1852 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Jane West

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine Ns 39 (July 1852) 99-101.



March 25. At Little Bowden, near Market Harborough, aged 93, Jane, widow of Mr. Thomas West.

This lady, whose literary compositions attained a very considerable share of popularity in the early part of the present century, gave the following account of her parentage to Dr. Percy, the Bishop of Dromore, who was much interested in her success—

"I was born in London, in what is now St. Paul's Coffee House, on the 30th of April, 1758, about eight o'clock in the evening the star of Poetry doubtless presided: at least I am sure that another star, which is generally esteemed synonymous, has hitherto been 'lord of my ascendant.' Desborough [in Northamptonshire] has, however, the honour of being the mother of my muse; for my father removed there when I was about eleven years old, and I soon after began to make acrostics. Self-instructed, the history of my early attempts would divert you. I berhymed the seven first chapters of the Acts at 13; I read Martin's Philosophy soon after, and composed an astronomic poem. Pope's Homer inspired me with the epic strain at 16; and I sung (or rather howled) the glories of Caractacus. The catalogue of my compositions previous to my attaining 20 would be formidable. Thousands of lines flowed in very easy measure; I scorned correction, and never blotted.

"Like most of my friends, I perceive your Lordship thinks that I had better adhere to my fictitious narratives: but I feel that in writing the Tale of the Times, I exerted all my strength. It was the result of much forethought, of much investigation. Several circumstances have since happened which have depressed my powers; and it is not easy to begin a work with a presentiment that it will fail....

"My first novel of Maria Williams was a trial of my strength, and published in disguise. I have been very ill used by the man to whom I sold it, Lane. The errors of the press absolutely disguise the work. Whatever blunders fell from my pen, I am certain the literary friend who revised my manuscript suffered none to remain."

In the same letter she had previously stated—

"The same misfortune (want of leisure) which has prevented me from indulging in the retrospect of our old minstrels, has retarded the progress of the work which I announced to your Lordship. My season for study and composition (if I may use those terms without being thought to pasquinade them) is winter. I am engaged in the duties of active life, and to those duties my pleasures ever have been subservient. You noticed my pile of stockings; they were not affectedly introduced. My needle always claims the preeminence of my pen. I hate the name of 'rhyming slattern.'"

This was written in the year 1800, and in the postscript to the same letter Mrs. West stated that she had "lately been a frequent contributor to the Gentleman's Magazine." (Nichols's Illustrations of the Literary History of the Eighteenth Century, vol. viii. p. 331.)

The letter from which we have quoted was in answer to one from Bishop Percy, dated at Brighton, in which he had bestowed the following very warm praise upon the lady:—

"Your Poems afforded me an entertainment of a superior kind indeed. Your Odes on Poetry are of the first-rate excellence; nor could I read them without emotions which I have seldom experienced. They are sublime, animated, rich in imagery, and, what I could scarce have expected from a lady's pen, learned.

"As for your excellent moral fictions, I have been reading them with no common interest. They have the entire possession of this first of watering-places. Here are three circulating libraries, and time demand for your novels is very great in them all. In the shop where I have been waiting for my turn in your Tale of the Times, I was told there were three sets; nor was it till last night that I could procure the first volume of one of them, although the season is scarce here begun."

It was some twenty years before this, that Mrs. West had first appeared as an author. She had married Mr. Thomas West, a yeoman farmer at Little Bowden, a relative of Admiral West, distinguished by his share in the relief of Minorca in 1756, and also of Gilbert West, author of the treatise on the Resurrection and whose maternal ancestors constituted an unbroken chain of Rectors of Little Bowden for above 150 years. He died in Jan. 1823, in his 67th year, and his character, drawn by her own pen, was then given in our Obituary; as in that for Dec. 1821, was that of her youngest son Edward. Thomas, the eldest (formerly of Copthall Court, London), to whom the letters hereafter mentioned were addressed, died at Northampton, April 1843, aged 59.

We add a list of Mrs. West's works:—

Miscellaneous Poems, Translations, and Imitations. 1780. 8vo.
Miscellaneous Poems. 1786. 4to.
The Humours of Brighthelmstone. 1788. 4to.
Edmund, a Tragedy. 1791. 8vo.
Miscellaneous Poems, and a Tragedy. 1791. 8vo.
A Gossip's Story, a novel. 1794. Two vols. 8vo.
Elegy on the Death of the Right Don. Edmund Burke. 1797. 4to.
A Tale of the Times. 1799.3 vols. 12mo.
Poems and Plays. 1799. 2 vols. 12mo.
The Advantages of Education. 2 vols. 12mo.
Letters addressed to a Young Man on his first entrance into Life, and adapted to the peculiar circumstances of the present times. 1801. 3 vols. 12mo. These letters were addressed to her son Thomas. (Reviewed fully in Gent. Mag. for August, 1801.)
The Infidel Father; a novel. 1802. 3 vols. 12mo.
Poems and Plays, vols. Ill, and IV. 1803. 12mo.
Letters to a Young Lady [Miss Maunsell], wherein the Duties and Characters of Women are considered. 1806. 2 vols. 12mo.
The Mother a poem. 1809. fcap. 8vo.
The Refusal; a novel. 1810. 3 vols. I2mo.
The Loyalists; an historical novel. 1812. 3 vols. 12mo.
Scriptural Essays, adapted to the Holidays of the Church of England with Meditations on the Prescribed Services. 1817. 2 vols. 12mo.

In August 1811, we find Mrs. West writing to Bishop Percy as follows:—

"I have lately been accumulating my stores, preparatory to the work I have so long meditated, and yesterday wrote about two hours of a something of an Introduction, which I shall reconsider, and perhaps blot out. But I have ever found beginning a very important step in the business of composition. My natural character makes me very averse to leaving anything half done, so perhaps I may find some tolerably favourable ideas; and five hundred and ninety-eight more hours' leisure to modify, set down, correct, re-arrange and re-transcribe them for such is the process my novels go through, and such the time they usually cost me. My two standard works, time Letters to T. West and Miss Maunsell, were much more laborious.

"My work will, I predict, be very serious. The wings of my gaiety have been clipped the history of the times I date in, and the moral purposes of my work, preclude jocularity: beside, in writing of a period long past, scenes of humour would require that intimate acquaintance with the manners and costume of past times, which far exceeds my knowledge, or my ability of acquisition. My assistants are Clarendon, Wordsworth's Ecclesiastical Biography, Walton's Lives, and Malcolm's Anecdotes. Mrs. Prudentia Homespun, your Lordship knows, is dead and buried. I knew how to manage her calash and cane, but what to do with the ruff and farthingale I scarce know: however, I will attempt it, and will hide my ignorance under the prudent caution of avoiding minutiae."

This letter alluded evidently to her novel of The Loyalists. There are various other notices of Mrs. West, together with some of his own letters, among the correspondence of Bishop Percy, in vols. VII. and VIII. of the Literary Illustrations. We shall, however, on this occasion, confine ourselves to the following opinion addressed to the Bishop, by Dr. Anderson, of Edinburgh, the Editor of the British Poets.

"I owe your Lordship my particular thanks for Mrs. West's poems, with the perusal of which I have been, upon the whole, much delighted. They do credit to the genius, taste, piety, and benevolence of the amiable and elegant writer. They do not, in general, possess the spirit and elevation of the higher poetry; but they abound in tender, interesting, and moral sentiments, elegantly expressed in easy numbers, and adorned with pleasing imagery. In some instances, as in the Ode to Poetry, she soars far above mediocrity, and approaches to sublimity. I am interested in Mrs. West as a wife, a mother, and a friend. She is little known here; but the domestic sketches your Lordship has sent me have been eagerly circulated among my friends, and I have frequently had the pleasure to introduce her ingenious, chaste, and elegant volumes into the collections of persons of taste and virtue. Her novels are more generally read and admired." (Sept. 14, 1800.)

Mrs. West's productions were reviewed in several instances by the British Critic, and in that periodical for Nov. 1801 is "a very satisfactory account of her person, character, and family," written, we have reason to believe, by the Bishop of Dromore.