Introduction to the Poems of Elizabeth Coltman

Exactly when Elizabeth Coltman first visited the West Country and Mary Steele at Broughton is unknown, but evidence suggests that she paid a visit to Hampshire sometime in 1785, meeting many of the key members of the Steele circle, including the Attwater sisters and Mary Scott. Coltman’s poetry implies that she visited Broughton again in 1790, addressing poems to Mary Steele, her younger half-sisters, Anne (1769-1859) and Martha (1770-1834), and their cousin, Mary Wakeford Harries. Since these poems describe activities and scenes peculiar to Hampshire, not Leicester, they seem likely to be the result of a visit by Coltman sometime prior to 1791, the year of Anne Steele’s marriage to Joseph Tomkins of Abingdon. Coltman’s visit was in return for a journey to Leicester in 1788 by Mary Steele, a trip occasioned by the death of Coltman’s eldest sister, Anne Coltman Cooper, from complications related to consumption. Steele commemorated her 1788 visit with a poem, “Written during a Visit to the New Works near Leicester, the Residence of Miss Coltman, 1788.” Wandering within the “venerable walls” of the Coltman house, the poet’s soul is “possess’d” of “many a Day Dream” until the beautiful “Enchantress,” Elizabeth Coltman, appears,

whose resistless Sway,

Full many a Courteous Knight has mourn’d in vain,

To all the “Witcheries of Love” a Prey.

Nor they alone – Enchantment reigns around,

More powerful Spell than those of old I find;

They only in a forced Subjection bound,

Here Kindness Captivates the willing Mind.

Though Coltman was known for her beauty, Steele also depicts her as a woman of sentiment and sensibility. The two women met again in 1792, but whether at Broughton or Leicester is not clear. Steele, now living with her companion, Lucy Kent, in Broughton House after the death of her stepmother and the marriage of her sister Anne, no doubt welcomed the companionship of Coltman. The visit resulted in another sonnet by Steele addressed to Coltman.

Steele’s visit to Leicester in 1794 produced three more poems addressed to Coltman. The next year Coltman commissioned a bust of herself (complete with braided curls) to be made specifically for Steele. The bust remained at Broughton until Steele’s death in 1813, after which it was packed up and sent to Mrs. Sarah Brackenbury of Raithby Hall, in Lincolnshire, at Coltman’s directions. Skillington included a picture of the bust in her article on Coltman, but she incorrectly asserts that the bust “had been specially executed for Mrs. Brackenbury, from a cast of Elizabeth’s features taken for the purpose when she was thirty-four.”[v] As Coltman’s letter to Anne Steele in December 1813 makes clear, the bust was made for Mary Steele, not Brackenbury. Alicia Cooper saw the bust in 1827, when she was thirteen, and recorded the following description in her manuscript volume of Reminiscences (later seen by Florence Skillington, who recorded the following passage):

It was placed upon a marble slab, was crowned with a wreath of honeysuckle, and the evening sun slanted its golden rays across it. As I skipped past it again and again, I was asked if I knew it, to which I always replied, (for I had been assured many times, by her whom it represented, that curls were sinful) “No, ma’am, not at all.” I never dreamed that she could ever have worn them.

Elizabeth Coltman rejected all suitors “until the charms of youth and beauty had faded,” her great-niece writes. Nevertheless, she held the field for a long time, due to her extraordinary beauty and her wit. Her “powers of conversation,” Cooper adds, “... enabled her to give and receive the highest gratification of intellectual intercourse.” At some point in the early to mid-1780s, Elizabeth Coltman was briefly engaged to John Audley (1750-1827), a prosperous woolstapler (and later solicitor and lay nonconformist preacher) from Cambridge, but she later called off the engagement, apparently the only attempt at marriage she made during her life.[viii] Her beauty and wit remained intact for many years thereafter; in 1796, at the age of thirty-five, she completely captivated the heart and mind of Samuel Coltman, the twenty-two-year-old younger brother of Elizabeth Coltman Heyrick. In his journal, Coltman describes his older female friend as “a lady of great beauty and acquirements at Leicester but not related to our family.” His sister Elizabeth, much like Mary Steele, was surrounded by a coterie of women writers and socialites, including Mary Reid (1769-1839), Elizabeth Benger (1775-1827), Susanna Watts (1768-1842), and Catherine Hutton (1756-1846).[x] Though these women received frequent mention in his journal, his descriptions of them in no way match his effusive remarks on Elizabeth Coltman of the Newarke. “It is true these companions of my Sister Heyrick were some years older than myself,” he writes,

but so much the greater was their influence over my manners at the critical period, when ceasing to be boys, we are yet scarcely entitled to the appellation of men. – To one of the three ladies to whom I more particularly allude, I was indebted for the pains she took on various occasions to polish the little angularities of my manners, if I may so call them; and to form my taste in poetry, and the lighter departments of literature. This lady bore the name of Elizabeth Coltman, without being related to us. She was very beautiful in face and figure, had great animation in her manner; and was enthusiastic on all subjects that interested her. An only child of two doting parents, the sense of her importance in their eyes may have been the occasion in her early youth, of too much confidence in her own powers of pleasing ... She was probably too careless in speech at one time; and paid the usual penalty of such negligence in some depreciation of her own qualities by others. But she lived to overcome the world in the best sense – She became a Christian devout and ardent; and the high and brilliant powers of her yet unclouded mind, were devoted to the holier purposes for which such powers were given. At the time I speak of however, she was full of the life and energy of youth¾Yet so much my Senior, as to take notice of me at first from condescension, which her kind disposition soon changed into something like the affection of an elder Sister, or perhaps more tender even than that. I can but ill pourtray her many admirable traits of character at this distance of time – And I do not possess many of those beautiful letters with which she charmed a large number of admiring correspondents; but as I shall have to allude to her again in the course of my memoirs I have endeavored to depict her as I remember her in 1795, when her agreeable society helped to chear the tedium of my Sister’s melancholy separation from her Husband.

Samuel’s statement that Coltman “was an only child” is somewhat misleading, but he meant it in practical terms, for by 1795, Elizabeth Coltman’s sister, Anne, was dead and her other sister, Mary, had emigrated to America, leaving Elizabeth alone to care for her aging parents.

Samuel’s lengthy description of Elizabeth Coltman was introductory to a more intimate confession about her, this one involving a journey he and several others embarked on in August 1796. This event was a turning point in his young life and, in many ways, a turning point for Elizabeth Coltman; one led to a new beginning, the other to an inevitable ending. During Christmas 1795, while visiting at a friend’s house at Duffield with his sister Ann and Elizabeth Coltman, he proposed that they all take a trip to the Lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland the next August. At this time he gave Coltman a drawing he had made of her house in the Newarke, and she presented him with a long poem titled “Enjoyment,” having received it

from a decided Beauty, I own, I thought sublime. Should any be inclined to call my taste in question, let some allowance be made for a young man flattered by the notice and preference of one who tho” many years his Senior [he was 22, she was 35], was still charming both in person and manners. One who condescended to aid in forming my mind; and helped me besides by her encouragement, to shake off a maudaise-haute that is often a serious obstacle to a young man in his first attempts to please in the company of ladies. – I owed her much in this way; and it may be, might for a little time fancy myself in love with my fair Preceptress – till that journey to the Lakes, which I ventured to propose to her so long before it was to take place: and which when it did take place, was destined to withdraw the veil from my eyes, and teach me how little I had really before known of true love.

He continues, explaining that Coltman,

in her youth, [had] a tinge of enthusiasm or perhaps coquetry which led her to encourage my attentions more than my Mother quite liked, considering she was so much older than myself – So that, when the time of our long talked of journey to the Lakes drew near, to which I had offered to treat my Sister Ann, Miss Coltman having engaged to join us from Lancaster where she was going to visit Mr & Mrs Houseman, mutual acquaintances of her’s and our own, my dear Mother, whose active energy was untiring, declared her intention of accompanying us. Proud of being my Mother’s escort, I offered to treat her as well as my Sister; little conscious that her motive in accompanying us, was to guard her imprudent son from forming a hasty matrimonial connection with a lady so much older than himself; and whose manners were probably on that account somewhat less reserved towards her youthful admirer, than she thought strictly becoming.

My mother’s watchfulness never slept, where her children’s welfare was concerned ... Happily for me however, the very danger my Mother feared for me at this time, proved my cure –I saw more nearly and with less restraint the beauty that had allured me. With familiarity, I first grew indifferent to attractions not enhanced by reserve; and then was soon wearied by sallies of wit and flashes of intellect too lavishly employed for my amusement. – Yet was this as it proved, the most delightful as well as the most important journey I had hitherto taken – The most momentous of my whole life.

What would be “most momentous” was that on this trip to the Lakes, Samuel would meet his future wife, Mary Smith, “a being to whom my heart,” he writes, “paid an homage as instanteous as it was lasting – lasting as the life of her who inspired it – ah! not only so – lasting as my own!” At that moment, “whatever influence Miss Coltman had over my mind,” he declares, “ceased for ever.” This was August 1796. On 27 January 1797, Samuel married Miss Smith, with Mary Reid one of the bridesmaids. Most likely Elizabeth Coltman attended the wedding.

By all known accounts, Samuel was the last romantic interest in Coltman’s life, though whether she was serious in her attentions to him is another matter. Whatever the case, by the early 1800s, she had moved, much like her friends from the West Country, Mary Steele and Jane Attwater, into a life dominated by her faith and nonconformist culture. Poetry and literature would still have a place in her life, but the excesses of romantic sensibility she exhibited in the 1780s and 90s would give way to the more serious propagation of religious ideals and expressions of her personal faith.