Thursday, March 13, 2014

Voiceless Women: Dorothy Plackett Carey

Now as the church submits to Christ, 
so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

The life of Dorothy Carey blows my mind and breaks my heart.

Her husband was brilliant, a gifted linguist who left an indelible mark on Indian culture. But Dorothy would never comprehend that. The uneducated English girl grew into an illiterate adult, and how was a poor 19th-century married woman to learn to read? He left hundreds of letters and volumes in numerous languages in his wake. We have not a single scrap of text in Dorothy's words.  To the rest of the world, William Carey is known as the "Father of Modern Missions". To Dorothy, he was the man who sacrificed her soul on the altar of his vision.

Twenty-five-year-old Dolly Plackett's whole life had taken place in Northamptonshire within miles of her birthplace. Being an old maid probably worried Dolly. Without a man to protect and provide and speak for her, what would her place be in the village? The shoemaker was Dorothy's brother-in-law, and he had a young apprentice named William. William was but a teenager, six years her junior, but he began to smile at shy Dorothy anyway. Maybe she smiled at him first; we don't know much about their courtship. Yes, he was young, but he was smart, and a dreamer. He liked to go to religious meetings and, when work was slow, he was teaching himself Greek!

Dolly married young William in 1781. It is said that she signed the marriage register with a wobbly "X". They were poor as churchmice, for he was still but a cobbler's apprentice, but at least she had an identity now: Mrs. William Carey. In 18th-century England, that identity was important. According to the great Sir William Blackstone (whom she could not read), as far as the law was concerned, "the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage"*.

The next two years were harder than Dorothy had expected. She gave birth to a girl, and they called her Ann Eliza. But illness struck the Carey home. William came down with a high fever, and so did toddling little Ann. When Ann's labored breath ceased altogether, Dolly buried her precious body in the English earth. William himself was too ill to attend the funeral. He was so sick that his hair fell out. William's mother came, to do what she could to console the grieving parents. Though she herself had known poverty as a weaver's wife, she was unable to conceal her shock at her son's penurious state.

While Dolly fell into depression, William fell into religion. He had gotten involved with a Baptist group and now he was baptized. He and Dorothy had been brought up in the Anglican tradition, but a fellow cobbler had converted William to the Dissenters' theology, and William could hardly get enough of church meetings and Bible study. When he had fully recuperated, he spent his free time reading, preaching, and learning more languages--none of which paid even as well as shoemaking.

Perhaps at his mother's request, William's brother helped them financially for a while. When the master died, William took over the shoe business. However, he also felt obligated to support his master's widow since she was a relation by marriage. Fortunately, she remarried the next year, releasing William from his sense of responsibility.

William's language hobby had become an obsession: in addition to Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, William was now learning French, Dutch, and Italian. Dorothy sometimes still worked at learning the alphabet in English, but once baby Felix arrived she had her hands full, what with sewing and laundry and cooking what they could afford. Good thing her sister Kitty was so close. Dolly didn't know what she would do without Kitty.

In addition to other languages, Will was fascinated by other interpretations of Christianity. The Moravians were especially interesting, with their zeal for sending missionaries to other parts of the world. In 1785, a nearby church of Baptist dissenters made William their pastor. And when he preached, he sought to infect others with his concern for heathens "lost in ignorance". He was reading travel documentaries now. In 1787, Will talked Dolly into getting baptized again.

A letter Will wrote to his father in 1790 detailed his daily activities, with not a word about Dorothy or the boys. There were three of them now: Felix had been followed by William, and then came little Peter. Another baby girl followed Peter, but, like her sister, Lucy died before she turned two. She had been such a darling: tottering around, learning to talk, trying to keep up with her brothers.

In 1792, William started a missionary society of his own, spreading the motto: "Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God!" Then, in 1793, William celebrated the new year by announcing his own calling from God. He would be a missionary himself--to India!

Dr. John Thomas (whose temperament tended toward manic-depressive) had spent time in India in his medical capacity. During his time there, he had done some preaching in his home, and converted two European deists to Christianity. He returned to England interested in developing a more substantial evangelical ministry. And William, as he wrote to his father before setting sail from England, "set his hand to the plough". India needed him! God needed him! He had a duty to go! His wife and children? Well, of course God would provide.

But Dorothy balked. She was in her second trimester, carrying William's sixth baby. What was her husband thinking? She had no inclination to move to India. She had no intention of delivering a baby aboard a ship somewhere on the high seas. Everything and everyone she cared about was in England. Her baby girls were buried here. Why was he asking her to leave? She could not keep William from going if he must, but she was staying put!

And so it was decided that William Carey would go to India with eight-year-old Felix and they would return for the rest of the family after getting settled. That way Dorothy would have some idea of what conditions she could expect and could prepare herself for the transition of a lifetime. Since the voyage alone would take five months each way, she could reasonably expect not to see her husband again for a few years.

So Dorothy and the boys moved into a cottage with her sister Kitty, and they all bade farewell to her zealous husband and her eldest living child. Felix and Will boarded a ship, along with Dr. and Mrs. Thomas (who, despite her preference to remain in England, believed it right to go with her husband). But numerous complications delayed the ship's departure from England. Back in the cottage, little Jabez made his appearance at last, and still the missionary voyage had not gotten underway. Apparently the men made a quick trip back to see the baby and Dr. Thomas took the opportunity to persuade the postpartum mother one last time. Wouldn't she reconsider? There was still time for her to join the team!
“I went back and told Mrs. Carey her going out with us was a matter of such importance, I could not leave her so – her family would be dispersed and divided forever – she would repent of it as long as she lived. As she tells me since, this last saying, frequently repeated, had such an effect on her that she was afraid to stay at home; and afterwards, in a few minutes, determined to go, trusting in the Lord: but this should be on the condition of her sister going with her. This was agreed.”
And just like that, Dorothy and Kitty packed up their belongings and three small boys and boarded the ship that would be their home from June until November.

The first year was even worse than Dorothy had imagined:
  • In nine months, the Careys moved six times.
  • Kitty married a British man they met in India.
  • There was not enough to eat. Expenses were much higher than the dreamy shoemaker or Dr. Thomas had expected. Financial planning was not the men's strong suit, and now the children were hungry.
  • There had been no contact with England since they left.
  • A British couple they met drowned in the river when their boat overturned.
  • Dorothy felt hot and sticky all the time. Laundry never seemed to dry in India. She and the boys were sick with dysentery. William had malaria. 
  • They practically lived in the jungle and got frequent reports about tigers attacking workers in the neighborhood!

And William? He made his beloved ink marks on paper and used money to ship them back to England: "I am in a strange land, no Christian friend, a large family, and nothing to supply their wants.... Well, I have God, and his word is sure." William was now managing an indigo factory! And he found Bengali "an easy language"!

Then, about October 1794, five-year-old Peter died suddenly of dysentery. William could not even find any local Hindu and Muslim neighbors willing to build a coffin or dig the grave. Dorothy had buried children before, but this was far too much trauma at once. Three of her children were gone, their graves spread continents apart. She had no money. The neighbors were unsympathetic. William could not be trusted. Dr. Thomas could not be trusted. Kitty had abandoned her. She was in a strange land, surrounded by people who made incomprehensible noises. She was a missionary, for God's sake. Was she supposed to read her husband's Bible for comfort? Had her reading lessons even progressed far enough for that?

Dolly's grief was overwhelming; the anxiety gradually spiraled into delusional panic. All her fears and insecurities focused into one piercing thought: William was cheating on her.  She tried to write to Dr. Thomas, explaining how she felt, but in his patronizing sympathy he replied to William:
"You must endeavour to consider it a disease. The eyes and ears of many are upon you, to whom your conduct is unimpeachable with respect to all her charges; but if you show resentment, they have ears, and others have tongues set on fire. Were I in your case, I should be violent; but blessed be God, who suits our burdens to our backs. Sometimes I pray earnestly for you, and I always feel for you. Think of Job, Think of Jesus. Think of those who were 'destitute, afflicted, tormented.'"
William hated to tell anyone back home about Dorothy's condition. Did he feel ashamed? Embarrassed? Maybe he hoped time would heal her. He surely prayed for her recovery. He and Dr. Thomas considered that she might be demon-possessed, but concluded that the illness was in her mind. Still, it was a year after Peter's death when William finally brought himself to admit the trouble to family back home:
“I have greater affliction than any of these in my family. Known to my friends here, but I have never mentioned it to anyone in England before, is my poor wife, who is looked upon as insane to a great degree here by both native and Europeans.… I have been for some time past in danger of losing my life. Jealousy is the great evil that haunts her mind.... Bless God all the dirt which she throws is such as cannot stick; but it is the ruin of my children to hear such continual accusations.” 
Yet Dorothy's insanity did not apparently keep William from fucking her. Maybe he was selfish. Or maybe he really thought it could help. Shortly after the letter posted, Dorothy realized she was pregnant again.

Jabez was two and a half when Dorothy, despite her broken state, birthed Jonathan Carey in 1796. About the same time, Dr. Thomas wrote this description to the mission board:
"Mrs. C[arey] has taken it into her head that C[arey] is a great whoremonger; and her jealousy burns like fire unquenchable.... [She] declares in the most solemn manner that she has catched [sic] him with his servants, with his friends, with Mrs. Thomas, and that he is guilty every day and every night.… In all other things she talks sensibly." 
Three months later, William admitted: "My poor wife must be considered as insane, and is the occasion of great sorrow."

Sometime that same year, Dr. Thomas resigned from the mission, eventually getting into the rum industry. (He kept contact with the mission, though. On the day William Carey was to baptize the first convert, along with one of the Carey sons, Dr. Thomas was there, but he suffered such an episode [seizure? panic attack?] that they had to confine him in the schoolhouse! The physician's mental health later deteriorated to the point that he spent time in a Calcutta asylum.) Without Dr. Thomas or his wife, it must have seemed to Dorothy that she had no friend left in the world! She was apparently not literate enough to keep up a correspondence with Kitty, or friends back in England.

William Jr. was eight; Felix was ten. They had been torn from their home, their relatives, their friends. They had lost their brother and playmate. Their aunt had abandoned them. And now their mother had lost her mind and spent her days cussing at their father. The poor boys must have been traumatized. But it got even worse. Like so many other traumatized women before and after her, Dolly picked up a knife and threatened her husband with it.

Dorothy's gradual descent into paranoia could not be kept secret within the tight missionary community. By June 1800, one of William's close friends and colleagues confided to his diary, "Mrs. Carey is stark mad." Now the missionaries couldn't have the deranged Englishwoman following William around, screaming obscenities at him. They rightly guessed that her problems were psychiatric, but what to do? His colleagues suggested he commit her to an asylum, an idea William rejected. In the end, he decided to keep her confined in their home. With the children. For years.

Fellow missionary John Marshman described how William Carey worked away "…while an insane wife, frequently wrought up to a state of most distressing excitement, was in the next room…" I dare not imagine what it was like for the Carey boys to grow up in that home. Young Felix** had a reputation as a wild, undisciplined child, but some of the missionaries apparently took him in hand and groomed him to join the missionary effort. By age sixteen, Felix was preaching to native Indians. When he was twenty-one, he was commissioned to evangelize Burma.

At the end of that year, 1807, Dorothy died of a fever.

William had no grieving left to do. The next month, he was engaged to his friend Charlotte Rumohr, a wealthy, elegant and well-read Danish countess who had come to India for her health. William had tutored her in English and then persuaded her to let him baptize her by immersion. They were the same age, she wrote beautiful letters, and they were supremely happy to be together at last. When Charlotte died in 1821, William grieved for a long time before marrying Grace Hughes, widow much younger than himself who proved to be a good companion and devoted nurse until his death. Carey asked to be buried beside Charlotte, the love of his life.

...husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.
He who loves his wife loves himself.


*“By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything… For this reason, a man cannot grant anything to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence; and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself: and therefore it is also generally true, that all compacts made between husband and wife, when single, are voided by the intermarriage…. The husband is bound to provide his wife with necessaries by law, as much as himself; and if she contracts debts for them, he is obliged to pay them; but for anything besides necessaries, he is not chargeable.” Commentaries on the Laws of England by William Blackstone (1765-1769); Book 1, Chapter 15

**Felix spent seven years in ministry but after losing two wives and his children, he resigned. Instead, Felix accepted a well-paid diplomacy post representing the king of Burma in Calcutta. Later, he developed a drinking problem and spent three years wandering Assam like the lost third-culture kid he was. When he returned, he assisted his father with translation, writing, and publishing until his death of cholera at age 37.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This makes me ill. How can life/people be so ridiculously horrible?

    1. There’s his side, her side and the truth. We don’t know everything that happened because we were not there. The one thing that’s sad is William didn’t teach Dolly how to read and write. Why? We don’t know.

    2. He did teach her to read and write.

  3. That was so, so sad, but fascinating at the same time! I guess people "in ministry" haven't changed! I remember reading a book years ago about the wives of famous preachers etc (Martin Luther had a Wife, I think it was titled) and it was fascinating, as well. I respect a man a whole lot more if he knows how to respect a woman! Thank you for sharing!

  4. Really interesting, thanks for sharing the story.

  5. Dear Jeri and Friends, whenever I hear of such "great men of gggod" dissing their families, I have to seriously wonder if it was all just holy- showboating. Evidently, William Carey was more concerned about himself, than Dorothy and the children. What a jerk!

    1. He may have been most concerned for the kingdom of heaven. Or had an underdeveloped sense of empathy. Who can know? I'm glad I have more options than Dorothy had.

    2. Like many men of this era, Carey is hailed as a missionary hero worth emulating. Aside from their radical departure from Acts (the great commission is to make disciples not colleges and social services, which is far as a legacy, is all that's left: where's the church?), Carey was not an exemplary missionary, he also was not an exemplary Christian. Great sacrifice is not the mark of legitimacy, but great love and adherence to the Word is.
      A closer examination of both Carey's and Judson's domestic lives ("we are what we are at home") and we are forced to add the adjective "monstrous" to the flattering list of words so often applied to them. Judson's quotes at his first wife's death are sickening; the heartless, disturbed words of a man driven by religious ambition to the point to where was driven to an insanity that is still held up as heroic. (I am Melissa's missionary father)

  6. She was likely no saved in the first place. She had no heart for the Lord from what research I was doing causing an unequally yoked relationship. She did not represent Ephesians 5. There is no such thing as Mental Illness as the mind cannot get sick. She may have split hell wide open. Or she could have been very immature in the Lord which is most believers of today.