Close encounters: Anna Seward, 1742–1809, a woman in provincial cultural life

Roberts, Marion (2011). Close encounters: Anna Seward, 1742–1809, a woman in provincial cultural life. University of Birmingham. M.Litt.


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Anna Seward (1747–1809) is best known today as a poet, but one whose reputation did not survive her death. Most studies of Seward since the nineteenth century have been critical or dismissive, but in recent years her published work has attracted more attention. Academics, particularly feminist scholars, have focused on her environmental observations, and the ways in which her writings draw attention to the gendered nature of eighteenth-century society. This study adopts a different approach by exploring Anna Seward’s private and public life within the provincial culture in which she emerged and remained until her death. Seward’s identity was shaped by her early life in the Derbyshire Peak District and the cathedral city of Lichfield. Her relationships with male mentors and friends of both sexes provided learning experiences and opportunities to develop her literary skills and personal confidence. Her wealthy clergyman father educated her at home and developed her literary interests. She was also heavily influenced by Dr Erasmus Darwin who encouraged her literary abilities and developed her confidence. Influenced by other provincial literary figures, such as Thomas Whalley, William Hayley, Robert Southey, Helen Maria Williams, Hannah More and the Ladies of Llangollen, she embarked on a publishing career, became a commentator on public affairs and acted as a critic. Her extensive letters bear witness to a wide range of interests and a large network of correspondents. Unlike other cultural figures, Seward did not move to London to participate in the competitive life of the capital. She disliked large towns and did not become part of the Bluestocking circle of metropolitan intellectuals; instead, people came to her or solicited her opinions from a distance. Seward was self-willed, independent and prepared to criticise the famous, such as Samuel Johnson and Darwin, her former mentor. Her life in Lichfield, moreover, secured the disapproval of the local ecclesiastical establishment, because of her close public relationship with a married man, John Saville. Towards the end of her life she worked to secure her reputation as a poet and commentator, through the agency of Walter Scott, but after her death, his savage editing of her letters and works did much to destroy her reputation. Though Seward was a literary figure orbiting within an environment which excluded London, her life was important. It revealed how middle-class women could develop a national cultural reputation outside of the capital and provided a commentary on the vigorous nature of provincial life in the English Midlands.

Type of Work: Thesis (Masters by Research > M.Litt.)
Award Type: Masters by Research > M.Litt.
College/Faculty: Colleges (2008 onwards) > College of Arts & Law
School or Department: School of Humanities
Funders: None/not applicable
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN0080 Criticism
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN0441 Literary History
H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
H Social Sciences > HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare
P Language and Literature > PR English literature
H Social Sciences > HM Sociology


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