Yearsley, Ann (DNB00)

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YEARSLEY, Mrs. ANN (1756–1806), verse-writer, known as ‘Lactilla’ or as The ‘Bristol Milkwoman,’ was born at Bristol in 1756 of lowly parents. Her mother sold milk from door to door. Ann, who followed her mother's calling, had no education. A brother taught her to write, and she had a taste for reading. She married young an illiterate man named Yearsley, and in seven years bore him six children. The family fell into poverty and distress, and Hannah More's cook brought the poor milkwoman and her poetic endeavours to the notice of her mistress, who gave the poetess a grammar, a spelling-book, and a dictionary. Mrs. More revised her poems, and wrote (she calculated) over a thousand pages in transcribing and correcting them and in seeking subscribers. The book was published by subscription in 1784 (cf. Roberts, Memoirs of Hannah More, i. 361 et seq.). There were more than a thousand subscribers, among them the most illustrious persons of the day. Over 600l. was realised, and Hannah More invested the money in the funds, with herself and Mrs. Montagu, who called Mrs. Yearsley ‘one of nature's miracles,’ as trustees. The deed of trust excluded Mrs. Yearsley from control of the money. This arrangement did not satisfy the poetess, and a breach with Hannah More followed. The fourth edition of the ‘Poems on Several Occasions,’ published in 1786 at Mrs. Yearsley's risk, contains by way of preface a letter from Hannah More to Mrs. Montagu, giving one version of the dispute and Mrs. Yearsley's statement of her case against Hannah More. The next year (1787) was published a new volume, entitled ‘Poems on Various Subjects, and Other Pieces,’ to which Mrs. Yearsley prefixed a further narrative of Mrs. More's treatment of her.

Deprived of Hannah More's patronage, Mrs. Yearsley's prospects sank. She started a circulating library at the Colonnade, Hot Wells, Bristol. On 2 Nov. 1789 a tragedy by her in five acts and in verse, entitled ‘Earl Goodwin,’ was performed at Bath, and again on 9 Nov. at Bristol (cf. Gent. Mag. 1789, ii. 1045). It is an historical tragedy, without any love interest, and contains in act v. a good comic song. It was published in 1791. In 1795 she issued in four volumes an historical novel, ‘The Royal Captives: a Fragment of Secret History,’ purporting to be copied from an old manuscript. The story is based on that of the ‘Man in the Iron Mask,’ whom Mrs. Yearsley identified with the twin-brother of Louis XIV.

Mrs. Yearsley's later years were spent in retirement at Melksham, Wiltshire, where she died on 8 May 1806.

Her poems are much in the style of the minor poets of Hayley's school, and are overladen with strained imagery. Horace Walpole noted her perfect ear and taste (cf. Letters, ed. Cunningham, viii. 523); Miss Seward brackets her with Burns as a miracle (cf. Letters, i. 394, ii. 364); Southey allowed her some feeling and capability, but added, ‘though gifted with voice, she had no strain of her own whereby to be remembered, but she was no mocking-bird.’ Cottle, the Bristol publisher, who knew her well, declared her to be ‘a very extraordinary individual. Her natural abilities were eminent, united with which she possessed an unusually sound masculine understanding, and altogether evinced, even in her countenance, the un- equivocal marks of genius’ (cf. Reddie, Literary and Scientific Anecdotes, pp. 175–6; Gent. Mag. liv. ii. 897). A letter written by her to a clergyman, 29 Oct. 1797, about her poems is, in handwriting and style of composition, that of a person of ordinary education (cf. Addit. MS. 18204, f. 196).

Ann Yearsley's portrait was painted by Sarah Shiells, and a fine mezzotint engraving of the picture, published 16 May 1787, is in the British Museum print-room. The poetess is there represented as a good-looking buxom woman. There also exists an engraved portrait by Lowry, in which the countenance is of a more intelligent type.

Other works by Mrs. Yearsley are: 1. ‘Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade,’ 1788. 2. ‘Stanzas of Woe,’ 1790. 3. ‘Reflections on the Death of Louis XVI,’ 1793. 4. ‘An Elegy on Marie-Antoinette,’ 1795 (?). 5. ‘The Rural Lyre, a Volume of Poems,’ 1796.

Her eldest son, William Cromartie Yearsley, was apprenticed to an engraver, and engraved some of the plates illustrating his mother's books. He died prematurely.

[Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Lit.; Attempts in verse by John Jones, with introductory essay on the Lives and Works of our uneducated poets, by Robert Southey, pp. 125–34; Baker's Biogr. Dramatica, i. 764, ii. 182; Brydges's Censura Lit. 1809, iii. 112; Gent. Mag. 1806, i. 485.]

E. L.