1806 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Jane Bowdler

William Forbes, in Life and Writings of James Beattie (1806) 2:203-05n.



We are informed by a prefatory advertisement, that these Poems and Essays, the production of Miss Jane Bowdler, were written to relieve the tedious hours of pain and sickness. To the humble and pious Christian, who feels the pressure of distress, and seeks in religion that support and consolation which nothing else can bestow, they present an example of patience and resignation which no sufferings could conquer. Nor is it the pride of Stoicism that these pages exhibit. The author felt, with the keenest sensibility, the uncommon misfortune which condemned her for ten years in the prime of life to constantly increasing sufferings; but she found in the principles which are here laid down, such motives of consolation, as rendered her superior to all the sorrows of life, and to the lingering tortures of a most painful death. Of the singular merit of these Essays, there can be no higher praise than that of an amiable and excellent moralist [author's note: See a letter inserted soon after the death of Miss Bowdler, and the publication of the Essays, in the Bath Chronicle, by William Melmoth, Esq. author of the Letters of Sir Thomas Fitzosborne, &c. &c.], who has declared, that he considered this performance as a production of inestimable value to every reader, who has a taste for elegant composition, or a heart disposed to profit by wise instruction; instruction the more forcible, as she was the bright example of her own excellent precepts. The genuine principles of Christian ethics, undebased by the smallest alloy of bigotry or superstition, are judiciously pursued through their important consequences, and applied with singular accuracy to the various purposes of moral agency. The language and the sentiments are level to the most ordinary human understanding, at the same time that the most improved will find much to admire in both.

Miss Bowdler was the eldest daughter of Thomas Bowdler, Esq. of Ashley, a gentleman of independent fortune, who, being bred to no profession, resided chiefly at Bath, where he gave much of his time to study, and the company of men of letters. He was a person of great piety and worth. As an unequivocal proof of his singular attention to the strict discharge of religious duties, he constantly retained a domestic chaplain, who regularly officiated in his family. He died at Bath, 2d May, 1785.

Although Mr. Bowdler, from his attachment to books, may in some degree be considered as a literary character, he never, so far as I know, appeared in print, like most of his family. Besides the amiable sufferer, the author of these Essays, their mother, Mrs. Bowdler, daughter of Sir John Cotton, was possessed of very extraordinary talents. Such was her proficiency as a scholar, that she was even well acquainted with the Greek and Hebrew languages; and thus read the Scriptures, which were her favourite study, in the original. Yet, with all this store of knowledge, she never intruded it into conversation, nor made any useless parade of her superior accomplishments. She printed, at first anonymously, but since her death they have been published by her family with her name, Practical Observations on the Revelation of St. John. Whatever may be thought of Mrs. Bowdler's lucubrations themselves, upon this mysterious book, we cannot but be pleased with the practical inferences which her work contains. She died at Bath, 10th May, 1797, in her eightieth year.

Their eldest son, the present Mr. Bowdler, a name justly respected by every friend of virtue and religion, published, in the year 1797, an excellent and well-timed pamphlet in a plain and familiar style, entitled, Reform or Ruin, at a period when our national concerns wore a very gloomy aspect, yet when national dissipation, apparently the certain forerunner of our destruction as an empire, seemed arrived at its height.

This title of Mr. Bowdler's pamphlet deceived many. At the time it was published, multiplied pamphlets came out on the subject of political reform; and some people were induced to peruse this of Mr. Bowdler's, who little suspected that the "reform" he recommended was a reformation of manners, not of the constitution.

Mr. Thomas Bowdler, the late Mr. Bowdler's second son, (the gentleman mentioned in Dr. Beattie's letter) published Letters written from Holland, 1787, containing a History of the Expedition into Holland under the Duke of Brunswick, in the year 1786: and Miss Harriet Bowdler has instructed the world by a volume, published anonymously, of practical Sermons on the Doctrines and Duties of Christianity, which do equal honour to her piety, her taste, and her knowledge of the human heart; and which cannot be carefully perused by any one, without exciting in the mind the best and most useful impressions of duty. There yet remains to be mentioned another daughter of Mr. Bowdler, who, though she has never published any literary work, possesses a taste and understanding highly cultivated, with powers of epistolary composition, which speak her to be mistress of talents, were she to employ them for the press, by no means inferior to those of the other branches of this extraordinary family. I have long enjoyed the happiness of her classical and instructive correspondence.