Broughton House as it looks today and much as it did in the late 18th century. To the right is the only surviving portrait of Mary Steele (c. 1780)

Mary Steele (1753-1813) was the only daughter of William Steele IV (1715-85) and his first wife, Mary Bullock Steele (‘Delia’) (1713-62). Mary was known within the family circle as ‘Polly’ and among the other members of the Steele circle as ‘Silvia’ or ‘Sylvia’, her literary nom de plume. She was largely educated by her aunt, Anne Steele, before completing her education at a nonconformist boarding school in London. After the death of her father in 1785, she remained with her stepmother and her two half-sisters in Broughton House, becoming head of the household after her stepmother’s death in 1791. Her marriage in 1797 to the Baptist minister Thomas Dunscombe (1748-1811) was not a happy one, but she continued to write poetry, a process she began in earnest as a thirteen-year-old in 1766. Of her nearly 150 poems, five appeared in print during her lifetime, including her longest poem, Danebury; or the Power of Friendship (1779), as well as one prose piece, none with her named attached. Among her poems are tributes to two of the leading female poets of the 1780s, Helen Maria Williams and Anna Seward. Her poetry and letters provide extensive details about her relationships with various family members, especially her father, sisters, and her favorite niece, Mary Steele Tomkins; her fellow poets Mary Scott and Elizabeth Coltman; her close relation, Jane Attwater; and her friend Caleb Evans, Baptist minister in Bristol. 

In 1843, John Holland, in The Psalmists of Britain, boasted that “There are few names of more certain occurrence in modern collections of Psalms and Hymns,” he writes, “than that of Mrs. Steele – but still fewer, there is reason to believe, of whom less has been known, even by the majority of those persons who have adopted her compositions.” That may have been true of Anne Steele but even truer of her niece, who by that time had been completely lost to posterity except for the Baptist minister at Broughton. Most likely he informed Holland of her abilities as well, for in a footnote he wrote that Mary Steele “was said by one who knew her to have ‘possessed no small share of Theodosia’s poetic genius and Christian excellence’” (2.223). Mary Steele certainly possessed “genius” and “excellence,” but her life and writings have been veiled in anonymity and hidden in obscurity for more than two centuries. Mary Steele published five poems during her lifetime, and one prose piece (composed in 1775) appeared shortly after her death, but her name was never affixed to any of these publications, a common practice at that time among women writers who primarily wrote for private coteries rather than publication. Within the Steele Circle in the West Country and among its counterparts in Leicester, Bristol, and London, Mary Steele was widely known, enough so that Elizabeth Coltman and Mary Reid gathered tribute poems in her honor after her death in 1813 for publication, including a poem from Mary Scott’s daughter, but the poems never appeared and only Coltman’s has survived. A few lines from the poem capture the degree of respect Steele held as the head of her circle, a circle that began in the 1740s with her aunt and would pass on now to her friend in nearby Salisbury, the Baptist poet Maria Grace Saffery (1772-1858):

The cherished offspring of a sainted race,

Whose worth posterity in thine may trace; . . .

Philanthropy unfettered and refined,

That beamed benevolence on all mankind,

A tenderness ineffable, exprest

By acting, living to make others blest;

To feeling, firmness lent chastising aid,

And a sound judgment, fertile fancy swayed.

(Whelan, Nonconformist Women Writers, 3.384-85)

Though unknown as a poet for nearly two centuries, the recently recovered poetry of Mary Steele is remarkably rich and diverse. Excluding the epic, the philosophical verse essay, and the hymn, she wrote in nearly every poetic genre popular in the eighteenth century: historical verse narratives, Pindaric odes, elegies, verse epistles (especially friendship poems); a fable, pastoral poems, sonnets, a ballad, and one song. Her poetry spans 45 years, from 1766 (age 13) to 1811, a period in which English poetry underwent significant changes. Mary Steele’s poetry reflects many of those changes, moving from the neoclassic diction of her early poem, “To a Myrtle,” to the compressed language and Romantic symbolism in her last nature poem, “On being presented by Miss Coltman with an Eolian Harp made by Robert Bloomfield, 1807.” Her sonnets demonstrate considerable growth in subtlety of language and thought as do her nature and retirement poems, culminating in the rich language combining natural setting and historical reality in “Occasioned by reading Thomson’s Seasons on a Walk near Yeovil, 1798” and “Lines written in the Isle of Wight, 1806.” Her tribute to Anne Steele in “Elegy written at Broughton, 1779” evokes her indebtedness to her mentor and the inherent difficulties in carving a voice of her own. Mary Steele employs the elegiac as easily as the playful and overtly feminism of “Song to Sarissa, 1778” and “To Miss M. Frowd,” both poems demonstrating her use of metrical variation, verbal sophistication, and an expression of intense, private feelings that would mark her best poetry. Steele’s poems, letters, and spiritual autobiography comprise a body of life writing unique among nonconformist women poets of the eighteenth century. These materials provide a rich source of personal, social, and religious history for Steele and the other women poets in her circle. From the time she was sixteen, Mary Steele’s identity was formed not only by her family or her nonconformist faith (with which she fought as much as she cherished) but also by poetry. In fact, the most profound legacy she gained from her family was not merely an ability to write poetry but the belief that it was her right to be a poet if she so chose, and that she did without hesitation. If writing poetry was Mary Steele’s greatest aspiration, it was so because as a Dissenter she never believed it should not be so. Her poetry is, above all else, the poetry of her life and every thought worth expressing. Now that her poetry and life writings have finally appeared in print, her voice “sings” once again, revealing that the life she lived in the eighteen and early nineteenth centuries, though long forgotten to posterity, is very much a life worth knowing today.

Mary Steele’s complete published and unpublished poetry, prose, and correspondence can be found in Timothy Whelan, ed., Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840, 8 vols (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011), vol. 3. For an in-depth look at her life and writings, see Timothy Whelan, Other British Voices: Women, Poetry, and Religion, 1766-1840 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2015), chs. 2-3, pp. 23-86. See also Timothy Whelan, “Mary Steele, Mary Hays, and the Convergence of Women’s Literary Circles in the 1790s,” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.4 (2015), 511-24; idem, Mary Scott, Sarah Froud, and the Steele Literary Circle: A Revealing Annotation to The Female Advocate,” Huntington Library Quarterly 77.4 (2015), 435-52; idem,  “‘When Kindred Souls Unite’: The Literary Friendship of Mary Steele and Mary Scott, 1766-1793,” Journal of Women’s Studies 43 (2014), 619-40.

 For a selection of poems by Mary Steele, click here.

For Mary Steele's spiritual autobiography, click here.

For selected letters of Mary Steele, click here

For an image of Mary Steele and Broughton House, click here.