Lytton Strachey (essay date 1907)
SOURCE: "The Swan of Lichfield," in Spectatorial Essays, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1964, pp. 28-33.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1907, Strachey delivers an appreciative review of A Swan and Her Friends.]
Miss Seward's name is a familiar one to readers of eighteenth-century memoirs and letters, though doubtless in the majority of cases the familiarity does not extend further than to the name. She appears somewhat dimly in Boswell; she flits for a minute or two through Fanny Burney's diary; she is mentioned more than once by Horace Walpole, and always with a laugh. Her own letters, published after her death, in accordance with the directions of her will, in six bulky volumes, are certainly not calculated to inspire a closer acquaintance; and her collected poems—'a formidable monument of mediocrity', which Scott found himself obliged to edit—could hardly fail to freeze the zeal of the most intrepid explorer. Mr E. V. Lucas, however, is endowed with an intrepidity very much above the common—a light-hearted intrepidity, which has not only carried him successfully through the desert of Miss Seward's writings, but has even enabled him to bring back from his journey a collection of relics and curiosities [A Swan and Her Friends] for which every reader will be grateful. 'The Swan of Lichfield', as her contemporary admirers called her, belongs to that class of persons who are interesting by virtue of their very fatuity, who deserve notice simply as colossal figures of fun. 'There never was anything so entertaining or so dull!' Horace Walpole exclaims in one of his letters, and the phrase fits 'the Swan' to perfection. Her endless self-complacence, her infinite affectations, her poses and her pretensions, her unfathomable ignorance, her inconceivable lack of taste—all these qualities make her either intolerable or delightful, according to one's point of view. Mr Lucas's point of view—and none of his readers can fail to share it—commands a wide prospect of flourishing absurdities, disposed and variegated in such a manner as never to distress the eye. Mr Lucas is a master of the difficult arts of selection and suppression. He has succeeded in crowding his pages with a multitude of amusing details and good stories and curious pieces of information; and he has succeeded no less in passing lightly and tactfully over the enormous number of facts connected with Miss Seward's history and writings which, to use Mrs Carlyle's phrase, 'it would be interesting not to state'.
The circle in which Miss Seward lived and moved was made up for the most part of second-rate celebrities and third-rate poets. It was a sentimental circle, where mutual adoration was the rule, and 'fine writing' took the place of common speech. Miss Seward herself was always in an ecstasy either of feeling or of flattery, and she came in for her full share of worship from the lips of her friends. 'As long as the names of Garrick, of Johnson, and of Seward shall endure,' wrote one of her admirers, 'Lichfield will live renowned.' And another declared that
'The British muse brings, with triumphant aim,
Her richest tablet, graced with Seward's name.'
Among the most ardent of her votaries was Hayley, the once famous author of 'The Triumphs of Temper', whose verse, if we are to believe Miss Seward, 'breathes a more creative and original genius than even the brilliant Pope'. The alliance of the two poets was the occasion of some amusing lines from 'the witty and wicked pen' of Dr Mansel, who summarized their mutual admiration as follows:
'Miss Seward: Pride of Sussex, England's glory,
Mr Hayley, that is you.
Mr Hayley: Ma'am, you carry all before ye,
Trust me, Lichfield swan, you do.
Miss Seward: Ode dramatic, epic, sonnet,
Mr Hayley, you're divine.
Mr Hayley: Ma'am, I'll give my word upon it,
You yourself are—all the nine.'
Unfortunately, however, this warmth of friendship was not destined to endure. For some unexplained reason, Hayley grew cool, and Miss Seward grew cool as well. 'I feel,' she wrote, with an exquisite mixture of metaphors, 'that the silver cord of our amity is...
(The entire section is 1844 words.)