Elizabeth Rowe Essay - Critical Essays

Rowe, Elizabeth


Elizabeth Rowe 1674–1737

(Also wrote as Philomela and Elizabeth Singer) Early eighteenth-century religious poet and writer.

One of the most popular of the eighteenth-century "learned ladies," Elizabeth Rowe achieved notice and admiration when she was young, and wrote several works which were popular well into the nineteenth-century. Rowe's prose writings show an energetic and romantic imagination, and played a small but important transitional role in the development of eighteenth-century fiction. However, Rowe's writings are primarily poetic in form and religious in subject, and they express an experience of rapture so tied to religion and a view of the world so deliberately turned from the here and now that Rowe's fiction always stands on the verge of enthusiastic religious doctrine—an emphasis that both disqualifies her work from being regarded as strictly novelistic and animates her prose with a fervor that one normally finds only in religious tracts.

Biographical Information

Elizabeth Rowe was born Elizabeth Singer on September 11, 1674, in Ilchester, Somersetshire, England. She was the oldest of three daughters of Walter Singer, a Dissenting minister who had been imprisoned during the reign of Charles II for his religious beliefs. Elizabeth's mother, Elizabeth Portnell, had met Singer in prison while on a charitable visit to the inmates. The principles of religion and the practice of piety were strongly impressed upon Rowe in her formative years and she held to these tenets through her entire life, engaging in regular prayer and frequent meditation on Christian themes. Rowe's formal education was superficial, but she supplemented her accomplishments in drawing and dancing with an ambitious program of reading: her works reveal an unusual knowledge of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literary and devotional writers and she makes frequent reference to contemporary English poets, essayists, and dramatists. She also studied French, Italian, and Latin in early adulthood. When Rowe was twelve, she began writing poetry. By the age of seventeen, she had begun to publish in magazines of the Athenian Society, an intellectual and literary group founded in 1691 by the London bookseller, John Dunton. Her poems were immediately popular with members of the Athenian Society and she was encouraged to publish a volume of poetry. Poems on Several Occasions was published in 1696 under the pseudonym Philomela, and many of the poems from this volume were also later anthologized. Rowe was active socially, and perhaps was courted by a number of noteworthy men, including the poet Matthew Prior and the minister and hymnist Isaac Watts. In 1709 she met and fell in love with Thomas Rowe, a classical scholar who came from a long line of Nonconformist ministers. They married in 1710 and were by all accounts very happy until Thomas Rowe died of tuberculosis in 1715. Rowe was inconsolable and retired to the town of Frome where she remained withdrawn from the world. This withdrawal from society served to enhance her reputation for virtue and piety. She continued to mourn her husband, and she wrote poetry celebrating his memory. In 1719, Rowe suffered the death of her father. In 1728, she published Friendship in Death, her first publication in over thirty years. Rowe continued to publish until her death in February 1737. Isaac Watts was named editor of her papers and published later in 1737 a collection of her religious meditations entitled Devotional Exercises of the Heart.

Major Works

The poems collected in her first book, Poems on Several Occasions, remained among her most popular verses both in her lifetime and beyond. The volume includes poems on earthly and divine love, pastoral poems, and poetic paraphrases of Biblical passages. They are marked by a strikingly sensual use of language and a vehemence of address that recalls the work of the English mystical poets. In Friendship in Death. In Twenty Letters from the Dead to the Living, Rowe's tone is decidedly less cheerful, though the work was no less popular. In part an expression of her mourning, Friendship in Death is a short series of letters written by certain souls of the dead to their friends on earth and meant to emphasize the immortality of the soul. The letter writers vary in kind from innocent infants to guilty sisters to reformed rakes, and they tell both of their deaths and of the joy of immortality. The letters are full of purpose, warning the addressees to reform and reminding them of divine mercy. The idea of the dead sending letters to the living was not new, but rather followed the tradition of imitation of Lucian's Dialogues of the Dead, in which the dead carry messages from purgatory to the living. After 1733, Friendship in Death usually appeared with Letters Moral and Entertaining (1728–1733), which includes some actual letters from Rowe's correspondence with Lady Hereford. The Letters continue the themes of love, marriage, death, and the future of the soul in brief mostly unconnected vignettes. In the letters, Rowe's correspondents share with friends and lovers the details of love matches, friendships, and extramarital affairs. As the series of letters progresses, some letters make reference to earlier letters and thus create an element of narrative interest, but most letters are too short and self-contained to have much true novelistic flavor. On the whole, the letters are not easy to classify: they fall somewhere between familiar letters and epistolary fiction, and they demonstrate Rowe's interest in translating "Doctrine" into "serious Entertainment." The last work published by Rowe in her lifetime was The History of Joseph. This was published in 1736 but written some years earlier. A verse retelling of the Biblical story of Joseph, it had admirers and imitators, especially in Germany. In the introduction to Rowe's last work, published posthumously as Devout Exercises of the Heart, the editor Isaac Watts expressed his dismay at the sensuality of her religious language. Indeed the tone and style of these prayers is striking. Both mystical and charged with the power of earthly love, her "secret and intense breathings" after God arrest the reader with an intimacy her fictional prose generally lacks.

Critical Reception

Rowe was widely recognized in her lifetime as a talented writer and as a powerful example and proponent of moral virtue. Her earliest works gained important admirers, and her popularity lasted for generations after her death. All of her works went through many editions for nearly a century. Along with this popular acclaim, many literary men of the time held her in great esteem. Not only did Watts and Prior find her work admirable, but several other contemporary writers in England and Germany were influenced by her. For example, Alexander Pope appended Rowe's elegy to her husband to his 1715 edition of Eloisa to Abelard, and Dr. Johnson remarked that Rowe was the earliest English writer to successfully blend romance and religion. While the style and subject matter of her writings are of limited interest for the modern reader, Rowe is almost universally recognized as having played a distinct, if minor, role in the development of the novel in the eighteenth-century with her use of character sketches and epistolary forms, and in her blending of didacticism with sentimentality.

Principal Works

Poems on Several Occasions [as Philomela] (poetry) 1696

Letters Moral and Entertaining in Prose and Verse. 3 vols, (prose and poetry) 1728–33

Friendship in Death: In Twenty Letters from the Dead to the Living (prose) 1728

Devout Exercises of the Heart in Meditation and Soliloquy, Prayer and Praise (prose and poetry) 1737

*The Miscellaneous Works in Prose and Verse of Mrs. Elizabeth Rowe. 2 vols, (prose and poetry) 1739

*This work was later expanded and published as The Works of Mrs. Elizabeth Rowe, 4 vols., in 1796. It includes Poems on Several Occasions as well as dialogues and letters.


The Lady's Monthly Museum (essay date 1803)

SOURCE: The Lady's Monthly Museum, May, 1803, pp. 286–91.

[In the following encomium from a nineteenth-century popular magazine, the anonymous critic praises Rowe's writing and her person.]

Mrs. Elizabeth Rowe, not more admired for her fine writings by the ingenious who did not know her, than esteemed and loved by all her acquaintance, for the many amiable qualities of her heart, was born at Ilchester, in Somersetshire, September 11, 1674; being the eldest of three daughters of Walter Singer, Esq. a gentleman of good family, and Mrs. Elizabeth Portnell; both of them persons of very great worth and piety.

Those who were acquainted with Mrs. Rowe in...

(The entire section is 763 words.)

Charlotte E. Morgan (essay date 1911)

SOURCE: "The Novel," in The Rise of the Novel of Manners: A Study of English Prose Fiction Between 1600 and 1740, Russell & Russell, 1963, pp. 89–114.

[In the following excerpt, first published in 1911 and reprinted in 1963, Morgan characterizes Rowe's work as didactic character sketches similar to those found in popular periodicals.]

Mrs. Elizabeth Rowe (1674–1737) belongs in many respects to the same school as the Duchess of Newcastle, but this well-bred lady would have been unutterably shocked by her plainspoken predecessor. Mrs. Rowe undertook to inculcate principles of right living by means of sentimental piety. In 1728 appeared Friendship in Death in...

(The entire section is 1831 words.)

Myra Reynolds (essay date 1920)

SOURCE: "General Learning and Literary Work," in The Learned Lady in England, 1650–1760, 1920; Reprint, Peter Smith, 1964, pp. 137–57.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1920 and reprinted in 1964, Reynolds describes Rowe's life, education, and the social context of her writing.]

Mr. Walter Singer, a dissenting minister of Frome, was early left a widower with three daughters. Two of these daughters showed while still young exceptionally good minds and a natural interest in study. One daughter, who died at nineteen, was devoted to medicine and collected books on that subject. Elizabeth preferred drawing and poetry. She began drawing when her fingers...

(The entire section is 1097 words.)

H. Bunker Wright (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: "Matthew Prior and Elizabeth Singer," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, January, 1945, pp. 71–82.

[In the following essay, Wright analyzes the relationship between Rowe and the poet Matthew Prior, based on a set of extant letters from Prior to Rowe.]

For several months in 1703 and 1704 Matthew Prior and Elizabeth Singer carried on a vivacious correspondence of which nothing has heretofore been known. Miss Singer's letters are not extant, but nine of Prior's have been preserved at Longleat,1 and these entertaining epistles reveal rather clearly the substance and tone of the letters to which they were answers. A study of this...

(The entire section is 5616 words.)

Robert Adams Day (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "The Epistolary Novel Arrives," in Told in Letters: Epistolary Fiction Before Richardson, The University of Michigan Press, 1966, pp. 146–91.

[In the following excerpt from a study of epistolary fiction, Day characterizes Rowe's writings as a combination of the miscellany collection and works of moral instruction.]

The pen is almost as pretty an implement in a woman's fingers, as a needle.

—Samuel Richardson (to Lady Bradshaigh)

When the Portuguese Letters appeared in English in 1678, they did more than popularize a style of epistolary expression. L'Estrange's book...

(The entire section is 3033 words.)

John J. Richetti (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "The Novel as Pious Polemic," in Popular Fiction Before Richardson: Narrtive Patterns 1700–1739, Oxford University Press, 1969, pp. 211–61.

[In the following excerpt from a discussion of the novel as pious polemic, Richetti analyzes Rowe's writings and their widespread popularity.]

It is a short and logical step from creating a fictional moral centre like Galesia to having a well-known female paragon write fiction and lend it her personal cachet. This is precisely what took place in 1728 when Mrs. Elizabeth Singer Rowe published Friendship in Death: in Twenty Letters from the Dead to the Living.1

In 1723 Mrs. Aubin...

(The entire section is 8376 words.)

Josephine Grieder (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Introduction to Friendship in Death, by Elizabeth Singer Rowe, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1972, pp. 5–15.

[In the following essay, Grieder provides an overview discussion of Rowe's Friendship in Death and Letters Moral and Entertaining.]

Since vice frequently receives more publicity than virtue, the reader acquainted with the scandalous lives and writings of early eighteenth-century authoresses like Mrs. Manley and Mrs. Haywood may be surprised to learn that there were indeed respectable ladies among the female littérateurs; and that none was so highly regarded as the writer of the present volume, Mrs. Elizabeth Singer Rowe (1674–1737). She moved in...

(The entire section is 2564 words.)

Henry F. Stecher (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "The Character of Elizabeth Singer Rowe," in Elizabeth Singer Rowe, the Poetess of Frome: A Study in Eighteenth-Century English Pietism, Peter Lang, 1973, pp. 176–214.

[In the following excerpt from a full-length study of Rowe, Stecher analyzes the use of sentimentality and romanticism in Rowe's work and life.]

Despite Mrs. Rowe's love for solitude and meditation, and her praise of reason, she often showed great interest and even enthusiasm for mundane pleasures. At first glance, it appears paradoxical, if not entirely inconsistent with her pious reputation, to find remarks in her published and unpublished letters which indicate a degree of social...

(The entire section is 5403 words.)

Jane Spencer (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Natural, Moral and Modest: Elizabeth Rowe," in The Rise of the Woman Novelist: From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen, Basil Blackwell, 1986, pp. 81–5.

[In the following excerpt from a study of women novelists from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, Spencer identifies Rowe as a model of eighteenth-century female virtue.]

… The early eighteenth century found its ideals of feminine and literary virtue embodied in the life and work of Elizabeth Singer Rowe (1674–1737). A native of Somerset, she was the daughter of a Dissenting preacher, and received a pious education that laid the foundations of her religious outlook. She was writing verse by the age of...

(The entire section is 1905 words.)

Marlene R. Hansen (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "The Pious Mrs. Rowe," in English Studies, Netherlands, Vol. 76, No.1, January, 1995, pp. 34–51.

[In the following essay, Hansen examines the publication history of Rowe's works and suggests that male associates and editors emphasized her feminine piety and virtue as part of a larger cultural conflict.]

Although her works were in constant demand until the mid-nineteenth century, both in England and on the continent,1 Mrs. Rowe is a writer from whom the modern sensibility has turned firmly away. Her writings are mainly devotional and moralistic, although sometimes her religious yearnings are expressed with a sensuality which though interesting and...

(The entire section is 9418 words.)

Further Reading

Hughes, Helen Sard. The Gentle Hertford. Her Life and Letters. New York: Macmillan, 1940, 506p.

Biographical study of the Countess of Hertford, one of Rowe's most important correspondents.

——. "Elizabeth Rowe and the Countess of Hertford." PMLA 59, No. 3 (September 1944): 726–46.

Discussion of the relationship between Rowe and the Countess of Hertford.

Lipking, Joanna. "Fair Originals: Women Poets in Male Commendatory Poems." Eighteenth-Century Life 12, No. 2 (May 1988): 58–72.

Includes a discussion of John...

(The entire section is 140 words.)