Mary Scott: Biography
Early Life in Somerset
Mary Scott was born into a family of orthodox Calvinist dissenters at Milborne Port, Somerset, and baptized on July 9, 1751, at the Old Meeting (Presbyterian) in nearby Petherton. Her father, John Scott (1721–74), a linen-weaver, married Mary Russell of Bradford Abbas, near Sherborne, Dorset, in 1750. John Scott’s mother, Hannah Sprint Scott (1681–1767), was the daughter of John Sprint (d. 1718), the first nonconformist minister at Milborne Port. Mary Russell was a descendant of the same Russell family that later gave rise to the Dukes of Bedford (Scott and Scott 33). Besides Mary, the Scotts also had two sons. Samuel (b.1750) became a woolen manufacturer at Sherborne; he and his wife, Grace Downing, had 12 children, of whom four died in infancy. According to Isabella Scott, Samuel was domineering and not well liked by the other members of the family, nor did he show any particular affection toward them. One of his sons, also named Robert, married his cousin, Mary Ann Taylor, Mary Scott’s daughter (Scott and Scott 32, 75–76). Between 1775 and 1785, Mary Scott’s younger brother, Russell (1760–1834), studied for the ministry at Independent academies at Daventry and Homerton and finally at the Hoxton Academy in London, studying medicine as well under Dr. William Hawes, founder of the Humane Society and Russell’s future father-in-law. During his years in London, Russell Scott became intimate with a number of leading Unitarians, including Theophilus Lindsey, minister at the Unitarian chapel in Essex Street who corresponded with Mary Scott in the 1780s, and Andrew Kippis, a tutor at Hoxton and confidant of the writer Helen Maria Williams. After a brief pastorate at Wrington, near Bristol, Russell Scott married Sophia Hawes and settled at High Street Chapel, Portsmouth, in 1788. At his death in 1834, he was a nationally recognized figure among the Unitarians in England (Scott and Scott 76–83).
Whereas Scott’s close friend, Mary Steele of Broughton, was a Baptist, were Mary Scott was raised an Independent (the denomination became known in the nineteenth century as Congregationalists). Baptists and Independents differed in baptism – the former advocated believer’s baptism by immersion, the latter sprinkled but also baptized infants – but both adhered to a trinitarian, Calvinistic creed, though individual members holding contrary, even heterodox, opinions were not uncommon. The Dissenting congregation at the Old Meeting in Milborne Port was officially organized on April 22, 1744, with John Scott signing the church covenant. Eventually, Mrs. Scott (September 3, 1769) along with Mary and Russell (September 5, 1779) would add their names to the church book (Scott and Scott 32, 34).[i] During Mary Scott’s years at Milborne Port, her primary minister was Francis Newton, one of the Feathers Tavern petitioners in 1772 for relief by nonconformists from subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles as a requirement for admission to universities and public office. Newton was most likely an Arian, which suggests that the movement into Unitarianism by Mary and Russell Scott in the early 1780s may have had its origins in the Independent chapel at Milborne Port (McLachlan 74–75). Isabella Scott, herself a Unitarian, makes a similar point in her family history. “Looking, as the Dissenters did, to the Scriptures only as their authority in matters of belief,” she writes about the Old Meeting, “some of them began, as time passed on, to find that the ordinary orthodox doctrines were not supported by Scripture, and were therefore no longer tenable.” As a result, Mary and Russell Scott “passed first into Arianism and then into Unitarianism” (Scott and Scott 34, 456).[ii] Mary Scott’s mother, however, remained an orthodox Calvinist, living her later years at odds with her children in matters of religious doctrine.
It is likely that Steele and Scott met prior to their boarding school years. Mary Steele’s mother was originally from Yeovil, where her brother, George Bullock, lived until his death in 1775. After her mother’s death in 1762, Mary Steele continued to visit Yeovil every year to see her favorite uncle, who was also a friend of John Scott (Milborne Port was about five miles from Yeovil). As a result of Steele’s frequent visits to Yeovil and Scott’s extended stays at Broughton (and possibly a shared boarding school experience in Hackney), the friendship of the two young poets flourished between 1766 and 1774. They corresponded on a regular basis and exchanged friendship poems with each other either in person or in their letters. In one of Steele’s earliest poems, “A Rural Meditation, 1766” (NWW 3: 51), she elaborates on her budding friendship with Scott. Surrounded by “beauteous sylvan scenes” (1) at her uncle’s estate at Yeovil, Steele recalls the “happiest of my hours” (19) spent with “dear Myra in the jasmine bower” (17) and their friend Celia. Steele’s “anxious breast” and “frequent sigh” (22), however, implies a need for companionship that supersedes her desire for a fragrant place of retirement. On May 19, 1769, Steele wrote to Scott informing her that she and her father would see her shortly at Milborne Port, having just arrived at Yeovil after what was probably her final term at Mrs. King’s school. In the mean time, she expected “with impatience” a letter from Scott, for “every Letter from a friend is a valuable Pearl[.] I hope those charming Verses will be inclos’d” (NWW 3: 206). Scott’s poem is now lost, but Steele’s language in her letter, like that of “A Rural Meditation,” evokes a level of emotional intensity and aesthetic curiosity that would be a hallmark of their friendship.
Steele visited Yeovil again in August 1770, a visit that produced three friendship poems, one by Steele and two by Scott. These early friendship poems establish the emotional intimacy, social connectivity, and artistic indebtedness that existed between these two young poets, ultimately linking the pleasures of earthly friendship with the bliss of immortality and heaven. The implication is that their friendship originated in the spirit as much as the flesh, resulting in poems reflective of the religious meditative tradition, except that, in this instance, the subject of praise and gratitude is female friendship and aesthetic enjoyment, not divine grace and spiritual blessings. Steele often addresses her friend through the voice of the rustic maid from her place of retirement, sometimes Broughton House and sometimes her uncles’s estate at Yeovil. Solitude in a natural setting is often contrasted to the noise and confusion of the city, with both young ladies adopting the pastoral pose reflective of their noms de plume, Sylvia and Myra.
Drafting and Publishing The Female Advocate (1774)
Scott would spend several months in late 1772 and early 1773 with the Steeles at Broughton House, working on a draft of The Female Advocate, with Anne, William, and Mary Steele serving as Scott’s assistant editors. She repaid the Steeles the following year by dedicating The Female Advocate to Mary and adding lines praising the poetry of Anne Steele and the helpful criticism of William Steele (NWW 4: 40, 45–46), lines that stand as a permanent public memorial to the Steele circle. The collaborative basis of her poem, however, has remained hidden in private, informal manuscripts, such as her letter to her brother Samuel on February 27, 1773, in which Scott describes her time spent in Anne Steele’s bedchamber, “to which she has for many months been confined.” During her stay, Scott adds, she had
the pleasure of being a witness of the power of religion to support the mind under the most excruciating pains of body; she is quite submissive to the Divine will, and thankful to her friends for their kind, though, alas! fruitless attempts to mitigate her sufferings. (“Memoir” 160)
In late summer 1773, Mary Scott sent another draft of The Female Advocate to the literary circle at Broughton House for further revision. Steele was not able to respond to Scott until the end of September, a few weeks before she left for another visit to Yeovil. “My Father thinks it is greatly amended,” she informed Scott, but “he has proposed a fewAlterations” that she promises to share with Scott soon “by word of Mouth” (NWW 3: 235). At Yeovil, the two friends continued to revise the poem, and Scott contributed a poem to Steele’s friendship book, dated November 3, 1773 (NWW 4: 74–75), the last of Scott’s three extant poems addressed to Steele.
Mary Scott’s depression in the fall of 1773, however, had more than a physical cause. Scott was preparing to send a fair copy of The Female Advocate to Joseph Johnson in London, and her youth and inexperience as a published poet, coupled with the provocative theme of her poem, created considerable anxiety for Scott. Steele had already addressed Scott’s apprehensions about publishing her poem in her September letter to Scott, having attached a copy of her aunt’s poem, “On Reviewing my Verses for Publication” (NWW 2: 146–47) (at Anne Steele’s request), designed to answer “all your fears & objections” (NWW 3: 235). Scott’s initial hesitancy in her early twenties to publish a well-researched though provocative poem on women writers in England was not a reaction to patriarchal oppression (certainly not from any of the males in her family or within the Steele circle) but more likely, like Anne Steele’s experience, an “anxiety of reception,” to borrow Lucy Newlyn’s phrase, inseparable from personal agency, an anxiety common to male and female poets throughout the Romantic era.[iii]
Mary Steele’s letter that September apparently satisfied Scott’s fears about publishing, adding one more layer to an intricate, multifaceted collaborative effort between Scott and the Steeles involving the composition and publication of The Female Advocate. Scott’s intimacy with the Steeles provided the original impetus for her poem during her visits to Broughton and her poetic competition with Mary Steele’s Danebury in 1768. During the next six years, various Steeles assisted in editing various versions of the poem as well as providing practical advice and encouragement about publishing the poem, something Anne Steele knew firsthand as a woman poet and William Steele IV as a businessman. His attempt to find a publisher for Danebury in 1777 revealed his friendship with Charles Dilly, and it seems probable that William Steele was just as familiar with the leading Dissenting booksellers and printers in London in 1774, including Joseph Johnson, originally a Particular Baptist like the Steeles (he would later, like Mary Scott, become a Unitarian) who had been apprenticed to George Keith, son-in-law to the famed High Calvinist London minister, John Gill. The Female Advocate; A Poem. Occasioned by Reading Mr. Duncombe’s Feminead appeared in early summer 1774 (a second identical issue was published in 1775),[iv] the title demonstrating the intertextuality that marked the writings of the Steele circle and other women’s coteries in the eighteenth century, especially those writing within a manuscript culture. Scott’s poem amplifies and critiques the work of John Duncombe, an Anglican vicar, whose TheFeminiad was published in 1754, with the title page of a second edition in 1757 bearing the altered spelling “Feminead,” apparently the edition owned by Scott and shared with Steele, as Scott notes in the opening of her dedicatory epistle. In his poem, Duncombe discussed 15 women writers from the time of Charles I to the mid-eighteenth century. Scott and Steele thought his list unrepresentative of British women’s writing during that hundred-year span. Scott expanded the number of women writers to 50, adding women from the Renaissance as well as several contemporary writers.[v]
Scott’s Female Advocate and Steele’s Danebury, formed as ideas in the minds of each poet as teenagers in the 1760s, are united in their exploration of two important feminist ideals—female friendship and literary accomplishments. Bythe 1770s, these ideals had become frequent topics of conversation in London salons and recurring themes in contemporary women’s poetry. Danebury depicts a fictional friendship between two young women, set in an early period of British history, in which one sacrifices her life for the other only to be divinely restored to her bosom friend, the ultimate model for female friendship. The Female Advocate, on the other hand, offers a factual account of the intellectual and artistic achievements of 50 women, many still alive at the time of the poem’s publication in 1774. In each case, Steele and Scott do not enter directly into the poem’s context, yet their presence is pervasive throughout the poem: Steele’s setting is a neighboring landmark, her chief character is patterned after her friend Jane Attwater, and the poem is dedicated to her father, the model for Egbert; Scott begins with a dedicatory epistle to Mary Steele that is as much autobiographical as it is critical and then embeds within a poem designed to praise great women writers in British history passages praising Anne Steele, William Steele IV, “Celia” (Miss Williams), and Dr. Richard Pulteney,[vi] paeans to male and female friendships hidden behind pseudonyms or lengthened dashes. As Moira Ferguson notes, The Female Advocate “establishes Mary Scott as the first woman to feature a historical lineage of accomplished women poets and prose writers who are a credit to England . . . [and] silently constitutes herself as a member of that community” (“The Cause of her Sex” 38). The “community” Scott advocates, however, is two-fold: Ferguson’s “historical” circle of advocates, most of whom appeared in print and are identified by name, and a private coterie of sympathetic friends, both male and female, from within the anonymous Steele circle. For each group, Scott functions as participant as well as chronicler.
Mary Scott continued to edit The Female Advocate through the end of May 1774, inserting discussions of some recent writers into her dedicatory epistle and adding last-minute information on some of the writers in the poem, including a note on Anna Letitia Aikin’s marriage to Rochemont Barbauld on May 26, 1774. Scott’s dedicatory epistle, dated May 10, 1774, from Milborne Port, directed to Mary Steele, exposes the counterproductive state of female education and, more importantly, demonstrates her commanding knowledge of contemporary women writers in England and America who were published in London between 1768 and the spring of 1774, not something conceived by Scott or her friends at Broughton House as beyond the ability of a single woman in her early twenties in Somerset to possess. The dedicatory epistle also reveals details about her personal life during the composition of the poem (such as her recurring rheumatism and the prolonged illness of her father)[vii] and establishes in a public context her intimate connection with a West Country coterie of women writers embodied in her “kindred” spirit, Mary Steele.
Scott’s Dedicatory Epistle mentions four other works published since Scott had completed her final draft of Female Advocate, all of which, she writes, “possess considerable merit” (NWW 4: 30). These works are Letters on the Improvement of the Mind Addressed to a Young Lady (1773) by Hester Chapone (1727–1801); Original Poems, Translations, and Imitations, from the French, &c. By a Lady (1773) published anonymously; Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) by Phillis Wheatley (1753–84), the former slave turned poet from Boston; and Poems (1773) by Anna Letitia Aikin (1743–1825), soon to be Mrs. Barbauld. Wheatley’s volume appeared in London bookshops in September 1773, and by late October, Mary Steele had either purchased a copy for herself or borrowed Mary Scott’s copy, for on November 3, during her stay at Yeovil, her father informed her that “The lines from Miss Phillis (to be sure she is Miss now) are very extraordinary & ’tis indeed wonderful that Genius tho’ uncultivated shou’d shine amidst slavery & distress” (NWW 3: 239).[viii] William Steele’s dislike of slavery would persist among the members of the Steele circle through the death of Maria Saffery in 1858.[ix]
Scott was especially pleased that a new voice had recently emerged among nonconformist women poets to continue the legacy established by Rowe and Anne Steele, and that was Aikin. Shortly after the publication of her volume of poetry in London by Joseph Johnson, Scott’s poem “To Miss Aikin, on Reading her Poems,” signed “Mira,” appeared in the July issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine, just one month before the first review of The Female Advocate (NWW 4: 27). Though no manuscript of the poem resides in the Steele Collection or among the remaining papers of Mary Scott, the timing of the poem, the poet’s pseudonym (the same spelling used by Anne Steele and William Steele), and the quality and style of the poem make a compelling case for attributing the poem to Scott.
Mary Steele is not named or alluded to in the poem itself, but descriptions of individuals associated with the Steele circle appear throughout the poem (NWW 4: 34–35, 40, 45, 46). In a discussion of women writers who died young, Scott inserted a short parenthetical tribute to “Celia,” whose death in September 1772 was also commemorated by Steele’s poem “To the Memory of the Amiable Miss Williams” (NWW 3: 81–83). Surprisingly, Scott does not identify Anne Steele in a footnote, most likely out of respect for Steele’s privacy and her desire to remain anonymous, even though she would appear by name the next year in William Giles’s A Collection of Poems on Divine and Moral Subjects, selected from Various Authors, printed in London by Mary Lewis (formerly publisher of Whitefield and the Moravian John Cennick) and sold by Anne Steele’s former publisher, J. Buckland. Nor does Scott identify William Steele IV beyond his pseudonym “Philander” in her appreciative tribute and penultimate character sketch in the poem. In these lines she celebrates the value she placed upon his friendship and assistance with her poem as well as his encouragement, from her early teens, in her pursuit of poetry and a free spirit like the one he witnessed in his own daughter. Pulteney (the final character sketch in the poem) is, like William Steele and Thomas Seward, a representation of ideal masculinity unthreatened by feminine accomplishments.
Mary Scott’s friends at Broughton House avidly followed the critical progress of The Female Advocate, purchasing copies in July 1774 and proudly boasting of their friend’s newfound fame. That same month two of Bodenham’s leading socialites visited Jane Attwater and her sister-in-law, Mary Drewitt Attwater, during which the conversation turned to Mary Scott’s poem. “I showed Miss Hibberd Myra’s Satire,” Attwater writes to Steele, having already acquired a copy. “She admired it much [at] first but when she found it recommended, ye terrific Sound she [made] discommended it as much as she had before extolled it. I told [her] she would come into my rank yn” (NWW 3: 247–48). Jane Attwater was not the only one bragging of her friend’s accomplishment. If “Mira” could write a tribute to Aikin’s poetry, “Sylvia” could do the same for her friend, vigorously defending Scott (with Anne Steele’s blessing, no doubt) in her first published poem, “To Miss Scott on reading ‘The Female Advocate,’” which appeared in the Lady’s Magazine in December 1774 (662–63), signed “Sylvia.”
With the publication of The Female Advocate, Steele was convinced that more women poets would now emerge to continue this vibrant tradition of British women’s writing of which Scott, Barbauld, More, Chapone, and Wheatley were the most recent manifestations, a prediction Steele and Scott saw as reality in the 1780s in the poetry of Anna Seward and Helen Maria Williams, both poets honored in poems by Steele and Scott.[x] To Steele, the poetic “Genius” of Williams (“sweet Enchantress of the captive heart”) and Seward (upon “whose beauteous Brow / The Muses crown with all their fairest wreathes”) will, like the women in The Female Advocate, serve as “The hoarded treasure of a future Age” (NWW 3: 128, 135), a reference applicable as well to Mary Steele and Mary Scott.[xi]
Mary Scott’s Religious Poetry, 1770–88
Although Isabella Scott was convinced Mary Scott died a Socinian, her second long work, Messiah: A Poem (NWW 4: 48–70), published in two parts in 1788 by Joseph Johnson, was correctly read by Anna Seward as Arian, despite the fact that Scott dedicated the poem to her spiritual mentor at that time, the Rev. Theophilus Lindsey (1723–1808), Unitarian minister at Essex Street Chapel in London and an unapologetic Socinian. Scott added a note to the opening lines in which she informed the reader that the poem was “occasioned by reading Mr. Hayley’s animated exhortation to Mr. Mason to write a national Epic Poem . . . The perusal of those elegant lines insensibly led the Author to contrast the character of that Hero, on whom the Christian’s eye should be invariably fixed, with the heroes of the world” (NWW 4: 50).[xii] Accordingly, Scott begins with the nativity of Christ and carries the poem through the major events in his life, employing fewer lines, however, than Milton would use for just one of his 12 books in Paradise Lost. Scott sent a complimentary copy to Anna Seward in April 1788, to which Seward responded on May 18, praising the poem and noting that the subject was one Milton had failed to make interesting but in which Scott had “thrown more poetic grace upon . . . than I thought it capable of receiving” (NWW 4: 292). The Monthly Review, however, focused primarily on Scott’s theology, not her poetry, contending that Messiah was the first poem of its kind composed by someone advocating a “heterodox” view of Christ, even warning that some readers might deem Scott’s “Muse . . . an heretical one” (278), implying that the Arianism in the poem was not easily distinguished from Socinianism, by no means a flippant response. The reviewer suggests Scott’s poem would have been “more beautiful, and more sublime, had her religious principles been less heterodox,” promising that “many will wonder that a person of her sentiments should have chosen such a subject” at all (277).[xiii]
Scott wasted no time in declaring her Arianism, describing Christ in the opening lines of Part 1 (NWW 4: 50–59) as the “bright offspring of th’ Eternal Mind” (5), an emanation from God the Father, a lesser god, a created being, and not the co-equal, co-eternal God, all of which was a radical departure from her hymns of the previous decade. She admits Christ’s pre-existence and his special connection to God as the divine son, but not his eternal deity and his place as the second person in the trinity. Christ’s miracles, which Scott includes near the end of Part 1, attest to his divine connection with God, but not his divine sonship as the second person of the Trinity. Her doctrinal position by the late 1780s was considerably removed from the Calvinism of her youth with its emphases on grace, faith, and imputed righteousness she had espoused so forcefully in her earlier hymns.[xiv]
Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage, 1776–93
After 1776, Mary Steele’s interaction with Mary Scott, whom she described in a 1773 letter as “the Friend for whom Ifeel a next to Fillial Affection & Reverance” (NWW 3: 235), fell below what it had been prior to the death of Scott’s father in 1774 and Steele’s uncle in 1775. Steele did see Scott and her younger brother Russell in November 1776, when they passed through Broughton on their way to Bristol, a visit that produced Steele’s tribute, “To Myra, 1776” (NWW 3: 104–6). During this visit, the two friends traveled to Bradford to see their sister-poet Marianna Attwater Head, whose wedding Steele had attended in January 1773 during Scott’s protracted visit at Broughton. Scott also composed a poem (now lost) commemorating her 1776 visit.
Mary Scott became engaged to John Taylor in the spring of 1777, one year after both Mary Steele and Jane Attwater rejected offers of marriage. Scott’s lover, unfortunately, would prove highly unsuitable to her nature and literary aspirations. Taylor (1752–1817), at that time a tutor at Daventry Academy, met Scott during one of her visits to the school to see her younger brother Russell, who studied there c. 1775–76. Taylor pursued her relentlessly throughout the next year before achieving an engagement. In November 1776, when Taylor first broached the subject of marriage to Scott (about the time of her visit to Broughton), she responded that she “could not think of marrying without horror.” She asked Taylor to desist in his pursuit, but “Little did I think how much that frankness would be misconstrued,” she writes (NWW 4: 260). Then, in a remarkable statement about her attitude toward men and courtship (much like Steele’s in her poems to Sarah and Mary Froud in 1778), she accused Taylor (and, by default, all men) for being “so presuming & encroaching in those affairs, that no Woman can tell how to treat you who is not as artful & designing as yourselves” (NWW 4: 260). Scott, like Steele and Attwater, desired sincerity and truthfulness in a relationship; thus, a courtship that rewarded skill in being “artful & designing” was distasteful, even “imprudent” and “sinful” (NWW 4: 260). For Scott, finding a proper marriage partner demanded the utmost exercise of “Reason,” despite the prevalence of social conventions that all too often required a cleverness bordering on duplicity. Scott’s mother offered little encouragement. When told about Taylor’s designs, she responded with “disappointment, sorrow & pain.” Mary, the dutiful daughter, was compelled by her sense of “Gratitude” and “affection” to assure her mother that she would never leave her during the remainder of her mother’s life. It would be best, she advised Taylor, not to pursue marriage until her duties to her mother were complete, whenever that might be (NWW 4: 261). Taylor was not deterred, continuing his pursuit of Scott despite her misgivings about their incompatibility in temperament and religion and her inability to make a final decision on their engagement. His letter of February 17, 1777, did not allay her fears; she responded on March 10 that she has “a most painful conviction yt a Woman does greatly condescend wn she expresses any particular esteem for a Man” (NWW 4: 263). She even feels that she has been his “Dupe,” for she has been more concerned in her letters about him than he seems to have been about her. She does not want “servile submissions” from him, nor does she expect “to be trifled with,” not even if he were “ye greatest Peer in ye Realm.” She does expect him, however, to “pay some attention to [her] peace” (NWW 4: 264). Taylor, stung by her letter, added this note on the address page: “Vexed at my silence. Will not be my Dupe” (NWW 4: 264).
During the next two months, Scott’s attitude toward Taylor softened considerably. She became more apologetic, even countering her mother’s negative view of men. Scott wrote to Taylor on Wednesday, April 17, 1777, that her mother, though she did not yet know him, nevertheless knew his sex. “She knows, she well knows, how artful, how selfish, how deceiving Men (& Men professing Piety) are, & therefore it is not to be wondered at if for a few transient moments she suspected yo” (NWW 4: 266). Mary Scott had her own issues of concern with men in general without any assistance from her mother, including the established protocols of courtship. Long before Mary Hays would espouse similar notions in Emma Courtney (1796), Scott explained to Taylor on May 26 that “Decorum prescribes a Thousand absurd modes of conduct to our Sex, from which you are happily exempted; one of these is that a Woman ought not to acknowledge her affection for a Man, whatever his merit or attachment to her may be, till she is married to him” (NWW 4: 275).[xv] According to the accepted modes of conduct between men and women during courtship, she should have told him “a Thousand falsehoods, & endeavor’d to inspire ye World with a belief of my thinking lightly of yo.” She declares, however, that “ye claims of honor, truth & humanity” are “infinitely superior to ye rules of Decorum.” Despite her observations, she knows some men are “capable of forming nobler sentiments,” and she had long determined (one cannot help but imagine such thoughts being shared with Mary Steele, Jane Attwater, and the Froud sisters during visits in the 1760s and 1770s) that “if she ever met one & determined if it should ever be my Fate to be addrest by such a one, I would treat him with ye utmost ingenuousness; I would tell him all my Soul” (NWW 4: 275).[xvi]
By early May, Scott believed Taylor was such a man, declaring to him on May 7, 1777, that she “breakfasted on Love” as she read his most recent letter. Barring a “total revolution” in her character or his, which she hopes “never will happen,” she can see no reason not to marry him. “Accept then my dearest Love the Heart wch you have so long solicited,” she declares, “a Heart as fond, as faithful, (& I believe I must add) as proud, as ever animated a female bosom, a Heart wch tho’ formed for Love, never felt (& I trust never will feel) for another Man those sentiments it feels for you” (NWW 4: 267–68).[xvii] That same year she composed a terse self-portrait in verse, describing herself as “impetuous, petulant, and proud,” opinionated, thoughtless at times, at other times “grave as [a] splenetic Hermit,” given to “Fancy’s meteor beam,” a hopeless “Romantic,”
And when not checked by anxious care,
Still building castles in the air. (NWW 4: 76)
Her couplet reveals the on-going tension between her anxiety about marriage to Taylor and her idealistic vision of companionate love and friendship between a man and a woman shared by her friends in the Steele circle.
In late May 1777 Mary Steele, now in possession of her deceased uncle’s estate, visited Yeovil for the express purpose of seeing the recently engaged Mary Scott. Taylor was planning a visit of his own that summer to Somerset, and Scott was anxious that he would soon meet “my dear Miss Steele, my more than Sister.” “I assure you,” Scott writes to Taylor, “she thinks very highly of yo; she told me in her last Letter yt your Character rose in her esteem every time she heard from me, & that she never in her Life so much admir’d any Man whom she had never seen” (NWW 4: 271). Writing to Taylor later that month, Scott was concerned that his visit might have a negative effect on her mother, but Scott’s friends were “unanimously of opinion that yo ought to come.” “Miss Steele . . . has always been your very good friend” (NWW 4: 277), she adds, though Steele’s attitude toward Taylor (he would leave Daventry in 1782 to enter the Presbyterian ministry) worsened steadily after Scott’s marriage in 1788. Scott’s anxiety about Taylor’s propensity for “forming New Schemes & Systems of Religion” was evident prior to their wedding, causing her to wonder if such notions “will be a Source of Inconvenience & discomfort to us both in future Life.” Despite the romantic declarations in her letter of May 7, she cannot shake her fear that she could still be making a mistake. She writes prophetically near the close of the letter, “I . . . am almost ready to regret that I love you lest it should be ye means of rendering us both wretched” (NWW 4: 272).
Marjorie Reeves claims that by the mid-1780s Scott “seems to have passed out of the life” of Mary Steele (Pursuing the Muses 95), but evidence from Steele’s poems and letters suggests otherwise. Jane Attwater wrote to Steele in February and October 1785, inquiring both times about Scott (apparently Steele was still visiting Yeovil regularly) (NWW 3: 307–9, 311–13). The last extant letter between Steele and Scott is dated January 14, 1786, about three weeks after the death of William Steele. Mary Steele’s grief was extreme, and Scott had already sent two letters of condolence (both now lost)before Steele was able to respond. Her mind had been for some time “averse to all kinds of Employment,” she writes, “even to the melancholy relief of pouring out its Sorrows to the pitying Heart of Friendship—I want to creep into some Corner where none can be pain’d by witnessing my Grief ‘& weep the poor remains of Life away’” (NWW 3: 314).[xviii] In Steele’s 1772 elegy on the death of Miss Williams (NWW 3: 81–83), she took comfort in the fact that the soul of her deceased friend had flown to more “congenial Skies” (54) where she would now experience “Heaven’s unclouded Day” (55). At that time Steele had chided her “selfish Heart” (57) for mourning too much the loss of her friend and not resting enough in the “kind indulgent Providence” (58) who “snatch’d” Celia “from the storms of Life / And all the impending woes that hover’d near” (59–60). Fourteen years later, however, the removal of her father was clearly one of those “storms,” so much so that she could see nothing but darkness. “Tho’ my prospects in this world are forever clos’d,” she declares to Scott,
yet no Gleam from a better one illumines the Darkness—I never felt my Soul so dead so unaffected when in Affliction by all that can support or cheer in such a Season—I know I believe these Divine Consolations which my Fd so often reminds me can support even in the utmost extremity but I feel not their influence. (NWW 3: 314)
‘[M]y Reason often nearly forsook me & once totally so,” she confesses, yet she has managed to persevere, though she cannot help but admit to Scott, “How Selfish is Grief” (NWW 3: 314, 315).
Mary Scott would experience her own grief the next year with the death of her mother, but there was one significant difference: the latter’s death removed the final impediment to Scott’s marriage to John Taylor. During Scott’s lengthy betrothal, her mother feared that her daughter’s choice of fiancé would indeed leave her daughter “wretched,” and to ward off such an event, in her will (dated May 12, 1780) she left Mary Scott the use of several dwellings and gardens in Milborne Port, including the house in which she was living “for so long time as she shall continue unmarried,” adding as a further enticement to keep Scott from marrying Taylor, a provision allowing her “full and free liberty to pass and repass to and from the said appurtenances and allotments at her will and pleasure and also a Liberty of walking in the yard and in the other part of the garden belonging to the said dwelling house and likewise in the field adjoining thereto whenever she shall think proper during the term she shall continue unmarried.” Mrs. Scott added a codicil to her will on May 22, 1780, setting aside £1,600 after her death for her daughter’s “sole and separate use distinct from the intermeddling of her husband,” a clause befitting the author of The Female Advocate and friend of Mary Steele. This was obviously Mrs. Scott’s way of rewarding her daughter for taking care of her during the 13 years after her husband’s death in 1774 and for postponing her marriage indefinitely. Mary Russell Scott died on October 22, 1787, but the income her daughter derived from her inheritance would prove insufficient to prevent future deprivation (Scott and Scott 33).[xix]
By the spring of 1788, the loss of her mother, the disappointments of an 11-year engagement, and the pragmatic advice of her literary friends left Scott in a sober, almost cynical, frame of mind. On April 30, 1788, one week before her wedding, she wrote to Taylor at Manchester, just prior to his departure for Somerset, providing details about the ceremony, which took place at the parish church in Milborne Port at 11 o’clock on May 7. Scott had not heard from Taylor for some time and complained that he had not been a very good correspondent.[xx] Her anxieties had reached an apex, yet she seemed incapable of halting the wedding. “Indeed, indeed, I am in a very unfit state to be married,” she complained near the end of her last surviving letter, her closing paragraph revealing a hopelessness and despair that would soon become an inescapable reality. “And now I close a correspondence of eleven years,” she writes, “in the hope that you will be a more agreeable companion than you have been a correspondent. Were it not for that hope I should be wretched indeed,” invoking the same word she had used to describe her state of mind in May 1777, neither instance offering a promising beginning for the soon-to-be newlyweds (NWW 4: 289–90).
To commemorate her marriage and the publication of Messiah, Mary Steele composed “To Miss Scott, 1788” (NWW 3: 142–43), her last friendship poem to Scott. The opening apostrophe—“Friend of my Heart, and Sister of my Choice”—reinforces the closeness and emotional intensity the two friends still shared. Now, however, “Memory’s softly soothing Voice” (3) feeds on the “sorrows” (5) of both women, “the mourner’s Heart” having become “its secret prey” (8). For more than two decades they had exchanged poems and letters and visited each other often, but Scott’s marriage would have far-reaching consequences for their relationship. In lines that both foreshadow Wordsworth and move the poemtoward religious meditation, Steele senses a weakening of her imaginative vision and the inspiration she had previously derived from nature, an inescapable consequence of the “sad Journey” (24) of life, a loss that can only beremedied by the “alter’d Landscape” (25) of heaven:
Oh, happy Hours forever, ever fled!
When the spontaneous strain alternate flow’d,
By nature prompted and by Friendship fed,
What pleasure each received and each bestow’d.
Where are the glowing hues that nature wore?
Where the resistless power her Charms possest?
Alas! the loveliest Landscape now no more
Can thrill with rapture this cold lifeless breast.
As fades at closing Day the prospect round,
Farther and farther, stealing from the view,
Thus fade the Scenes Youth’s early mem’ry crown’d
As Life’s sad Journey farther we pursue.
Oh when the alter’d Landscape prompts the tear,
May the bright future in perspective rise,
And Scenes of Immortality appear
Beyond the narrow Circle of the Skies. (13–28)
Wordsworth bemoaned the ravages of time and human mutability in his “Intimations” ode, regretting the imaginative loss of nature’s “radiance” and his inability to experience again “the hour / Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower” (2: 157). Just as Wordsworth found a satisfying compensation in the “primal sympathy” of life and the “philosophic mind” (2: 157), so Steele finds comfort in her faith, refusing to devalue her friendship with Scott, the “Friend of [her] Soul” (33), her one constant in this earthly life and the one thing she is convinced will “endure” (36) in the next world.
Steele’s longing for those “happy Hours” of youth (c. 1766–76), when she basked in the beauty and solitude of nature (“the loveliest Landscape”) on her estates at Broughton and Yeovil, enjoying her friendship with Scott, continues with even greater poignancy in “Stanzas Written at Yeovil, 1790” (NWW 3: 147). Like the previous poem, Steele bemoansthe changing landscape of nature and her friendship with Scott, which would soon face even greater impediments than marriage. Earlier that year Steele had received a letter from Scott, now Mrs. John Taylor, wife of a Presbyterian minister and pregnant with her second child.[xxi] Most likely the letter contained an invitation for Steele to visit herat Ilminster on her next sojourn to Yeovil, which occurred in early 1790. As Steele surveys the “Scenes of [her] Youth”(1), melancholy sweeps over her, provoked by the voices of friends (such as “Celia”) now silent in the grave, telling her that “pleasure is no more” (8). The poet’s “social Circle” “smiles in vain” (21) since “those the Soul holds dear” (22) are either absent through death or, in the case of Scott, removed by marriage to a new locale. To make matters worse, not long after Steele’s visit to Yeovil, John Taylor converted to the Society of Friends, resigning his church and opening aschool for boys, a decision that clearly bewildered Scott and Steele, as well as Anna Seward. Seward wondered how“people of common Sense,” as she had once considered John Taylor, “can be so lost in gloomy Vision as to believe there can be merit in suppressing those talents, w.h God has variously dispensed amongst Mankind” (NWW 4: 301). Though the two women met only once, Seward clearly valued Scott’s friendship, despite the relative infrequency of their correspondence, averaging about one letter a year. Mary Steele also continued to support her increasingly despondent friend, visiting Ilminster in 1792 and composing a poem in honor of Scott’s daughter, Mary Ann (NWW 3: 150). Mostlikely this was the final meeting between the two friends, for in January 1793 John Taylor became headmaster of a Quaker school in Bristol. Scott remained true to her faith upon her arrival in Bristol, attending John Prior Estlin’s congregation in Lewin’s Mead, the differences between the Unitarian poet and the Quaker schoolmaster now beyond reconciliation. In early June 1793, six months after her removal to Bristol, Mary Scott Taylor died due to complications from her third pregnancy.[xxii]
In her later years, Mary Ann Taylor Scott contended that her father “was to the end devotedly attached” to her mother. John Edward Taylor, the more famous of the two siblings, agreed with her, believing that his father remained loyal to his mother’s memory “perhaps more than any person ever was who had been so long a widower.” According to Isabella Scott, however, though “little is now known concerning Mrs. Taylor’s married life,” she concludes that it was “far from happy” (Scott and Scott 72–73). Like Seward, Isabella Scott was convinced that Mary Scott and John Taylor “were not in sympathy in their religious opinions,” a disunity that became palpable after Taylor’s conversion to Quakerism (NWW 4: 271–72). In 1795 Mary Steele commented upon her friend’s marriage and early death in two letters to Russell Scott at Portsmouth. “Oh Sir, how inexplicable are the dispensations of Providence!” she writes on March 13, 1795. “What afate was Our Ever Beloved, ever Lamented Friend’s! How was her Genius depressed, her Virtues hidden, the generous, the exquisite sensibilities of her heart tortured!” (NWW 3: 337), she adds, all consequences reminiscent of Mary Wakeford’s warnings to a young “Silvia” in 1769. Steele’s youthful idealism had given way by 1795 to a hardened realism tempered by a near-relentless confrontation with death between 1775 and 1793. Steele was convinced that Taylor’s ever-changing opinions and his final conversion to a faith advocating austerity and a distrust of culture and aesthetic pleasures had plunged her friend into a depression from which she never recovered. That November Steele wrote again on the same subject to Russell Scott, convinced that “Nothing but the full Conviction of her Earthly Comfort being for ever destroyed could have reconciled my Mind even in the degree it is to our separation.” “To the latest hour of lifeyour beloved Sister’s Memory will be dear to me,” she confesses, still able, in spite of her pain, to consign her friend’s death to “the Will of God” (NWW 3: 340).
John Taylor continued to reside in Bristol until early in 1796, when he removed to Manchester to become headmaster of a Quaker school. Before he left Bristol, he distributed a portion of Mary Scott’s possessions among her friends and relations in the West Country, including some drawings by Scott he had sent to Mary Steele. By late November 1795, Steele had finally divided up the drawings. That autumn Taylor visited Steele for the last time, bringing his two young children with him, a gesture much appreciated by Steele, who was especially taken by Mary Ann, now six years of age. Steele could see that both children were very bright but she worried they might be “cramped” by their father’s “rigidSystem.” Steele related to Russell Scott that she was also concerned about the fate of Mary Scott’s “Papers”—two manuscript volumes of poems and a collection of letters (NWW 3: 340). Steele’s later correspondence reveals that John Taylor had loaned these manuscripts to Steele before his departure for Manchester.
Fifteen years later, in the fall of 1811, Mary Ann Taylor, now 22, returned to Broughton, spending a fortnight with MarySteele just after the death of Thomas Dunscombe. During her visit, Taylor saw these manuscript poems and “prose pieces” by her mother in Steele’s possession, a collection that would also have included Mary Scott’s collection of hymns copied by Anne Steele. “I am glad thou hast, as thou says,” John Taylor wrote to his daughter on December 8, 1811,
been introduced to thy Mother’s acquaintance. O, mayst thou be like her, only more happy! I wish thou hadst time to transcribe the little poems thou so much admires; the prose pieces will I hope be thy own, when thy kind friend has enjoyed them as long as her friends can wish in this world & is prepared for the blissful Society of hermany highly valued Friends & the nobler employments of a better. (NWW 4: 307)
Steele apparently did as Taylor suggested, keeping her own small stock of Scott’s writings and giving to Mary Ann the remaining manuscripts and letters, portions of which were included in Isabella Scott’s A Family Biography (1908) and Herbert McLachlan’s essay on the Scott family in 1950, the last time these “little poems” and “prose pieces” were seen. Scott and McLachlan summarily dismissed most of Mary Scott’s poetry as unworthy of serious critical attention. “She had a considerable ability and a literary turn of mind,” Isabella Scott writes of her gifted ancestor. “Small books of verses by her remain, but none of these are worth giving here,” she adds, even describing The Female Advocate as “a defence in verse of some of the women writers of her time, most of whom are now wholly forgotten” (Scott and Scott 36). Herbert McLachlan argued that Duncombe’s Feminiad, which Scott’s Female Advocate was written to supplement, is now “deservedly forgotten” (79). He characterized Scott’s poem as “a forerunner of the twentieth-century movement for the emancipation of women” (76), a harsh assessment immediately softened by some patronizing praise: “It would be idle to profess that Mary Scott had any great poetical gift at a time when versifying was as common as taking snuff. Nonetheless, she displays talent and taste, and strikes a valiant note of womanly independence, free from pose and passion, and inspired by lofty motives and religious convictions.” “So far as the public was concerned,” he concludes, “her Muse was silent after marriage, almost certainly an instance of post hoc, propter hoc” (81).[xxiii]
Though Isabella Scott and Herbert McLachlan were unimpressed by Scott’s poetry, in 1811 Mary Ann Taylor and Mary Steele found Mary Scott’s books of “little poems” worth cherishing, an indication of the value the women of the Steele circle placed upon their own creative artifacts, an attitude that stands in stark contrast to early twentieth-century opinions that valorized published poetry at the expense of informal manuscript collections, especially poetry by women that exemplified certain approved social and literary norms, to which, according to Isabella Scott and Herbert McLachlan, Mary Scott’s poetry was found wanting. Since they are no longer extant, we cannot know for certain if some of the poems Mary Steele and Mary Ann Taylor examined in 1811 were composed after Scott’s marriage, or if, like Mary Wakeford and Marianna Attwater Head, marriage proved too great an obstacle to the pursuit of an aesthetic life even for someone as brilliant as Mary Scott.
Just after Mary Ann Taylor’s arrival at Broughton in 1811, she received a delayed letter (postmarked 28 October) from her father, who had just received a letter from Steele informing him of her husband’s death. After offering condolences to Steele through his daughter, Taylor made a stunning confession, admitting how he and Thomas Dunscombe, “having relinquished the profession in which they were accepted as future Husbands and other matters,” created considerable discomfort and “trial” for their wives. “The history both of Thos. Dunscombe and myself has often furnished,” he concludes, “& I believe ever will furnish to me while I have memory, matter of serious & of deep Reflection” (NWW 4: 306). In his letter of December 8, 1811, Taylor made another surprising confession: “My recollections concerning [Mary Scott] are very painful to myself, very painful indeed—He only who knows my guilt & misery can remove it . . . my duplicity of conduct & carelessness of her peace wrings my Heart” (NWW 4: 307). Mary Ann’s uncle, Russell Scott, also wrote to her during her stay at Broughton, reminding her that only through Mary Steele could Mary Ann “become thoroughly acquainted with [her] Mother’s character, & receive just impressions of her virtues & talents.” He also hopes that her visit to Broughton will “soothe the mind of Mrs. Dunscombe, under the severe loss she has sustained” by provoking pleasing memories “of her early friendship with your dear Mother” (NWW 4: 308). He could not have been more correct. “Never, my dear Miss Taylor,” Steele writes to Mary Ann on February 12, 1812, her last extant letter, “did I wish so much to be young again as when conversing with you—but alas such wishes are vain . . . Oh my dear Mary Ann I could not tell you then, nor can I now, how much your beloved Mother lived again in you” (NWW 3: 382–83). For abrief moment, it was as if Mary Scott were present again at Broughton House, living through the image of her child.“I will not deny that I wish to be loved by you,” Steele writes.
To have appeared not wholly unworthy of having been your Mother’s Friend is enough to satisfy my Ambition;& that I have been permitted once to [see] the Child of her Affection & the Inheritor of her Talents & herVirtues will ever be reflected upon with soothing satisfaction while Memory holds her Seat, though Providence in its “Mysterious Wisdom” chose so awful a Moment for the fulfilment of my Wishes. (NWW 3: 383)
Steele’s memories of Scott were apparently more pleasing than those of her marriage, for during her stay at Broughton, Mary Ann Taylor became privy to some intimate details about Steele’s relationship with Dunscombe, details she immediately shared with her father. In his response (postmarked February 5, 1812), John Taylor writes that he was “not surprized” at what his daughter had heard, but he was hopeful that “the remainder of [Steele’s] course thro’ this Vale of tears may be more smooth and tranquil in pensive widowhood than in the married state” (NWW 4: 308).Neither Steele nor Scott had made the best choice of a marriage partner. Steele’s marriage was aggravated by Dunscombe’s resignation from the ministry at the time of their marriage, their subsequent removal to Yeovil between 1798 and 1801, and his accumulation of a considerable debt that Steele was left to settle in her own will in1813.[xxiv] Likewise, Taylor left the ministry into which he had been called shortly after his marriage to Scott, became a Quaker and eventually moved her away from her family and friends, leaving her in reduced financial circumstances. Each woman perceived her husband initially in a way that did not match the reality the women ultimately experienced, resulting in a melancholy that, at times, turned into bitterness.
Mary Steele’s warnings in “Song to Sarissa” in 1778 rang all too true in her life and that of her friend, Mary Scott: marriage did become a “Cage,” with husbands beginning as “Friends” but ending as “Foes” (NWW 3: 110). By 1812, the uniting of “kindred souls” that began in 1766 between two young school girls in the West Country had produced not only a legacy of memories existing within a cherished imagined community but also a set of physical artifacts (poems and letters), emblems of a friendship that flourished within a nonconformist community of women writers in the latter half of the eighteenth century that extended beyond Hampshire and Wiltshire to embrace Bristol, Salisbury, Leicester, and London. The Steele circle exhibited a remarkable breadth and diversity, reflected in the friendships of the Baptist Mary Steele, the Independent-turned Unitarian Mary Scott, the Anglican Frouds of Wiltshire, and the surprisingly intimate connections Steele and Scott enjoyed with two of the leading Bluestockings of their day, Hannah More and Anna Seward. Locating networks like the Steele circle and identifying their members can be of great benefit to archivists and literary scholars in determining the significance of simple annotations like those made by Sarah Froud to her copy of The Female Advocate or poems like those of Mary Steele and Mary Scott inscribed on small pieces of paper or in thin bound volumes hidden away in manuscript collections undisturbed for nearly two centuries. Identifying and uncovering these annotations and poems provides a powerful means for recovering particular coteries of women writers as well as illuminating and expanding eighteenth-century women’s literary history. The surviving poems and letters of Mary Steele and Mary Scott provide rare “access” to the “private” world of eighteenth-century women, a world that, in the case of the Steele circle, sought “independence, identity formation, and imaginative self-realization” at the same time that it served as “a site from which to resist society’s increasing gendering pressures” (Backscheider xxiv).
The informal writings of these two talented women demonstrate how difficult it was for creative women to maintain an imaginative outlet the entirety of their lives, inevitably succumbing to the pressures of domesticity and conformity to gendered roles. The ideal of female friendship, so cogently expressed in their writings, persisted even in the face of that reality, testifying to the enduring qualities the two friends beheld in each other through the various stages and circumstances of their lives—from childhood to middle age, retirement to engagement, the single life to marriage, affluence to penury, and, most poignantly, from the pleasure of anticipating a fruitful future to the pain of lamenting a squandered past. The friendship poems and letters that passed between Mary Scott and Mary Steele are far more than the decaying literary remains of two gifted women poets. They are moments and memories combined into living artifacts, aesthetic gifts, love-letters both frozen in time and made alive with each new reading, an act, we can easily imagine, Mary Steele performed often until her death on November 14, 1813.
[i] The Scotts also included a copy of the church covenant for the Old Meeting, which opens with a statement on the Trinity (455–56).
[ii] In this context, “Unitarianism” (Socinianism) is distinguished from “Arianism,” even though the latter is itself a form of Unitarian belief. Arians rejected the traditional view of the Trinity, but still held that Christ, though a subordinate messenger from God, was nevertheless pre-existent and divine; Socinians stressed the essential humanity of Christ in which his life and death served as an example for all Christians to emulate, rejecting not only the traditional view of the Trinity but also the Atonement, advocating instead a universal redemption. Arianism was considered more congenial to trinitarianism; many congregations that generally adhered to orthodox Calvinism (Particular Baptists and Independents) often had members who were Arians.
Mary Steele’s life and poetry may have been veiled by anonymity and obscurity, but Mary Scott and her major poems, The Female Advocate (1774) and Messiah (1788), have been known for more than two centuries. Nevertheless, Scott’s identity and biography have likewise suffered from misidentification and numerous inaccuracies. Commentators on Scott have relied heavily on information taken from nine letters by Anna Seward (1747–1809) to Scott and one by Seward to her friend William Hayley, all composed between 1786 and1793 and published in Archibald Constable’s six-volume edition of The Letters of Anna Seward (1811).Seward’s letters provide important background about Scott’s reading and literary interests, as well as her health, courtship, and marriage to John Taylor (1752–1817), but Seward’s assertion to Hayley on May 10, 1788, that Scott’s “Father was a Clergyman of the Church of England” (NWW 4: 290) set later commentators on an erroneous path. In the mid-1980s, nearly two hundred years after her death, when Gae Holladay and Moira Ferguson began the pioneering work of resurrecting Mary Scott as a significant eighteenth-century feminist writer, they still used Seward’s letters as a starting point for Scott’s life. To Holladay, Mary Scott was, like Seward, an Anglican Bluestocking “enjoying a literary life among a small circle, composing poems for private circulation or subscription publication, contributing to miscellany volumes . . . overseeing editions of [her] works, or contributing poems to one of many editions of Poems by Eminent Ladies (1755) or Dodsley’s Collection of Poems (1748)” (iii–iv).
Holladay’s imagined community of women writers circulating around Mary Scott was closer to the truth than she thought, for the copy-text of her 1984 facsimile edition of The Female Advocate is signed by Sarah Froud, Mary Steele’s relation and friend of Scott. Froud’s annotations (not always correctly interpreted by later commentators) helped steer Holladay and Moira Ferguson in the right direction, eventually taking Ferguson to West Yorkshire, where she sifted through portions of Hugh Steele-Smith’s impressive manuscript collection relating to Anne Steele and other members of the Steele circle. Though she repeated some of Seward’s assertions about Scott, Ferguson correctly identified Scott’s father, Robert Scott (1721–74), as a linen draper, not an Anglican clergyman. She still believed him to be an Anglican, which placed her in an awkward bind when describing Scott’s manuscript hymns, which are overtly Calvinistic, and Scott’s relationship with a coterie of Baptist women poets. Nevertheless, Ferguson was the first contemporary scholar to view Scott’s hymns, and through her work with the Steele manuscripts, uncovered connections that, had she pursued them, would have corrected many of Seward’s statements about Scott.
Ferguson’s most important contribution to Mary Scott’s biography was her discovery of Scott’s friendship with Mary Steele. During her Yorkshire visit, Ferguson saw the friendship poems that passed between the two women and correctly noted that Scott’s Female Advocate was dedicated to Mary Steele, not Anne Steele, as Holladay had claimed (iv).However, Ferguson was not able to determine Scott’s relationship with the Steeles much further than the suggestion that “Mary Steele and Mary Scott might well have beenmembers” of a literary circle centered upon Anne Steele (“The Cause of My Sex” 372). In 1997, Marjorie Reeves made that hesitant though accurate assertion a reality in Pursuing the Muses, a work that introduced all the major figures within the Steele circle. Reeves correctly identified each writer (and nom de plume), named Mary Steele as the author of Danebury, and added some important details concerning the relationship between Mary Scott and Mary Steele that had eluded Ferguson, as well as uncovering Mary Scott’s nonconformist background. Unfortunately, Reeves claimed that “no poems are directly attributable to [Scott]” in the Steele Collection (Pursuing the Muses 100), overlookingScott’s set of hymns that were transcribed by Anne Steele in the 1770s and noted by Ferguson in 1995 (Eighteenth-Century Women Poets 31).
Besides the manuscripts pertaining to Mary Scott now belonging to the Steele Collection, three printed sources, unknown to Holladay, Ferguson, and Reeves, reveal much about Scott’s life, her poetry, and her unsuccessful marriage to the Rev. John Taylor. The first source, a “Memoir” of John Edward Taylor (1791–1844), Mary Scott’s son and the founding editor of the influential Manchester Guardian, appeared in the Christian Reformer in 1844. The writer mentions that Scott left behind memorials of her poetry “both printed and in manuscript” (158), a reference to her two published poems and to several manuscript volumes of poetry no longer extant. The “Memoir,” however, provides the only identification of Scott’s poem memorializing the philanthropist Jonas Hanway (1787) (the last known poem published by Scott during her lifetime), as well as Scott’s authorship of Hymn 659 inAndrew Kippis’s A Collection of Hymns and Psalms, for Public and Private Worship (1795), which the writer of the “Memoir” believes “shews that her devotional sympathies were as practical as they were warm and elevated” (160–61, 158). Scott’s other manuscript poems were apparently unworthy of the writer’s notice. Despite access to the poet’s son (a devout Unitarian) and materials belonging to his mother that were in his possession at the time of his death, the writer of the “Memoir” managed nevertheless to perpetuate thenotion, derived from Seward, that Mary Scott was originally an Anglican, as well as attributing Scott’s early literary friendship to Anne Steele, not Mary Steele (158, 160). J. E.Taylor’s collection was not the only one that involved materials on Mary Scott. A second set of manuscripts was held by Mary Scott’s daughter, Mary Ann Taylor Scott (1789–1875) of Bath, who bequeathed them to her daughter who in turn passed them on to John Edward Taylor (the second of that name) who, unfortunately, destroyed most of them. Prior to Mary Ann Scott’s death, she was interviewed by Catherine and Isabella Scott, two sisters who were granddaughters of Russell Scott, Mary Scott’s younger brother. The Scott sisters also viewed her manuscript collection, which included poems by Mary Scott as well as a set of letters to and from Scott and Taylor prior to their marriage. Information gleaned by the Scott sisters from these materials and other manuscripts already in their possession acquired from their father formed the basis for A Family Biography 1662 to 1908 (1908), an invaluable resource on the life of Mary Scott.
After the death of Isabella Scott in the early 1930s, these manuscript collections were dispersed among various family members, but not before they were viewed by the Unitariantheologian, historian, and educator Herbert McLachlan (1876–1958). His essay, “The Taylors and Scotts of the Manchester Guardian,” which first appeared in 1927 in Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society and later in an expanded version in Essays and Addresses (1950), provided the most complete biographical information to date on Scott and Taylor, complemented by McLachlan’s research into the Dissenting congregations in Manchester and Milborne Port from which they emerged. McLachlan’s article included two previously unpublished poems by Mary Scott, as well as selections from a number of letters by John Taylor to various members of his family during Taylor’s time at Ilminster and Bristol (1789–93), none of which were included in A Family Biography (McLachlan 72–73, 83–84; also NWW 4: 75–76). Despite his familiarity with Mary Scottand John Taylor through his access to the Scott manuscripts, McLachlan was nevertheless unable to decipher Scott’s connections with the Steele circle. McLachlan quotes from copies of poems, apparently in Mary Scott’s hand, by several members of the Steele literary circle, poems that now exist only within the Steele Collection at Oxford but at that time were also a part of the Scott Collection. McLachlan naturally attributes some of these poems to Mary Scott, a logical conclusion for someone unfamiliar with the poetry and literary personae of the Steele circle, but he also misidentifies many of their pseudonyms. For instance, McLachlan attributed Mary Steele’s poem of tribute to Scott in The Lady’s Magazine in December 1774 to Anne Steele, possibly confusing Mary Steele’s “Sylvia” with Anne Steele’s “Sylviana.” His comment, however, that Scott replied “in suitable strains” (80) is more telling, for it reveals another poem by Scott present in 1927 but now lost, a reminder of the value and fragility of manuscript collections.
McLachlan’s confusion about Scott’s poetry and her friends within the Steele circle, however, does not take away from his important contribution to the history of Mary Scott, for the poems he examined at that time, though of little value to him, validate one of the primary objectives of eighteenth-century women’s literary circles: the circulating and preserving of informal manuscript writings (usually poems, letters, diaries, and prose discourses and historical narratives) among the members of a close-knit community. This sociable and often collaborative model of women’s writing belies the commonly held notions, especially in Romantic studies, of the writer as a solitary figure whose writings emerge in isolation apart from “personal relationships, communal identities, collective memories, and collaborations” (Culley 2). For Mary Steele, Mary Scott, and their friends within the Steele circle, playing the role of isolated artist was not the order of the day. They composed many of their poems on loose folia and then copied them into letters or small bound volumes, much like the friendship poems by Scott that Steele copied into her volumes now residing at the Angus Library or the volumes of Mary Scott’s poems described by Isabella Scott and McLachlan that are now missing. In either case, these poems became artifacts of each woman’s creativity and artistic identity preserved in their purest scribal form, unadulterated by editorial emendations common to print culture that often occur without authorial permission. These poems also represent a collaborative record of each woman’s aesthetic and religious union with the other “kindred Souls” in the circle (to borrow Scott’s phrase from one of her friendship poems to Steele) (NWW 4: 73). Consequently, the fact that the descendants of Mary Scott and Mary Steele preserved the manuscript poetry and letters of these two gifted poets cannot be overestimated, despite their relative obscurity for much of the past two centuries.The accounts of Mary Scott in the Christian Reformer, A Family Biography, and Essays and Addresses, despite their inadequacies, when coupled with materials on Scott in the Steele Collection illuminate her life and writings within a vibrant coterie of women writers in the West Country of England between 1766 and 1793.
[iii] The phrase is taken from Newlyn’s important study, Reading, Writing, and Romanticism: The Anxiety of Reception (2000). Schellenberg makes a point illustrative of Scott’s situation and creation and publication of The Female Advocate: “It is only when we are prepared to let go of gender as our fundamental interpretive category, it is only when we self-consciously rethink the frameworks through which we currently see and do not see mid-eighteenth-century women writers, it is only as we begin to consider women writers and their texts as the participants in literary and publishing networks that they were, that we will be freed of the constraining picture of their working in the shadow of the dominant male writers of their day, condemned to having their literary aspirations shipwrecked on the rocks either of modest acquiescence or of marginalized transgression” (182).
[iv] For the complete text with notes, see NWW 4: 27–46. Two copies of the 1774 edition can be found in the Steele Collection, Angus Library, Oxford, one in STE 14/2 (a volume signed “Mary Steele Tomkins 1816”) and one in STE 14/3, each with a few emendations by William Steele.
[v] Though she duplicated only two of Duncombe’s women, Scott maintained his exclusion of a group of women deemed by many as morally suspect: Aphra Behn, Susanna Centlivre, Delarivière Manley, Theresa Constantia Phillips, Frances Hawes, Lady Vane, and Laetitia Pilkington.
[vi] Dr. Richard Pulteney (1730–1801), “a well known physician who lives at Blandford,” Sarah “Sarissa” Froud wrote on her copy of The Female Advocate, providing the only known identification of the recipient of Scott’s lines at the end of her poem. Froud’s copy now belongs to the Huntington Library. Holladay (iii–xii, especially iv) misread two of Froud’s annotations, believing the “Miss Steele” of the dedicatory epistle to be Anne Steele instead of Mary Steele, and “Philander” to be William Steele III (1685–1769), Anne’s father. Pulteney, an apothecary in Leicester during the 1750s and 1760s, came to Blandford in 1765 where he gained fame as a botanist. He married Elizabeth Galton in 1779 and in 1782 published A General View of the Writings of Linnaeus, which further enhanced his reputation. He was elected a member of the Linnean Society in 1790. The connection between Mary Scott and Pulteney is not known (he may have treated her for her rheumatism or treated her father prior to his death in 1774), but in 1774 he was already connected to future members of the Steele circle in Leicester. In Leicester he attended the Great Meeting (Presbyterian) and knew the families of Elizabeth Coltman, Elizabeth Coltman Heyrick, and Mary Reid, later becoming a friend and correspondent of the latter’s brother. As Samuel Coltman writes in his memoir “Time’s Stepping Stones,” Mary Reid was “the old friend of our family’s so often alluded to in the letters of Dr Pulteney and the sister to Dr Reid; both of them distinguished for talents in the society they frequented” (3: ch. 20).
[vii] Scott’s cursory statement that her “years of ill health have impaired every faculty of my mind” was noted by the reviewer for the Gentleman’s Magazine (376). William Steele’s letters mention Scott’s ill-health on several occasions, suggesting that she had frequent attacks of rheumatism between 1769 and 1774.
[viii] Wheatley, an enslaved person in the household of John Wheatley of Boston (who had provided her an education and eventual freedom), was probably known to William Steele prior to the publication of Poems. She had gained considerable notoriety with her poem on the death of the famous British evangelist George Whitefield at Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1770. The title page bore the following description of Wheatley: “By Phillis, a Servant Girl of 17 Years of Age, belonging to Mr. J. Wheatley of Boston:—She has been but 9 Years in this Country from Africa.”
[ix] See Saffery’s poems, “The Philanthropy of Wilberforce” and “To Africa Delivered from Captivity” (NWW 5: 204–6).
[x] See Steele’s “On reading Miss Williams’s Poem on Peace” (1783) and “On reading some very illiberal Strictures on Miss Seward’s Louisa in the European Magazine” (1785) (NWW 3: 128–29, 135). See also Mary Scott’s “Verses addressed to Miss Seward, on the Publication of her Monody on Major André” (1783) (NWW 4: 46–47). Behrendt believes this form of intertextuality was common in women’s writings c. 1770–1835, a “frank acknowledgment of a writing community” in which poets “explicitly engage with other poems, as well as with their authors” (11).
[xi] No correspondence exists between Steele and Seward or Williams, but signed copies of Seward’s Louisa: A Poetical Novel, in Four Books (1784) and Monody on Major Andrè (1781) can be found in the Steele Collection (STE 14/2, Angus Library, Oxford), along with copies of Williams’s An Ode to Peace (1783) and Peru, a Poem. In Six Cantos (1784) (STE 14/2 and 14/3). Not long after Steele’s poem on Williams, Jane Attwater and her brother were reading Peru, having borrowed Steele’s copy. She writes to Steele on February 7, 1785, explaining how her enjoyment of women’s poetry had become, in many ways, a pleasure best enjoyed in private: “I have to thank you for the books you kindly favor’d me with. Will it be too long if I detain ym a fortnight longer as then I hope to send ym together. My Bror has read Peru but I wish to peruse it myself wn I shall have better opportunity to enjoy it wn alone” (NWW 3: 305).
[xii] See Epistle V of William Hayley’s An Essay on Epic Poetry; in Five Epistles to the Revd. Mr. Mason (London: Printed for J. Dodsley, 1782), ll. 365–76.
[xii] Another review appeared in the Critical Review 65 (1788): 482–83.
[xiv] Moira Ferguson, one of the few commentators on Messiah, offers a perceptive linkage of the poem with The Female Advocate. In a sweeping conclusion, Ferguson contends, “The Female Advocate stamps Mary Scott as a cultural historian who helps to redefine the nation along gendered lines from a progressive Protestant perspective. The Messiah reconfigures this gendered commitment into a frontal attack on Roman imperial predation and religious superstition” (“Cause of My Sex” 41).
[xv] Not long after Scott’s initial correspondence with Taylor ended, Mary Hays commenced a lengthy and heavily stylized correspondence with her lover, John Eccles. On November 5, 1779, she appears to have accepted Scott’s challenge about expressing emotional attachments to men: “I was a stranger to the sensibility of my soul, till you called forth all its powers; -- if it is indelicate to avow an attachment so warm, so animated, yet so pure – of what indecorum have I been guilty! – But it is not! – it cannot be so! . . . I never yet have had cause to repent my frankness – nor do I think I ever shall” (Brooks, Correspondence 183).
[xvi] Edith Alwynne, in Charles Lloyd’s novel, Edmund Oliver (2 vols., Bristol: Bulgin and Rosser, 1798), has serious doubts about “the propriety of a female being the first agent” (2: 225) in making overtures of love in courtship, a comment generally considered aimed by Lloyd at Mary Hays.
[xvii] Taylor had just sent Scott a letter on May 24, which would not have reached her by the time she composed the above letter. Had it come in time, one wonders if her sentiments might have been changed by Taylor’s declaration, “You see, my dearest, I treat you as a friend” (NWW 4: 273).
[xviii] The interior quotation is a paraphrase of a line from Anne Steele’s Psalm XC (NWW 1: 317).
[xix] In the case of Mary Scott’s death, her mother willed that these funds were to go to Mary’s children, again bypassing her husband. For Mary Russell Scott’s will of May 12, 1780, with codicils dated May 22, 1780, May 19, 1786, and September 24, 1787, see Public Record Office, National Archives, PROB 11/1159/133.
[xx] This may explain why so few letters from Taylor to Scott remained in the Scott Collection; on the other hand, it may be that Taylor, after his wife’s death, destroyed much of their correspondence, especially if their letters were often contentious.
[xxi] See Steele’s pocket diaries, STE 5/17, Angus Library, Oxford.
[xxii] Scott’s obituary, dated June 4, 1793, appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine 63 (1793): 579. The writer noted Scott’s stature as poet, but in what would become standard practice regarding women poets after 1790, her artistry was subordinated to the more important roles of “daughter, wife, mother, and sister,” though in her “friendships” (as if Mary Steele might have been the writer) “she was disinterested, sincere, and constant.”
[xxiii] The editors of A Catalogue of Five Hundred Celebrated Authors of Great Britain, Now Living (1788) included Mary Scott in their list of writers. She appeared only as “Scott” and was tersely described as “a poetess” and summarily dismissed as the “Author of a performance entitled the Female Advocate, which has had between two and three admirers” (unpaginated). By 1844, her two published poems, The Female Advocate and Messiah, were largely forgotten, her subjects no longer popular topics among Victorian women poets and male literary critics. The writer of the “Memoir” on J. E. Taylor in 1844 dismissed her arguments in defense of women writers and considered her poetry only slightly better than average. “Few of the names,” he writes in The Female Advocate,
are now known beyond a narrow circle, and we fear that time has already done something to shew the weakness of her arguments. Her versification, however, is better than her logic. That the poem exhibits the higher attributes of a poetic mind, we cannot affirm, but neither does it in any part sink below mediocrity; and in its general strain it is happy and fluent in its diction, vigorous in its sentiments, lofty in its tone, and in its imagery select and impressive; altogether leaving on the reader’s mind a pleasing conviction of the sincerity and amiableness of the writer. (159)
[xxiv For previous commentary on Jane Attwater’s activities within the Steele circle, see Reeves, Sheep Bell 33–34, 46–49; Pursuing the Muses 95–124; and “Jane Attwater’s Diaries.”