Archive for April 9th, 2011

Henry Robert Morland, A (Later) 18th century female servant

Dear friends and readers,

As the anthology of Scottish woman poets I want to use for blogs on their poetry has not yet arrived, I’ve decided to blog about another poet about whom little is known, but whose poetry is felicitious. (It’s not hard to find candidates who fit this description). Elizabeth Hands, an 18th century Englishwoman had a genius for quietly biting comic satire. She was for a long time a domestic servant in a great house (Mr Huddesford of Allesly and his daughter); in 1785 married a blacksmith at Bourton.

In this two brilliant anapestic tetrameter poems we see the poet having to listen to her poetry derided because she is of low status. The company are imagined as unaware that the author is listening to them, recording their words — and I would say she grants them far more wit than they ever had.

A Poem, on the Supposition of an Advertisement appearing in a Morning Paper, of the Publication of a Volume of Poems, by a Servant-Maid

The tea-kettle bubbled, the tea things were set,
The candles were lighted, the ladies were met;
The how d’ye’s were over, and entering bustle,
The company seated, and silks ceas’d to rustle:
The great Mrs. Consequence open’d her fan;
And thus the discourse in an instant began:
(All affected reserve, and formality scorning,)
I suppose you all saw in the paper this morning,
A Volume of Poems advertis’d—’tis said
1They’re produc’d by the pen of a poor Servant Maid.
A servant write verses! says Madam Du Bloom;
Pray what is the subject?—a Mop, or a Broom?
He, he, he,-says Miss Flounce; I suppose we shall see
An Ode on a Dishclout—what else can it be?
Says Miss Coquettilla, why ladies so tart?
Perhaps Tom the Footman has fired her heart;
And she’ll tell us how charming he looks in new clothes,
And how nimble his hand moves in brushing the shoes;
Or how the last time that he went to May-Fair,
He bought her some sweethearts of ginger-bread ware.
For my part I think, says old lady Marr-joy,
A servant might find herself other employ:
Was she mine I’d employ her as long as ’twas light,
And send her to bed without candle at night.
Why so? says Miss Rhymer, displeas’d; I protest
‘Tis pity a genius should be so deprest!
What ideas can such low-bred creatures conceive,
Says Mrs. Noworthy, and laught in her sleeve.
Says old Miss Prudella, if servants can tell
How to write to their mothers, to say they are well,
And read of a Sunday the Duty of Man;
Which is more I believe than one half of them can;
I think ’tis much properer they should rest there,
Than be reaching at things so much out of their sphere.
Says old Mrs. Candour, I’ve now got a maid.
That’s the plague of my life—a young gossipping jade;
There’s no end of the people that after her come,
And whenever I’m out, she is never at home;
I’d rather ten times she would sit down and write,
Than gossip all over the town ev’ry night.
Some whimsical trollop most like, says Miss Prim,
Has been scribbling of nonsense, just out of a whim,
And conscious it neither is witty or pretty,
Conceals her true name, and ascribes it to Betty.
I once had a servant myself, says Miss Pines,
That wrote on a Wedding, some very good lines;
Says Mrs. Domestic, and when they were done,
I can’t see for my part, what use they were on;
Had she wrote a receipt, to’ve instructed you how
To warm a cold breast of veal, like a ragou,
Or to make cowslip wine, that would pass for Champaign;
It might have been useful, again and again
On the sofa was old lady Pedigree plac’d,
She own’d that for poetry she had no taste,
That the study of heraldry was more in fashion,
And boasted she knew all the crests in the nation.
Says Mrs. Routella,—Tom, take out the urn,
And stir up the fire, you see it don’t burn.

The tea things remov’d, and the tea-table gone,
The card-tables brought, and the cards laid thereon,
The ladies ambitious for each others crown,
Like courtiers contending for honours sat down.


A Poem, on the Supposition of the Book Having Been Published and Read (1789)

The dinner was over, the table-cloth gone,
The bottles of wine and the glasses brought on,
The gentlemen fill’d up the sparkling glasses,
To drink to their King, to their country and lasses;
The ladies a glass or two only requir’d,
To th’ drawing-room then in due order retir’d;
The gentlemen likewise that chose to drink tea;
And, after discussing the news of the day,
What wife was suspected, what daughter elop’d,
What thief was detected, that ’twas to be hop’d,
The rascals would all be convicted, and rop’d;
What chambermaid kiss’d when her lady was out;
Who won, and who lost, the last night at the rout;
What lord gone to France, and what tradesman unpaid,
And who and who danc’d at the last masquerade;
What banker stopt payment with evil intention,
And twenty more things much too tedious to mention.

Miss Rhymer says, Mrs. Routella, ma’am, pray
Have you seen the new book (that we talk’d of that day,
At your house you remember) of Poems, ’twas said
Produc’d by the pen of a poor Servant Maid?
The company silent, the answer expected;
Says Mrs. Routella, when she’d recollected;
Why, ma’am, I have bought it for Charlotte; the child
Is so fond of a book, I’m afraid it is spoil’d:
I thought to have read it myself, but forgat it;
In short, I have never had time to look at it.
Perhaps I may look it o’er some other day;
Is there any thing in it worth reading, I pray?
For your nice attention, there’s nothing can ‘scape.
She answer’d,—There’s one piece, whose subject’s a Rape.
A Rape! interrupted the Captain Bonair,
A delicate theme for a female I swear;

Then smerk’d at the ladies, they simper’d all round,
Touch’d their lips with their fans,—Mrs. Consequence frown’d.
The simper subsided, for she with her nods,
Awes these lower assemblies, as Jove awes the gods.
She smil’d on Miss Rhymer, and bad her proceed—
Says she, there are various subjects indeed:
With some little pleasure I read all the rest,
But the Murder of Amnon’s the longest and best.
Of Amnon, of Amnon, Miss Rhymer, who’s he?
His name, says Miss Gaiety’s quite new to me:—
‘Tis a Scripture tale, ma’am,—he’s the son of King David,
Says a Reverend old Rector: quoth madam, I have it;
A Scripture tale?—ay—I remember it—true;
Pray is it i’th’ old Testament or the new?
If I thought I could readily find it, I’d borrow
My house-keeper’s Bible, and read it to-morrow.
‘Tis in Samuel, ma’am, says the Rector:—Miss Gaiety
Bow’d, and the Reverend blush’d for the laity.

You’ve read it, I find, says Miss Harriot Anderson;
Pray, sir, is it any thing like Sir Charles Grandison?
How you talk, says Miss Belle, how should such a girl write
A novel, or any thing else that’s polite?
You’ll know better in time, Miss:—She was but fifteen:
Her mamma was confus’d—with a little chagrin,
Says,—Where’s your attention, child? did not you hear
Miss Rhymer say, that it was poems, my dear?

Says Sir Timothy Turtle, my daughters ne’er look
In any thing else but a cookery book:
The properest study for women design’d;
Says Mrs. Domestic, I’m quite of your mind.
Your haricoes, ma’am, are the best I e’er eat,
Says the Knight, may I venture to beg a receipt.
‘Tis much at your service, says madam, and bow’d,
Then flutter’d her fan, of the compliment proud.
Says Lady Jane Rational, the bill of fare
Is th’ utmost extent of my cookery care:
Most servants can cook for the palate I find,
But very few of them can cook for the mind.
Who, says Lady Pedigree, can this girl be;
Perhaps she’s descended of some family;—
Of family, doubtless, says Captain Bonair,
She’s descended from Adam, I’d venture to swear.
Her Ladyship drew herself up in her chair,
And twitching her fan-sticks, affected a sneer.

I know something of her, says Mrs. Devoir,
She liv’d with my friend, Jacky Faddle, Esq.
‘Tis sometime ago though; her mistress said then,
The girl was excessively fond of a pen;
I saw her, but never convers’d with her—though
One can’t make acquaintance with servants, you know.
‘Tis pity the girl was not bred in high life,
Says Mr. Fribbello:—yes,—then, says his wife,
She doubtless might have wrote something worth notice:
Tis pity, says one,—says another, and so ’tis.
O law! says young Seagram, I’ve seen the book, now
I remember, there’s something about a mad cow.
A mad cow!—ha, ha, ha, ha, return’d half the room;
What can y’ expect better, says Madam Du Bloom?

They look at cach other,—a general pause—
And Miss Coquettella adjusted her gauze.
The Rector reclin’d himself back in his chair,
And open’d his snuff-box with indolent air;
This book, says he, (snift, snift) has in the beginning,
(The ladies give audience to hear his opinion)
Some pieces, I think, that are pretty correct;
A stile elevated you cannot expect:
To some of her equals they may be a treasure,
And country lasses may read ’em with pleasure.
That Amnon, you can’t call it poetry neither,
There’s no flights of fancy, or imagery either;
You may stile it prosaic, blank-verse at the best;
Some pointed reflections, indeed, are exprest;
The narrative lines are exceedingly poor:
Her Jonadab is a—the drawing-room door
Was open’d, the gentlemen came from below,
And gave the discourse a definitive blow.

I also like this against ambition:

On Contemplative Ease

Rejoice ye jovial sons of mirth,
By sparkling wine inspir’d;
A joy of more intrinsic worth
I feel, while thus retir’d.

Excluded from the ranting crew,
Amongst these fragrant trees
I walk, the twinkling stars to view,
In solitary ease.

Half wrap’d in clouds, the half-form’d moon
Beams forth a cheering ray,
Surpassing all the pride of noon,
Or charms of early day.

The birds are hush’d, and not a breeze
Disturbs the pendant leaves;
My passion’s hush’d as calm as these,
No sigh my bosom heaves.

While great ones make a splendid show,
In equipage or dress,
I’m happy here, nor wish below
For greater happiness.

Her poems include one on her lying in, a beautiful epistle to friendship and particular woman friend, more comic verse (“Written Extempore, on seenig a Mad Heifer run through a Village where the Author lives”), one on courtship (“Lob’s Courtship”), an erotic pastoral between two women (“Love and Friendship”). My favorite is her wry candid sonnet:

On an Unsociable Family

O what a strange parcel of creatures are we,
Scarce ever to quarrel, or even agree;
We all are alone, though at home altogether,
Except to the fire constrained by the weather;
Then one says, ”Tis cold’, which we all of us know,
And with unanimity answer, ”Tis so’;
With shrugs and with shivers all look at the fire,
And shuffle ourselves and our chairs a bit nigher;
Then quickly, preceded by silence profound,
A yawn epidemical catches around:
Like social companions we never fall out,
Nor ever care what one another’s about;
To comfort each other is never our plan,
For to please ourselves, truly, is more than we can.

Wm Hogarth (1697-1764), Shrimp Girl (c 1745)

Originally founded as an almshouse for men (1509), Fords Hospital, Coventry, is now a home for older women

Elizabeth Hands described herself as “born in obscurity, and never emerging beyond the lower stations of life.” We know she was a domestic servant in a household near Coventry, that she married a blacksmith near Rugby by 1785 (Hands is her husband’s and her married name; we don’t know her birth name); and that she had at least one daughter. The people described in the above poem would be the types of people she would have been surrounded by and had to work for.

Jopson’s Coventry Mercury published Hands’s poem under the pseudonym Daphne. The headmaster of Rugby, Thomas Jones [not one of those in the poem] was impressed, and by 1788 the masters at his school were seeking subscribers to publish a book which appeared in 1789 and was titled The Death of Ammon. A Poem. With an Appendix: Containing Pastorals, and other Poetical Pieces. It appeared in Coventry, printed for the author, had a 28 page introduction, 127 pages of poems, and its thousand subscribers included Anna Seward, Thomas Warton, and Edmund Burke.

Hands was a courageous poet: her Death of Ammon centers on an incestuous rape (as in the Bible); she mocks “English literary tradition, and calls into question social stratification.” Her language is “colloquial, some irreverently comic,” and portrays her working class characters with “dignity.” “Her working poor are independent and capable of finding conjugal happiness without the blessing of institutionalized religion. They also harbor resentments against class oppression.” There is “nostalgia” for supposedly simple earlier village life,” and she is aware of the absurdities of people and life (all from Paula Feldman, cited below). In her pastorals, we have women speaking their minds rather than men (Donna Landry, ditto).

Her poetry at its best is colloquial, contains a prosaic stance, and on the surface light satire. The two famous ones on the publication of her book are about how what we write will be by many or most people judged by our status, and also how people will talk publicly about the act of reading in private (where we may respond very differently as not under social pressure).

As predicted by the author, critical reception of her book was mixed — at least as we can see it in published reviews. The Monthly Review manifests just such snobbery as we find in the after-dinner conversation imagined by Hands, e.g., “we cannot but form the most favourable conclusions with respect to that of the writer, — forming, as we do, most of our judgment from the uncommonly numerous list of subscribers: among whom are many names of persons of rank, and consideration. There could be no motive for extraordinary patronage, but a benevolent regard to merit — of some kind.” There were harsh and nasty sneers for Hands (a housemaid), as in the Analytical Review: “we will let her sing-song die in peace.”

What became of Hands after the publication of her volume no one appears to know. She was buried in Bourton on-Dunsmore.

Hands is said to portray working class people with real respect, giving them dignity: they find conjugal happiness without the blessings of institutionalized religion (i.e., marriage — it was not uncommon not to marry among the working classes in the era). She expresses nostalgia for a village life she thinks is disappearing. Of course she is resentful of class oppression. Donna Landry (who has written a book on laboring women poets of the 18th century) says Elizabeth Hand’s’s poems show an awareness of why a woman needs a reputation for chastity (respectability — or she’ll be at risk for constant harassment and humiliation, or simply not be employed in money-making occupations), and has some strong women at the center.

I took the poetry and information from Roger Lonsdale’s invaluable anthology Eighteenth-Century Women Poets, Paula R. Feldman’s British Women Poets of the Romantic Era: An Anthology; also Paula Backscheider’s British Women Poets of the Long Eighteenth Century; Donna Landry, Muses of Resistance: Laboring-Class Women’s Poetry in Britain, 1739-1796. I can’t praise Feldman’s and Landry’s books enough.


Read Full Post »