1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Hannah Cowley

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 10:390-91.



HANNAH COWLEY, an ingenious and popular dramatic writer, the daughter of Mr. Philip Parkhouse, of Tiverton, in Devonshire, was born at that place in 1743. Her father was educated for holy orders, but a family loss depriving him of a certainty of provision in the church, he desisted, from his first intention, and became a bookseller, as the nearest approach he could then prudently make to a life of some degree of literary enjoyment. He afterwards rose to be a member of the corporation of Tiverton, and was very highly respected as a man of talents and probity, and a good scholar. He was not very distantly related to the poet Gay, who records his visit to his relations in Devonshire in his "Journey to Exeter," inscribed to the earl of Burlington. It was Mr. Parkhouse's favourite aim to cultivate the promising talents of his daughter, and he lived to witness the reputation she acquired almost to the last period of her literary career. In her twenty-fifth year she was married to Mr. Cowley, a man of very considerable talents, who died in 1797, a captain in the East India company's service. It was when he was with his regiment in India that she dedicated her comedy of "More Ways than One" to him, in the affectionate lines prefixed to it; and it was to this gentleman's brother, an eminent merchant of London, now living, that "The Fate of Sparta" is dedicated with so much feeling.

Her acquaintance with the stage was sudden, and apparently accidental. Sitting with her husband at one of the theatres some time in 1776, she expressed to him a notion that she could write as well as the author of the performance before them, and next morning sketched the first act of "The Runaway," which she so speedily completed, and with such success, as to establish her fame completely. Having now fairly embarked, she improved her vantage ground, and continued to write from time to time those pieces which are now published in the new edition of her works, all of which were received with approbation, and some, as the "Belle's Stratagem," were soon ranked among the best stock pieces, and still preserve their. original attraction. In all, with considerable elegance and variety of style, she combines that happy observation of natural life and manners which furnishes well discriminated characters, and apposite humour and satire, free from the unreal exaggerations of imagination. Her fables too, with one exception, are original, and sufficiently intricate for the purposes of stage effect.

In her poems, "The Maid of Arragon," the "Scottish Village," and the "Siege of Acre," she displays considerable taste and genius, although we think that her fame must rest chiefly on her dramatic pieces. Read in conjunction, however, they evince a mind of more than common powers, and more than common fertility. It is evident that she wrote with ease, and with a rapidity of impulse which would not always submit to the restraint of correction.

Those around Mrs. Cowley, we are told, perceived with surprize, that she had none of the vanity of being thought a literary lady; her conversation was never literary; nor did she indulge or solicit correspondence for the sake of publicity. Her reading lay more in books of travels, or of history, than in works of imagination. Of her own works she appears to have been regardless after they had once passed through her hands: and what is more remarkable, she had very little pleasure in theatrical representations; successive years elapsed without her being at a theatre once; and she never witnessed a first performance of any of her own plays. Her more solid pleasure was in domestic life, in superintending the education of her children. Her residence, which had been chiefly in London from the time of her marriage, she exchanged for Tiverton, the place of her birth, where she passed the last eight years of her life. She died there March 11, 1809. Her dramatic and poetical works, with the addition of some unpublished poems, were collected into three volumes 8vo, in 1813: to these is prefixed a tribute to her memory, both affectionate and just.