On the RECIRC project, I have been working on Irish-language poetry by women, most of which was composed and transmitted orally. While some male poets also produced oral compositions in Irish, the majority of their work was part of a literary culture dominated by manuscript production. Moreover, my own research has looked at the close connections between manuscript poetry in Irish and English-language print culture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Perhaps surprisingly, there are many parallels between this male-dominated literary culture and women’s manuscript poetry in English of the same period. While manuscript poetry in both languages constituted fairly distinct and self-contained cultural formations, manuscript production was often also a complement to the writers’ engagement with printed texts in English, including newspapers.
In this blog post, I discuss the manuscript poem “A letter to Mrs Arrabella Marow” by the Jacobite poet Anne Finch (1661-1720). Anne Finch served at the courts of Charles II and James II as Maid of Honor to Mary of Modena, from 1682 until James was deposed in 1688. Her husband, Heneage Finch (later the 5th Earl of Winchilsea), was a Groom of the Bedchamber for the Duke of York (later James II) from 1683. As Non-Jurors, both Finch and her husband refused the Oath of Allegiance to William and Mary and eventually retired to their estate at Eastwell in Kent.
Finch’s poem “A letter to Mrs Arrabella Marow,” addressed to a member of her circle of English Jacobite friends, was written during the 1715 Jacobite rising. In the manuscript the poem is prefaced by a head-note that clearly shows the level of suspicion that Finch felt herself to be under as a prominent Jacobite. She refers, in particular, to “the great cautiousness with which we must write to our friends under the present posture of affairs.” Indeed, the first three stanzas of this politically circumspect poem elaborate on the care with which she feels she must express herself, even in a private letter.
For can our correspondence please
Who must report no news
Least Mesengers our Persons ceaze
Who have confin’d the Muse.* *[Matthew] Prior
Marr in the North a trumpet blows
And Ormond’s dreaded here
Where none a softer passion knows
than dull supsence or fear.
Cornwallis breaks up every seal
To guard the state from harms
How can we then our hearts reveal
Or Arrabella’s charms?
This last stanza alludes to the fact that Jacobite writers faced censorship, the interception of their letters and, ultimately, prosecution for seditious words. Whether or not Finch actually had specific knowledge about the rising, this stanza nonetheless suggests that women like Finch and her circle of Jacobite friends were deeply immersed in Jacobite political culture and kept abreast of Jacobite military activities. One of the ways they did this was through their personal correspondence, but also through the reading of newspapers. Thus, even though Finch’s openly Jacobite poems circulated only in manuscript among a realtively small coterie of Jacobite women, such manuscript coteries were an important site for the reception of news and the transmission of ideas. When considered in this context, the writing of manuscript coteries is not marginal to print culture, but an essential element in the process by which printed texts were read, digested and in some cases responded to.
Moreover, the poem is part of the Welleseley Manuscript, a collection of 53 fair copies of poems by Finch, several of which have clear Jacobite content. Charles Hinant and Barbara McGovern, the editors of the printed edition of the Wellesley Manuscript, contend that Finch’s manuscript was actually intended for print publication, as its careful collation in manuscript fits the pattern of Finch’s first collection of poems, which was printed in 1713. The reason that these poems remained in manuscript, though, was the ultimate failure of the 1715 Jacobite Rising. Had the rising not brought about a new round of Jacobite censorship and prosecutions, the “Letter to Mrs. Arrabella Marow” would likely have circulated as a printed text. That is, while the poem is unequivocally the product of a womens’ manuscript coterie, it nonetheless sits at the intersection between a culture of manuscript production and eighteenth-century print culture.
 The poet Matthew Prior had been imprisoned during the Rising.
 John Erskine, 2nd Earl of Mar, led the Jacobite forces in Scotland.
 James Butler, 2nd Duke of Ormonde, was in exile at the Stuart court in St. Germain, and authorities feared that he would be leading a Jacobite invasion force from the south.
 Charles Cornwallis, 4th Baron Cornwallis, was Joint Postmaster-General from 1715 to 1721.