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‘The Excellencies of the Female Character’: Anna Seward’s Censored Sermon

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Abstract

Towards the end of her life, the eighteenth-century writer, Anna Seward, made meticulous preparations for the publication of her complete works of poetry, choosing her literary colleague, Walter Scott, as her editor. Following conventions, she included a range of autobiographical correspondence and prose writings as a means of self-expression. Within this compilation is a collection of sermons written for her father, Thomas, who was the canon of Lichfield Cathedral, and for his parish curates in Derbyshire and Staffordshire. However, the sermons were never published, being excised by Scott because her family and executors considered them to be ‘nearly the reverse of what that solemn order of Composition should be’. They were just too subversive for publication by a woman. Among the sermons is a remarkably radical piece, written specifically for annual delivery in Lichfield cathedral by a senior clergyman to the Ladies’ Charitable Society. Yet Seward was by no means pious. Her early adulthood saw a series of battles against her father when she was drawn towards dissenting religions. The sermon is more sisterly than religious, more literary than devout. She uses considerable intellectual dexterity to urge ‘her’ congregation towards a life more independent. Neither parishioners nor minister knew the author was female. Using a text from Proverbs, Seward skilfully juxtaposes the idea of Lemuel as transmitter of his mother’s wisdom on the subject of worthy women, with the Cathedral minister as transmitter of her own thoughts on the ‘excellencies’ of women and their important role in society. The sermon’s content is both a literary expression of self-identity and of the wider implications of women intervening in traditionally masculine areas, specifically in the Anglican Church. Seward’s identity was, in effect, surrended to her editors and what remains is nowhere near the complete picture. But this narrative is part-sermon, part-polemics, as she sets herself above ‘her’ congregation, employs her literary skills and uses the minister as her mouthpiece to encourage women away from domesticity.

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