Williams, Anna (DNB00)

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

WILLIAMS, ANNA (1706–1783), poetess and friend of Dr. Johnson, the daughter of Zachariah Williams [q. v.], was born at Rhosmarket, five miles from Haverfordwest, in 1706. In after years she dwelt with rapture on the memories of Rhosmarket. She was well educated, acquired French and Italian, and was possessed ‘of more than ordinary talents and literature.’ About 1727 she came to London with her father, and enjoyed the town life. When her father entered the Charterhouse she visited him constantly, helped Stephen Gray [q. v.] in his experiments, and was the first, while assisting him, to observe and notify ‘the emission of the electrical spark from a human body’ (Miscellanies, 1766). She lost her sight about 1740, but worked on to support herself, particularly excelling at ‘the exercise of her needle.’ She also made a little money by a translation from the French of the ‘Life of the Emperor Julian,’ by J. P. René de la Bléterie, which was published in 1746. For two years she lived with her father in the Charterhouse. After his expulsion her father communicated their distress to Dr. Johnson, whose wife then expressed a desire to know her, and a close intimacy followed. Dr. Johnson in 1752 prevailed on Samuel Sharp (d. 1778) [q. v.] to undertake an operation upon her eyes. For greater convenience it was performed at Johnson's house, but was unsuccessful, resulting in total blindness.

From that time whenever he had a house Miss Williams lived with him. In 1752 Miss Williams was with Johnson in Gough Square, but at the close of 1758 he was forced to give this house up, and she went into lodgings. In 1763 she was living apart in Bolt Court, Fleet Street, and it was Johnson's practice to drink tea with her every night. It was then that Goldsmith, ‘a privileged man,’ said, to Boswell's mortification, ‘I go to Miss Williams.’ In the following August Boswell had ‘made good his title to be a privileged man.’ In February 1766 Johnson was living in Johnson's Court, Fleet Street, and there ‘an apartment on the ground floor’ was given her. She had a room in his house at 8 Bolt Court, where, so long as her strength lasted, she watched over the expenses.

Her collection of ‘Miscellanies’ was advertised in 1750, and subscriptions—five shillings for a quarto volume—were obtained during some years. Her leading friends put off its completion from month to month, but others took it up, and it was published in 1766 by Thomas Davies as ‘Miscellanies in Prose and Verse.’ Johnson contributed the preface and several pieces, and Mrs. Thrale gave ‘The Three Warnings.’ The original draft (which first appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine for 1754, p. 40) of the verses by Miss Williams to Richardson on his novel of ‘Sir Charles Grandison’ is among John Forster's manuscripts at the South Kensington Museum. It contains corrections in Johnson's handwriting. Garrick gave her a benefit, with Aaron Hill's play of ‘Merope,’ on 22 Jan. 1756, and she is said to have received the sum of 200l. The profits of the ‘Miscellanies’ increased her little store to about 300l. Her annual income consisted of the interest of this sum, an allowance of 10l. per annum by Mrs. Montagu from 1775, and a yearly present from Lady Philipps of Picton Castle, and other Welsh ladies. In 1774 she was a petitioner for Hetherington's charity at Christ's Hospital, but failed to secure a grant, as its benefits were denied to natives of Wales. In spite of her blindness, Miss Williams paid visits to friends both in town and country. She and Johnson went to Percy's living of Easton Mauduit in the summer of 1764, and Mrs. Percy found her ‘a very agreeable companion.’ From 1776 her health declined, her natural peevishness increased, and she gradually wasted away with ‘pituitous defluxion.’ As a consequence perpetual discord reigned from about 1778 among the female inmates of Dr. Johnson's house in Bolt Court. She died there ‘from mere inanition’ on 6 Sept. 1783. Her little substance (200l. of the 3l. per cent. stock and 157l. 14s. in cash) was given by her, it is said at Johnson's suggestion, to the Ladies' Charity School founded in King Street, Snow Hill, London, in 1702, and now in Powis Gardens, Notting Hill. There also are her four silver tea-spoons, sugar-tongs, and portrait; probably that by Miss Reynolds, which was afterwards engraved (Speaker, 22 March 1890, pp. 311–12).

Johnson said: ‘Had she had good humour and prompt elocution, her universal curiosity and comprehensive knowledge would have made her the delight of all that knew her.’ Lady Knight, Miss Hawkins, Hannah More, Miss Talbot, and Hoole concur in praising her.

[Fenton's Pembrokeshire, pp. 197–200; Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. i. 421–2, v. 254–5; Gent. Mag. 1783, ii. 806; Nichols's Lit. Illustrations, v. 761–3, viii. 218–19; Nichols's Lit. Anecdotes, ii. 178–84; Boswell (Croker's edit. 1848), pp. 43, 74, 101, 181, 458, 740; Boswell, ed. Hill, i. 232–3, 241, 350, 393, 421, 463, ii. 5, 286, 427, iii. 48, 128, 132, iv. 235, v. 276; Johnson's Letters (ed. Hill), i. 53–7, 156, ii. 74–7, 295, 331–6; Johnsonian Miscellanies, ed. Hill, i. 114–15, 401–3, ii. 171–6, 217–18, 279; Roberts's Hannah More, i. 49; Letters of Mrs. Carter and Miss Talbot, ii. 221, 225, iii. 135–6; Cunningham's London, ed. Wheatley, i. 216–17, ii. 336, 354; Leslie and Taylor's Sir Joshua Reynolds, i. 121.]

W. P. C.