Seward, Anna (DNB00)
|←Sewall, Samuel|| Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 51
|1904 Errata appended.|
SEWARD, ANNA (1747–1809), authoress, known as the ‘Swan of Lichfield,’ born in 1747 at Eyam, Derbyshire, was elder daughter of Thomas Seward [q. v.] Her mother was Elizabeth, daughter of the Rev. John Hunter, headmaster of Lichfield grammar school and the teacher of Dr. Johnson. Anna early developed literary tastes, and her father declared that she could repeat passages from ‘L'Allegro’ before she was three. In 1754 her father removed to Lichfield, where Anna resided for the rest of her life. There she became acquainted with Dr. Erasmus Darwin [q. v.], and he encouraged her to write poetry.
In June 1764 her sister Sarah died when on the eve of marriage with Mr. Porter, Dr. Johnson's stepson. It would seem that he had thought of the elder sister before the younger (cf. Poetical Works, vol. i. pp. cxix–cxxi), and that after Sarah's death he wished to renew his addresses to Anna. But his advances were not encouraged. The gap left in her affections by the death of her sister was filled by Honora Sneyd, whom Mr. and Mrs. Seward adopted. Miss Sneyd became in 1773 Richard Lovell Edgeworth's second wife.
Henceforth Anna devoted herself mainly to her father (her mother died in 1780). Her leisure was spent in literary work, social duties, and in a voluminous correspondence with literary friends. She refused all offers of marriage. But she was at one time engaged to a ‘Colonel T.’ (cf. Letters, iv. 175–180), and in later life formed an attachment for John Saville, vicar-choral of Lichfield Cathedral (cf. Nichols, Illustr. of Lit. viii. 427). When he died in 1803 she erected a monument to his memory in the cathedral.
Miss Seward's earliest poems appeared under the auspices of Anna, lady Miller [q. v.] in the ‘Batheaston Miscellany.’ Among them are an ‘Elegy on the Death of Mr. Garrick’ and an ‘Ode on Ignorance.’ In 1781 she published a ‘Monody on the unfortunate Major André,’ which was republished, with another popular elegiac effort on Captain Cook, in 1817. In 1782 she published ‘Louisa: a poetical novel.’ It was well received, won Hayley's admiration, and passed through five editions. About this time Miss Seward visited Hayley in Sussex, and there met Romney, who in 1786 painted her portrait. For some time the picture remained in Hayley's possession, but in 1788 Romney seems to have presented it to Miss Seward's father (cf. Hayley, Memoirs, i. 277; Seward, Letters, ii. 126). Miss Seward addressed a poem to Romney on the subject. In 1786 she paid one of her rare visits to London, and writes of ‘literary breakfastings’ at the house of Helen Maria Williams [q. v.], and of Mrs. Siddons's performance of Rosalind, which did not please her. Next year she made the acquaintance of Mr. and Mrs. Piozzi [q. v.], and frequently met at Lichfield Dr. Darwin, Thomas Day, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Dr. Parr, Howard the prison reformer, and Dr. Johnson. The last she cordially disliked (cf. Nichols, Illustr. of Lit. vii. 321–63). About 1776 Miss Seward first met Boswell, whom she subsequently supplied with particulars concerning Johnson. Boswell, who knew her prejudice against Johnson, offended her by a somewhat cool reception of her statements (cf. Hill, Boswell, ii. 467; Gent. Mag. 1793, i. 197 et passim). Miss Seward published letters signed ‘Benvolio,’ decrying Johnson in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ in 1786 and 1793 (cf. Gent. Mag. 1786 i. 125–6, 302–4, 1787 ii. 684–5).
In March 1790 her father died, leaving her mistress of an independent fortune of 400l. a year. She continued to occupy her father's residence, the bishop's palace, Lichfield.
On the appearance of the first and second volumes of Scott's ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border,’ in 1802, Miss Seward wrote to Scott warmly commending it. Despite the pedantry of her style he recognised her ‘sound sense and vigorous ability.’ She sent him a Scottish ballad of her own manufacture, ‘Rich auld Willie's Farewell,’ and Scott placed it among the ‘imitations’ which form a section of the ‘Border Minstrelsy.’ He relates that Miss Seward, whom he had never seen, sent him a long and passionate epistle on the death of a dear friend whom he had likewise never seen, but conjured him on no account to answer the letter since she was dead to the world. ‘Never were commands more literally obeyed,’ wrote Scott to Joanna Baillie. ‘I remained as silent as the grave, till the lady made so many enquiries after me that I was afraid of my death being prematurely announced by a sonnet or an elegy.’ In 1807 Scott paid Miss Seward a visit at Lichfield, and she greatly interested him. She characterised the meeting as ‘among the high-prized honours which my writings have procured for me.’
In 1799 Miss Seward published a collection of original sonnets intended to restore the strict rules of the sonnet. She handled the form with some measure of success. Leigh Hunt especially admired the sonnet entitled ‘December Morning,’ 1782 (Men, Women, and Books, ii. 141).
Miss Seward published in 1804 a ‘Memoir of Dr. Darwin,’ which she dedicated to the Earl of Carlisle. It consists chiefly of anecdotes of the early part of Darwin's life, and of the society at Lichfield while he lived there. Miss Seward lays claim to the verses that form the exordium of Darwin's poem, ‘The Botanic Garden.’ Miss Seward, it seems, had sent the lines to him in July 1778, and they were forwarded without her knowledge to the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ with an alteration in the concluding lines (cf. Letters, ii. 311–13, iii. 155–6, v. 333–4). Robert Anderson denied the truth of this assertion (cf. Nichols, Illustr. of Lit. vii. 215–16). Two years after Darwin's death the lines appeared under Miss Seward's name in Shaw's ‘History of Staffordshire,’ 1798 (p. 34). Miss Seward's ‘Memoir of Darwin’ was severely condemned in the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ and she wrote to Scott of the editor, ‘Jeffreys ought to have been his name’ (Smiles, A Publisher and his Friends, i. 92).
After 1804 her health began to fail. In 1807 she was attacked by a scorbutic disorder, and she died on 25 March 1809. She was buried in the cathedral at Lichfield, where she had erected a monument, the work of the sculptor Bacon, to her father's memory. It commemorates the whole of the Seward family. The lines on it to Anna's memory are by Scott.
Miss Seward was a tall handsome woman with regular features and an animated expression. Scott says that ‘her eyes were auburn, of the precise shade and hue of her hair, and possessed great expression.’ Hayley described her as ‘a handsome likeness of those full-length pictures of Queen Elizabeth, where the painters gave her majesty all the beauty they could, consistent with the character of her face’ (Hayley, Memoirs, i. 244). She had a melodious voice, and, according to Hayley, read aloud ‘with peculiar force and propriety.’ In conversation she had great command of literary anecdote (cf. Nichols, Lit. Anecd. ix. 381). Southey declared that, ‘with all her affectation,’ there was ‘a very likeable warmth and sincerity about her’ (Correspondence of Southey and C. Bowles, p. 319). She held tolerant religious views, and was a liberal in politics. She sympathised with the French revolution: ‘I was educated in whiggism,’ she wrote to Dr. Parr in 1793.
Miss Seward bequeathed her literary works and remains to Scott, and her letters (twelve quarto manuscript volumes) to Archibald Constable, the Edinburgh publisher. By her request, Scott edited her posthumous compositions, and in 1810 published the poetical works in three volumes, prefixing a memoir, by himself, with extracts from her letters. She had asked Scott to perform a like office for the whole of her literary correspondence, but he declined ‘on principle,’ because he had ‘a particular aversion to perpetuating that sort of gossip.’ The matter was therefore left in the hands of Constable, who published in 1811 the letters written between 1784 and 1807 in six volumes. With Constable's consent, Scott examined the manuscript and struck out the extravagant utterances relating to himself and his work. The book had a certain vogue, for in 1813 appeared ‘The Beauties of Anna Seward,’ selected and arranged by W. C. Oulton. Another edition appeared in 1822, and has for frontispiece an engraving by Woolnoth of the Romney portrait.
Miss Seward's poetry belongs to the school represented by William Hayley [q. v.], and satirised by Gifford in the ‘Baviad’ (cf. Stephen, Thought in the Eighteenth Century, ii. 457). Her work abounds in every sort of affectation. Horace Walpole found that she had ‘no imagination, no novelty.’ He classed her with Helen Williams and ‘a half a dozen more of those harmonious virgins’ whose ‘thoughts and phrases are like their gowns, old remnants cut and turned’ (Walpole, Letters, ed. Cunningham, ix. 73). Miss Mitford described her as ‘all tinkling and tinsel—a sort of Dr. Darwin in petticoats’ (Letters, 2nd ser. ed. Chorley, i. 29). Scott was a far more indulgent critic, but he was good-natured to a fault, and was perhaps flattered as a young man by the attentions of a poetess (cf. Lockhart, Scott, 1 vol. ed. pp. 188, 201). Johnson remarked to Boswell (25 June 1784) that there was nothing equal to Miss Seward's description of the sea round the North Pole in her elegy on Captain Cook (Hill, Boswell, iv. 331), for which Hayley was believed to be in part responsible (cf. Nichols, Illustr. of Lit. vii. 216). Darwin called her the inventress of epic elegy (cf. Polwhele, Unsex'd Females, p. 33). At times she shows an appreciation of natural scenery, and now and then turns a good line (cf. Leigh Hunt, Men, Women, and Books, ii. 141). Of her epitaphs, that on Gilbert Walmsley [q. v.] is inscribed on his tomb in Lichfield Cathedral (Hill, Boswell, i. 81 n.); another, on Garrick, was intended for his monument in the same place, but the sculptor neglected to leave space for it. The third volume of the poems contains paraphrases and imitations of Horace, although she knew no Latin. In 1788 she wrote a sermon for a young clergyman, who preached it, and it was probably not the sole composition of the kind she attempted (cf. Gent. Mag. 1801, i. 113, 195, 396).
Besides the portrait by Romney, already mentioned, which seems to have been engraved both by Woolnoth and Ridley, Miss Seward sat for a miniature to Smart in 1771 and to Miers in 1777. A portrait painted in 1762 by Kettle, and engraved by Cardon, forms a frontispiece to the first volume of the letters, and was in 1811 in the possession of Thomas White of Lichfield.
[Scott's memoir, prefixed to the poems, 1810; Miss Seward's Letters, 6 vols. 1811; A Swan and her Friends, by E. V. Lucas, 1907; authorities cited.]
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