Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

West Country Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

West Country Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840

Article excerpt

In the West Country of England, between 1720 and 1840, a remarkable circle of nonconformist. (primarily Baptist) women writers emerged in the vicinity of Salisbury and eventually stretched in all directions, to Bristol, Southampton. London, and Leicester. 'The circle encompassed three generations of women writers, beginning in Broughton, Hampshire, with three Baptist women: the diarist, Anne Cator Steele (1689-1760): her talented stepdaughter and poet, Anne (1717-78), who Published Poems on Subjects Chiefly, Devolional in 1760 under the nom de plume "Theodosia"; and her natural daughter, Mary (1724-72), also a gifted poet but whose style differed significantly from that of her more famous sister. The second generation was led by Mary Steele (1753-1813). Anne Calor Steele's granddaughter and Anne Steele's niece, whose reputation as a poet, though eclipsed by (and later even confused with) that of her aunt, was sufficient to sustain her own coterie of literate friends, including Mary Scott (1751-93) of Milborne Port, Somerset, author of The Female Advoeate (1774): Jane Attwater (1753-1843) of Bodenham, Wiltshire, a prolific diarist: and Elizabeth Coltman (1761-1838) of Leicester, Steele's close friend during her later years and who was herself a poet and author of moral and political tracts. The third generation centered upon the poet Maria Grace Andrews Saffery (1772-1858), and her sister, Anne (1774-1865), who came to Salisbury from London in the early 1790s and, through their marriages, became friends and relations of the Steele and Attwater families. Saffery published a narrative poem, Cheyl sing (1790): a novel, The Noble Enthusiast (1792), printed by William Lane and the Minerva Press; and Poems on Sacred Subjects (1831). (2) Besides their obvious religious and literary connections, these nonconformist women all shared an interest in politics, fearing the threat of French oppression against the English and warning against British intolerance toward the American colonies, steadfastly opposing the war with France throughout the Napoleonic ear and never wavering in their opposition to the slave trade.

This tradition of political engagement by women in the Steele circle began with Anne Cator Steele in 1730. and continued through the Seven Years' War. The Steeles, like many West Country dissenters, followed politics closely, often out of necessity as dissenters, watchful of any action by the government that might erode the toleration (limited as it was) that had been granted them in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution. They also possessed an abiding sense of loyalty to the British throne and its defense of Protestantism against the ongoing threat of Catholic aggression by the French and the Spanish. On Friday, July 31, 1730, Steele writes that she has been in a "quiet peaceable frame reading a great deal of [y.sup.e] time in a large History of [y.sup.e] Monarchs of England, (3) and by reading that about [y.sup.e] powder plot I found my affections warm'd and drawn out to praise God in my evening duty" (Whelan, Nonconformist 8.44).Dissenters in the West Country feared a renewal of hostilities between England and France, not only because of Papal aggression, as Steele frequently mentions in her diary, but also because of English "iniquitys" Steele writes on Thursday, July 8, 1731:

  I was much the same this morning but it wore off with the company of
  the day yet I was fir'd up by hearing something in the news of the
  threachery against this nation by the Spanish & french the first
  having sent our fleet away & now they say there is 25 thousand French
  coming tis tho't to invade us, yet I am confident there is nothing but
  sin can hurt us if our iniquitys be full as indeed I have a great deal
  of reason to fear tho what can we expect but destruction vet I will
  endevour to cry to the lord please because the tho'1s of desolation is
  terible. (Whelan, Nonconformist 8:53)

Steele rulers to a recent altercation between England and Spain, in which a Spanish commander cut off the car of Robert Jenkins of the British ship, Rebecca. …

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