ANNA SEWARD (1747–1809)

Anna Seward was the daughter of the Canon of Lichfield, Staffordshire, where she lived most of her life in the Bishop’s Palace. Dubbed ‘the Swan of Lichfield’, she was a poet of the old school, writing mostly sentimental and melancholic works. She found the provinces to be a firm foundation for her literary reputation and cultivated a wide circle of literary correspondents. Most critics were too polite to point out that Miss Seward was a self-important busybody, though Mary Russell Mitford was prompted to describe her as ‘the Venus and Muse of a provincial city; the one-eyed monarch of the blind at Lichfield, who thought nobody could see elsewhere’ (letter, 31 October 1814). She corresponded frequently with ‘the Ladies of Llangollyn’: Miss Sarah Ponsonby, companion to Lady Eleanor Butler, sent Seward a copy of Walpole’s The Mysterious Mother, and they often discussed Radcliffe, Baillie, Lewis and others. Seward, like many others, was under the mistaken impression that Joanna Baillie’s Plays on the Passions were written by Ann Radcliffe, a subject which she discusses with her friend Whalley, whose play The Castle de Montval was a recent success. She encouraged Sir Walter Scott’s early work, and left her literary remains to him.

Copyright © 2000, 2022 Rictor Norton

To C. Smyth
(3 August 1794)

I read not, neither doubtless do you, the Novel trash of the day. Hours are too precious for such frivolous waste, where the mind has in itself any valuable resources; yet are there a few pens which possess the power so to inspirit those fond fancies of the brain, as to render them gratifying to an imagination which demands more to please it than amorous story. Mrs Radcliffe’s pen is of this number. Though she aims not at the highly important morality of the great Richardson, nor possesses scarce a portion of his ample, his matchless ability, in discriminating characters,

‘Yet does she mount, and keep her distant way
Above the limits of the vulgar page.’

Her Mysteries of Udolpho is a much superior work to her Romance of the Forest. The first volume of that is fine, the rest heavy, uninteresting, and contains very affected writing. Udolpho contains enough to awaken and interest attention in every volume. I was, however, frequently wearied in the perusal, since, though her powers of scenic description are very considerable, she wants judgment to be aware that the incessant and laboured exertion of those powers counteracts their influence, weakening it by degrees, till attention sinks in languid satiety. Her style is fine, and her poetic mottos admirably chosen, nor are the interspersed verses without beauty; but her great fort [sic] is in displaying terrific images. The object behind the mysterious veil, described at first only by saying what it is not, and the long deserted bed-chamber of the late Marchioness, form a very august exhibition of the terrible graces, who never frown with effect but when they are led by the hand of Genius.

To The Right Hon. Lady Eleanor Butler
(4 February 1796)

There is more fascination for my fancy and my feelings, in Mrs Brookes’s Lady Catesby, Excursion, and Emily Montague, in Sidney Biddulph, in Caroline de Litchfield, in Julie de Roubigné, in the Simple Story, and even in the wild extravagancies of the Mysteries of Udolpho, than in the mild Evelina, or the rigid Cecilia.

To Rev. Thomas Sedgwick Whalley
(7 June 1799)

Never, till yesterday, have I seen or heard the celebrated, though not yet acted dramas on the passions; and of them only the Count de Montford, which Mr White read me last night very finely. I like the style, it is often Shakespearean, without servile imitation. Many of the reflections and observations in the earlier scenes of that play, evince a discriminating insight into human feeling and character. The situations in the close are of soul-harrowing strength and horror. It appears indubitable that the sublime, though exceptionable novel, Caleb Williams, was the origin of Mrs Radcliffe’s design of writing plays illustrative of the passions, and the mischiefs that result from the absorbing dominion of any one of them; but the character of Falkland, in Caleb Williams, is a much more masterly comment on that text than the Count de Montford. Hatred, indulged to excess, must demonize any man; but when we perceive an high and delicate sense of honour the domineering idol of the soul, and find, as in Falkland, that a boundless devotion to its sway is capable of leading the human mind from great elevant [sic] of moral virtue to the last excesses of vice, naturally, and step by step, we find a nobler and more useful lesson of morality engraven on the heart. Greatly horrible effects are produced in the play of the Count de Montford, but nature and probability are grossly outraged in the incompetency of the causes which produce them. The native vices of the brutal Tyrrel are blended with the native virtues of Falkland; extremes which nature decreed should never meet. Falkland, it is true, becomes a demon, who was long an angel; but then the outrageous violence with which the vile Tyrrel persecutes and provokes, and, at length, by personal disgraceful insult, after every other abuse had been borne with the calmest sweetness, urges the stab of revenge from the greatly injured, preserves that apostasy from appearing unnatural! Those circumstances make the subsequent degeneracy of Falkland, extreme as it proves, not incredible. The object of De Montford’s deadly hatred is amiable, gentle, sportive; – he repays it with a sweetness and magnanimity, to which De Montford is twice indebted for his life; – he even seeks the monster’s friendship, and is guilty of no offence but that of having tried to jest him out of his surly aversion. It is not only out of probability, but of possibility, that such a nothing of a provocation could urge a man, whose disposition was originally generous, brave, and merciful, to the darkest, foulest, and most deliberate murder. It violates all unity of character, the only dramatic unity which ought to be kept sacred. In the ever, and on all occasions, dark, violent, and envious Tyrrel, such love of hatred is natural, from the eclipsing graces, and talents, and consequent influence of Falkland disarming the despotism which Tyrrel’s large fortune had long enabled him to exert in his neighbourhood. In the gallant and liberal Montford, it is monstrous and inconceivable. If he had been represented as implacable, though brave – if the pride and arrogance of his disposition had been heightened, and heightened also the gay contempt of Rezenvelt – and if Rezenvelt had not twice, or even once, given Montford his life, the grandly horrible effects of the close might have been preserved in this play, without such total revolt of our credulity; but it is most true what Mrs Jackson observes, that, in all Mrs Radcliffe’s writings, attentive only to terrific effects, she bestows no care upon their causes, and rashly cuts the knot of probability which she seems to want patience to untie. One has heard of a labouring mountain bringing forth a mouse: In Mrs R.’s writings mice bring forth mountains.

To Rev. Thomas Sedgwick Whalley
(7 October 1799)

I am glad we agree so well on the subject of the Plays on the Passions. My literary friends now assert that they are not Mrs Radcliffe’s; and, indeed, though the defects and merits of the plans and characters are each of her complelxion, yet I always thought the masterly nature of several of the single speeches above her powers, as comparing them with her novels. There is one line poetically great and original as anything in our language. Where De Montford, shuddering at the newly conceived idea of an impending marriage between his darling sister and hated rival, exclaims:

‘The morning-star mix’d with infernal fire!’

          Montford’s soliloquy in the wood, is, as you observe, noble writing. It is in the same spirit with that of Narbonne [in Robert Jephson’s The Count of Narbonne, 1781], roaming through the aisles of the church at midnight, previous to the commission of that murder which proves parricidal. We find it hard to say which passage is the most sublime.

To Mrs M. Powys
(17 October 1799)

The literary world now asserts that the Plays on the Passions are not Mrs Radcliffe’s. I should have been incredulous to the report that they are, had not the error, as to responsibility of causes to their effects, and the atoning excellence, resulting from the horrible grandeur of those effects in themselves, been of the same complexion with the faults and beauties in her novels. Otherwise the occasionally rich vein of poetry, which we find in the single passages, together with a degree of deep insight into the human mind, are above the level of talent which produced her romances. When I spoke of my sentiments to you of the plays, I had not read their introductory dissertation. Now, after perusal, I confess it is far from pleasing me. The ideas in that tract are confused and abortive, and the language has no felicity. Abounding in Scoticisms, that, at least, cannot have been written by an Englishwoman – and Mrs R is an English woman. They now tell us this work is from the other side of the Tweed [i.e. by a Scotswoman].

[SOURCE: [Letters of Anna Seward, 6 vols (Edinburgh, 1811), vol. 3, pp. 389–90; vol. 4, pp. 151–2; vol. 5, pp. 241–4, 253, 256–7]

Return to Readers' Responses

Return to Index of Gothic Readings