Fact or fiction? Amy Hussey (fl. 1740s)

© The British Library Board

Such charms are there in affability, and so sure is it to attract the praises of all kinds of people. It may indeed be compared to the celebrated Mrs Hussey.* It is equally sure to set off every female perfection to the highest advantage, and to palliate and conceal every defect […].

* A celebrated mantua-maker in the Strand, famous for setting off the shapes of women.

Henry Fielding’s homage to his literary character Sophia Western – and to the real-life mantua-maker Mrs Hussey – in The History of Tom Jones (1749) shows that women engaged in dressmaking were recognized and even celebrated in contemporary literature.[1] Fielding’s wry praise for Hussey’s skill in ‘setting off the shapes of women’ echoes R. Campbell’s contemporaneous, if rather catty, comments that mantua-makers ‘must learn to flatter all Complexions, praise all Shapes, and, in a word, ought to be compleat Mistress of the Art of Dissimulation’.[2] This suggests that the complex associations between a woman’s ‘affable deportment’ and potential contradictions in character and dress were immediately identifiable to eighteenth-century readers, as was the importance of a mantua-maker’s bespoke tailoring expertise to her customers.

The circumstances of Mrs Hussey’s inclusion in Fielding’s novel were later relayed by her great-nephew John Thomas Smith:

One day, Mr. Fielding observed to Mrs. Hussey, that he was then engaged in writing a novel, which he thought would be his best production; and that he intended to introduce in it the characters of all his friends. Mrs. Hussey, with a smile, ventured to remark, that he must have many niches, and that surely they must already be filled. “I assure you, my dear Madam,” replied he, “there shall be a bracket for a bust of you.” Sometime after this, he informed Mrs. Hussey, that the work was in the press; but, immediately recollecting that he had forgotten his promise to her, went to the printer.

Smith revealed that his great-aunt died at the remarkable age of 105, had married four times and was ‘highly entertaining, and liberally communicative’, suggesting that she was something of a family legend. She worked as ‘a fashionable sacque and mantua-maker and lived in the Strand […] at the north-west corner of Half-moon street’ after the death of her second husband.[3] The section of John Rocque’s 1746 map of London below shows this location, just a few minutes walk from Covent Garden Piazza.

© 2011 Locating London’s Past

These insights into Hussey’s character and business – including its West End location – unfortunately omit her Christian name and other surnames that might enable us to trace her further. Yet, Stamp Duty Assessments show that a mantua-maker named Amy Hussey bound several apprentices whilst working on the Strand between 1737 and 1748, and this is very likely the same, celebrated Mrs Hussey in Fielding’s novel.[4] This example reveals that though mantua-makers could be a vital part of the social, economic, and cultural milieu of early modern England, contributing to witty exchanges with prominent literary figures and gaining celebrity as a result of their skill, the idiosyncratic survival of information about them in printed and manuscript sources often makes their work difficult to trace. Further details may yet come to light about Mistress Amy Hussey and her fashionable business. Until then, she is preserved in print, doubly celebrated by Fielding in her novel niche.


Footnotes

[1] H. Fielding, The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling (Middlesex, 1973), p. 479.

[2] R. Campbell, The London Tradesman: Being a Compendious View of All the Trades, Professions, Arts, both Liberal and Mechanic, now practiced in the Cities of London and Westminster (London, 1747), p. 227.

[3] J. T. Smith, Nollekens and His Times, Volume I (London, 1829), pp. 116-117.

[4] Amy Hussey bound at least seven apprentices. The National Archives (TNA) Stamp Duty Assessment Books: IR1/15, fol. 65, 1737; IR1/16, fol. 27, 1740; IR 1/16, fol. 57, 1741 (as Ann Hussey, in error); TNA IR1/17, fol. 14, 1743; IR1/17, fol. 148, 1745; IR1/18, fol. 32, 1747; IR1/18, fol. 156, 1748. She likely married again just after the publication of Tom Jones, changing her name.

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