chapter  15
29 Pages

‘Queen Muse of Britain’: Anna Seward of Lichfield and the literary provinces

Anna Seward was a lame spinster, amateur versifier and critic, who lived her entire life (1742-1809) in the Bishop’s Palace in Lichfield, the sleepy Midlands town not far from Birmingham, which was the birthplace of both Dr Johnson and David Garrick and where her father, Thomas Seward, was a canon of the cathedral. Unlike the lexicographer or the actor, Seward is largely forgotten, though in her lifetime she was a figure of considerable renown. Scribbling in her writing room or on her terrace, receiving famous visitors like Johnson, Mrs Piozzi, Erasmus Darwin, Walter Scott and Robert Southey in her drawing room, and writing her forthright opinions which were published in magazines and reviews, she exerted a powerful influence on the critical and poetic views of her day (Figure 15.1). Her poems were greatly admired – notably her Elegy on Captain Cook (1780) and Monody on the Death of Major André (1781) – as was a highly sentimental epistolary verse novel about female misfortune and thwarted love, Louisa (1784), which ran through five editions in Britain and one in North America. Seward was a precocious and sensitive child – reciting Milton at the age of three and

forming strong attachments to her sister, who died prematurely, and then to her adopted sibling Honora Sneyd, who was her constant companion until 1773, when Richard Lovell Edgeworth took Honora as his second wife. Seward was traumatized by the loss of her sister, who moved to Ireland and died shortly afterwards, and remained bitterly hostile to Edgeworth for many years to come. She turned her back on the institution of marriage, which she blamed for her misfortunes and, despite several proposals, resolved to lead a retired, spinster life. She wrote verses from her earliest years, but it was not until the 1780s, when she was in her forties, that she began to publish her work. Over the following decade Anna Seward rose to the height of her fame and popularity,

repeatedly winning poetry prizes offered by the Batheaston literary circle, carrying on a lively correspondence with critics and poets all over the country, and presiding over a literary circle which received frequent visitors. A correspondent in the Gentleman’s Magazine, an important publisher of verse, challenged its readers to ‘Produce me any female writer who equals that lady’. Though in her later years she lost favour, she remained a redoubtable figure, and in 1804 published a controversial biography of her friend Erasmus Darwin in which she incidentally memorialized the cultural circles of Lichfield where she played such an important part. She supported a number of younger poets and writers, including Walter Scott (whom she persuaded to edit her collected verse and who wrote the verses inscribed on her tomb), Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. After her death in 1809 her collected poems appeared in three volumes, followed by six volumes of correspondence, ‘only a twelfth part of what she had written’, in 1811.