Cross-Dressing, Elopement and Travels with Percy Shelley: the extraordinary life of Margaret King

On digitising our collection of chimney sweep related objects in the collection, Natascha Allen-Smith discovered a publication whose author has a very interesting history.

I recently embarked on a Project Placement to document and digitise the enormous Henry Collection, which contains thousands of chimney-sweep-related books, prints and figurines from the late 17th to the early 20th centuries. Tracing the publication details of 200-year-old books frequently involves some detective work, as certain publishers helpfully left out dates, authors’ names and occasionally entire title pages when the mood took them. While attempting to trace the nameless author of an obscure 1820 novel called Continuation of the Stories of Old Daniel, I stumbled upon one of the most bizarre and extraordinary life stories I have ever heard.

A quick internet search informed me that the book was attributed to Mrs Mason, but tracing the writer’s identity beyond this proved more difficult, because she had not always carried this name. Before she was Mrs Mason, she was Lady Mount Cashell, and before that, Margaret King. In a lifetime that spanned two marriages, three countries and four identities, she utterly defied the conventions of her time and made a lasting impression on those she met, among whom were a certain celebrated literary couple, Percy and Mary Shelley.

A double page spread of a book called 'Continuation of The stories of old Daniel: or tales of wonder and delight'. There is an engrained picture on the left hand side of two men carrying sacks and begging.
The novel that brought Margaret King into the Henry Collection, with an illustration of a chimney sweep and no listed author.

Margaret King was born into the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in 1773. Her parents, she later wrote, were ‘too much occupied by frivolous amusements to pay much attention to their children’, so she was thrust under the disciplining thumb of governesses and tutors before her third birthday. It was lucky, then, that one of these governesses was the pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who made a lasting impression on King and her siblings, despite being their tutor for less than one year. Indeed, the name King would later adopt, Mrs Mason, was that of a governess character from Wollstonecraft’s children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life.

A piece of aged paper with very italicised handwriting on in black ink.
Extract from an autobiographical document written by King in 1818, in which she remembers her successive tutors.

King married Stephen Moore, 2nd Earl Mountcashell, in 1791, at the age of 19, bearing seven children over the ensuing decade. Even during this time in her life, she did not entirely conform to the conventions expected of aristocratic women: Mary Wollstonecraft’s widower, William Godwin, wrote that she was ‘uncommonly tall and brawny’, and dressed in plain grey gowns inappropriate to her social standing. In 1801, the Mountcashells embarked on a grand tour of Europe, hosting lavish entertainments in France and Italy. During their stay in Rome, Margaret fell in love with another Irishman, George Tighe. When her family began their journey home, she realised that she could not bear to go with them, opting to stay with Tighe. Under the laws of the time, this meant completely relinquishing her rights to her children.

It was from this point that King adopted the name Mrs Mason, publishing her first novel in 1807. Alongside authorship, she decided to expand her knowledge in further directions, dressing as a man to study medicine at Jena in Germany, a disguise which made use of her unusual height. After settling their affairs, she and Tighe eloped to Italy, living a happy and secluded life in Pisa and raising two daughters. Among the few guests they entertained was Mary Shelley, Wollstonecraft’s daughter and author of Frankenstein, and her husband Percy, whose poetry was impacted by the Masons’ radical politics. He and Mrs Mason studied Greek together, and she may be the inspiration for his poem The Sensitive Plant.

an oil painting of a young man. He's wearing a white shirt with a big collar and a black coat, and is holding a quill in his right hand.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was inspired by Mrs Mason while visiting her in Italy.

Margaret King, Lady Cashell, Mrs Mason and Mrs Tighe can all be found in a grave in Pisa in Italy’s oldest Protestant cemetery. I don’t know what name is engraved on her headstone, but I’m grateful that a chance reference in one of her books brought her into Dr. Sydney Henry’s sprawling and eclectic collection.

By Natascha Allen-Smith, Henry Collection Project Placement

Find out more about our Social History collection here.

Explore our Project Placement opportunities here.

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