Anne Finch, the Countess of Winchilsea (1661–1720), was one of England's first published women poets. Today, some consider her to be England's best female poet prior to the nineteenth century.
As a poet, Finch attained a modest amount of notoriety during her lifetime, which spanned the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. However, her large body of work, written during the Augustan period (approximately 1660–1760), would earn greater attention after her death. While Finch also authored fables and plays, today she is best known for her poetry: lyric poetry, odes, love poetry and prose poetry. Later literary critics recognized the diversity of her poetic output as well as its personal and intimate style.
In her works Finch drew upon her own observations and experiences, demonstrating an insightful awareness of the social mores and political climate of her era. But she also artfully recorded her private thoughts, which could be joyful or despairing, playful or despondent. The poems also revealed her highly developed spiritual side.
Anne Finch was born as Anne Kingsmill in April of 1661, in Sydmonton in Hampshire, located in the southern part of England. Her parents were Sir William Kingsmill and Anne Haslewood. She was the youngest of three children. Her siblings included William and Bridget Kingsmill.
The young Anne never knew her father, as he died only five months after she was born. In his will, he specified that his daughters receive financial support equal to that of their brother for their education. Her mother remarried in 1662, to Sir Thomas Ogle, and later bore Anne Kingsmill's half-sister, Dorothy Ogle. Anne would remain close to Dorothy for most of their lives.
Finch's mother died in 1664. Shortly before her death she wrote a will giving control of her estate to her second husband. The will was successfully challenged in a Court of Chancery by Anne Kingsmill's uncle, William Haslewood. Subsequently, Anne and Bridget Kingsmill lived with their grandmother, Lady Kingsmill, in Charing Cross, London, while their brother lived with his uncle William Haslewood.
In 1670 Lady Kingsmill filed her own Court of Chancery suit, demanding from William Haslewood a share in the educational and support monies for Anne and Bridget. The court split custody and financial support between Haslewood and Lady Kingsmill. When Lady Kingsmill died in 1672, Anne and Bridget rejoined their brother to be raised by Haslewood. The sisters received a comprehensive and progressive education, something that was uncommon for females at the time, and Anne Kingsmill learned about Greek and Roman mythology, the Bible, French and Italian languages, history, poetry, and drama.
Joined the Court of Charles II
The sisters remained in the Haslewood household until their uncle's death in 1682. Twenty-one years old at the time, Anne Kingsmill then went to live at St. James Palace, in the court of Charles II. She became one of six maids of honor to Mary of Modena, who was the wife of James, Duke of York, who would later become King James II.
Apparently Anne's interest in poetry began at the palace, and she started writing her own verse. Her friends included Sarah Churchill and Anne Killigrew, two other maids of honor who also shared poetic interests. However, when Anne Kingsmill witnessed the derision within the court that greeted Killigrew's poetic efforts (poetry was not a pursuit considered suitable for women), she decided to keep her own writing attempts to herself and her close friends. She remained secretive about her poetry until much later in her life, when she was encouraged to publish under her own name.
Married Colonel Finch
While residing at court, Anne Kingsmill also met Colonel Heneage Finch, the man who would become her husband. A courtier as well as a soldier, Colonel Finch had been appointed Groom of the Bedchamber to James, Duke of York, in 1683. His family had strong Royalist connections, as well as a pronounced loyalty to the Stuart dynasty, and his grandmother had become Countess of Winchilsea in 1628. Finch met Kingsmill and fell in love with her, but she at first resisted his romantic overtures. However, Finch proved a persistent suitor and the couple was finally married on May 15, 1684.
Upon her marriage, Anne Finch resigned her court position, but her husband retained his own appointment and would serve in various government positions. As such, the couple remained involved in court life. During the 1685 coronation of James II, Heneage Finch carried the canopy of the Queen, Mary of Modena, who had specifically requested his service.
The couple's marriage proved to be enduring and very happy. Indeed, Anne Finch developed her poetic skills by expressing her joy in marriage. These early works, many written to her husband (such as "A Letter to Dafnis: April 2d 1685"), celebrated their relationship and ardent intimacy. In expressing herself in such a fashion, Anne Finch quietly defied contemporary social conventions. In other early works she aimed a satiric disapproval at prevailing misogynistic attitudes. Still, her husband strongly supported her writing activities.
Despite their court connections, Anne and Heneage Finch led a rather sedate life. At first they lived in Westminster; then, as Heneage Finch became more involved in public affairs, they moved to London. His involvement had increased when James II took the throne in 1685. The couple demonstrated great loyalty to the king in what turned out to be a brief reign.
Refused to take Oath of Allegiance to King William
James II was deposed in 1688 during the "bloodless revolution." During his short reign, James fell under intense criticism for his autocratic manner of rule. Eventually he fled England for exile in Saint-Germain, France. As a result, the British Parliament offered William of Orange the English crown. When the new monarchs, William and Mary, assumed the throne, oaths of allegiance became a requirement for both the public and the clergy. William and Mary were Protestants, and the Finches remained loyal to the Catholic Stuart court, refusing to take the oath. They also viewed their oaths to the previous monarchy as morally binding and constant. But such a stance invited trouble. Heneage Finch lost his government position and retreated from public life. As the loss of his position entailed a loss of income, the Finches were forced to live with friends in London for a period. However, while living in the city the couple faced harassment, fines and potential imprisonment.
In April of 1690 Heneage Finch was arrested and charged with Jacobitism for attempting to join the exiled James II in France. It was a difficult time for Jacobites and Nonjurors (those who had refused to take the oath of allegiance, such as the Finches), as their arrests and punishments were abusive.
Because of his arrest, Heneage and Anne Finch remained separated from April until November of that year. Understandably, the circumstances caused the couple a great deal of emotional turmoil. Living with friends in Kent while her husband prepared his defense in London, Anne Finch often succumbed to bouts of depression, something that afflicted her for most of her adult life. The poems that she wrote during this period, such as "Ardelia to Melancholy," reflected her mental state. Other poems involved political themes. But all of her work was noticeably less playful and joyous than her earlier output.
Moved to Country Estate
After Heneage Finch was released and his case dismissed, his nephew Charles Finch, the fourth Earl of Winchelsea, invited the couple to permanently move into the family's Eastwell Park, Kent, estate. The Finches took up residence in late 1690 and found peace and security on the beautiful estate, where they would live for more than 25 years in the quiet countryside.
For Anne Finch, the estate provided a fertile and supportive environment for her literary efforts. Charles Finch was a patron of the arts and, along with Heneage Finch, he encouraged Anne's writing. Her husband's support was practical. He began collecting a portfolio of her 56 poems, writing them out by hand and making corrective changes. One significant change involved Anne's pen name. Heneage changed it from "Areta" to "Ardelia."
The peace and seclusion at Eastwell fostered the development of Finch's poetry, and the retirement in the country provided her with her most productive writing period. Her work revealed her growing knowledge of contemporary poetic conventions, and the themes she addressed included metaphysics, the beauty of nature (as expressed in "A Nocturnal Reverie"), and the value of friendship (as in "The Petition for an Absolute Retreat").
Returned to Public Life
By the early 1700s the political climate in England had generally improved for the Finches. King William died in 1702, and his death was followed by the succession to the throne of Queen Anne, the daughter of James II, who had died in 1701. With these developments, the Finches felt ready to embrace a more public lifestyle. Heneage Finch ran for a parliamentary seat three times (in 1701, 1705, and 1710), but was never elected. Still, the Finches felt the time was right to leave the seclusion of the country life and move into a house in London.
In London, Anne Finch was encouraged to publish her poetry under her own name. Earlier, in 1691, she had anonymously published some of her poetry. In 1701 she published "The Spleen" anonymously. This well-received reflection on depression would prove to be the most popular of her poems in her lifetime. When the Finches returned to London, Anne acquired some important and influential friends, including renowned writers such as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, who encouraged her to write and publish much more openly.
Still, Anne Finch was reluctant, as she felt the current social and political climate remained oppressive as far as women were concerned. (In her poem "The Introduction," which was privately circulated, she reflected on contemporary attitudes toward female poets.) When she published Miscellany Poems, on Several Occasions in 1713, the cover page of the first printing indicated that the collected works (which included 86 poems as well as a play) were "Written by a Lady." However, on subsequent printings, Finch (as Anne, Countess of Winchilsea) received credit as the author.
Anne Finch became Countess of Winchilsea upon the sudden and unexpected death of Charles Finch on August 4, 1712. As Charles Finch had no children, his uncle Heneage Finch became the Earl of Winchilsea, making Anne the Countess. However, the titles came with a cost. The Finches had to assume Charles Finch's financial and legal burdens. The issues were eventually settled in the Finches' favor in 1720, but not before the couple had endured nearly seven years of emotional strain.
During this period, Heneage and Anne Finch faced renewed strains resulting from court politics. When Queen Anne died in 1714, she was succeeded by George I. Subsequently, a Whig government, which was hostile to the Jacobite cause, rose to power. Further, the Jacobite rebellion, which took place in Scotland in 1715, further aggravated the tense political situation. The Finches became greatly concerned about their safety, especially after a friend, Matthew Prior, who shared their political sympathies, was sent to prison.
Suffered Deteriorating Health
All of the worries combined to take a toll on Anne Finch's health, which began to seriously deteriorate. For years she had been vulnerable to depression, and in 1715 she became seriously ill. Her later poems reflected her turmoil. In particular, "A Suplication for the joys of Heaven" and "A Contemplation" expressed her concerns about her life and political and spiritual beliefs.
She died in London on August 5, 1720. Her body was taken back to Eastwell where she was buried, according to her previously stated wishes. Her husband produced an obituary that praised her talents as a writer and her virtues as an individual. A portion of it read, "To draw her Ladyship's just Character, requires a masterly Pen like her own (She being a fine Writer, and an excellent Poet); we shall only presume to say, she was the most faithful Servant to her Royall Mistresse, the best Wife to her Noble Lord, and in every other Relation, publick and private, so illustrious an Example of such extraordinary Endowments, both of Body and Mind, that the Court of England never bred a more accomplished Lady, nor the Church of England a better Christian." Heneage Finch died in 1726.
The only major collection of Anne Finch's writings that appeared in her lifetime was Miscellany Poems, on Several Occasions. Nearly a century after her death her poetic output had been largely forgotten, until the great English poet William Wordsworth praised her nature poetry in an essay included in his 1815 volume Lyrical Ballads.
A major collection titled The Poems of Anne, Countess of Winchilsea, edited by Myra Reynolds, was published in 1903. For many years it was considered the definitive collection of her writings. It remains the first and only scholarly collection of Finch's poetry, and includes all of the poems from Miscellany Poems and poems retrieved from manuscripts. Further, Reynolds's impressive introduction did as much to re-establish Finch's reputation as Wordsworth's previous praise.
Later, The Wellesley Manuscript, which contained 53 unpublished poems, was released. Literary scholars have noted Finch's distinctive voice and her poems' intimacy, sincerity, and spirituality. They also expressed appreciation for her experimentation as well as her assured usage of Augustan diction and forms.
British Writers, Supplement IX, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2004.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 95: Eighteenth-Century British Poets, First Series, Gale Group, 1990.
"Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661–1720)," A Celebration of Women Writers, http://www.digital.library.upenn.edu/women/finch/finch-anne.html (December 9, 2006).
"Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661–1720)," The Literary Encyclopedia, http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=1531 (December 9, 2006)
"Biography of Anne Kingsmill Finch," PoemHunters.com, http://www.poemhunter.com/anne-kingsmill-finch/biography/ (December 9, 2006).