Seward and the Battle for Authorship
- 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.
- 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)..
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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"
- 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
- 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:
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)
- 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).
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
- 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).
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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).
- 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).
- 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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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).
- 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
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)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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:
- 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,
- 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).
- 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.
- 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
- 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
Teresa Barnard (University
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