Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Hannah Cowley, playwright and feminist

While Googling to find material to counterbalance the DWM emphasis of another site I maintain, I just ran into the Wikipedia page for the Tiverton-born Hannah Cowley, who was completely unknown to me. Quoting:

Hannah Cowley (14 March 1743 – 11 March 1809) was an English dramatist and poet. Although Cowley’s plays and poetry did not enjoy wide popularity after the nineteenth century, critic Melinda Finberg [in Eighteenth-Century Women Dramatists, OUP, 2001] rates Cowley as "one of the foremost playwrights of the late eighteenth century" whose "skill in writing fluid, sparkling dialogue and creating sprightly, memorable comic characters compares favourably with her better-known contemporaries, Goldsmith and Sheridan". Cowley’s plays were produced frequently during her lifetime. The major themes of her plays; including her first, The Runaway (1776), and her major hit, The Belle’s Stratagem (1780); revolve around marriage and how women strive to overcome the injustices imposed by family life and social custom.
- Hannah Cowley, Wikipedia, retrieved 01:37, 7th October 2009

She's so interesting that it looked worth collating the basics of her life and work. Google Books finds a wealth of material relating to her, such as this extended biography and sympathetic critique during her lifetime: Mrs Cowley, pp437-449, Public characters [Formerly British public characters] of 1798-9 - 1809-10, 1801 edition. There are a number of contemporary obituaries also findable on Google Books: Account of the late Mrs Hannah Cowley, pp208-211, Select reviews, Volume 2 (Hopkins and Earle, 1809); pp457-458, The Universal magazine, Volume 11, 1809; and Sketch of the Life of Mrs Hannah Cowley, pp172-174, The Mirror of taste, and Dramatic censor, Volume 2 (Bradford and Inskeep, 1810).

A three volume edition of her complete works was published by Wilkie & Robinson, London, in 1813: see Volume I (Dramas, including The Belle's Strategem), Volume II (also Dramas) and Volume III (Poems).

For modern views, see pp.204-212, British Women Poets of the Romantic Era: An Anthology (Paula R Feldman, JHU Press, 2000) and Hannah Cowley, Tiverton's Playwright and Pioneer Feminist 1743-1809 (Devon Books, 1997 - by the Tiverton historian, author and former mayor Mary de la Mahotière, who also contributed the entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). The ODNB mentions the controversies of her otherwise successful career, particularly the scandal caused by a female character in The Runaway questioning the "honour and obey" part of the marriage vow; the hostility from Sheridan; and the drama between Cowley and fellow playwright Hannah More over the latter's alleged plagiarism - see The Paper War of Hannah Cowley and Hannah More, Getting into the Act: Women Playwrights In London, 1776-1829, Ellen Donkin, Gender in Performance Series. London: Routledge, 1994).

In her home town of Tiverton, Hannah Cowley is commemorated by a Blue Plaque, at 10 Bridge Street, which reads:

Hannah Cowley 1743-1809 Playwright, poet, pioneer champion of women’s rights, lived here from 1801. Hannah, who was born in Tiverton, was a leading playwright of her day, her first play being produced by David Garrick at Drury Lane.
- the Tiverton Civic Society's Blue Plaques page

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