sent Jane to stay with General John Burgoyne, since their home had been threatened. A family member noted at the time of this crisis, “Jane has the firmness and Sweetness of an angel—but why do I say an angel?—of a woman!”

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The Burkes established a long-time home at Gregories, near Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire. There they led the lives of the landed gentry, entertaining regularly and keeping a large household. At one point, the household consisted of Edmund, Jane, their son Richard, Edmund’s brother Richard, Edmund’s secretary and her sister, and a German professor.

Jane and Edmund’s son Christopher had died young, leaving the Burkes with just one living child. After a challenging adolescence, Richard was set to follow in his father’s political footsteps when he suddenly contracted a fatal disease, perhaps tuberculosis. As Richard became weaker and weaker, Edmund noted that Jane found solace in prayer, but “As to me I feel dried up.” The next morning after reciting from Adam’s morning hymn in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Richard died.

In his grief, Edmund threw himself back into his work, but Jane was left to mourn and sort through the affairs of a financially straitened household.

Jane tried to keep busy by taking a niece into her home, but three years later, her beloved “Ned” also died. Jane sold Gregories to pay off the family debts, and lived quietly with relatives until her death fifteen years later. She is buried in St. Mary and All Saints Church in Beaconsfield with her beloved husband, son Richard, and brother-in-law Richard.

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Notes

Picture of Edmund, Jane, Richard, and Richard Burke’s gravemarker from FindAGrave, courtesy of “julia&keld.” Used by permission.

  1. A well-known quote is commonly misattributed to him, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Burke did, however, say many things like the following brief excerpts from his many speeches and writings: “It is a general popular error to suppose the loudest complainers for the publick to be the most anxious for its welfare.” “And having looked to Government for bread, on the very first scarcity they will turn and bite the hand that fed them.” “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” “All government — indeed, every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act — is founded on compromise and barter.” “The true danger is when liberty is nibbled away, for expedients, and by parts.” And my favorite, “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.” [Source]. []
  2. Brian Doyle, “The Right Honourable Mr. Burke,” The American Scholar (Summer 2012), 41. []


3 Comments »

  1. Another tie to American history–General Burgoyne (Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne) commanded the British troops that in 1777 invaded the colonies from the north, taking Fort Ticonderoga as they made their way south toward Albany, New York. Burgoyne did not, however, expect the drubbing they’d receive from the Americans at Saratoga, resulting in the surrender of his army on October 17, 1777. That defeat, which showed that the colonials could defeat a substantial British army, caused the French to join the war, which ultimately spelled defeat for Britain.

    A minor point, but the Americans at Saratoga were led by General Horatio Gates, for whom a certain avenue in Brooklyn, New York, is named. Where Gates Avenue crosses Franklin (named, I presume, for an even more famous American of that era) there sits a chapel, built in 1919 by the church for the Brooklyn Branch. So, everything is tied together, and everything is tied to Brooklyn.

    One of Gates’s able lieutenants at Saratoga was a certain Colonel Benedict Arnold, whose left leg was severely wounded in the fighting. After the nasty business about West Point, it was thought inappropriate to erect a statue of the traitor, despite his valor at Saratoga, so instead there is a monument to his leg. But Arnold’s name is nowhere on the monument.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 23, 2013 @ 4:32 pm

  2. The Boot Monument? That’s funny.

    Comment by Amy T — October 23, 2013 @ 7:04 pm

  3. Nice.

    Comment by David Y. — October 24, 2013 @ 1:46 am

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