I was well acquainted with Ann Yearsley, and my friendship for Hannah More did not blind my eyes to the merits of her opponent. Candor exacts the acknowledgment that the Bristol Milkwoman was a very extraordinary individual. Her natural abilities were eminent, united with which, she possessed an unusually sound masculine understanding; and altogether evinced, even in her countenance, the unequivocal marks of genius. If her education and early advantages had been favorable, there is no limiting the distinction to which she might have attained; and the respect she did acquire, proves what formidable barriers may be surmounted by native talent when perseveringly exerted, even in the absence of those preliminary assistances which are often merely the fret-work, the entablature of the Corinthian column.
Ann Yearsley's genius was discoverable in her Poems, but perhaps the extent of her capacity chiefly appeared in her Novel, The Man in the Iron Mask; in itself a bad subject, from the confined limit it gives to the imagination; but there is a vigor in her style which scarcely appeared compatible with a wholly uneducated woman. The late Mr. C. Robinson, the bookseller, told me that he had given Ann Yearsley two hundred pounds for the above work, and that he would give her one hundred pounds for every volume she might produce. This sum, with the profits of her Poems, enabled her to set up a circulating library, at the Hot Wells. I remember, in the year 1793, an imposition was attempted to be practised upon her, and she became also involved in temporary pecuniary difficulties, when by timely interference and a little assistance I had the happiness of placing her once more in a state of comfort. From a grateful feeling she afterwards sent me a handsome copy of verses.
It has been too customary to charge her with ingratitude, (at which all are ready to take fire,) but without sufficient cause, as the slight services I rendered her were repaid with a superabundant expression of thankfulness; what then must have been the feelings of her heart towards Mrs. Hannah More, to whom her obligations were so surpassing?
The merits of the question involved in the dissension between Ann Yearsley and Mrs. H. More, lay in a small compass, and they deserve to be faithfully stated; the public are interested in the refutation of charges of ingratitude, which, if substantiated, would tend to repress assistance toward the humbler children of genius. The baneful effects arising from a charge of ingratitude, in Ann Yearsley towards her benefactress, might be the proximate means of dooming to penury and death some unborn Chatterton, or of eclipsing the sun of a future Burns.
Hannah More discovered that the woman who supplied her family daily with milk, was a really respectable poetess. She collected her productions, and published them for her benefit, with a recommendatory address. The Poems, as they deserved, became popular; doubtless, in a great degree, through the generous and influential support of Mrs. H. More, and the profits of the sale amounted to some hundreds of pounds.
The money, thus obtained, the milkwoman wished to receive herself: for the promotion of herself in life, and the assistance of her two promising sons, who inherited much of their mother's talent. Hannah More on the contrary, in conjunction with Mrs. Montague, thought it most advisable to place the money in the Funds, in the joint names of herself and Mrs. M. as trustees for Ann Yearsley, so that she might receive a small permanent support through life. In this, Hannah More acted with the purest intention. If any judicious friend had stated to her that Ann Yearsley, whom she had so greatly served, was a discreet woman and would not be likely to squander her little all; that she wanted to educate her two sons, and to open for herself a circulating library, neither of which objects could be accomplished without trenching on her capital, no doubt could have been entertained of her instantly acceding to it.
The great error on the part of the milkwoman, was in not prevailing on some friend thus to interfere, and calmly to state her case; instead of which, in a disastrous moment, she undertook to plead her own cause; and, without the slightest intention of giving offence, called on her patroness. Both parties meant well, but from the constitution of the human mind, it was hardly possible for one who had greatly obliged another in a subordinate station to experience the least opposition without at least an uncomfortable feeling. There must have existed a predisposition to misconstrue motives, as well as a susceptibility, in the closest alliance with offence. And now the experiment commenced.
Here was a strong-minded illiterate woman on one side, impressed with a conviction of the justice of her cause; and further stimulated by a deep consciousness of the importance of success to herself and family; and on the other side, a refined mind, delicately alive to the least approximation to indecorum, and, not unreasonably, requiring deference and conciliation. Could such incongruous materials coalesce? Ann Yearsley's suit, no doubt, was urged with a zeal approaching to impetuosity, and not expressed in that measured language which propriety might have dictated; and any deficiency in which could not fail to offend her polished and powerful patroness.
Ann Yearsley obtained her object, but she lost her friend. Her name, from that moment, was branded with ingratitude; and severe indeed was the penalty entailed on her by this act of indiscretion! Her good name, with the rapidity of the eagle's pinion, was forfeited! Her talents, in a large circle, at once became questionable, or vanished away. Her assumed criminality also was magnified into audacity, in daring to question the honor, or oppose the wishes of two such women as Mrs. H. More, and Mrs. Montague! and thus, through this disastrous turn of affairs, a dark veil was suddenly thrown over prospects, so late the most unsullied and exhilarating; and the favorite of fortune sunk to rise no more!
Gloom and perplexities in quick succession oppressed the Bristol milkwoman, and her fall became more rapid than her ascent! The eldest of her sons, William Cromartie Yearsley, who had bidden fair to be the prop of her age, and whom she had apprenticed to an eminent engraver, with a premium of one hundred guineas, prematurely died; and his surviving brother soon followed him to the grave! Ann Yearsley, now a childless and desolate widow, retired, heart-broken from the world, on the produce of her library; and died many years after, in a state of almost total seclusion, at Melksham. An inhabitant of the town lately informed me that she was never seen, except when she took her solitary walk in the dusk of the evening! She lies buried in Clifton churchyard.
In this passing notice of the Bristol milkwoman, my design has been to rescue her name from unmerited obloquy, and not in the remotest degree to criminate Hannah More, whose views and impressions in this affair may have been somewhat erroneous, but whose intentions it would be impossible for one moment to question.