Difficult Women in the Long Eighteenth Century, 1680-1830

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I’m thrilled that I will be presenting my research on Anna Seward and poetic forms of gift exchange at the Difficult Women in the Long Eighteenth Century, 1680-1830 conference in November (University of York, 27-28 November, 2015 – further details can be found here).

I’ve included my abstract below, and will share a full copy of the conference programme once announced. Below is Sarah Ponsonby’s frontispiece to Anna Seward’s volume of poetry Llangollen Vale, with Other Poems (1796), the dissemination of which forms the subject of my paper.

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Sarah Ponsonby, Frontispiece for Anna Seward,

Llangollen Vale, with Other Poems, published by G. Sael, London, 1796.

‘Pledges of an highly-prized friendship’: Anna Seward and the poetics of exchange[1]

This paper will focus on the production, dissemination, and publication of Anna Seward’s 1796 work Llangollen Vale, with Other Poems in relation to the ‘Romantic friendship’ cultivated between Seward and her numerous friends and correspondents. It will argue that the exchange of this collected volume of poetry testifies both to the genre’s affective nature as well as the complex material and social processes exemplified by contemporary gift exchange.

Comprising nine poems written by Seward and a prefatory sonnet by her friend, the Rev. Henry Francis Cary (1772-1844), the majority of the volume’s constituent poems were written whilst Seward was visiting the residences of, or places associated with, her intimates, and accordingly the volume is characterised by the sentimental nature of its inclusions. This affective function is demonstrated particularly by the volume’s titular poem Llangollen Vale, which eulogises Seward’s relationship with her close friends, Lady Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831), the so-called ‘Ladies of Llangollen.’

Specifically, the paper will consider how Llangollen Vale both constructed and reflected Seward’s prolonged acquaintance with Butler and Ponsonby, two women who had eschewed marriage by eloping from Ireland in order to live together in rural Wales, and whose queer reclusion mirrored Seward’s own ‘romantic friendship’ with her adopted sister Honora Sneyd (1751-1780). Having visited Butler and Ponsonby in their home Plas Newydd in 1795, Seward established a consistent epistolary communication with the women, marked by the exchange of objects, ideas, and sentiments, and in which poetry – in both its literary and material forms – was central. Whilst the term ‘romantic friendship’ has been dismissed by queer theorists for its sanitisation of potential lesbian interaction, this paper reclaims the expression, instead expounding the notion of ‘Romantic friendship’, to denote the cultivation of a creative and productive community between Plas Newydd and Seward’s home in Lichfield, characterised by the emotional attachment and intellectual pursuits of its participants. It will argue that this ‘Romantic friendship’ was primarily enacted through the exchange of poetic productions and gifted objects, which in the absence of their senders, functioned as agents of sentiment and respect, whilst simultaneously generating a dynamic literary and material Romantic culture centred amongst the women.

Embracing narratives of circulation, transcription, and commemoration, this paper will therefore argue that the exchange of Llangollen Vale, with Other Poems was a complex literary and affective transaction. As suggested by the creative and material responses to this gifted poem, its dissemination was part of a reciprocal poetics of exchange – not merely a literary act, but a social one that cultivated an intellectual, sentimental, and material network of decidedly Romantic friendship between the women.

[1] A. Seward, Letters of Anna Seward: Written Between the Years 1784 and 1807, 6 vols. (Edinburgh: George Ramsay & Co. 1811), Vol. 4, p. 131.

 

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