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‘Mothers, Mistresses and Maids: Women in the Acteson Manuscript’

Written by Jessica Barton


Eighteenth-century ghost stories typically contain strong religious undertones. Ghosts could appear as a revelation, to prove God’s power, or, as the manuscript presents, to offer a warning and to urge repentance. The manuscript’s religious context is therefore central to its meaning, especially due to the Methodist messages it contains related to 1780s Cork.  

Yet, the involvement of the supernatural was not always a strategic religious device. Ghost stories often reveal a lot about contemporary gender dynamics. The existence of tension and conflict in these stories is an area for analysis, allowing us to interrogate how and why expected norms and structures were challenged in both the early modern household and wider society. The manuscript is no exception: there is an unhappy marriage, adultery, as well as plans for murder. By examining the portrayal of ‘The Repentant Mistress’ (Sarah Harris), ‘The Scheming Maid’ (Cadwallader’s second mistress), and ‘The Loyal Wife’ (Mary Creed), this article seeks to analyse the manuscript’s presentation of gender. Each of the female figures in the story are unique, revealing a new dimension to the manuscript besides its immediate religious significance. 


‘The Repentant  Mistress’ 

In early 1784, Cadwallader becomes acquainted with Sarah Harris, the wife of a man who owns a porter house. Sarah, who is described as ‘a pretty kind of a young woman’, develops a relationship with Cadwallader which continues for two years. Despite the teachings of the Church, adulterous affairs were a frequent occurrence in eighteenth-century Ireland. Many men had sex outside of marriage with a ‘mistress’ or even held concubines in the house.1 Interestingly, the manuscript insists that Sarah, ‘till now’, was a ‘modest woman’ taken over by Cadwallader’s ‘vile purposes’. Here, the male figure is attributed significant blame for the adulterous and ‘criminal connection’. Cadwallader did not succumb to adultery due to Sarah’s seduction, but by his own immorality instead.  


This portrayal may be viewed as a tool in the redemption narrative of the ghost story, whereby Cadwallader’s wrongdoings are part of his journey to absolution. However, the clear condemnation of Cadwallader’s behaviour offers a thoughtful challenge to dominant beliefs about the role of women in adulterous relationships.2 When Sarah falls ill, she repents her actions as she is ‘seized with horrible fears of death and Hell’ and ends the affair. Just like Cadwallader, Sarah’s redemption is secured by her forgiveness and the willingness of ‘Jesus to save’.  


Yet, beyond her death Sarah plays a more central role in the story. In fact, it is Sarah who returns three times to haunt Cadwallader as a ghost and pleads for his repentance. During her first appearance, Sarah ‘beheld a beautiful form’, her ‘countenance serene’, and is dressed in white. Her presence is portrayed as heavenly and pure, as she is free of sin. Despite this positive description, the manuscript mentions that Sarah has ‘a look of holy displeasure’, recognising her anger at Cadwallader’s immoral behaviour. Each time Sarah returns, her warnings reflect her increasing frustration and annoyance as Cadwallader continues to ignore her pleas. Sarah’s words are direct and stern: ‘you are going on to destruction’, ‘vengeance will seize you’, ‘your damnation is sure’.  


During the encounters with Cadwallader, Sarah maintains control of the dynamic and severely frightens him. Therefore, Sarah, as the key supernatural figure in the story, plays an integral role in initiating the process of Cadwallader’s redemption. Critically, while Cadwallader relies on those around him, Sarah can mobilise her own redemption. 


'The Scheming  Maid’ 

Another important female figure in the manuscript is the maid, who lived in the household of Mary Creed’s father. The maid is unnamed in the manuscript, reflecting her subservient status and marginalisation. Nevertheless, her inclusion in the story signifies the impact of her presence and the threat she posed to societal stability. Following Sarah’s death, Cadwallader ‘was sober and much reformed for a season’, but soon returns to his adulterous ways and begins an affair with the maid. The maid is a conniving figure who is described as a ‘vile woman’ and a ‘wicked strumpet’.  


Affairs between the head of the household and servants were recurrent throughout the early modern period. Female servants often aimed to rise above their station and displace the mistress of the household.3 There was thus frequent tension between maids and the household’s mistress. In another ghost story from 1650, Priscilla Beauty, the mistress of an alehouse in Essex, returns as a ghost to haunt her former servant, Susan Lay, who has replaced her position.4 Laura Gowing interprets this supernatural encounter as a ‘reminder of the intimate transgressions in which that family’s members were entwined’.5 Similarly, the present manuscript seeks to highlight the various misdemeanours that occur behind closed doors in the household.  


The maid’s actions also suggest that she has deliberate intentions with Cadwallader. As the relationship between the maid and Cadwallader develops, the maid becomes more irritated. Skilfully, she devises an oath with Cadwallader, demanding that the affair will no longer continue until ‘by some method he had murder’d his wife and made her mistress of his house’. This illustrates the maid’s devious plotting and the great lengths she will go to elevate her position, namely sexual promiscuity and murder. The maid is even able to obtain poison for Cadwallader so that he can put it in his wife’s tea.  


The hierarchical structure of the household was critical to maintaining order in Irish society.6 Hence, various problems arise when the maid seeks to challenge this structure. Accordingly, the manuscript is especially critical of the maid, as her actions threaten to disrupt the stability of the household and, by implication, wider society. Despite this, the maid’s plotting is noteworthy. It displays a degree of female independence and determination to disrupt contemporary norms and expectations. 


‘The Loyal Wife’ 

Cadwallader’s wife, Mary Creed, is described as ‘a very prudent, industrious, careful woman’. These descriptors signify Mary’s resilience in her marriage, despite the abusive and careless actions of her husband. As a mother to ‘five small children’, Mary’s patience is particularly striking. Indeed, as is noted in the manuscript, Mary bore the ‘afflictions’ caused by Cadwallader’s ‘wickedness’ with ‘amazing patience and fortitude’. Such wickedness included the throwing of knives, and it is mentioned that one only just missed Mary.  


Marital violence was common in Ireland during the eighteenth century. The male head of the household was primarily responsible for retaining order and this frequently equated to physical correction, mainly directed at spouses.7 The fact that the manuscript explicitly details and denounces Cadwallader’s actions is significant, as it provides a record of his misdeeds. Instances of sexual immorality and marital tension were of interest throughout society. Newspapers reporting on criminal cases of adultery and oral or written sources of popular culture helped to distribute this information to the public.8 The manuscript, although only addressed to a single recipient, was likely to have been circulated more widely and thus helped to spread the story. 


The ghost story’s emphasis on Cadwallader’s redemption suggests that Mary’s abusive experiences are marginalised. Yet, as Gowing convincingly argues, ghost stories often operated ‘to speak for lost causes, expose forgotten stories, or protest against misdeeds in high places’.9 It is therefore crucial to view the present manuscript as providing a sort of safeguard for Mary, ensuring that her mistreatment is recognised and that Cadwallader’s wicked behaviour is not repeated. In fact, Mary’s loyalty is pivotal to her husband’s redemption. Not only does she help burn the poison her husband intended to use against her and comforts him, but she also prays for Cadwallader’s redemption.  


The manuscript thus offers a valuable insight into the variety of female roles and expectations in eighteenth-century Ireland. While elements of these figures were typical of the age, the supernatural conflict within the story highlights non-conformity and wider societal instability. 


  1. Maria Luddy and Mary O’Dowd, Marriage in Ireland, 1660-1925 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), p. 278.
  2. Laura Gowing, ‘The Haunting of Susan Lay: Servants and Mistresses in Seventeenth–Century England’, Gender & History, 14 (2002), 183-201 (p. 192).
  3. Ibid., p. 192.
  4. Ibid., pp. 183, 184.
  5. Ibid., p. 199.
  6. Sarah-Anne Buckley, ‘Women, Men and the Family, c.1730-c.1880’, in The Cambridge History of Ireland, Volume 3: 1730-1880, ed. by James Kelly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 231-254 (p. 233).
  7. Luddy and O’Dowd, Marriage in Ireland, p. 314.
  8. Ibid., p. 282.
  9. Gowing, ‘The Haunting of Susan Lay’, p. 197. 



Buckley, Sarah-Anne, ‘Women, Men and the Family, c.1730-c.1880’, in The Cambridge History of Ireland, Volume 3: 1730-1880, ed. by James Kelly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 231-254.  

Gowing, Laura, ‘The Haunting of Susan Lay: Servants and Mistresses in Seventeenth–Century England’, Gender & History, 14 (2002), 183-201 

[Hester Ann Rogers?] to Elizabeth Ritchie, c. 1788, Methodist Archive and Research Centre, John Rylands University Library, Manchester, Fletcher-Tooth Collection, MAM/FL/33/4

Luddy, Maria, and Mary O’Dowd, Marriage in Ireland, 1660-1925 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020)

Pearson, Jacqueline, ‘“Then she asked it, what were its Sisters names?”: Reading between the Lines in Seventeenth-Century Pamphlets of the Supernatural’, Seventeenth Century, 28 (2013), 63-78  

Sangha, Laura, ‘The Social, Personal, and Spiritual Dynamics of Ghost Stories in Early Modern England’, The Historical Journal, 63.2 (2020), 339-59  

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Woodcut from 'The Beautiful Apparition' (1786), Broadside Ballads Online.