A Celebration of Women Writers

Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661 - 1720)

Biography:

Anne Kingsmill Finch is significant as one of the earliest published women poets in England. {1} She is also delightful! Her poetry sparkles with witty commentary and playful humour. She writes with clear conviction of what she sees and experiences. Her voice is direct, personal and immediate. It has been suggested that she may be the best woman poet in England prior to the nineteenth century (McGovern, 1992).

An Uncertain Childhood

Anne Kingsmill was born in April, 1661, the third child of Sir William Kingsmill and Anne Haslewood. Sir William died only 5 months after Anne's birth. Sir William Kingsmill's will was notable in the emphasis it placed on supporting and educating his daughters as well as his son. Rents from the estate were set aside for this purpose. He also left his daughters 2000 pounds (Bridget) and 1500 pounds (Anne), to be paid with interest to them personally on their marriage or at age 21.

Anne Haslewood remarried in 1662, to Sir Thomas Ogle, and bore Anne's half-sister Dorothy Ogle. In 1664, shortly before her death, Anne Haslewood wrote a will giving all control of the estate to Sir Thomas Ogle. Her will was challenged in a Court of Chancery law-suit, brought by the children's uncle, William Haslewood, and 3 other relatives, on behalf of the children. The court decided against Thomas Ogle. William Kingsmill went to live with his uncle William Haslewood, while Anne and Bridget went to live with their grandmother, Bridget, Lady Kingsmill.

Lady Kingsmill was, by all accounts, a shrewd and independent woman. In 1670-71, she brought a second Chancery suit against William Haslewood and the other executors, demanding a share in the education and support monies for Anne and Bridget. The court formally split custody of the children (and an allowance for their support) between William Haslewood and Lady Kingsmill. When she became ill and died in 1672, the girls rejoined their brother under William Haslewood's care, and remained with his family until his death in 1682.

There, the children lived as part of a large extended family, interacting with other families in the district. The family was well-educated and progessive about education for women, and the Kingsmill girls may have received formal as well as informal education. They were encouraged to be aware of a wide range of topics and issues. Anne Kingsmill grew up familiar with the classics, Greek and Roman mythology, the Bible, French (sufficient for translation), Italian (at least to a speaking level), history, poetry and drama.

The Stuart Court

The Kingsmills and Haslewoods were strong Anglicans and devoted supporters of the Stuart royalty. In 1682, Anne Kingsmill went to St. James Palace to become a Maid of Honour to Mary of Modena (wife of James, Duke of York, who later became King James II.) Anne Kingsmill enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of the 'Court of Wits', in spite of the Wits' frequent antipathy towards women. Seeing the hostile treatment accorded to Anne Killigrew, the 'Versifying Maid of Honour', who she may have known, Anne Kingsmill kept her own early attempts at poetry a secret. She became close to Mary of Modena, reflecting on their relationship and her time at Court years later in the memorial poem "On the Death of the Queen" .

Anne Kingsmill also met her future husband, Heneage Finch, at Court. He was a courtier and soldier, appointed Groom of the Bedchamber to James, Duke of York, in 1683. Four years older than Anne, he had, like her, been raised in a family with strong Royalist connections. It was also a family with a tradition of strong women: Heneage's grandmother Elizabeth was created Countess of Winchilsea in her own right in 1628, a title that was remaindered to her male heirs. (As the second son of the second earl, Heneage was not in the direct line for inheritance of the title. )

Although she initially resisted the idea, Anne married Heneage Finch on May 15th, 1684. It was to be a lasting and very happy marriage. In "A Letter to Dafnis: April 2d 1685" and other love poems to her husband, Anne Finch celebrated their passionate and playful intimacy, and the joy and comfort that she found in their relationship. In doing so, she significantly departed from the usual attitudes and conventions of the time, as her later poem "To Mr. F. Now Earl of W." attests. She also criticized the misogyny prevalent at the time: satirical criticism of social roles and restrictions appears often in her work. Luckily, Heneage encouraged and actively supported Anne's writing. It was a rewarding marriage for them both. Thirty-nine years later, Heneage still noted the anniversary of their wedding in his private journal as "Most blessed day."

Anne resigned her position at court on her marriage. Heneage retained his appointment there, and the Finches continued to be closely involved with court life. Heneage Finch was one of those who carried the Queen's canopy during the 1685 Coronation of James II and Mary of Modena, at the Queen's special request.

The Bloodless Revolution

England was a country still in turmoil over deeply felt political and religious issues. There had been years of contention between 'Royalists' and 'Roundheads', during the English Civil War and the subsequent Interregnum. Oliver Cromwell had died in 1658, and Parliament had restored Charles II to the throne in 1660. However, Roman Catholics were still politically and religiously disempowered. James II's conversion to Roman Catholicism was viewed with great dismay. His promotion of the church led to active opposition from Tory and Whig Parliamentary leaders.

When Parliament offered William of Orange the crown of England in the "Bloodless Revolution" of 1688, oaths of allegiance were required of both clergy and lay persons. Heneage Finch refused to take oath to the new Monarchs. He and Anne were prominent among the "Nonjurors" {2} who considered their previous oaths morally binding and unchangeable. They risked harassment, fines and imprisonment for their loyalty to the Stuart kings. Safer away from London, they stayed in the country, dependent on the hospitality of friends and relatives. In April 1690, Heneage was arrested on charges of Jacobitism for attempting to join James II in France. Jacobites and Nonjurors were being severely treated and harshly punished in many cases. The period from April until November, when the case was finally discharged, was a time of separation and great anxiety for the Finches. Heneage, in London, prepared his defense. Anne, in Kent, continued to write, in part to combat recurrent and sometimes severe bouts of depression (cf. "Ardelia to Melancholy"). Poems written at this time reflect on both political and personal themes, and are generally sadder and more ironic than her previous work (cf. "The Consolation").

Near the end of 1690, the Finches were invited to live at Eastwell, the home of Charles Finch, Earl of Winchilsea (Heneage's elder brother's son). Eastwell was beautiful, peaceful, and secure. The Earl was young, not yet married, {3} and already noted as a patron of the arts. Anne received encouragement and support from both her husband and the Earl for her writing. Heneage's support for Anne was practical as well as emotional: he began compiling an octavo manuscript of 56 of her poems, writing them out by hand. (Anne's handwriting was apparently difficult to read.) He also made manuscript corrections for her: for example, changing Anne's literary name from 'Areta' to 'Ardelia' {4}in all the poems. Later, around 1694-5, he transcribed her work into a larger Folio manuscript. The years at Eastwell, and later at Wye Cottage nearby, were peaceful and productive, albeit secluded. Many of Anne's poems from this time celebrate the friendship and support of her patrons and female friends, such as the Countess of Thanet ('Arminda' in "The Petition for an Absolute Retreat"). They also reflect her enjoyment of and sensitivity to the beauty of the environment in which she lived (cf. "A Nocturnal Reverie").

Returning from Exile

While their time in the country had been productive for Anne, the Finches also found it lonely and isolated at times. In the shifting political climate of the early 1700's, they began to hope for a return to the capital. James II's death in 1701 was followed in 1702 by the death of William III, and the succession of Queen Anne, daughter of James II, to the throne. The general political climate had improved; and Queen Anne was more acceptable as a sovereign than William, to the Finches. In 1701, 1705, and 1710, Heneage Finch stood for parliament. (He did not win a seat.) By 1710-11, they had acquired a house in London.

There, Anne Finch received increasing encouragement to publish her work openly under her own name. Her admirers and friends included Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, both of whom encouraged her to write and publish. As early as 1691, some of her work had been published anonymously in the form of songs. "The Spleen" had been published anonymously in 1701 and was also well-received. (It was to be the most popular of her poems during her lifetime: a description of and reflection upon depression.) Anne was hesitant about publishing her work, with reason, given the social and political climate of the day. "The Introduction" privately circulated with her octavo manuscript, discusses attitudes towards women poets that that time. However, in 1713, Miscellany Poems, on Several Occasions appeared in print. It contained 86 poems, and her second play, Aristomenes: Or, The Royal Shepherd. While the first printing of the cover page stated it simply to be "Written by a Lady", Anne, Countess of Winchilsea was credited as the author on further printings..

The Countess of Winchilsea

On August 4, 1712, Charles Finch, Earl of Winchilsea, had died unexpectedly, and without children. His uncle Heneage Finch became the Earl of Winchilsea, and Anne Finch, the Countess of Winchilsea. Unfortunately, the Finches inherited financial problems and legal battles along with the title. These were to be a source of strain and anxiety for years: from the opening of the first Chancery Court trial of July 9, 1713, to the final settlement of February 19th, 1720 in Heneage's favour.

Court politics continued to be a source of distress and possible danger. In 1714, Queen Anne died and was succeeded by George I. A Whig government, hostile to the Jacobite cause, was reinstated. In 1715, the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland further increased political tensions. Matthew Prior, a friend of the Finches, was imprisoned. The Finches, well known "Nonjuror" {2} members of the Church of England, worried about their own safety.

In 1715, Anne Finch became severely ill. She had battled depression for years and was now in failing health. Increasingly, her poetry reflected her religious beliefs and concerns, as in "A Suplication for the joys of Heaven". One of her last poems "A Contemplation" speaks movingly about her life and beliefs. She died in London on August 5, 1720, and was taken to Eastwell to be buried, by her own request. Her husband transcribed an eloquent obituary to her which read, in part,

"To draw her Ladyship's just Character, requires a masterly Pen like her own (She being a fine Writer, and an excellent Poet); we shall only presume to say, she was the most faithful Servant to her Royal Mistress, the best Wife to her Noble Lord, and in every other Relation, publick and private, so illustrious an Example of such extraordinary Endowments, both of Body and Mind, that the Court of England never bred a more accomplished Lady, nor the Church of England a better Christian. "

Selected Poems:

Miscellany Poems, on Several Occasions was the only major collection of Anne Finch's work to appear in her lifetime. The Poems of Anne, Countess of Winchilsea edited by Myra Reynolds in 1903, contained both the poems of 1713, and various others from manuscript sources, and has been the recognized collection of her work for many years. Only recently has The Wellesley Manuscript come to light, with 53 previously unpublished poems, many written in the last two decades of Anne Finch's life.

Bibliography:


Notes:

  1. Very few collections of poetry were published by women in England before Anne Finch (1661-1720)'s volume in 1713. Amelia Bassano Lanyer (1569-1645) published the poetical Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews) in 1611. Mary, Lady Chudleigh (1656-1710) published The Ladies Defence: or the Bride-Woman's Counsellor answered: A Poem. In a Dialogue Between Sir John Brute, Sir William Loveall, Melissa, and a Parson (1701) and Poems on Several Occasions (1703). Sarah Egerton (1670-1723) published her collected Poems (1703, 1706). Some might also include Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), although she is generally regarded as an American poet, since she emigrated there from England at the age of eighteen. Her brother-in-law surreptitiously took her manuscript to England and had it printed without her knowledge as The Tenth Muse (London: Stephen Bowtell, 1650).
  2. While "Jacobite" and "Nonjuror" were not synonymous, the refusal to take oath to a new king, because one considered one's previous oath to be inviolable, had profound political implications. There was also a serious division in the Anglican church between Nonjurors and those who changed their oaths. Between 300 and 400 Anglican clergy, and an unknown number of laity, were suspended from office and excluded from public life for nonjuring.
  3. In 1692, Charles Finch, Earl of Winchilsea, married Sarah Nourse.
  4. The name 'Ardelia' may have been chosen partly in tribute to Katherine Philips, known as 'The Matchless Orinda'. Her poem "A retir'd friendship to Ardelia" is a poem on retirement from the world.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom