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Anna Seward (December 12, 1747 – March 25, 1809)

Dubbed the "Swan of Lichfield," Anna Seward was eldest daughter of Thomas Seward, canon residentiary of Lichfield Cathedral. Encouraged to write by Erasmus Darwin, Seward became one of the best known English women poets of her time. She also published in the Gentleman's Magazine, sometimes under the pseudonym "Benvolio," and engaged in debates with other critics. (Picture: Anna Seward, Tilly Kettle, 1762)

Widely connected to writers and clergy, Seward lived her entire life at Lichfield and never married. She seems to have been liked and admired for her liveliness and generosity though criticized for self-importance, outspokenness, and unconventionality.

Although most of Seward's intense attachments were to women, scholars have focused on her deep involvement with John Saville, vicar choral at Lichfield and a renowned vocalist who was separated from his wife. Their relationship subjected them to censure though Seward insisted it was "pure and disinterested." She was grief-stricken by Saville's sudden death in 1803.

Biographers have also noted Seward's passion for her foster sister Honora Sneyd, who came to live in the Seward household at the age of five when Anna was thirteen. After the death of Anna's sister Sarah in 1763, Honora became her closest companion, and the attachment grew more intense. Seward expressed her passionate devotion through her involvement in Honora's romantic life as well as in poetry dedicated to her.

She was devastated and outraged by Honora's marriage to Richard Lovell Edgeworth in 1773 and literally went into mourning. Even after her death in 1780, Honora remained an important figure in Seward's interior life.

It appears, however, that this relationship was not Seward's sole experience of romantic female friendship. She had charged relationships with at least three other women, Penelope Weston (later Mrs. Pennington), a Miss Mompesson, and Elizabeth Cornwallis, whom Seward named "Clarissa."

Of these three, the relationship with Cornwallis, which Seward refers to as the "unpartaken and secret treasure of my soul," is the most interesting: It was conducted through secret correspondence and surreptitious meetings because Cornwallis's father abhorred female friendships and controlled his daughter's contacts with women.

In addition to these romantic friendships, Seward was associated with circles of literary and intellectual women. She regularly attended Lady Anna Miller's gatherings at Bath Easton. Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, the famous "Ladies of Llangollen" who had eloped together and settled in Wales, were her dear friends and correspondents. She wrote several poems in their honor, the longest and best known of which, Llangollen Vale, was published in 1796.

Seward's poetry is often sentimental and ornate, but some poems are quite powerful. Much of Llangollen Vale, for example, could be described as mythic pastoral verse, but the poem also includes a surprisingly forthright celebration of the "Sisters in love" and places the two women in a heroic lineage.

The poems dedicated to Honora are marked by a similar excess, but they testify to Seward's deep attachment. Seward memorializes their "plighted love" at first joyously and then later, after Honora's marriage, with deep lament.

Additional poems dedicated to other women might also lend themselves to lesbian reading. Seward's public and private writings, as well as her extensive connections with women, make her a fruitful figure for further study.

Citation Information
Author: Urquilla, Marian ; Lanser, Susan S.
Entry Title: Seward, Anna
General Editor: Claude J. Summers
Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture
Publication Date: 2002
Date Last Updated July 11, 2011
Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/seward_a.html
Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL 60607
Today's Date March 25, 2013
Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.
Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates

Further Readings:

Anna Seward and the End of the Eighteenth Century by Claudia T. Kairoff
Hardcover: 328 pages
Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press (November 22, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1421403285
ISBN-13: 978-1421403281
Amazon: Anna Seward and the End of the Eighteenth Century

Anna Seward and her career defy easy placement into the traditional periods of British literature. Raised to emulate the great poets John Milton and Alexander Pope, maturing in the Age of Sensibility, and publishing during the early Romantic era, Seward exemplifies the eighteenth-century transition from classical to Romantic. Claudia Thomas Kairoff’s excellent critical study offers fresh readings of Anna Seward’s most important writings and firmly establishes the poet as a pivotal figure among late-century British writers.

Reading Seward’s writing alongside recent scholarship on gendered conceptions of the poetic career, patriotism, provincial culture, sensibility, and the sonnet revival, Kairoff carefully reconsiders Seward’s poetry and critical prose. Written as it was in the last decades of the eighteenth century, Seward’s work does not comfortably fit into the dominant models of Enlightenment-era verse or the tropes that characterize Romantic poetry. Rather than seeing this as an obstacle for understanding Seward’s writing within a particular literary style, Kairoff argues that this allows readers to see in Seward’s works the eighteenth-century roots of Romantic-era poetry.

Arguably the most prominent woman poet of her lifetime, Seward’s writings disappeared from popular and scholarly view shortly after her death. After nearly two hundred years of critical neglect, Seward is attracting renewed attention, and with this book Kairoff makes a strong and convincing case for including Anna Seward's remarkable literary achievements among the most important of the late eighteenth century.



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Tags: gay classics, literary heritage, queers in history
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