Fans of Jane Austen’s novels and the regency period are generally aware of the restrictions society imposed on women, especially on those who publicly pursued careers. During her lifetime, Jane Austen’s novels were attributed to “a lady” to hide her identity as an author. Female painters who attended art academies were banned from attending life drawing classes, which placed them at a distinct disadvantage when painting or drawing human figures, and explained why so many female painters concentrated on still-lifes and landscapes. Ladies who supported themselves through their talents were thought to be immodest; worse, popular and academic opinions decreed that their skills and aesthetic understanding would always be inferior to a man’s
In her critical essay, “Poet and Lyricist Anne Hunter: More than “Haydn’s Muse””, Joy M. Currie writes: “Expectations for British women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries included what Mary Poovey calls ‘the paradoxical commands of propriety-that desire express itself through modesty, that power be deflected into influence, that fulfillment be won through meekness’. These expectations were particularly significant for women writers who wanted to publish what they wrote, since to write and publish inherently meant challenging accepted standards of propriety.”
In a recent post on 18th Century Worlds, Ellen Moody made a few observations about the poet, Anne Hunter (1742-1821). On her separation from her grown daughter, Anne wrote the following poem (1802) :
To my daughter On Being Separated from Her on Marriage
Dear to my heart as life’s warm stream
Which animates this mortal clay,
For thee I court the waking dream,
And deck with smiles the future day;
And thus beguile the present pain
With hopes that we shall meet again.
Yet, will it be as when the past
Twined every joy, and care, and thought,
And o’er our minds one mantle cast
Of kind affections finely wrought?
Ah no? the groundless hope were vain,
For so we ne’er can meet again.
May he who claims thy tender heart
Deserve its love, as I have done.
For, kind and gentle as thou art,
If so beloved, thou art fairly won.
Bright may the sacred torch remain,
And cheer thee till we meet again.
As Ellen Moody explained:
It would have been harder for Anne Hunter to be separated from her married daughter than women today as she was not allowed an occupation outside the home. While she ran parties and socialized (being married to the famous surgeon, John Hunter, and living in London and helping him with his career),she also spent much of her life in impoverished circumstances, some of it in Scotland. So the loss of a daughter would be keenly felt – as there were no trains, and no phones.
Her poem is sentimental and pious in the way of earlier poetry when it comes to families, but note the phrase “as I have done.” Hunter’s daughter would also experience a profound change of life. You didn’t need wedding ceremonies in the 18th century to show that getting married for a woman changed her life. Her daughter might end up pregnant continually, and in those days “pregnancy was life-threatening. And the mores of her era decreed that her daughter should be under her husband’s control.
Anne Hunter’s poem does not make it into Lonsdale’s book of 18th century women poets nor any poems like the above one. The imagined community of poetry for this period was widening to include figures like Anna Barbauld and Joanne Baillie, partly because their progressive stance was one which did not threaten the essential patriarchal or capitalist-militarist social order. Minor women who were said to be “bought back” included two Annes: Anne Grant and Anne Hunter. Grant’s and Hunter’s poetry hark back to 18th century modes with a new spirit in them too – of emotion, landscape, about bonds.
Anne Hunter was the daughter of Robert Home, a surgeon in the military; and it was said his father was forced into this position because he displeased his family by marrying imprudently. (I don’t put scare quotes around these words but hope people know I wouldn’t share the attitudes which would utter them.) When still young, Anne began to publish poetry in the vein of Jane Elliot (lyrical, nature poetry, landscape).
After a long engagement she married a now well-known and important figure in history: John Hunter, the famous surgeon in London (1728-93). Among other things (I came across this in another study) he tried to help women who were accused of murdering their babies when the neonate died. The law said that a woman accused of infanticide had to prove the baby had not been alive when born. The law was used against women who had children out of wedlock: a huge percentage of accusations were against women who had illegitimate children, and they generally were servants or agricultural workers.
Anne’s brother became her husband’s pupil and himself became a well-known surgeon. She had 4 children in 5 years; 2 survived infancy. She did become involved with fashionable circles in London (as the wife of this man she could and might), but her friendships with Elizabeth Montagu,”Elizabeth Carter, Mary Delany, and “Horace Walpole and Hester Thrale did not exactly (it is said) please her husband.
He is presented as this taciturn, obsessively hard-working man as a personality. She presented herself as modest and unassuming and so went over well in the public media of the period.
Then her husband after quarreling with colleagues, had a heart attack and died, and left such a complicated will (he did not trust her), that she was ejected from their house and only survived with a pension from the Queen (so, appearing conventional and having women friends with connections helped). Eventually Anne got some of the proceeds of the estate, and then when Parliament voted to establish a Hunter Museum and established it for the Royal College of Surgeons. She got a tidy sum and with the pension, lived comfortably thereafter. Then she collected her poems and published them; they are dedicated to her son, a Captain.
Lonsdale reprints Hunter’s “North American Death Song” where she imitates the death chants as she imagines them of an Indian. This was much admired – to me it’s not half-erotic enough and Elizabeth Tollett’s “Winter Song” is much better. Anne Hunter also published a volume inspired (she said) by the drawings of Susan Macdonald who died at age 21 in 1803. Her daughter was a widow by the time Anne Hunter died so maybe she and said daughter did meet and live together once again.
There is a good book on Anne’s husband: John Kobler’s The Reluctant Surgeon: A Biography of John Hunter. The Akadine Press (1988), 1st printing (1999). The 18th century is a very interesting period to study in the area of medicine. Did you know the first attempts at
modern dentistry (painful and also shocking) involved servants and slaves and poor people who gave up their teeth for the rich to have rammed into their mouths) There was an article in Eighteenth Century Life about this.” Ellen
I’d like to add some additional thoughts to Ellen’s excellent summation of Anne Hunter’s life. While it is true that Anne was better known as Mrs. John Hunter and hostess of a weekly salon than as a poet and lyricist, her poems and song lyrics were widely distributed during her lifetime. When the famous composer Franz Joseph Haydn moved to London in 1791, he settled near the Hunters in a house on Great Pultney Street. A friendship developed between the composer and Anne, which led to Haydn’s composing English songs using Anne’s lyrics. As you can see from the samples below, Anne’s words were quite ladylike and proper. According to the Cambridge Companion to Haydn, “Without Anne Hunter’s influence and poetic inspiration, it is unlikely Haydn would have tried his hand at composing English songs. Indeed, circumstances suggest that Anne Hunter passed on to Haydn all her verses during the first London sojourn.” Anne published two volumes of poetry, Poems (1802) and The Sports of the Genii (1804). They were so well received that it was said that Robert Burns copied several into his Commonplace Book.
The mermaid’s song
Lyrics: Anne Hunter; Music: (Franz) Josef Haydn (1732-1809)
Now the dancing sunbeams play
On the green and glassy sea,
Come, and I will lead the way
Where the pearly treasures be.
Come with me, and we will go
Where the rocks of coral grow.
Follow, follow, follow me.
Come, behold what treasures lie
Far below the rolling waves,
Riches, hid from human eye,
Dimly shine in ocean’s caves.
Ebbing tides bear no delay,
Stormy winds are far away.
SPRING returns, the flowrets blow;
Will hope return? ah, no! ah, no!
With the dreams of youth she flies,
And like the rose, her emblem, dies.
Fancy droops beneath the shade,
And all the gay delights are fled.
Spring returns, the flowrets blow;
Will hope return? ah, no! ah, no!
Poems, Anne Home Hunter
My Mother Bids Me Bind My Hair
My mother bids me bind my hair
With bands of rosy hue;
Tie up my sleeves with ribbons rare,
And lace my bodice blue!
“For why,” she cries, “sit still and weep,
While others dance and play?”
Alas! I scarce can go, or creep,
While Lubin is away!
‘Tis sad to think the days are gone
When those we love were near!
I sit upon this mossy stone,
And sigh when none can hear:
And while I spin my flaxen thread,
And sing my simple lay,
The village seems asleep, or dead,
Now Lubin is away!
Anne Hunter [1742-1821]
Audio version: http://www.eaglesweb.com/Sub_Pages/hunter_poems.htm
Learn more about Anne in these links:
- Katalin Kosmos writes about Haydn and Anne in an article in Music Times
- Scottish Women Poets of the Romantic Period, Joy M. Currie
- Poems: Anne Home Hunter
- She Never Told Her Love, Katalin Komlos
Links to Ellen Moody’s other posts and sites below: