Southey, Caroline Anne (DNB00)

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SOUTHEY, Mrs. CAROLINE ANNE (1786–1854), poetess, second wife of Robert Southey [q. v.], was born at Lymington, Hampshire, on 7 Oct. 1786, and baptised on 10 Jan. 1787 in Lymington church (parish register). Her father, Captain Charles Bowles of the East India Company's service, appears to have retired soon after her birth, and to have bought and settled at Buckland Cottage, a small, old-fashioned house enveloped in elms. Here she grew up with him, her mother, Anne, daughter of George Burrard, and sister of General Sir Harry Burrard [q. v.], her maternal grandmother, and her great-grandmother. The mother died in 1816, and her death, which left Caroline alone in the world, was followed by loss of property through the dishonesty of a guardian. Fortunately her father had an adopted son, Colonel Bruce, then resident at Bushire, who, hearing of her misfortunes, insisted on settling an annuity of 150l. upon her, and regretted that she would accept no more. She was thus enabled to preserve her cottage, which, but for one short and sad episode, continued her home for life. While in apprehension of poverty she had resolved to support herself if possible by her pen, and had sent a manuscript poem to Robert Southey, encouraged to the step by his kindness to Henry Kirke White. Southey thought well of it and recommended it to John Murray, who also admired, but would not publish. It was eventually brought out anonymously by Longman under the title of ‘Ellen Fitzarthur: a Metrical Tale’ (London, 1820, 8vo). Like most of her works, it is a simple tale whose strength is in its pathos. ‘The Widow's Tale, and other Poems’ (1822, 12mo) marked an advance in poetic art. Southey, who had become warmly interested in his correspondent, met her for the first time in 1820, and proposed that she should assist in his projected poem of ‘Robin Hood.’ Not much came of the partnership, owing to Southey's stress of occupation and Caroline's inability to master the rhymeless stanza of Thalaba, in which the poem was to be composed; a fragment, however, was eventually published after Southey's death (‘Robin Hood, with other Fragments,’ London, 1847, 8vo). She visited Southey at Keswick, and the visit was mutually agreeable, although, engrossed in his books, he delegated the office of escorting her about the country to Wordsworth. ‘Solitary Hours’ (1826, 8vo), a mixture of prose and verse, succeeded, and was followed by the work which has given Caroline her chief literary reputation, ‘Chapters on Churchyards,’ a series of tales originally published in ‘Blackwood's Magazine,’ and issued in a complete form in 1829. Though very unpretending, these are frequently both powerful and pathetic. Miss Bowles's gifts were rather those of a story-teller than of a poet, and her poetry is generally the better the nearer it approaches to prose. Her strength is in the expression of pathetic feeling, which she conveys effectively in prose or blank verse, but less so in lyric, which usually lacks musical impulse, and, like much feminine poetry, is over-fluent and deficient in concentration. Her descriptions, whether in prose or verse, frequently possess much beauty. In 1823 she anticipated Mrs. Norton's and Mrs. Browning's protests against the ill-treatment of workmen by her ‘Tales of the Factories,’ powerful if somewhat exaggerated verse. In 1836 she published her longest and most ambitious poem, ‘The Birthday,’ which led Henry Nelson Coleridge, in his celebrated article on the ‘Modern Nine’ in the ‘Quarterly Review’ for September 1840, to characterise her as ‘the Cowper of our modern poetesses.’ She was also, he thought, the most English; and, indeed, few English poetesses have had less foreign experience, for she rarely quitted ‘my, our, dear New Forest,’ until, in June 1839, she took the most momentous step of her life in accepting the fast-failing Southey's offer of marriage. Their correspondence of twenty years, published by Professor Dowden in 1881, attests their entire congeniality; but Southey's state of health should have forbidden what might have been fitting under different circumstances. Caroline is nevertheless entitled to honour for her devotion; it is not, however, true, as was stated in an obituary notice in the ‘Athenæum,’ that ‘she consented to unite herself to him with a sure prevision of the awful condition of mind to which he would shortly be reduced,’ the contrary having been proved by Professor Dowden from her own letters (Dennis, Robert Southey, p. 442). The hopeless decay of Southey's faculties became apparent within three months of his marriage, and rendered his wife's situation miserable. Her stepchildren, with whom she was compelled to live, detested her (cf. Mrs. Bray, Autobiogr.) She is barely mentioned in Cuthbert Southey's edition of his father's correspondence—a book at which she refused so much as to look. With Mrs. Edith Warter, however, Southey's eldest daughter, and her husband, who did not live at Keswick, she was always on affectionate terms; and the valuable collection of Southey's correspondence, published by Warter in 1856, came from her hands. Southey's death in 1843 must have been as great a release to her as to himself—‘the last three years have done upon me the work of twenty,’ she wrote to Mrs. Sigourney. She returned to her beloved Buckland, and wrote no more. Southey, while behaving with perfect justice towards his children, left her 2,000l., but this was far from compensating for the loss of Colonel Bruce's annuity, forfeited by her marriage. A crown pension of 200l. was conferred upon her in 1852. She died on 20 July 1854, and was buried at Lymington.

Neither in prose nor in verse is Caroline Southey strong enough to maintain a high place. She will probably be best remembered by her connection with Southey and by her share in the volume of his correspondence edited by Professor Dowden. His part is the more important, but Caroline's letters prove that she possessed more liveliness and satiric talent than might have been expected from the authoress of ‘Chapters on Churchyards.’ She was diminutive, and had suffered from small-pox; the portrait prefixed to Professor Dowden's edition of her correspondence is, however, by no means unprepossessing.

[The Correspondence of Robert Southey with Caroline Bowles, ed. Edward Dowden, Dublin, 1881; Miles's Poets and Poetry of the Century, 1892; Athenæum, 1854, probably by T. K. Hervey; Gent. Mag.; Cornhill Mag. vol. xxx.]

R. G.