Cowley, Hannah (DNB00)

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COWLEY, HANNAH (1743–1809), dramatist and poet, was born in 1743 in Tiverton, Devonshire. She was the daughter of Philip Parkhouse, a bookseller of that town, a man of some attainments, her paternal grandmother being a cousin of Gay, who was accustomed to stay with her in Barnstaple. When about twenty-five years of age, Hannah Parkhouse married Mr. Cowley, who died in 1797, a captain in the East India Company's service. She had been some years married before the idea of writing presented itself to her. When witnessing a performance she said to her husband, in disparagement of the play, ‘Why, I could write as well.’ Her answer to his laugh of incredulity consisted in writing the first act of

  1. ‘The Runaway.’ The entire play was finished in a fortnight, and sent to Garrick, by whom it was produced at Drury Lane 15 Feb. 1776. Its success was complete. It was printed in 1776, and was the precursor of
  2. ‘Who's the Dupe?’ farce, 8vo, 1779; Drury Lane, 10 May 1779.
  3. ‘Albina, Countess Raimond,’ a tragedy, 8vo, 1779; Haymarket, 31 July 1779.
  4. ‘The Belle's Stratagem,’ comedy, 8vo, 1782; Covent Garden, 22 Feb. 1780.
  5. ‘The School for Eloquence,’ interlude, not included in her printed works, Drury Lane, 4 April 1780.
  6. ‘The World as it goes, or a Party at Montpellier,’ comedy, not printed, Covent Garden, 24 Feb. 1781. It was played a second time 24 March 1781, under the title ‘Second Thoughts are Best,’ but was damned on both occasions.
  7. ‘Which is the Man?’ comedy, 8vo, 1782; Covent Garden, 9 Feb. 1782.
  8. ‘A Bold Stroke for a Husband,’ comedy, 8vo, 1783; Covent Garden, 25 Feb. 1783.
  9. ‘More Ways than One,’ comedy, 8vo, 1784; Covent Garden, 6 Dec. 1783.
  10. ‘A School for Greybeards, or the Mourning Bride,’ 8vo, 1786; Drury Lane, 25 Nov. 1786, taken from Mrs. Behn's ‘Lucky Chance.’
  11. ‘The Fate of Sparta, or the Rival Kings,’ tragedy, 8vo, 1788; Drury Lane, 31 Jan. 1788.
    This piece, which is poor and inflated, elicited from Parsons the actor an extempore epigram:—

    Ingenious Cowley! while we view'd
    Of Sparta's sons the lot severe,
    We caught the Spartan fortitude,
    And saw their woes without a tear.

  12. ‘A Day in Turkey, or the Russian Slaves,’ comedy, 8vo, 1792; Covent Garden, 3 Dec. 1791.
  13. ‘The Town before you,’ comedy, 8vo, 1795; Covent Garden, 6 Dec. 1794. These plays, with the exception of ‘The School for Eloquence’ and ‘The World as it goes,’ were printed, together with some poems and a tale, under the title of ‘Works,’ 3 vols. London, 8vo, 1813.

An earlier collection of plays was also issued, London, 1776, 2 vols. 12mo. Many of them are included in various dramatic collections. The best are sprightly and vivacious. One or two remain in the list of acting plays, and others might be revived with a fair possibility of success. Lætitia Hardy in ‘The Belle's Stratagem’ has been a favourite with many between Miss Younge, the first exponent, and Mrs. Jordan, the second, and Miss Ellen Terry, whose late representation is still agreeably remembered. Doricourt, the hero, has also been played among others by Lewis, Kemble, and Mr. Irving. Mrs. Cowley prided herself on her originality and her indifference to stage triumphs. The boast was even put forward on her behalf that she never witnessed the first performance of one of her pieces. Her anxiety on their behalf, however, involved her in a newspaper warfare with Hannah More, whom she taxed with plagiarism, and in quarrels with the managers of Drury Lane and Covent Garden, to whom, in a preface to ‘Albina,’ subsequently suppressed, she imputed, most probably in error, some misuse of her manuscript. In her preface to the ‘Town before you’ she expresses her disgust at the vitiated taste of the town, and her determination to write no more for the stage, a resolution to which, unfortunately, she adhered. Her plots are, as a rule, her own, though she is not above using the work of others, and is careful when so doing to minimise her indebtedness. Some of her characters are freshly conceived, though their motives to action are not seldom inadequate. Her poems include ‘The Maid of Arragon,’ in two books, of which one only was printed, London, 1780; ‘The Siege of Acre,’ in four books, published in 1799 in the ‘Annual Register,’ and reprinted in six books in 1801; ‘The Scottish Village, or Pitcairn Green,’ 4to, 1787; ‘Edwina,’ a poem extracted from Hutchinson's ‘History of Cumberland,’ Carlisle, 1794, 4to. Under the signature of Anna Matilda she carried on with Robert Merry, ‘Della Crusca,’ a poetical correspondence in the ‘World.’ These compositions were printed with those of ‘Della Crusca,’ in two volumes, with portraits of the two authors; the likeness of Mrs. Cowley presenting a bright, piquant face. In common with others of the school Mrs. Cowley is lashed by Gifford in the ‘Baviad and Mæviad.’ Merry and she were at the outset unknown to each other, and the raptures expressed were Platonic. Gifford makes some mirth out of the first meeting between ‘Della Crusca’ and his ‘tenth Muse,’ who had ‘sunk into an old woman.’ The name Anna Matilda which she adopted in the correspondence has passed into a byword for sentimental fiction. Her verse is of the namby-pamby order, and merits Gifford's censure. On the strength of her comedies, however, she will maintain a place in literature. One or two well-written letters from her are printed in the ‘Garrick Correspondence,’ Lond. 1832, pp. 222 et seq. In the ‘History of the Theatres of London,’ 1796, Oulton republishes the newspaper correspondence between Mrs. Cowley and Hannah More.

Mrs. Cowley died 11 March 1809 at Tiverton, leaving a son and daughter. The latter married the Rev. David Brown of Calcutta [q. v.]

[Life of Mrs. Cowley prefixed to her Works, 1813; Genest's Account of the Stage; Baker, Reed, and Jones's Biographia Dramatica; Gifford's Baviad and Mæviad; Poems by Anna Matilda, Lond. 2 vols. 8vo, 1788; British Album, 1792, 12mo.]

J. K.