1805 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Jackson Pratt

Anna Seward to Richard Polwhele, 18 June, July 1805; Polwhele, Traditions and Recollections (1826) 2:566-73.



Monday Evening, June 18.

... For your amusement I will now present you with the little biographic sketch so long promised.

Mrs. P. once Miss L. is about my age, and we were acquainted in our years of girlhood. She was an orphan; her fortune 1500; a sensible, well-disposed, handsome girl; unsuspicious, and a little romantic. At 18 she went to live at Birmingham. There she met a young man, who said his name was Montague; that he was of a noble family; that he was absconding for college debts; that he was an orphan, and had austere guardians; that he should be of age in two years, and must then come into possession of a considerable fortune; that he was the author of an anonymous novel, then admired and popular, its title "Lady Julia Mandeville." His person was not unpleasing; his manners prepossessing. They won Miss L.'s heart and confidence, and away to Scotland fled the lovers, and there they married. Her repentance of this rash step soon followed, when she found her bridegroom arrested on his return to Birmingham, for money due to various tradesmen. She paid his debts. The novel he had publicly claimed was then avowed by its real author, Mrs. Brooke. I do not exactly know where they lived till the soon-arriving period at which he had expended the last shilling of her fortune, and at which she became the unhappy mother of a female infant. It was then, all means of support exhausted, that he confessed that his name was P.; that his parents were petty grocers in the town of St. Ives; that he was their only child; and that the dawn of talents, which they believed eminent, had induced them to struggle hard to give him a university education. That he was some years older than he had pretended, and that he must trust their experienced fondness for assistance in the present distress. The poor, honest old people, received him, his wife, and child. Deacon's orders, and the curacy of the parish church in P. were procured for him. This account of her reached me from her friends, about the year 1768. Enquiring after her about the year 1770, I was told, that P. had run away from his wife, child, and parents, and disgraced his profession by making a married strolling actress, of the real or assumed name of M. the companion of his flight to Ireland; and that, having taken her name and profession, he was acting in itinerant companies with her, and publishing books with the signature of C. M. That his parents were almost heart-broken by his misdeeds, yet kindly continued to support his wife and child. In a few years after I heard they were dead of grief and poverty, and that Mrs. S. P. was in London, supporting herself and child by the honest labour of her hands. In the year 1782 Mr. W. a man of genius and fortune, much elegance of manners and respectability of character, and benevolent to enthusiastic credulity, came to visit me for a week, and brought with him the specious P. who had some time back returned to England, professing deep repentance, and resolution of amended life, in every respect except re-union with his wife, for whom he confessed aversion, which he said had been long mutual between them. He had gone down to B. in great distress and poverty. Such a melancholy sense of his past vices did he assume, and so warmly did Mr. W. vouch for the reality of his reformation, that I also was persuaded that he would henceforth prove a valuable character. They returned to B. and by sending me his works, accompanied by letters of professed esteem and offered service, he involved me in a correspondence with him. Some time after Mr. W. wrote to me, that poor P. as he called him, was an infatuated man, whom no exertions could rescue from the consequences of his restless spirit and thirst of authorism; and that he had deserted his situation very unhandsomely. P. wrote to me that he found himself unable to submit to the sacrifice of his talents and time in the drudgery of his B. situation, and that the fame and emoluments which ought to wait upon genius were only to be obtained in London. In the Autumn of 1784 I went to Buxton, and there met with the clergyman of P. whose curate P. had been. You anticipate my resolve of breaking off all connexion with such a man. I wrote to him to avow it, and mentioned my reasons, under the permitted authority and name of my informant. His reply, though deeply artful, excited only my indignation. It said, that as I had received him to my friendship, as he called it, not as a blameless, but as a repentant man, I had no right to cast him off on account of former errors. He intreated me to reflect that I was an author, to whom literary reputation must be dear; that upon the fiat of the reviewers it depended; that he was not only the master-spring of two of the most popular ones, but was concerned, more or less, with all the reviews; that, continuing to give him my countenance and correspondence, I might depend upon seeing my writings extolled in all of them; if otherwise — there he broke off. I persisted in my resolve, and avowed my scorn of his covert threat. In the course of three months it was put in ample execution. The European Magazine and English Review accused my poems of fustian, of vulgarity, of immorality, and even laid covert obscenity of meaning to the close of my elegy on Captain Cook. In the course of another year or two, I heard, that abuse of Mrs. Siddons' theatric talents, with accusations of avarice, appearing in the newspapers, had been traced to P. by Mr. Siddons. She had repeatedly lent him money, and on her first refusal to continue these loans, the poor revenge ensued. In process of time I heard that P. had been obliged to go abroad, after having been caned in a public coffee-house, by a gentleman, whose wife he had traduced in a newspaper. On his return he had the impudence to write to me, solemnly disavowing the having had any thing to do with the abuse of my writings, at any time, or on any occasion. I must have been a credulous fool indeed if such declarations could have done away with my proofs that it originated with him; and so I told him in my answer. I could fill many pages with details of similar vileness, which reached my ear, as committed by him through the course of years which have elapsed since that period. He has always had the art to impose himself upon wise and good people, for a time, as a reformed man, if he found they knew any thing of his history; if they did not, as one injured and calumniated for mere indiscretion. Some thirteen years ago, his injured and truly estimable wife passed a day with me, stating to me fresh instances of his ill conduct to his parents, herself, and others.

A lady told me, that when he was in Worcestershire, three years ago, and dining in a large party, the conversation turned upon a person of the neighbourhood who had been unkindly treated by his parents. P. affected great agitation, ending in a pretended hysteric fit; from which, when he appeared to recover, he explained what he asserted was its cause to the alarmed and concerned company, and told a long piteous tale to the same infamous purport of what he had held out to the public in one of his publications; thus outraging the character of his honest though mean parents, whose peace he had destroyed, whose boundless indulgence he had abused, whose substance he had wasted, whose days he had shortened.

Buxton, July 1805.

MY DEAR SIR,

———*———*———*———*———*———*———*———

To have been once deceived by fair appearances into erroneous belief concerning the heart of him who displays them, is no real disgrace to the soundest understanding, or to the purest principles,

Since neither man nor angel can discern
Hypocrisy, the only evil that walks
Invisible, except to God alone.

There is no marvel that you should have believed; on the testimonies you mention, that P. and myself were either on friendly terms, or might become so by the explanation of probably mistaken circumstances. Mr. W. did certainly, in the year 1781, induce me to partake his credulity. The credulity cost me the disgrace of having held a friendly correspondence with P. for two years, during which period I threw away time, not only in answering his professing letters, but in writing that prologue, and in the much longer task of weeding from his poem, "Sympathy," the docks and dodders and knots and knares with which it was covered, and in planting something more like flowers in their room. He circuitously procured for it the same sort of service from other writers. Nay, even years after I saw him in his proper colours, and had become incapable of any voluntary intercourse with him, or attention to his flimsy writings, I was induced, by complicated artifices, not worth enumeration, to correct, and in several places alter, his poem to the philanthropic Howard, being taught to believe it the first poetic attempt of a young and amiable man, to whose person and name I was a stranger. After all which I could spare time to do for it, it remained an unequal, and, on the whole, feeble and common-place business, which, on its first publication, he attested in the newspapers was either Mr. Hayley's or Miss Seward's; and then, in a few posts after, a paragraph appeared in the same papers to this effect: "The late beautiful and admired poem, in honour of the great Howard, so universally believed to be Mr. Hayley's or Miss Seward's, now comes out the avowed composition of the celebrated author of 'Sympathy,' &c. &c."

He has been, from the close of the year 1784, perfectly aware how thoroughly he was unmasked in my sight. I bid him remember his recent audacious and public pretences to be a man of family, and his ingratitude to the kind parents who had supported, in the midst of poverty, his wife and child!

He once arrogated to himself the literary graces of Mrs. Brooke's "Julia Mandeville." On the possibility that I did not know the author of those memoirs he adopted, he unequivocally asserted that they were his own.

You express kind solicitude for my health. It is not better than when I wrote last, and I think it will never know renovation more. In the hope of assuaging bilious and rheumatic disorders I came hither. but have scarcely known a day's health, or any thing resembling health, since my arrival; and my spirits are still further oppressed, instead of feeling cheered, by the society of strangers.