Teresa Barnard, Anna Seward: A Constructed Life. A Critical Biography (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009), 208pp. ISBN 978-0-7546-6616-5; £55 / $99.95 (hb).
Anna Seward: A Constructed Life is the first biography of the ‘Swan of Lichfield’ since Margaret Ashmun’s 1931 account of the writer and her famous literary friends. However, this critical biography is more than just a long overdue study of one of the most fascinating women of letters of the eighteenth century; Teresa Barnard’s biography of Seward (1742–1809) uncovers extensive archival material and manuscript sources that substantially alter our understanding of and appreciation for this extraordinary woman. As Barnard notes in her introduction, Seward had ‘a confident awareness of the fascinating life she lived’ and ‘she decided that her correspondence would be her autobiography’ (p. 1). Barnard’s careful recreation of that autobiography, through a comparison of original manuscript letters and the nineteenth-century edited versions, is one of the great strengths of this new biography. Less successful are Barnard’s claims for Seward’s poetic importance. Seward’s writing life (and Barnard’s account of it) has much to tell us about eighteenth-century letters, coterie literary practices, life-writing and the vibrant literary activity going on in provincial towns, but the poems themselves are better served in Claudia Thomas Kairoff’s more recent monograph, Anna Seward and the End of the Eighteenth Century (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).
The biography consists of an introduction and six chapters, with appendices that include unpublished poems and a summary of the main bequests from Seward’s 22-page last will and testament. True to Seward’s own autobiographical aims, the chapters are organised around her letter collections, with two chapters dedicated to her juvenile letters (1762–68); two to letters written between 1770–80; one on her most productive writing years: ‘ “Born to write”: 1780–1809’; and a final chapter on Seward’s carefully crafted last will and testament. Throughout the chapters, Barnard’s meticulous attention to the variable contexts and contingencies of the surviving documents, and Seward’s or others’ role in their construction, results in a balanced and objective portrayal not just of Seward, but also of the many famous male figures in her life. Erasmus Darwin, James Boswell and Sir Walter Scott played important roles in Seward’s public life as well as her posthumous reputation, and Barnard provides new perspectives and details on all of them. In Chapter 5, ‘Born to write’, Seward’s coterie publications with Darwin, ‘secret’ letters with Boswell, and negotiations with male editors and publishers reveal the remarkable clarity and purpose with which Seward conducted her career and life. Though Scott comes off much the worst in the course of the book—he is depicted as an editor who ‘destroyed’ the ‘life that Seward had attempted to construct’ (p. 7)—Barnard is sensitive in her presentation of Scott’s reasons for disregarding Seward’s expressed wishes. Nevertheless, her documentation of his excising of material (literary, political and personal) from the letters Seward had, herself, already edited for publication, and his omission of key works, like her epic Telemachus (which angered her family and executors), proves him to be a less-than-faithful editor to his subject. Indeed, the afterlife of Seward’s letters and works is a telling reminder of the need to revisit women’s manuscript writings, but also the critical role of posthumous publication on the reputations of many women writers.
The majority of letters that Barnard makes use of, however, are those she wrote to female friends. In these letters, Seward’s epistolary skill and awareness of the necessary shifts in tone and style for private or public missives provide an excellent example of the subtle codes of difference eighteenth-century writers and readers brought to bear on their letters. The adaptability of the form is also shown: letters do double duty as journal, diary or conduct book depending on their real or imagined recipients. The juvenile letters, in particular, function as the formative material for Seward’s literary works and Barnard draws frequent comparisons between Seward’s contemporary reading and her own literary attempts. These early letters are didactic and sentimental; they champion the ennobling bonds of friendship; and they clearly show the influence of Richardson’s Clarissa, Rousseau’s Julie, Prior’s ‘Henry and Emma’ and Pope’s Eloisa, among others. In contrast, the two manuscript letter collections that Seward sent to her friends Mary Powys and Dorothy Sykes offer an example of the ‘minutiae of life’ and the unstudied ‘ “blots and blunders” of a busily-writing young woman’ (p. 73). A restrictive word count probably hindered longer transcriptions of the many original letters quoted in the course of the biography, but a few more examples of these letters alongside the edited published ones would have greatly enhanced the picture Barnard paints.
Barnard makes an excellent case for Seward’s epistolary self-construction and iconoclastic career; her biography also offers a wealth of insights for the student and scholar of eighteenth-century literary history. Seward’s Lichfield literary salon is a lively counterpoint to the London-based Bluestockings; her joint poetic efforts with both male and female friends reveal the ongoing importance of manuscript circulation and collaborative composition; and her extraordinary self-determination in love and friendship offers an alternative model of how an individualistic woman could conduct her life in the eighteenth century.