Another ‘Archive Spotlight’ post for this week! Thank you to Francesca Blanch Serrat – PhD student from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona – for this essay. Francesca’s research focuses on self-representation, maturity, and Romanticism in Anna Seward’s poetry. She tells us here about her trip to Lichfield, the location of Seward’s family home.
Do you want to write for us on studying Romanticism materials at an archive? We are now opening this series to contributors. We’d love to hear from academics and postgraduates who would like to write a short blog on their experience of using an archive in the UK or elsewhere. You could use the space to discuss one or two things of interest you found there, perhaps things that are intriguing, but can’t fit into your thesis or other work. Suggestions welcome!
Please contact Anna Mercer for more information.
Archive Spotlight: Anna Seward and the Lichfield Record Office
Although today she is not quite as well known, Anna Seward (1742-1809) was celebrated in her lifetime as one of the prominent lyrical voices of Great Britain. Strongly imbued by the cult of sensibility and classical poetic models, her style attests to the cultural and literary transition between the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Due to the success of her patriotic elegies on national heroes, Monody on Major André (1781) and Elegy on Captain Cook (1780), she was considered by her contemporaries as a “British muse, spokeswoman for national anguish, pride, and resolve” (Kairoff 2012, 71), which contrasts with, and questions, our current notion of her career as provincial writer. Seward was at the centre of a network of scientific, social, political and literary relations, as her correspondence (12 manuscript volumes, out of which only 6 were posthumously published) demonstrates. She enjoyed a privileged position as confidante and mentor to the outstanding minds of her generation, such as Erasmus Darwin, Esther Thrale Piozzi, Hannah More, Robert Southey, Helen Maria Williams or Sir Walter Scott, to name a few. My thesis pays particular attention to the representation of maturity in Romanticism and investigates in what ways does Seward, from her old age, represent herself as a woman, writer, and ultimately, author.
After the death of her father, Anna Seward lived independently in her family home, the Bishop’s Palace, in Lichfield. She inherited her father’s shares in several business exploits which allowed her not to worry about her keeping. Thanks to that, she never envisioned writing as a way to earn money, but rather as an artistic and intellectual pursuit, and elevated form of art. Lucky her. As a young girl, Seward moved with her parents and younger sister from Eyam to Lichfield when their father was appointed canon-residentiary at the cathedral. There, the Sewards became immediately involved in the city’s intellectual and cultural life, and encouraged their daughters to actively participate in it. They would host meetings with personalities such as Erasmus Darwin -who praised her poetry and encouraged her to continue writing-, James Boswell or Samuel Johnson, as well as the Lunar Society of Birmingham.
On my first year of PhD research I went on a trip to Seward’s beloved Lichfield. After reading about it in her letters and poems, I had to know what all the fuss was about. Lichfield is indeed a beautiful town, ripe with history, and evidently very proud of its past.
My first appointment was with Clare Townsend, the manager of the Cathedral Library, who showed me the chapter house -the only one with two storeys in the UK!-, where the library has been housed since 1758. Its treasures include a hand-copied manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from the 15th century and a map of Tudor England by Christopher Saxton (one of the three surviving original copies). I was very lucky to be able to visit it before its closure for restoration work. Ms Townsend had prepared a working space for me on the left side of the building, which incidentally faced Seward’s home, now a school. The feeling of touching the first edition of her collected letters a mere street away from where she would sit and write is indescribable.
After the cathedral, I visited the Lichfield Record Office, where Henrietta Martinez, Kevin Briggs and Anita Caithness, the archive assistants, were incredibly kind and helpful. The Lichfield Record Office is part of the Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent’s Archive Service, which amounts to 6500 collections. It connects the databases of Staffordshire Record Office, the Lichfield Record Office, the Stoke on Trent City Archives, the William Salt Library and the Staffordshire County Museum under one single online catalogue, Gateway to the Past. Gateway to the Past contains an 80% of the Archive and Heritage Service’s holdings. [See here, and here]
In the Lichfield Record Office, I mostly came across letters and poems, but also legal documents and an unpublished portrait. In total I saw 33 documents. The first document I was given was LD127/7/15, which turned out to be a drawing, in pencil and ink, of Seward as a young woman. Although I knew of several versions of her most well known portraits and engravings, by Tilly Kettle and George Romney, I had never read about this one. The portrait is medium sized, smaller than an A5, and features Seward indoors, sitting down on an armchair, not looking directly at the person drawing her. The portrait presents signs of having been kept in a frame. It is not dated, but judging from Seward’s facial features, I would suggest it is from the late 1750s. Regrettably, its author is unknown.
The next bundle of material contained two legal documents dating from 1763 (D15/12/60) and 1781 (LD88/7/7). Both documents, which when spread open occupied half the table, were sealed with royal wax stamps and handwritten in an elaborate, formal manner. They had evidently suffered from humidity. The first one was listed as “Settlement on wife and daughters by Canon Thomas Seward of The Close, Lichfield.” Signed by Thomas and Elizabeth, Anna Seward’s parents, it establishes the amount of money the Seward women would be left with in case of Thomas’s death. It also contains information on some of Thomas Seward’s shares, which his oldest daughter Anna would be in charge of during his illness, and eventually inherit. The other document, listed as “Lea Grange or Stychbrook Grange” contains the details of a lease and the parties involved. It is significant because it is signed by both Thomas and Anna, who is described as a “spinster” and “only child”. By 1781, Elizabeth and Sarah Seward had died. Both documents serve as a testament of Thomas Seward’s preoccupation with providing for his family, as well as the involvement the women of the family had in the financial movements carried out in the house.
If the settlement and the lease shed light on Seward as actively involved in her family’s finances, the following provides an insight into her relationship with the intellectual circle of Lichfield, which might had an influence in her development as a poet. D127/7/14 is a manuscript verse of a poem by Dr Erasmus Darwin “On a target at Drakelaw”, transcribed by Seward. The handwriting differs slightly from her own letters; it looks like she might have been to Darwin’s dictation. Scholarship has paid attention to the relationship between the two writers. We know Darwin encouraged Seward to continue writing, although there is also evidence that he did not behave as well as one might wish towards her, publishing under his name verses authored by Seward. Although some scholars have argued that in the Lichfield circle poetry was a collaboration and it is hard to discern authorship in a publication, Seward expressed, vehemently and repeatedly, her anger at Darwin’s plagiarism, both in her letters and in her biography of the scientist, Memoirs of the Life of Dr Darwin. Be as it may, what is clear is that Seward was actively involved in the intellectual and creative life of the city from an early age, both as an assistant to her mentors and as a poet in her own right; she was admired and celebrated by her contemporaries.
Although at this stage of my research I do not yet know how any of this information will fit within my thesis, these findings have allowed me to gain insight into Seward’s private life, which in turn sheds light on my understanding of Seward as a person and as an author. The work of the Lichfield record office in cataloguing and preserving these documents is invaluable, and I am certain it will prove equally helpful for the academics that decide to study Seward’s life and work after me.
– Francesca Blanch Serrat (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)
Claudia T. Kairoff. Anna Seward and the End of the Eighteenth Century. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2012.