Hannah Cowley (1743-1809): The Quiet Revolutionary

The gravestone of Ann Clark

The gravestone of Ann Clark

Like those of many figures profiled on ABOPublic, Hannah Cowley’s story has lain neglected for too long. History naturally changes when you restore to it personalities that helped to shape it but have been largely overlooked. The restoration work is difficult when the subject in question stood in the shadows of her time. The historian’s (or, in my case, the biographer’s) task is all the more frustrating when she lived in an age in which women frequently recorded details of their lives in various kinds of commonplace books while she seems deliberately to have erased her trail. Yet, Hannah Cowley’s simultaneous self-promotion and self-erasure encompasses the paradoxes that define her life and her time.

I want to begin with a tale of two gravestones in St. George’s graveyard, in Tiverton, Devon. Hannah Cowley, the playwright who made a significant mark on the theatre world at the end of the eighteenth century, was born in this town and returned to it at the end of her career, disillusioned with cosmopolitan life, the stage, and its corruption. The picturesque agrarian town known for its textiles is not teeming with celebrities. Its current tourist website celebrates Cowley’s Tiverton-born contemporary, the famous miniaturist and artist, Richard Cosway, as well as a bronze medal winning Taekwondoist, but it makes no mention of the playwright and poet.

The gravestones in St. George’s reflect both the town’s and history’s treatment of Cowley, who was one of Tiverton’s most adoring natives and, with Cosway, its most cosmopolitan and accomplished offspring. One of these gravestones celebrates the early eighteenth-century midwife, Ann Clark, who nurtured the inhabitants of the town. Her gravestone is set into the wall of the church near the twentieth-century extension that was built over eighteenth century graves, including that of Hannah Cowley. On the church wall adjacent to that bearing Ann Clark’s stone is a similar one celebrating Samuel Wesley’s spiritual and academic fostering of the town. Clark’s stone is a testimony to the town’s gratitude to a woman who worked assiduously to safeguard families whose births she guided and whose baptisms she ensured. Clark represents the traditional non-threatening powers of the regenerative female figure in the early modern period.

The other gravestone, Hannah Cowley’s, exists in fragment form in the archives of the town’s museum, sometimes put on display. For a long time it was missing—though at least someone had the presence of mind to save the piece of headstone as the church extension was built over her grave. The town’s near elimination and subsequent downplaying of the presence of another of its female nurturers, one whose self-appointed task was to safeguard its core values in a period rocked by change, bespeaks the obstacles that Cowley spent her contradictory career addressing.

Like that midwife, Hannah Cowley lived the experience of country people. She also sought professionally to ensure the continuity of lives that made England stable in a period marked by war, revolution, and the flight from country to city that Oliver Goldsmith famously lamented in The Deserted Village (1770). She did so by quietly overturning old hierarchies, but, in the spirit of Edmund Burke, she worked within traditions to induce necessary change as she drew women, provincials, and lower classes into the heart of the expanding empire. She also strove to revolutionize literary traditions while, paradoxically, reinforcing the poetic continuities that the iconic John Dryden had emphasized at the end of the last century. She was a quiet revolutionary. She refused to stir the waters like her notoriously outspoken contemporaries Mary Wollstonecraft and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, yet, as she worked from within an Age of Sentiment, her social and literary propositions for the new age out-revolutionized theirs. She saw herself, I argue, as a female Rousseau.

Hannah Cowley arrived in London, in the early 1770s, with her ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful husband, Thomas. She had married late for the time, having helped her father with his Tiverton bookshop. She then devoted herself to being a housewife and mother as her husband strove to make a career as a bookseller in Chester before striking out for London. Probably the stress of family finances, which were to plague her throughout her career, pushed her to attempt her first play, though the common story is that she responded to a challenge from her husband. Her venture launched for her a career that won her an international reputation and the acquaintance of a Who’s Who of fashionable society.

From her own time on, male commentators have been cynical about her work. William Hazlitt called her poetry second or third rate and derivative. Yet more recent critics like Angela Escott have called attention to the ingenuity of the generic experimentation that characterizes Cowley’s plays. Her drama and her poems draw on native traditions stretching generic boundaries sometimes to breaking point—hence the ridicule she has received. She also evokes a chorus of voices to reinforce English traditions; her aim, however, is to incorporate women integrally, not in a parallel subordinate fashion.

Her great talent was the recreation of dialect from all classes and regions. Her enormously appealing characters won for her huge popular success in the case of some of her plays. With her Della Cruscan encounter she engaged in a national sensation. At the heart of all her works, like those of her relative Thomas Gray, is an intense nationalism that endeavors to shape a malleable age and her works are remarkable for the innovation embedded in respectability.

The mystery, the battle for survival, and the characteristics of her first play epitomize Hannah Cowley’s dramatic career. She somehow managed to attract the attention of David Garrick, who staged The Runaway (1776) as the last new play in his illustrious career as theatre manager at Drury Lane. The run also offered an opportunity for one the first performances of what would become the outstanding career of Sarah Siddons. Yet, Cowley clearly felt some anxiety over the play (she says in the prologue that if it had not been successful she never would have attempted another), and her father rounded up a group of Tivertonians to go to London to show support for it. Audiences loved it and it was a huge popular success. It was subsequently shelved by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, however, who clearly noted Cowley’s talent for capturing those elements of English culture that ensured the success of his own plays. Sheridan saw in the talented young writer, that is, a rival, and he felt threatened enough to use his position as Garrick’s successor to try to freeze her out.

What Sheridan did not count on was either her tenacity or her drawing on her public popularity. This young housewife, who cultivated female respectability as central to English stability, turned furiously on Sheridan, using the Preface to her tragedy Albina to attack him and the manager of Covent Garden for their treatment of female playwrights. Here she turned again to her earlier public controversy, when she had also laid aside matronly modesty to engage the prim Hannah More in less than dignified battle waged through the newspapers. Cowley had strong evidence that More stole the plot to her Albina—possibly when the manuscript was in Garrick’s possession. Later in her most strikingly contradictory pose, Cowley, who remained a faithful wife to her husband, Thomas, engaged, under the pseudonym Anna Matilda, with Robert Merry, who was Della Crusca, in a flirtatious newspaper correspondence that captivated the beau monde.  The correspondence was initially published sporadically in John Bell’s The World. It was then anthologized three times in The Poetry of The World, The British Album, and The Poetry of Anna Matilda–all in the 1780s and 1790s.

Equally contradictory and equally frustrating for the biographer is the way Hannah Cowley stood in the shadows of cosmopolitan society as her fame grew. Her friendships with the most important women of the age, Queen Charlotte, Duchess Georgiana, and Maria Cosway, indicate that her intimates felt the greatest warmth toward her. Yet, she eschewed the social climbing that would have helped guard against her posthumous neglect. Hester Thrale Piozzi, who knew everyone, said of her, “That Mrs Cowley seems an active woman, who[m] nobody likes, yet all are forced to esteem … She and I never met; I fancy her Vulgar and ill Behav’d; for no one speaks ill of her, yet she is never in polite Circles!” Thrale Piozzi was as baffled by her behavior as history is. Cowley’s avoidance of polite circles is akin to her refusal to leave what would now be a digital footprint. She wrote plays that instructed and entertained an age needing new literary possibilities and gender roles in an increasingly global environment. Her life is an example of how eighteenth-century women could provide for their families, have a career, and maintain respectability in a profoundly modern way. Yet Cowley’s sensibilities belonged to a time that would not boast any of this.

The Belle’s Stratagem (1780), the play she dedicated to Queen Charlotte, was the most popular in her own time and remains so. At the heart of this play is not only an adaptation for the stage of Rousseauan sentimentality but also the cultivation of countryside and native traditions that characterized Cowley’s works and made her distinctive amongst her cosmopolitan peers: those nurturing qualities I began this article with. The play remained popular in theatres in London, Dublin, the provinces, and on the major American stages—in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, throughout the nineteenth century, in full and abbreviated form. Its vital characters, which Hazlitt grudgingly recognized, and its subtle but stirring nationalism and evocation of country values in a period of industrialization doubtless contributed to its survival.

So, too, however, did Cowley’s inclusion in important nineteenth-century collections. She features in both Elizabeth Inchbald’s Modern Theatre; A Collection of Successful Modern Plays and John Bell’s Bell’s British Theatre: Consisting of the Most Esteemed English Plays. For most of the twentieth century, The Belle’s Stratagem was neglected—although Frederick P. Lock, in his remarkably visionary way, produced an edition in 1974. After that, apart from Katharine Rogers’s Meridian anthology in 1994, the play only began to be anthologized in the first decade of the twenty-first century, its print revival coinciding with its production at the 2005 Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Although Cowley’s drama is her most vital work—and plays other than The Belle’s Stratagem deserve attention—her poetry can also tell us much about women negotiating generic traditions and using media outlets in the late eighteenth century. Her Anna Matilda poetry, the verses she wrote to Robert Merry during her pseudonymous correspondence, went through various versions and editions, enjoying a complicated afterlife that shows the author experimenting with newspaper periodicals and subsequently anthologies as venues for establishing female poetry on a more stable footing with that of their male counterparts. Cowley’s little-known The Scottish Village: or, Pitcairne Green (1786), moreover, is her simultaneous attempt to redirect Goldsmith’s bleak vision of the dwindling agrarian world she had worshipped and to establish women in the new world she envisions.

Hannah Cowley, with her vibrant characters and compelling life story, expands for popular and scholarly audiences alike the period of Jane Austen and the Duchess of Devonshire, whose story is now widely known thanks to the film The Duchess, starring Kiera Knightley. Cowley is an example of what women could achieve career-wise in a time when demureness and the domestic realm dictated the course of female lives. Her works enrich our understanding of what appealed to audiences at the fin de siècle as well as further unfold contemporary anxieties and ingenuous assaults upon literary boundaries. Her headstone deserves a permanent place in the English countryside she worshiped and in the literary history she helped to shape.

Tanya Caldwell

Tanya Caldwell is professor and associate graduate director at Georgia State University.She runs an exchange program in British and American Cultures with the University of Northumbria, Newcastle.She is the author of Time to Begin Anew: Dryden's Georgics and Aeneis (Bucknell UP 2000), Virgil Made English (Palgrave, 2008), and Popular Plays by Women in the Restoration & Eighteenth Century (Broadview edition, 2011).She is working on a biography of Hannah Cowley.

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