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BETWEEN RIVERS AUTUMN 2022: JANE BRERETON – ALAN HORNE

BETWEEN RIVERS is a quarterly series – https://www.davidselzer.com/2022/05/between-rivers-introduction/  – focused on the area bounded by the rivers Alyn, Dee and Gowy, on the border between England and Wales in Flintshire and Cheshire.

For Autumn 2022 we have a special edition devoted to a selection of the work of Jane Brereton (1685-1740), a Welsh poet writing in English:

Melissa to Sylvanus Urban: from the Gentleman’s Magazine, October 1735 (excerpt);

To Cynthio. In imitation of the thirty third Ode of the first Book of Horace;

Letter to Miss ****, In answer to hers of December 2, 1739;

An Account of the Life of Mrs BRERETON (excerpt).

 

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Jane Brereton

Jane Hughes was born in Mold in 1685. She was the only surviving child of her parents, and her father took pains with her education. She soon began writing her own poetry, and went on to live the life of an educated gentlewoman of modest means. In 1711 she married Thomas Brereton, and they moved to London to pursue their common interest in literature at a time when women poets were beginning to emerge into publication. Unfortunately, the marriage did not go well. Thomas was prone to fits of temper and failed with both money and work. In 1721 Jane separated from him and returned with their children to Mold. Thomas soon obtained a post not far away, with the Customs in Parkgate on the Wirral, and the couple’s relationship may have been cordial; but he died in an accident the following year. After that, Jane Brereton moved to Wrexham, joining the literary circle around Mary Myddelton of Croesnewydd. She lived in Wrexham until her death in 1740.

We know of Brereton for two reasons. The first is that during the 1730s she was a regular contributor of poetry, under the pen-name Melissa, to the Gentleman’s Magazine, published in London by Edward Cave: the magazine has received some attention in more recent times. The second is that, on her death, friends and supporters subscribed to a volume of her work, the splendidly titled Poems on Several Occasions: with letters to her friends and an account of her life. Copies of this, placed in the National Library of Wales and British Library, might have mouldered down the centuries but for the growth of interest in the ‘Atlantic Archipelago’ as a curative to British history focused on London or England. Thanks to the British Library’s programme of digitization, the complete work is now available for you to read online here and a facsimile paperback edition is available. Brereton features in Sarah Prescott’s Eighteenth-Century Writing From Wales: Bards and Britons, published in 2008 by the University of Wales Press.

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Four selections from Poems on Several Occasions are given here: an excerpt from the verse correspondence in the Gentleman’s Magazine; the short poem To Cynthio, an example of her more serious work; a letter to an anonymous correspondent; and an excerpt from the account of her life, which tells of her relationship with her husband, and his untimely death. Some eighteenth-century typesetting conventions are replaced for ease of reading; otherwise, the text is as in the original.

Melissa to Sylvanus Urban: from the Gentleman’s Magazine, October 1735 (excerpt).

In an era when the ability to write correspondence in verse was an educated accomplishment and a means of clarifying one’s thought, Brereton wrote a number of letter-poems, and came to public attention through those published under her pen-name Melissa in the Gentleman’s Magazine, especially in ‘the Controversy with Fidelia, Fido &c. which so agreeably entertained the Public in the Years 1734 and 1735.’ Melissa to Sylvanus Urban is one of her contributions to that controversy.

A prize of £50 had been offered for ‘the best POEM by May next on five Subjects, viz. Life, Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell.’ Another woman correspondent, Fidelia (possibly Kezia Wesley, youngest sister of John Wesley), responded in verses declaring that an extra zero should be added to the prize for such a task; or that an alternative prize for women could be marriage to Jonathan Swift, whose splenetic poem  The Furniture of a Woman’s Mind, had been published in the magazine. Others replied with their own displays of wit, including Melissa (Brereton), who suggested – incorrectly, it would seem – that Fidelia’s verses were really written by the editor. Brereton discussed this and further submissions with Thomas Beach, one of her friends in Wrexham. Without her knowledge, at least at first, Beach joined in the correspondence, using the name Captain Fido and posing as Fidelia’s admirer.  There was then a rather flirtatious war of wit between Melissa, Fidelia, and Captain Fido, who eventually signed off with some disparaging remarks about women writers. But Beach then wrote again, with a new persona, Mrs Prudence Manage (who has a daughter: Miss Manage). Brereton, perhaps catching on, carried out her own switch of gender: her final verses were in the name of clerical heart-throb Parson Lovemore. Our preconceptions as to what women might write about in the 1730s are set right: there is much poking of fun, discussion of who admires whom, and a joke about farting. In this excerpt, Melissa has put Captain Fido in his place, and turns her attention to Fidelia. She is responding to witticisms about her own supposedly devastating beauty. Urban is Edward Cave, who used the name Sylvanus Urban in his role as editor.

But, now, for Fidelia’s Epistle profound,-

(Which she hobbles about, like a Lancashire Round)

That her Vein is most easy, by Fido’s decreed;

But I’m greatly concern’d, now, I find she can’t read:

But to those that can, I appeal for this Truth,

That I neither pretended to Beauty, or Youth.

Whoe’er will my Lines condescend to revise,

Will find I make free with my own hollow Eyes.

‘Twas Fido, the Head of your triple Alliance,

First sent the poor Things (and my Pen) a defiance;

The innocent Peepers, he attack’d with much spight,

Abandon’d Fidelia, wou’d veil them from Light.

Yet longs for to see of my Face every Feature;

Good Urban! convey my kind Thanks to the Creature.

I hope she’ll be satisfy’d, when she is told,

Melissa declares herself – ugly and old.

And surely the Publick, will grant this Confession,

From a Woman’s own Hand, is an ample Concession!

But if Fidy persists, – I’ll here lay before ye,

For her Consid’ration, a very short Story.

A Monarch more famous for Wit, than for Grace,

Once pluck’t off a Mask, from a Lady’s foul Face;

But finding her vext, that her Face had been shewn,

He appeas’d her, by shewing a worse of his own.

My Meaning, as plain as a Pikestaff, I’ll make,

For I find dear Fidelia is apt to mistake.

‘Tis rude to expose my poor Phiz to disgrace,

Unless, like the Monarch, she’ll shew a worse Face.

As Fido to Sylvius; – so now, I declare,

If Fidy replies not; – here ends all the War.

Her Champion is gone; – and with her, I’ve done;

Who stood out a Blunderbuss, scorns a Pot-gun.

 

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To Cynthio. In imitation of the thirty third Ode of the first Book of Horace.

Away from the freedom of her informal epistolatory verse, Brereton’s serious poetry can seem rather conventional to the twenty-first century reader. This is not a matter of the rhyming couplets, peopled by Jove, Phœbus & Co., but of seemingly conventional sentiments of piety, pro-Hanoverian patriotism and Enlightenment virtues. The sketch of her life in Poems on Several Occasions says that she worried that her displays of wit might be prideful, and perhaps these were curbed in the poems. But some of the concerns which seem conventional to us were not to her. The Hanoverian settlement and the Enlightenment were battles being fought during her lifetime. The Stuart rising of 1715, which attempted to place James Edward Stuart (the Old Pretender) on the throne, took place when she was thirty; and the last burning of a woman for witchcraft in Britain was in 1727: one of Brereton’s verses refers to the Witchcraft Act of 1735, which abolished the offence. In a way Brereton was a political poet, with a new perspective as a Welsh woman. Only our distance from the events of those days causes these poems to seem conventional at first sight.

Some of the poems are more personal. An example is To Cynthio, with its wry reflections on love which, in the last verse, are suddenly turned back against the ‘I’ of the poem.

Cease, gen’rous Cynthio, cease to mourn!

And let the proud Eliza’s Scorn

No more thy Anger move:

No more in soft Complaints declare,

The giddy injudicious Fair

Prefers a meaner Love.

 

The beauteous Cloe Damon loves;

But he Corinna more approves,

Though stock’d with much Ill-nature,

While she regardless of his Sighs,

As he from Cloe, from him flies

T’embrace another Creature.

 

Thus cruel Love maintains his Sway!

The Rich, the Mean, the Rude, the Gay,

Unequal he insnares:

In vain or Sense or Merit pleads,

In vain sincerest Truth persuades;

He laughs at all our Cares!

 

E’en I this mad Caprice have prov’d,

When gentle Youths admir’d and lov’d,

And did my Grace implore:

Ill-natured Cymon I receive,

Rough as the wild Hibernian Wave,

That beats our Cambrian Shore!

 

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Letter to Miss ****, In answer to hers of December 2, 1739.

In addition to the letter-poems, five of Brereton’s prose letters are included in Poems on Several Occasions. They are discussions with friends (all anonymized by the editor) about faith, philosophy and society. They show that Brereton’s Christian belief was carefully thought through. All the letters are vivid and direct: arguably her most striking work. Brereton generally moves between protesting her lack of wit and contradicting the opinion of some established authority: in this case William Law, for whose devotional works she expressed a great, but by no means uncritical, liking despite his Jacobite loyalties. Here she takes issue with his fictional character Miranda, a model of the frugal gentlewoman. The Downs, mentioned at the end of the letter, is an anchorage off Deal in Kent, at the junction of the North Sea and the English Channel.

I grant you, Madam, that Pride is an insinuating and predominant Passion; but that there is the least Appearance, or Symptom of it, in your Letter, is what I can by no means admit. Nothing can be more just than your Sentiments of that Passion; and nothing less so, than your Application of it to yourself. There is certainly a Pleasure in the giving, or receiving a just disinterested Approbation; but I cannot believe, that a Pleasure of this Nature is either a Cause or a Consequence of Pride: On the contrary, I apprehend it to be, the pure Joy, and Satisfaction, which a benevolent Mind receives from whatever is Praise-worthy.

It must be confess’d that Pride is a sort of a Proteus; it can vary its Form, to gratify its own Vanity, or to elude Discovery: It is sometimes imperceptible, where it bears the greatest Sway; and, on the other Hand, it is often suspected to be where it really is not. As, for Instance, in the Article of Dress: A fashionable Garb, put on in a genteel Manner, is, in the Opinion of some rigid People, an infallible Indication of Pride. But if, as some have thought, (and if my Memory deceives me not, Mr Ray says) the improving and beautifying the Earth, with Plantations, Gardens &c. ought to be considered as a religious Duty; why is it not laudable in the Chief of the Creation to adorn themselves with all the Elegance of Dress, suitable to their Age and Condition, and conformable to the Mode of the Country they live in?

Some Divines have taught, that the Consideration of the richest Garments being chiefly made of the Bowels of an ugly Worm, should humble the Wearer. -True;- But may not this be an Argument for wearing that, which affords an humbling Consideration?

Mr Law, in his character of Miranda (in his Call to a devout and holy Life) says, she dresses meanly, that she may be able to support indigent Families. There are Calamities and Circumstances, which ought to be particularly considered. But, in the general, is there not greater Charity in employing the Industrious, and, consequently, preventing them from being reduc’d to Poverty, than in relieving them when they are so? There may be, I am persuaded, as much Pride in the Contempt of Dress, as in too great a Fondness of it. Who doubts, but that Diogenes was prouder in his Tub than Plato on his Carpet? The Remark which that polite Philosopher made on seeing the Cynic up to the Chin in Water was certainly very just. – But where am I rambling! – I know not how far I might have expatiated on this Topic, which you threw in my Way; had not the shocking Thought of the Situation, the mad Cynic was in, joyn’d with the severe coldness of the Weather, set me a shuddering, tho’ by a good Fire, and, happily for you, put a stop to my Speculations.

I should be glad to know the Name of the Ship, which your Friend goes in, that I may rejoyce with you, tho’ at the Distance of two hundred Miles, when I read the News, that she is safely arriv’d in the Downs, with a rich Prize.

I have made a long Paper-Visit; but as I have not been able to say any thing entertaining, I think the most obliging Thing I can do, is to take my Leave: So shall only stay to assure you, that I am,

Dear Madam!

Jan. 18, 1740                                         Yours, &c.

J.B.

 

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An Account of the Life of Mrs BRERETON (excerpt).

We might think of Brereton today as a neglected poet, but at her death more than a hundred friends and supporters subscribed so that Poems on Several Occasions might be published by Edward Cave. In addition to the poems and letters, this includes an Advertisement, possibly written by Cave, and an account of Brereton’s life. The latter tends to dwell on Brereton’s virtues rather than her acts. But the following excerpt, about her relationship with her husband and the circumstances of his death, fills out Brereton’s hints, in verses and letters, at a difficult family life; and the anonymous author’s high-mindedness combines with the folly surrounding her husband’s death to give us an absurd tragedy. In this passage there is, in addition to Brereton’s husband, another Thomas Brereton, a relative and a member of Parliament for Liverpool; Mrs Hughes is Jane Brereton prior to her marriage.

When Major Brereton died, he left his Son a considerable Fortune in Money; but being too young, and in the Management of Guardians, and his Mother marrying Captain Brown, there was not the Care taken of his Education that ought to have been: Mr Brereton was so much a fine Gentleman that he soon ran out most of his Fortune. He went over for a short Time to Paris; and, at his Return, the Earl of Stair, then Ambassador there, was pleased to recommend him, in the strongest Manner, to the Duke of Marlborough, as the Son of his old Soldier Major Brereton, and his Grace seem’d determined to provide for him if his ill State of Health had not prevented it. Some time after this, Mrs Brereton was advised, by all who had any Regard for her, to separate from her Husband: But tho’ all the Reason in the World pleaded for it, yet she express’d great Reluctance at it, especially unless she could have her Children with her; and that being at last brought about, she left London about the Year 1721, and retired to her native Country Wales, where she led a solitary Life, seeing little Company, except some intimate Friends, Persons of great Merit; well knowing what a critical Case it is to behave without the Censure of the World, when separated from an Husband. Soon after this Mr Brereton had a Post given him by the late Earl of Sunderland, belonging to the Customs at Park-Gate, near Chester. This brought him down from London. That Nobleman had promised also to advance him on the first proper Vacancy; but he liv’d not to claim it; for on the [number missing] Day of February 1722, he was unfortunately drown’d in adventurously crossing the Water of Saltney, when the Tide was coming in. His Body was afterwards found, and decently interred in Shotwick Chapel belonging to Thomas Brereton Esq; one of the Representatives in Parliament for Liverpoole, his intimate Friend and Relation, and in whose Service he lost his Life; for this Gentleman being at that Time concern’d in an Election, with a very powerful Antagonist, Mr Brereton, out of his great Zeal for his Friend, wrote a sort of Libel against the Gentleman, and in it he gave himself such a Loose as to come within the Power of the Law; upon which Mr Brereton advised him to abscond to avoid Prosecution (tho’ he highly lik’d the Piece which was written by his Instigation,) and so, by making too much Haste to get beyond the Knowledge of his Persuers, rush’d into Eternity. He was an unhappy Proof of the Prejudice of an indulgent Education. He used to say himself, that he never in his Life remembered being contradicted. His Parts were naturally very good; but entirely neglected. He was very positive and passionate; but could upon Occasion command himself surprisingly; so that while he made his Addresses to Mrs Hughes, she took him for a person of a sweet calm Temper: And his first Fit of Passion, after their Marriage, was like a Thunder-clap to her; yet he would sometimes, in a handsome Manner, acknowledge his Fault, and seem so sensible, that any, who did not know him too well, would have imagined him secure against a Relapse. He was generous to a Fault; a very indulgent Father; used frequently to admire his Wife’s Oeconomy; and confess that his Fortune must have been spent long before it was, had it not been for her surprizing Management. He was remarkable for his skill in swimming, beyond most Men, on which he relied too much, at the Time of his Death; and he was entreated by people on the Shore, not to quit his Horse, which he would do, and so perished about the two and thirtieth Year of his Age. He frequently saw his Children, while he was in that Neighbourhood, and had that Satisfaction the very Night before he was lost. So sudden a Death was an inexpressible Grief to his Wife; she could hardly support herself under the Shock; she fell into violent Faintings, when a Clergyman of great Piety, and a Lady, her intimate Friend, acquainted her with the News, tho’ she was perfectly free from any Kind of Fits, till this unhappy Accident.

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