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Subversive textiles and medical misogyny in Yorkshire: The Unravelling Fantasia of Miss H.

In 1837, Mary Frances Heaton from Doncaster challenged a vicar over an unpaid debt. She was declared insane and incarcerated in an asylum in Wakefield for the rest of her life. She told her story through embroidery. 

A side-on image of a woman with cropped, curly red hair, looking up to the top left corner of the frame, her mouth slightly open and her arm bent swanlike at the hip. She wears a light-coloured billowing cotton shirt tucked in at the waist to a thick, dark grey pleated skirt, and she stands in front of a whitewashed brick wall.

Soprano Red Gray as Mary Frances Heaton.

Stitched-Up-Theatre / Rosie Powell

Content note: This article refers to mental illness, including institutionalisation and ableist slurs.

In 1837, aged 36, Mary Frances Heaton was charged with breaching the peace, declared insane, and incarcerated in a lunatic asylum in Wakefield for the rest of her life.

Her so-called ‘crime’? She challenged an Anglican vicar over the unpaid debt he owed her, decrying him in front of his parishioners as a ‘whited sepulchre, a thief, a villain, a liar and a hypocrite.’

Born into an affluent Yorkshire family, Mary worked as a music teacher, first in London and then back in her hometown of Doncaster; it is here where the Rev John Sharpe racked up debts for the piano lessons she had given to his daughter. And it’s here where, in holding him to account, Mary met the fate of so many women who dared to challenge male authority.

Having been detained overnight in Doncaster Gaol, Mary was deemed a ‘lunatic insane and dangerous idiot’ at trial the next day (she wasn’t allowed to testify, of course) and sent immediately to Wakefield Pauper Lunatic Asylum for the next 41 years.

Amidst the inhumanity of her treatment and the torturous ‘remedies’ she was subjected to, Mary found a creative outlet through embroidery, producing samplers that capture something of the hardships she suffered at the hands of church and state.

Her embroideries are defiant protests against a world that denied her a voice.

Thanks to the efforts of the Forgotten Women of Wakefield community history group, Mary’s story is now rightly held up as an example of medical misogyny as well as one of early art therapy, with a blue plaque unveiled to commemorate her.

Now, a theatrical portrayal of Mary’s life is en route to venues across South Yorkshire for the first time. Written and performed by Red Gray and Sarah Nicolls of Stitched-Up-Theatre, The Unravelling Fantasia of Miss H. blends contemporary opera, physical theatre and Mary’s stitched testimonies to tell her remarkable and tragic story in her own words.

Ahead of the show’s Doncaster date, Now Then sat down with soprano Red Gray to explore women’s history, mental illness, and the restorative power of community arts.

Hi Red! Thanks so much for talking with us. Before we get to Mary’s story and the production itself, could you tell us about your theatre company, Stitched-Up-Theatre? What drives and shapes your work?

Before establishing my own company, I was mainly part of other people’s theatre and opera projects. While they were immense fun, I wanted to be involved in more serious work with a social or political impact – to make a difference.

What came next was Stitched-Up-Theatre!

I was lucky enough to build an incredible team of women who were all extremely talented and happy to come on board for the project. The company’s mission is to tell stories that need to be told, by those who need to tell them, to those who need to hear them, through a convergence of physical theatre, opera and contemporary classical music.

The project quickly grew into something much more than opera and theatre, developing two other elements: radical stitching workshops for women’s community groups, and historical research together with the West Yorkshire Archive Service and Wakefield Mental Health Museum (where Mary’s samplers now live).

The Unravelling Fantasia tells the powerful story of Mary’s life, and the deplorable mistreatment she faced at the hands of the authorities. How did you first encounter Mary's story? What compelled you to stage a production about her?

In 2016 I accepted (thank heavens) an invitation to go to a Wellcome Collection exhibition called Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond, where I saw a little display about Mary’s story, two samplers and a short synopsis of what had happened to her.

I was struck by this – as a woman and a musician myself I could identify, and the fact that she had been shut away from the world for 41 years was just breathtaking.

It was as though her spirit was still alive in this story, and her words immortalised through the stitching that I did indeed feel compelled to research further.

I didn’t even know what I wanted to say at first: would it be a story about mental health history, about women’s rights, about social injustice? I just knew it needed to be told, and I could already imagine using music and the voice to dramatise it.

A green and red shield stitched onto cream cloth, bearing the date ‘1822’. On either side of it, stitched text reads ‘Marquis salary – 100£ per annum’ and ‘Banker salary – 50£ per annum’. In a pink strip of fabric beneath is the salutation ‘Dear Miss Green & the Castanet’. Below this, text reads: ‘During the midsummer of 1836 Mrs Seymour consulted Sir Astley Cooper respecting the internal injury which she thought the cause that she had not a child & gave him a handsome Chinese fan for her niece. Asylum, Wakefield, 1850.’

One of Mary Frances Heaton’s embroideries (c.1850), documenting an encounter between herself (‘Mrs Seymour’) and the British surgeon Sir Astley Cooper.

Mental Health Museum, Wakefield

For Mary, embroidery was a means of self-care and self-preservation. The research and development phase for this production has involved therapeutic embroidery workshops with women, and this is all part of a much longer lineage of women's textile art as a means of resistance and self-expression. How do you see Mary's stitching in relation to this history?

Initially, I was so in shock at Mary’s confinement that her embroidery almost seemed like a sub-plot… It took me a while to appreciate how resonant the survival of these samplers is.

It seems Mary was far ahead of her time in subverting the use of needlework as an instrument of oppression. It’s remarkable that the practice of embroidery – head lowered, eyes down to keep a woman in her place – is what Mary used to let us know in no uncertain terms what she felt about the patriarchal hierarchy.

I’m slowly becoming aware that this has been going on since women began to make. There’s a whole world of artistic and political discourse around women’s textile art, from the inspiring accounts of Lorina Bulwer and Agnes Richter, to conversations around women’s struggles for equity in the art world, to their gradual pivot towards the seemingly less threatening world of craft (which has nonetheless become a powerful mode of resistance).

The expressive embroidery workshops we held as part of the R&D phase enriched the show so much. I returned from a week of community engagement with my heart full of women’s stories, hopes, fears, dreams, their day-to-day struggles. They were brilliant, vulnerable and resilient women with stories to tell – the inner circle of bowed heads, counting our stitches, created a sanctuary where participants opened up to total strangers.

When I returned to writing I realised I wasn’t just telling Mary’s story, but the story of every woman whose voice has been silenced.

You also held empowering singing workshops with women from the refugee and asylum-seeking communities of Leeds and Wakefield. What was your motivation there?

Many of the organisations in Yorkshire that we’ve partnered with for this project are Studios or Theatres of Sanctuary supporting communities of refugees and asylum seekers. We wanted to contribute to this important work to help some of the most vulnerable in the community, many of whom are women.

It felt fitting to extend the show’s message to these women, reaching out in friendship and support amidst the unbelievable challenges they faced. The LIFT YOUR VOICE workshops were funded by Opera North and they were held at Leeds Playhouse and Theatre Royal Wakefield earlier this year, attended by over 40 women.

There is power in music and lifting your voice with others, crossing that boundary of isolation, finding courage, and supporting each other through sound.

This bodily freedom can strengthen your mental and emotional wellbeing, offering a reminder that you’re part of something bigger than yourself. I wanted to offer hope and inspiration from Mary’s words and to keep our own and each other’s voices alive.

Hand-stitched petition, dark thread on light linen cloth. The petition reads: ‘Our Most Gracious Sovereign, the Queen Victoria, is most respectfully petitioned to affix her royal assent to this sampler in token of approbation thereof. Mrs Herden widow, nurse for more than 10 years in the ward where Mrs Seymour is confined. On seeing her for the first time, July 1841, was much struck by her appearance, and described her as “fair to look upon”, etc, etc, in a way that was most amusing, as well as complimentary, one step leading to another, Mrs Seymour informed her that once upon a time a certain noble lord had been of the same opinion. And finally, in acknowledgement of numerous trifling obligations, making up in number what they want in weight, Mrs S. promised her a present of 27£ Lord John Seymour & Esther 2.16. 1827.’

Mary Frances Heaton’s stitched petition to Queen Victoria (n.d.), alleging the circumstances of her incarceration.

Mental Health Museum, Wakefield

The Unravelling Fantasia has been wildly popular so far. How does Mary Heaton’s story resonate with contemporary audiences?

There are so many areas of society wherein people currently feel let down, disempowered, and as though their voice isn’t being heard – you need only look at the huge differences between rich and poor and widespread lack of faith in the government.

Closer to home, we know so many women face emotional imprisonment through oppression, abuse, and intimidation, and further afield women are still risking their lives to speak out about their fundamental rights.

We often talk about how bad things used to be, but it doesn’t take much to see that there’s still so much suffering and cruelty.

I think that audiences empathise hugely with Mary and are astonished that she had the presence of mind to create such strong protestations in such a beautiful way. If you see the samplers, you’ll see the beautiful use of colour and composition as well as the metaphor and creativity used in each stitch. They’re extraordinary.

That she survived the ordeal of living in an asylum for 41 years was a human triumph, that she left us with a legacy that speaks to us about art, love, politics and human resilience is quite astonishing. She represents someone who fought to keep the flame of integrity alive in the face of extreme despair.

Learn more

The Unravelling Fantasia of Miss H. comes to CAST Doncaster on Thursday 2 March, Theatre Royal Wakefield on Tuesday 7 March, and Left Bank Leeds on Thursday 9 March. You can also see some of Mary’s embroidery samplers in-person at Wakefield Mental Health Museum.

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