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Seward, Anna (1742-1809)  

Dubbed the "Swan of Lichfield," Anna Seward was eldest daughter of Thomas Seward, canon residentiary of Lichfield Cathedral. Encouraged to write by Erasmus Darwin, Seward became one of the best known English women poets of her time. She also published in the Gentleman's Magazine, sometimes under the pseudonym "Benvolio," and engaged in debates with other critics.

Widely connected to writers and clergy, Seward lived her entire life at Lichfield and never married. She seems to have been liked and admired for her liveliness and generosity though criticized for self-importance, outspokenness, and unconventionality.

Although most of Seward's intense attachments were to women, scholars have focused on her deep involvement with John Saville, vicar choral at Lichfield and a renowned vocalist who was separated from his wife. Their relationship subjected them to censure though Seward insisted it was "pure and disinterested." She was grief-stricken by Saville's sudden death in 1803.

Biographers have also noted Seward's passion for her foster sister Honora Sneyd, who came to live in the Seward household at the age of five when Anna was thirteen. After the death of Anna's sister Sarah in 1763, Honora became her closest companion, and the attachment grew more intense. Seward expressed her passionate devotion through her involvement in Honora's romantic life as well as in poetry dedicated to her.

She was devastated and outraged by Honora's marriage to Richard Lovell Edgeworth in 1773 and literally went into mourning. Even after her death in 1780, Honora remained an important figure in Seward's interior life.

It appears, however, that this relationship was not Seward's sole experience of romantic female friendship. She had charged relationships with at least three other women, Penelope Weston (later Mrs. Pennington), a Miss Mompesson, and Elizabeth Cornwallis, whom Seward named "Clarissa."

Of these three, the relationship with Cornwallis, which Seward refers to as the "unpartaken and secret treasure of my soul," is the most interesting: It was conducted through secret correspondence and surreptitious meetings because Cornwallis's father abhorred female friendships and controlled his daughter's contacts with women.

In addition to these romantic friendships, Seward was associated with circles of literary and intellectual women. She regularly attended Lady Anna Miller's gatherings at Bath Easton. Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, the famous "Ladies of Llangollen" who had eloped together and settled in Wales, were her dear friends and correspondents. She wrote several poems in their honor, the longest and best known of which, Llangollen Vale, was published in 1796.

Seward's poetry is often sentimental and ornate, but some poems are quite powerful. Much of Llangollen Vale, for example, could be described as mythic pastoral verse, but the poem also includes a surprisingly forthright celebration of the "Sisters in love" and places the two women in a heroic lineage.

The poems dedicated to Honora are marked by a similar excess, but they testify to Seward's deep attachment. Seward memorializes their "plighted love" at first joyously and then later, after Honora's marriage, with deep lament.

Additional poems dedicated to other women might also lend themselves to lesbian reading. Seward's public and private writings, as well as her extensive connections with women, make her a fruitful figure for further study.

Marian Urquilla
Susan S. Lanser


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literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Romanticism

Since homosexuality was severely persecuted during the Romantic period, writers who treated the subject more or less positively were forced to encode it or leave it unpublished and were themselves frequently forced into exile.

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Until the beginning of the twentieth century, intimate, exclusive, and often erotic romantic friendships between women were largely perceived as normal and socially acceptable.

literature >> Butler, Lady Eleanor, (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831)

Known as the Ladies of Llangollen, an enduring emblem of female romantic friendship, Butler and Ponsonby eloped to Wales where they lived together for over fifty years and entertained several important writers.


Ashmun, Margaret Eliza. The Singing Swan: An Account of Anna Seward and Her Acquaintance with Dr. Johnson, Boswell, & Others of Their Time. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1931.

Lucas, E. V. A Swan and Her Friends. London: Methuen, 1907.

Scott, Walter. Biographical Memoirs of Eminent Novelists, and Other Distinguished Persons. Vol. 2. Edinburgh: R. Cadell, 1834. Rpt. New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1972.


    Citation Information
    Author: Urquilla, Marian ; Lanser, Susan S.  
    Entry Title: Seward, Anna  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 11, 2011  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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