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Anna Seward and the Battle for Authorship

  1. Female "authorism," according to Anna Seward, requires an "obtrusive" courage (16 March 1790. HL: JE756-780). The pathway to authorship for eighteenth-century women was spread with many obstacles and Seward had to negotiate the gendered codes of conduct on her way to becoming one of the most influential and commercially successful writing women of the period. Her obtrusive courage proved to be all important in overcoming the restrictions surrounding female education and in challenging the conventions of the publishing industry. 
  2. Born in 1742 in the remote Derbyshire mining village of Eyam, Seward began to study literature as a small child, taught by her father Thomas Seward, the rector of the parish church and a published poet. Against the wishes of his conservative wife, Elizabeth, he encouraged Seward to write poetry. By the time the family moved to the bustling staging post of Lichfield in 1749 on Thomas Seward’s appointment as canon of the city’s cathedral, Seward was aware of her intellectual distinction. The tenancy of the Bishop’s Palace was available to the family as the bishops lived several miles away at the more exclusive address of Eccleshall Castle.  The elegant house became the centre for Thomas Seward’s literary circle, which included the young Erasmus Darwin, the physician, scientist and poet chiefly known for his contribution to the Industrial Revolution. Later, Seward was to write that thus encouraged by her father to study and participate in literary debate from such an early age, she was able to "[converse] on terms of equality with the proudest inhabitants of our little city." (Poetical Works, I: lxxiii)..
  3. Publishing her poems in the 1780s and 1790s, and her controversial biography of Erasmus Darwin in 1804, Anna Seward was to become a key figure of the juncture of the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Her first two published poems, "Elegy on Captain Cook" (1780), and "Monody on Major André" (1781), acquired a particular immediacy in their expression of patriotism and they helped establish her reputation as "Queen Muse," a national poet voicing a national identity. Other works followed, including an epistolary novel in verse, Louisa (1784) and Llangollen Vale (1796), which was a volume of poems dedicated to the literary "Ladies of Llangollen," Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. In 1799 she published Original Sonnets, a cycle of one hundred sonnets which she had written over a period of twenty years. Her complete poetry edition was published posthumously in three volumes in 1810, edited by her friend Walter Scott. From the year 1780 until her death in 1809, Seward was in the daily habit of transcribing a good part of her prodigious correspondence into letter books for eventual publication. Her published and unpublished letters provide an enduring wealth of information about society and culture, illuminating the lives and work of her prestigious circles of literary correspondents and additionally, as her own medium for self-representation, they illustrate what it means to be a woman writer in the eighteenth century.
  4. Anna Seward was often close to controversy. Her anecdotal biography of Erasmus Darwin, for example, was not the anticipated life of the "Great Man" of science but covers no more than the twenty-four years he resided at Lichfield, with its main focus on Darwin's literary achievements rather than his scientific ones. Memoirs of the Life of Dr Darwin also breaks with the conventions of biographical form. On its publication, Seward was criticised for the work’s lack of chronological order. Moreover, she was charged with inverting the traditional arrangement in biographical writing and with not being sufficiently competent either to appreciate or to express the scientific qualities of her subject. It was not only the literary critics who disapproved of the work. The anecdotal contents relating to Darwin’s impassive response to his son’s suicide offended his family, who demanded public apologies and retractions. The biography’s publisher, Joseph Johnson, was equally dissatisfied with the work, specifically with an anecdote referring to one of his customers, and he insisted on alterations before publication.
  5. Yet a biographer’s first duty, Seward argues, is to take an objective approach towards the subject, without interference from the relatives, whose judgement is clouded by affection, or from the bookseller, whose motive is necessarily commercial. "Though just biographical record will touch the failings of the good and the eminent with tenderness," she reasons, "it ought not to spread over them the veil of suppression." (Memoirs ix). . She casts aside the veil to reveal the human face of the poet and lover. The biography and its inception underlines Seward’s own perspective on authorship and the issues that typified women’s problematic role in literary production.
  6. Although women’s public role was beginning to be reconfigured in the late eighteenth century, with increasing latitude in areas of social reform, religious and philanthropic fields and, to a certain extent, print culture, involvement was limited. Women were not, for example, allowed full membership of reading rooms, although the relatively affordable and accessible circulating libraries encouraged women's reading and helped to advance their authorship. Literary and philosophical societies tended to exclude women, with occasional visits being characterised by specially designed programmes "for the ladies," as Susannah Wedgwood was to observe at a meeting of the Derby Philosophical Society in March 1783. In a letter to her father, the Midlands industrialist and pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood, she explains what occurred when "non-scientific ladies" were present at a meeting, "Doctor D [Darwin] with his usual politeness made it very agreeable to them by shewing several entertaining experiments adapted to the capacities of young women." (King-Hele 189).
  7. This is not to imply that women had no participation at all in the sciences. As Lynn Abrams has shown, Enlightenment debate opened up new prospects in all areas. "Women did have an Enlightenment," Abrams asserts, "All women were affected but some actively engaged in and benefited from this unprecedented opportunity to challenge accepted ways of thinking." (Abrams 19). In the middle classes, women’s educational prospects were largely dependent on their parents’ ability and inclination to teach them, together with their own continuing efforts in self-education and there were opportunities to be grasped. An example is the case of the astronomer Caroline Herschel, who discovered eight comets. She was apprenticed to her brother, William Herschel, before becoming recognised in her own right and eventually achieving an honorary membership of the Royal Astronomical Society.
  8. Such instances were relatively rare, however, as most women were seriously hindered by their lack of education; their expectations were confined to within the boundaries of domesticity. Where female education was supported it was usually as a tool to enable women to fulfil their domestic role in society more effectively and not to facilitate equality. Erasmus Darwin wrote an educational tract, A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools (1797), as an instruction manual for his illegitimate daughters, Susanna and Mary Parker, when they opened a school for young women in Derbyshire. In the tract, he includes a reference to science, "an outline of which might be taught to young ladies of the higher classes of the school, or of more inquiring minds" (Darwin 40). His progressive attitude is modified by his somewhat patronising notion of the reasons for acquiring "an outline" of scientific knowledge. Reflecting the discourse of wider society, he confines the concept of equality to the dinner table, explaining, "[The young ladies] are in life to become companions; and one of the greatest pleasures received in conversation consists in being reciprocally well understood" (Darwin 45).
  9. Although Seward was denied access to the foundation of literary education, the classics, she believed that this was no major disadvantage to her writing career or to her own self-worth. Where men had to spend time at university reading Latin and Greek, she reasons, she had spent the equivalent time studying English literature and poetry. "A masculine education cannot spare from professional study and the necessary acquisition of languages, the time and attention which I have bestowed on the compositions of my countrymen." (PW I :xiii), is her confident observation. A young woman’s self-education would necessitate a remarkable level of dedication, but in recompense she might experience a greater diversity in her reading programme than her brothers. As Mary Waldron notes, education for boys was stereotyped and not always appreciated, "there was probably an abundance of idle and dim-witted boys at public schools for whom books had no charms." (Waldron 115). Where the prerequisites were not available, writing women had to foster their talent by their own efforts.
  10. The subject of woman’s role in literary production constantly surfaces in Seward’s writing and although she does not offer a specific argument for further education for women, neither does she distance herself from the subject. The direction of her thoughts can be extrapolated from her correspondence where there are clear indications of her belief in the value of literature above what she classes as "ornamental" subjects. She writes to her aunt, Jane Martin:
  11. It is certainly right to make [your daughters] good plain workers before you suffer them to attempt that which is merely ornamental. If I had girls to educate I would not have them learn both music and drawing. Many things attempted distract the attention and make superficial beings:- besides, neither of those charming sciences do any thing for the understanding, and it is the dire fault of modern education to neglect the cultivation of that by well-chosen reading, in the pursuit of the arts that are only manual. (20 July 1799. NLS:585)                             

  12. Seward’s observations on the famous child actor, William Betty, whom she had met and seen perform at the theatre in Lichfield, clearly emphasise her lack of conviction in the efficacy of stereotyped conventional teaching methods and the significance she assigned to literature as the nucleus of education. Writing to Walter Scott in 1807, she explains how Betty’s father planned an educational programme for his son which involved removing him from the stage to place him with an eminent Shrewsbury schoolmaster:

    I foresee no great good in the plan,- entertain no hope that, should it be realized, a mind stored with poetic ideas, and enchanted by their influence,- accustomed to universal attention, though unspoilt by the homage,- used also to reign over the hearts of his audience,- will be able to employ his thoughts on the conjugation of verbs, and the toil of translation, to gather the husks of   learning, when the seed-time and harvest-time of infancy have passed by. Kemble is a scholar and a fine actor, but his sister [Sarah Siddons], is a finer and knows no language but her own. (L VI: 364-5).

  13. In identifying Siddons’ remarkable achievements in the absence of a classical education, Seward appears to be justifying her own status. Thomas Seward had, at one time, expressed his own radical views on female education. Very early in his life, he advocated further education for young women through his progressive poem, "The Female Right to Literature" (c.1736), in which the narrator criticises the hypocrisy and inequality of a system where educationally privileged men preclude intelligent young women from literature and science in order to protect themselves from "that supreme of plagues a learned wife." His liberal opinions changed noticeably when he was faced with the prospect of an intellectual and seemingly unmarriageable daughter.

  14. It was at the age of sixteen that Seward first experienced the constraints imposed on literary women when her parents insisted that she stop writing. Forcing her to confront the traditional notions of duty and obedience, they offered her no concessionary middle ground, believing that her expression of intellect would discourage marriage proposals. In his "Biographical Preface" to Seward’s posthumous poetry edition, Walter Scott explains the situation thus, "Literature was deemed an undesirable pursuit for a young lady in Miss Seward’s situation - the heiress of an independent fortune, and destined to occupy a considerable rank in society" (PW I: vii). Reiterating the leitmotif of "The Female Right to Literature," Scott continues with a concise account of the reason for Thomas Seward’s sudden disaffected stance. He was, states Scott, "probably under the apprehension that his continued encouragement might produce in his daughter that dreaded phaenomenon, a learned lady." PW I: vii).
  15. Erasmus Darwin, Seward's early literary mentor, compounded the issue with his own contribution to the dispute. On reading Seward’s poems, he presumed at first that she had been helped by her father, only satisfying himself of her authorship by setting her a test. Once he was assured of her ability, he supported her writing endeavours. Yet, rather disturbingly, he too appeared to adopt an oppositional stance by presenting Thomas Seward with an additional motive to check her writing ambitions, informing the father that his young daughter’s poetry was better than his own. Later, Seward was to write of Darwin's "piece of arch injustice to my father's muse, which disgusted him with mine" (PW I: vii) as the turning point which hardly reconciled her to a docile life of domesticity. Thomas Seward’s conflicting values must have proved confusing, as a letter dated February 1763 confirms. Seward writes of her "sin of rhyming" to her friend, Emma, "[My father] saw in my infancy the dawn of something he took for genius, now fancies the early and premature brightness totally eclipsed and shut in forever." (February, 1763. NLS: 877-80). Despite his poetic endorsement of further education for women, Thomas Seward’s pride in his own daughter’s literary abilities began to fade when he realised the implications of her intellect.
  16. Elizabeth Seward who, by her daughter’s description, "…thinks herself, and has persuaded her neighbours to think her, a pattern of economy without practising any of its most useful exertions" (February, 1763. NLS: 877-80), constantly expressed her desire for Seward to focus all her attention on the conventionally acceptable pursuits of embroidery, music and household management. Seward, however, did not relinquish her literary aspirations. Walter Scott states categorically that she complied with her parents’ wishes and, "resorted to other amusements, and to the practice of ornamental needlework, in which she is said to have excelled" (PW I: vii). The dates of her poems, however, clearly show that she was writing in 1764, sixteen years before her first publication.
  17. It appears that Seward attempted to find a balance between domesticity and writing, ultimately succeeding at each yet unable to convince her parents she was proficient at either. Her letters reveal the way she set about the business of learning. She kept Samuel Johnson’s dictionary at her elbow as she grappled with "those uncommon words, of Greek and Roman derivation." (February 1763. NLS: 877-80) which she found in Johnson’s essays in The Rambler. "I have widened my command of language" she writes, "while I endeavoured to improve my understanding by the strength and solidity of the reasoning, while my imagination feasted on the plenitude and pomp of the poetic expression so continual in those volumes." (February 1763. NLS: 877-80). The frustrations emanating from her own resolute confidence in her literary abilities, combined with the disapprobation and the lack of support from those around her, are clearly evident in her correspondence of this time. Her position as an author appeared untenable but she still claimed an entitlement to write:

    Attention and praise are the summer-suns that must unfold and ripen the germs of imagination, ere they can possibly produce fruit worthy of the taste of the public. Had it been my lot to have been animated by the smiles, and sustained and encouraged in my studies, and in my little sallies of poetic invention, by the applause of a Walmesley [Johnson’s benefactor and the former resident of the Bishop’s Palace], I might perhaps have ventured myself among the candidates for the literary palms. But may it not be better as it is? Let me be content with being happy, without sighing that I am not distinguished. (PW I: lxxiii)

  18. If Seward attempted to appease her parents on the issue of domesticity, she made no effort whatsoever to comply with their wishes on the subject of marriage. Following a few early relationships that amounted to nothing, she categorically refused to consider the prospective candidates introduced to her by her parents. Preferring independence to the, "train of cares, pains, anxieties and submissions" (June 1763. NLS: 877-80) of marriage, she chose to remain single. Her enduring and ostensibly platonic relationship with a married man, John Saville, who was a famous singer and a chorister of the cathedral, initially provoked hostility from both families and from wider society and was even subject to the disapproval of the cathedral authorities. Saville eventually obtained a separation from his wife and moved into a house on the Cathedral Close that Seward had bought specifically for his use. Their relationship lasted until Saville’s death in 1803.
  19. Seward’s forbearance and tenacity culminated in her first publication in 1780 when she was thirty-seven years old. This was the year that her mother died and her father suffered the first in a series of physically and mentally debilitating strokes. Before Thomas Seward’s illness took hold, he appointed his daughter as the sole trustee and executor of his last will and testament, assigning to her the responsibility for his considerable financial portfolio of stocks and shares which she administrated prudently and without the intervention of male relatives.
  20. Anna Seward’s early challenges to convention effectively justify her later resolution for self-determination in her writing career. The route to becoming the biographer of Erasmus Darwin was tortuous and surrounded by problems that persisted after the publication. Her engagement with life writing initially began in 1784 when James Boswell asked her for anecdotes of the recently deceased Samuel Johnson. Having been acquainted with Johnson since her childhood, Seward’s estimation of him wavered between an unreserved admiration for his writing and an absolute aversion to his critical works on other poets and to his forthright manners and eccentricities. She writes of his dual nature; on the one hand he could be tolerant and expansive, on the other, he could be frequently abusive and overbearing, seemingly blighted by religious bigotry. She found him to be, like Darwin, frequently envious of his literary peers, a man whose weaker traits were concealed by the masculine solidarity which was characteristic of print culture. Her relationship with him had always been problematic; although publicly civil, the two disliked each other. Johnson claimed that he was reminded of her maternal grandfather, his hated tutor John Hunter. He joked that her resemblance to Hunter was so striking that he would, "tremble at the sight of her" (Bate 31). 
  21. Boswell writes of one uncharacteristic public tribute to Seward’s "Elegy on Captain Cook." Seward tended to avoid conversations with Johnson that might lead to the subject of her own work as, she asserts, his harsh criticism was "the only way he had of imparting that mortification to my literary self-love" (Letters II: 45). Once, however, in a conversation with a group that included Johnson, Seward referred to Mme. de Boccage’s epic poem, "La Colombiade" (1756), and his evaluation was, "Madam, there is not in it any description equal to yours of the sea round the North Pole in your ode on the death of Captain Cook" (Lustig and Pottle 250). She, "blushed, curtsied, and instantly turned the conversation into a different channel." (Letters II: 45).
  22. Seward analyses her relationship with Johnson in an anecdote about the time when his health was failing and he had returned to his native Lichfield for a few weeks where, to banish his morbid thoughts, he sent out invitations to friends and neighbours to visit and distract him. Seward was under no apprehension that her own frequent invitations were issued out of any sense of affection or respect, yet she visited most days, fascinated by his declining struggle to confront his mortality with dignity. She writes to Sophia Weston:

    is by his repeatedly expressed desire that I visit him often; yet I am sure he neither does, nor ever did feel much regard for me; but he would fain escape, for a time, in any society, from the terrible idea of his approaching dissolution. I would never be awed by his sarcasms, or his frowns, into acquiescence with his general injustice to the merits of other writers; with his national or party aversions; but I feel the truest compassion for his present sufferings and fervently wish I had the power to relieve them. (Letters I: 8).

  23. Seward considered Johnson to be her literary rival. Acknowledging that he was the greater writer, she did not restrain her profound belief that her own comprehensive knowledge of literature rendered her competent to challenge his critical writings. Indeed, many of her literary friends endorsed this notion, inciting her to action. In her letters and in public conversation she frequently challenged Johnson’s literary theories and critical writings, in the latter instances refusing to be silenced by "his sarcasms, or his frowns" (Letters I: 8). Her letter to the poet Thomas Whalley describes the Johnson method of dealing with opinions that diverged from his own:

    …from the instant that the slightest opposition is made to his opinions, he exalts his voice into thunder, and “don’t talk nonsense." and “sir” or “madam,   it is false,” and, “If you think so, you think like a fool,” becomes the language he uses, and with which he interlards his imperious dogmas. (Whalley I: 347),

    If comments such as these are interpreted as reflecting a professional jealousy of her own, they can be viewed equally as a vindication of her independent intellectual thought and her struggle to be heard. Elizabeth A. Fay confirms that most of the women writers of this time, "did little more than praise highly but briefly or be silent when mentioning male writers." (Fay 182). Seward, however, maintained a constant strategy of voicing her resistance to the established traditions. What prevented her from publishing a refutation of Johnson's  Lives of the Poets (1779-81), for example, was the awareness that a formal female challenge to Samuel Johnson’s work would go unnoticed, or worse, be ridiculed. She wrote to Anna Rogers Stokes, "Were I to flatter myself with the possibility of success in such combat, it would indeed be presumption. To what derision should I be exposed from a thousand quarters!- An unlearned female entering the lists of criticism against the mighty Johnson!" (Letters III: 352).

  24. On Johnson's death in 1784, Seward was disturbed by what she considered to be the deluge of, "indiscriminate praise…pouring in full tides, around his tomb." (Whalley 347). Immediately reacting to the obsequious tributes, she wrote an objective obituary for the newspapers. Shortly afterwards, James Boswell asked her for the anecdotes from Johnson’s childhood for his biography which she assiduously collated and despatched. On its publication in 1791, Boswell’s Life of Dr Johnson was considered a candid account. Seward, however, was troubled by the manipulative editing of her anecdotes, which acted to enhance the subject’s reputation whilst damaging her own credibility. Boswell had destroyed most of the information she had given him, declaring it to be unreliable. Some of the anecdotes are included but are appended with charges of inaccuracy, others are edited to enhance Johnson’s character. Boswell’s diaries indicate his own lack of objectivity and as some of Seward’s anecdotes were acquired indirectly, passed on as hearsay by family and friends, there were questionable aspects and probable inaccuracies to them. It is perhaps significant that Boswell had suffered a personal humiliation at the hands of Seward.
  25. James Boswell visited Lichfield in 1784, staying at the Bishop’s Palace as the guest of Thomas Seward. His conversation with Anna Seward was not solely confined  to literature as he tried to instigate a sexual relationship. A few days later he wrote from Oxford offering to review Seward’s recently published novel, Louisa, by sending extracts to the newspapers with, "short sentences endeavouring to point out the particular excellencies." (18 May 1784. YUL: L1142). With the letter he enclosed a note marked "read this alone" in which he suggested a clandestine meeting and requested that she reply in confidence. He also asked her to enclose, as a token, "a lock of that charming auburn hair I admired so much that delicious morning I was last with you" (18 May 1784. YUL: L1142).
  26. Responding with a letter of friendly reproach, Seward confirmed that she felt, "abashed, mortified, disappointed, grieved," (22 May 1784. YUL: C.2468) by his misinterpretation of her affability and asked him to, "generously forget [her] sex" in order to keep the relationship on a literary footing with the "amity of a brother,"  to avoid disappointment. In her late thirties, single and with no close male relatives to defend her, her reputation was always vulnerable to attack. Her long-standing relationship with Saville, which they both endeavoured to conceal from all but close friends, was never seen to cross the boundaries of conventional propriety yet she had to contend with insinuations and general disapproval. She was thus cautious not to attract further hostile attention. Her fear that Boswell would misread her natural sociability and not treat her intellect with due respect is clearly evident in her following statement to him:

    The instant you left me, I sat down in a chair and wept. Ah! said I to myself, what is become of the hope of possessing Mr Boswell’s esteem, which during the two last nights strewed roses over my pillow? - Has the frankness of an affectionate and grateful spirit, which feels nothing which it need fear to disclose, worn the appearance of levity? - or has the cruel misconstruction which my enemies have put upon the fervour of my friendships, inspired ideas in Mr B’s mind injurious to the purity of my sentiments, and to that of the oblivion of the enamoured passions, in which time and the disappointment of my youth have plunged them? Never more can they awaken to disturb my peace, and fill my bosom with unattainable wishes. (22 May 1784. YUL: C2468).

  27. Nevertheless, Boswell persisted, writing to William Temple in July, 1784, "Think of your friend (you know him well) reclined upon a sofa with her while she read to me some of the finest passages of her Louisa. How enchanting! Many moments of felicity I have enjoyed. Let me be thankful" (Lustig and Pottle 256). To Seward, he wrote quoting Pope, "Give all thou canst - and let me dream the rest." In order to put an end to Boswell’s advances Seward sent the lock of hair with her own composition, a cleverly-worded riposte with imagery that leaves little doubt about the nature of her feelings:

    With spotless lilies cull’d from friendship’s bowers, /That hide no thorns beneath their snowy flowers, /By Boswell’s hand be this light lock enwove, /But never with the dangerous rose of love (20 June 1784. YUL: C. 2469).

  28. Following the publication of the biography, Seward angrily challenged Boswell in a public exchange of letters through the Gentleman’s Magazine, accusing him of disguising Johnson’s true nature. After several months of antipathy, this ended with the biographer’s blatant response that he was, "wearied with this female criticism" (Martin 405). Seward was poised uneasily between a desire to voice her opinion and an apprehension of the consequences, as women writers occupied an invidious position when they moved away from their prescribed area. Always conscious of having no, "father or brother to awe the assailant" (Letters III: 353), no one to provide a buffer between her and her literary or personal opponents, it fell to her to fight her battles alone.
  29. If Seward was disappointed that her Johnsonian anecdotes were casually discarded by Boswell, she faced a further frustration when she agreed to help Hester Thrale Piozzi to compile information for her proposed biography of Johnson and her collection of edited letters. Seward undertook to retrieve the love letters that Johnson had sent to Hill Boothby and this took a considerable effort as she was dealing with an "unmanageable" old baronet, the irascible father of her friend, Sir Brooke Boothby of Ashbourn Hall. Anticipating a radical portrayal from Piozzi to counter the sycophantic writings that appeared after Johnson’s death, Seward was once more disillusioned, and accused Piozzi of producing a work that was too heavily edited to show anything but domesticated goodness in him. Angered that Piozzi had disregarded Johnson’s trivialisation of female writers, she comments specifically on the "benign" depiction of him, writing to Piozzi, "to me he constantly spoke with strong dislike over the idea of female readers and writers." (14 March 1788. JRL: 565).
  30. When Erasmus Darwin died in 1802 his son, Robert Darwin, approached Seward with a request for anecdotes of his father’s time in Lichfield as he was writing a biography to preface a future publication. When Seward accumulated the material, it became evident that she had far too much valuable information to relinquish to another writer. Moreover, the materials were, she states, "too impartial to pass with propriety through the filial channel, though fervently just to the excellencies of the commemorated" (Memoirs 1804: x-xi). As there was an arrangement with Darwin’s friend, Dewhurst Bilsborrow, to record the years following Darwin’s move from Lichfield to Derby, Seward confidently started on her ambitious Memoirs of the Life of Dr Darwin. Her strategy was simple, as she explains in a somewhat defensive tone to Scott:

    You must not consider my little work as a life of Darwin; it neither assumes nor merit’s a title so responsible. I have not science, I had not sufficient knowledge of his philosophical correspondence to make any such pretension, and of his literary life, since he left Lichfield in 1781, I know nothing, except what I learned from his publications. To present a faithful portrait of his disposition, his manners, his heart, to draw aside the domestic curtain;- to delineate the connubial and parental virtues of his youth, and the Petrarchan attachment of his middle life; its resemblance to that of the Bard of Vaucluse, but its better fate; to analyse his poetic claims and to present singular instances of romantic philosophy in the eventful life of one of his most distinguished friends [Thomas Day],- these and only these must you expect from my feminine Darwiniana. (July 1803. NLS: 870)

  31. The biography was, and still is, considered to be unreliable and this is largely due to the complaints and abuse Seward received from Darwin's relatives, angered by her forthright depiction of her former mentor. Elizabeth A. Fay has written that biographies by or about women have remained "academically highly suspect." Fay argues that although Boswell’s Life of Johnson is considered an innovative masterpiece, "Anna Seward’s lengthy and critically astute biography of Erasmus Darwin is not remembered" (Fay 25). Departing from traditional biographical form, Seward disregards for the most part Darwin’s scientific achievements and instead she explores the emotional and personal traits that are expressed in the poetry he wrote for his second wife, Elizabeth. She considers his position in culture and society, looking at the influence of his literary circle of friends, including Thomas Day and Brooke Boothby. She analyses the inspiration for his botanic poetry, rather than his scientific and botanical prose. If she was unable to critique The Lives of the Poets, she found a reserve of courage with this work. The major section of the biography comprises her own rigorous critical analysis of Darwin’s epic poem, The Botanic Garden, with which she had a close connection, having inspired its inception, written the opening lines, proof read the manuscripts and suggested alterations, some of which Darwin implemented.
  32. As would be expected, Seward did not intend to compose a falsely flattering tribute, asserting that, "fidelity, not emblazonry, is my plan - 'Willing to praise but not afraid to blame'" (17 March 1803. NLS: 865). Commencing her preface with the unapologetic statement that she was, "conscious of [the Memoirs] defects; that they do not form a regular detail of biographical circumstances" (Memoirs v), she clarifies her intent to write primarily of the time when Darwin was her close neighbour and her friend, and moreover, she decided against including any of his unimaginative and business-like letters as she believed these to have little intrinsic value to his memory. Once she had despatched the manuscript to her London publisher, Joseph Johnson, she become conscious that the biography’s brevity was an error and would possibly create difficulties. She states her fears in a response to a letter from Walter Scott, in which he debated issues relating to the traditional biographical form:

    You alarm me for my memoirs of Darwin, by saying that biography, to be executed well, requires much time and pains, since it was not in my powers to give them the perhaps necessary portion of either without producing that delay which would ill become so short a work (20 June 1803. NLS: 865).

    Her vision was far removed from the conventional biographical format and, right from the outset, proved problematic to the literary establishment.

  33. The power play underpinning the literary establishment came to the forefront with an attempt to alter the biography’s contents before it was published and this caused a major delay. The publisher, Joseph Johnson, described by an exasperated Seward as a "despotic and very laconic personage; with a pen-phobia upon him" (July 1803. NLS: 870), refused to publish several of the passages. On first reading the manuscript, Johnson had offered Seward sixty guineas for the copyright, much more than she had anticipated for a small volume. On a closer reading, however, Johnson was uneasy about an anecdote mentioning "an author of some reputation" whose works he had published and whose business he wanted to retain. From Seward’s description, the author is a man she refers to as Mr Philips, the step-father of Thomas Day.
  34. In her biography, Seward introduced several lengthy anecdotes about Darwin’s friends, including the previously untold story of the writer and philosopher Thomas Day’s eccentric experimentation with female education. A follower of Rousseau and a rigid moralist, Day had adopted two twelve year old girls from an institution for foundlings, renaming them Sabrina and Lucretia. His legal agreement, complete with a morality clause, was drawn up by a solicitor of his acquaintance and contained the stipulation that after one year he must place one of the girls in a trustworthy apprenticeship with a sum of money.  The remaining young woman was to be subjected to "training" in the principles of stoicism and Spartan living to become his perfect wife. He believed that such a woman could be only be constructed, not born, "He must mould some infant into the being of his fantasy" (Memoirs 26). Seward explains.
  35. Day was the eventual victim of his own experimentation. He took Sabrina and Lucretia to France as his training began, and here his plans went badly wrong. They, "teized and perplexed him; they quarrelled, and fought incessantly; they sickened of the small-pox; they chained him to their bedside by crying, and screaming if they were ever left a moment with a person who could not speak to them in English" (Memoirs 27) . On their return to England, Day kept Sabrina as his favourite but she failed his test for heroism by screaming when he dripped hot sealing wax onto her arms and when he "fired pistols at her petticoats." She did no better at the secret-keeping test and was not particularly intellectual. After failing her series of  trials, Sabrina was dispatched to boarding school.
  36. In an attempt to explore Day’s unconventional behaviour, Seward takes a frank look into his childhood, which was blighted by the death of his father and the subsequent cruelty and avarice of his step-father, Philips. Moreover, Day had been disillusioned in love as a youth when he was let down by a deceitful young woman. Seward was most probably influenced in her psychological exploration by William Godwin’s memoirs of his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, which impressed her as being honest in matters of emotional characteristics. Godwin delves into Wollstonecraft’s childhood for an understanding of the mature woman and this too appeared to be Seward's objective in her anecdote about Day. As Philips was obviously important to Johnson’s business, the publisher demanded that all unfavourable references to him be removed.
  37. Angered at the hypocrisy of Johnson’s demands, Seward refused at first to alter the facts. She was eventually persuaded by friends to make a few minor revisions but she would do no more than, "soften the colour of the facts, to render them, if at all possible, palatable" (20 June 1803. NLS: 865).   She privately affirmed to Scott that had Johnson not found this softening sufficiently "palatable," she was prepared to defy his misused authority and find a new publisher. She applies contrasted images to the publication of her works at this period, using the gendered analogy of birth, "the public birth of my writings" and of death, "the prospect of the press is almost to me as that of the gallows to a thief" (20 June 1803. NLS: 865). Imagery such as this indicates her determination to fulfil her ambitions as an author despite the consequences of adhering to her principles.
  38. Although the biography was hugely successful with the reading public, both in Britain and America, it came under severe critical attack. The Edinburgh Review’s critic typically finds fault with Seward’s, "violation of the sacred duties of biography" (Edinburgh Review, 1804: 232). The reviewer begins by issuing a warning to the readers that the work has serious defects, most particularly in the way that Seward breaks with the conventional format:
  39. After perusing the table of contents, the reader will have himself alone to blame if he expects in this volume any exact or orderly deduction of the facts of Dr Darwin’s life. Miss Seward apparently spurns the fetters of vulgar, chronological narration; and has chosen rather to expatiate, free and at large, under the impulse of her own spontaneous feelings, or accidental associations. After having followed her with patience through her eccentric and capricious evolutions, we are unable to say that our progress has been rendered more pleasing by this irregular variety, or that it has afforded us any tolerable compensation for the want of a distinct and intelligible narrative. (Edinburgh Review, 1804: 231).
  40. The reviewer is equally contemptuous of the biography's content, specifically of the "prolix and uninteresting" analysis of Darwin’s epic poem, The Botanic Garden. In addition, the "slight outline of the domestic history of Dr Darwin" (ER, 1804: 235-6), a reference to the description of Darwin’s insensitive reaction to his son’s suicide, was shocking, argues the reviewer, on account of Seward’s, "rigid adherence to the duty of speaking the whole truth" (ER, 1804: 236), which was, no doubt, precisely her intention.  An excessive four pages of the review are devoted to demonstrating the inaccuracy of an observation by Seward on Darwin’s poetic originality. The reviewer accuses Darwin of plagiarism and even offers evidential information of this. Significantly, there is a sardonic reference to Seward’s elaborate writing style, with the implication that as a "poetess," she was incapable of engaging with other writing forms, in fact, unqualified to "tread with sober step and becoming gravity of air in the humbler pathway of prose" (ER, 1804: 231).
  41. When the biography was studied by Darwin’s relatives, further problems arose for Seward. She was accused of malicious misrepresentation when describing Darwin’s lack of emotion on his son’s death. Robert Darwin wrote to Seward threatening to reveal papers, later conveniently destroyed, in which, "some circumstances must unavoidably have appeared, which would have been as unpleasant for you to read as for me to publish" (Charles Darwin, The Life of Erasmus Darwin 76). The family believed that Seward had wanted to marry Darwin and that she resorted to malice and a desire for revenge on his rejection of her love. Whatever the contents of the papers, she made the retraction. A further complaint was raised by the son of Sabrina, later Mrs Bicknell, who objected to the public depiction of the personal details of his mother’s life under Thomas Day’s protection. He wrote an abusive letter to Seward denying that there was any truth to her account, but took the matter no further.
  42. Walter Scott confirmed that the biography, "has preserved much curious and interesting literary anecdote" (Letters I: xx), and as Darwin did not keep a journal other than his scientific commonplace book, and Dewhurst Bilsborrow failed to write his agreed biography, this is the only contemporary account. There is far more here than the minutiae of Erasmus Darwin's life with anecdotes of his friends. Anna Seward's fight for the justification of her own literary worth brought about the inception of the work and in overcoming the lack of a university education, resisting parental pressure and challenging the hypocrisy of the print industry, she was able to contribute to a female literary tradition.
  43. The biography is still consulted in new works on Erasmus Darwin and his circle of friends and is still criticised for the same reasons given in the Edinburgh Review, together with echoes of Boswell's notion of unreliability.

Teresa Barnard (University of Birmingham)

This article is copyright © of the author, and is the result of the independent labour of the scholar or scholars credited with authorship. The material contained in this document may be freely distributed, as long as the origin of information used has been properly credited in the appropriate manner (e.g. through bibliographic citation, etc

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