Anna Seward (1742-1809) directed her own life in a way about which most of her female contemporaries could only dream. As the daughter of a high-ranking, literary Anglican clergyman, she enjoyed financial and cultural privilege and made the most of her chances. She ignored her mother's efforts to make her either domestic or fashionable, resisted the marriage market (her only sister was more compliant, but died of typhus a few days before her arranged wedding), chose her own friends (including a close lifelong romantic friendship with an unhappily married man, which brought her local scandal and obloquy), managed her father's extensive investments during his decline and after his death - and pursued literary fame.
Her life, as Teresa Barnard explains in this first biography of Seward since 1931, was constructed in that she laboured cannily to carve herself a niche among the poets. At ten, she wrote pious verse. When she was 15, the Sewards' neighbour Erasmus Darwin told her father she was the better poet of the two. At 19, she launched (and kept copies of) a series of letters to a probably imaginary female friend, discussing her poetic ambition, the joys of confidential friendship and the difficulty of living well in a philistine world. In her thirties, she had immense popular success, and her elegies for slain men of action made her a national icon. In her sixties, not long before her death, she persuaded her protege the young Walter Scott to agree to serve as her posthumous editor.
She intended her poems and letters to be published in Edinburgh (being disillusioned with the London book trade), but London publishers tipped off Edinburgh ones that her stock was falling. What she wanted for her letters (arranged in carefully kept albums) was serial publication, with an instalment every two years to keep readers' curiosity whetted; but her intentions were not realised. Scott edited the poems but declined the letters, citing his disapproval of gossip. He and several others made drastic cuts to Seward's originals. A priority for him, Barnard remarks, was to suppress the many anti-Francis Jeffrey jokes that he and Seward had shared. So gossip was pruned, and with the gossip went the familiar, the daily, the colloquial.
Scott edited her Poetical Works in 1810. Constable brought out, together, six volumes of letters (only a fraction of those surviving) in 1811. In 1813 came an accolade in the form of The Beauties of Anna Seward, which presented selected works. After that, oblivion.
Barnard does not retell the whole tale but focuses on the letters, especially those skipped or filleted by the editors, and other recently disinterred manuscripts. She makes a good case for Seward as a strong-willed, independent-minded woman, whose comments on people, opinions and literary movements are often pungent, often rewarding. Less successful, in my view, is her effort to reclaim Seward's poetry for modern readers. A lover musing at night says: "Wide o'er the drowsy world incumbent night,/Sullen and drear, his sable wing has spread .../Griev'd tho' I am, yet grief's assuaging showers/From burning eye-balls still refuse to flow." With all her grounding in William Shakespeare, John Milton and Alexander Pope, with all her rejection of her mother's enthralment to fashion in gimp or satin or lace, Anna Seward became, fatally, a fashionable poet.
If not a candidate for new life on syllabuses and in seminar rooms, Seward has much to teach us about the historical conditions of women's lives and about the individual's negotiation with her shaping context. This attractive book (whose cover features John Downman's sexy portrait, not the drabber and better-known work by George Romney) is welcome, even with a sadly inadequate index.
Anna Seward: A Constructed Life, A Critical Biography
By Teresa Barnard
Ashgate, 208pp, £55.00
Published 17 September 2009