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Christopher Anstey: A life in 18th century Bath
Poetry Lecture convened by Janet Cunliffe-Jones
Biographer & Editor
16 November 2005
A volume of Christopher Anstey’s Life & Works, edited & published by his son John, in 1808,
from the BRLSI’s collection, was on display at the lecture. The Poetry Group had collected money
to have it rebound, under the BRLSI adopt-a-book scheme.
The lecture, illustrated with many slides, began with a reference in Macaulay’s History of England, (1850s) to: ‘Bath... that beautiful city, which the genius of Anstey and of Smollett, of Frances Burney and of Jane Austen, has made classic ground’.
Anstey’s fame rests on the success of two works, The New Bath Guide (1766) and An Election Ball (1776). Both are epistolary, written as if from Bath, and both written in a particular metre – anapaestic tetrameters. (The best-known example of this metre is Byron’s The Destruction of Sennacherib –
The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold . . . )
Anstey is primarily remembered for his association with Bath, which covered the last forty years of his life, the period when most of his published poetry was written. He was born at Brinkley, Cambridgeshire, in 1724, and educated at Eton and King’s College Cambridge. He became a fellow of King’s in 1745, and a BA in 1746, but was refused an MA. He makes a joking reference to this refusal:
At Granta, sweet Granta, where studious of ease,
Seven years did I sleep, and then lost my degrees.
He studied at the Middle Temple, but never practised as a lawyer; nor did he serve as an MP, as sometimes stated, though he was High Sherriff for Cambridge and Huntingdon 1770/71.His father died in 1751, and his mother in 1754, leaving Christopher at 30 the owner of the manor house and estate of Anstey Hall, Trumpington, built in the late 17th century, a fine building of dull red brick, with Ionic columns supporting the pediment. He married Ann Calvert in January 1756, and for the next 15 years, during which thirteen children were born, he lived the life of a country squire. His first visit to Bath was in the late 1750s, and many visits followed in the 1760s. His main residence was still Trumpington when The New Bath Guide was published in 1766.
Horace Walpole commented in a letter a month after the publication,
What pleasure you have to come! There is a new thing published called The New Bath Guide. It stole into the world and for a fortnight no soul looked into it, concluding its name was its true name. No such thing. It is a set of letters in verse, in all kinds of verses, describing the life at Bath, and incidentally every-thing else – but so much wit, so much fun, poetry, so much originality.
As Walpole indicates, The New Bath Guide is not a guide book in the accepted sense but comprises the memoirs, in poetical epistles, of a group of visitors to Bath in 1766. The group consists of Simkin, Prudence, Jenny and the maid, Tabitha. Jenny introduces them:
For now she (Simkins’ mother) sends both son and daughter
For crudities to drink the water
And here they are, all bile and spleen,
The strangest fish that e’er were seen (Letter I 58-61)
A characteristic feature of fashionable life in 18th century Bath was that it was lived in public. This was a deliberate policy, initiated by Beau Nash, who created a daily routine for visitors. Jenny describes this:
O, the charming parties made!
Some to walk the South Parade,
Some to Lincomb’s shady groves,
Or to Simpson’s proud alcoves;
Some for Chapel trip away,
Then take places for the play. (Letter IX 55 – 60)
(Simpson’s rooms, damaged by fire in 1820, were finally demolished in 1933.)
Most of the letters are written by Simkin, the young squire, and, at first, concentrate on the daily routine for invalids. He describes an encounter with his doctor.
He looked very thoughtful and grave to be sure,
And I said to myself – there’s no hopes of a cure!
But I thought I should faint when I saw him dear Mother,
Feel my pulse with one hand, with a watch in the other,
No token of death that is heard in the night
Could ever have put me so much in a fright
Thinks I – ‘tis all over – my sentence is past!
And now he is counting how long I may last. (Letter II 23 – 30)
(A slide showed a contemporary picture The Consultation with the Doctor, by John Sneyd. An instrument was used to measure the pulse, though not widely known until the 19th century)
All the ceremonies associated with Beau Nash to welcome visitors to Bath are observed by Simkin – the newspaper advertisement, the visit by the City Waits, the peal of Abbey bells. When he gets to the Baths, he watches the proceedings with a mixture of lechery and incredulity.
Twas a glorious sight to behold the fair sex
All wading with gentlemen up to their necks,
And view them so prettily tumble and sprawl
In a great smoking kettle as big as our hall. (Letter VI 46 –49)
There are letters on gambling, fashions, a ball, and a public breakfast, and references and tributes to Beau Nash.
Yet here no confusion, no tumult is known,
Fair order and beauty establish their throne;
Fair order and beauty and just regulation
Support all the works of this ample creation . . .
Long reigned the great Nash, this omnipotent Lord,
Respected by Youth and by parents adored. (Letter XI. 52 – 55 and 75 – 76)
One letter, written by Prudence, is the shortest, and most notorious, describing her seduction by an evangelical preacher:
Blessed I, tho’ once rejected
Like a little wand’ring sheep
Who this morning was elected
By a vision in my sleep;
For I dream’d an apparition
Came like Roger from above
Saying by divine commission
I must fill you full of love. (Letter XIV 9-16)
Anstey uses names to comic effect, such as Cormorant, Raggamuffen, Bunbutter, and
My Lady Stuff-Damask and Peggy Moreen
Who both flew to Bath in the London machine. (Letter XIII 109 – 110)
Anstey was 42 when he wrote The New Bath Guide, which went to its tenth edition within ten years. The publisher Dodsley paid £250 for the copyright – and generously returned it to the author for nothing in 1777. Another measure of the poem’s success was that the verse form became known as ‘Anstey measure’, or ‘Bath Guide verse’.
Having been a regular visitor to Bath during the 1760s, Anstey moved from his Trumpington Manor House to live in Bath in the early 1770s. In Bath, Anstey tutored his sons, rode, gardened, and enjoyed the social life of tea, cards, balls and theatres.
Soon after his arrival Anstey attended the literary salon at Batheaston, instituted by Lady Miller. His first major poem of the 1770s, The Priest Dissected, was written to defend himself and the salon against abuse by anonymous writers in the papers. It is a very personal poem:
But why at me? Whom far from party rage
No furious schemes of politics engage;
From wealth, from honours, and from courts removed
I’ve kept the silent path my genius loved,
And pity’d those whom fortune oft beguiles,
With flatt’ring hopes from false ambition’s smiles;
After two editions, the poem was supressed – probably because Anstey had wrongly identified his anonymous attacker. However, the vendetta resulted in a friendship with C W Bampfylde, whose concern and support for Anstey laid the foundation for a deep friendship lasting until Bampfylde’s death in 1791. Another close friend who sometimes attended the salon was David Garrick.
Much of Anstey’s later poetry was inspired by or presented at Lady Miller’s, the most important being An Election Ball. Its final edition, of 1787 contained six illustrations by Bampfylde. A ball, such as that described in the poem, was held on December 4th 1775 to celebrate the return to parliament of Sir John Sebright, whom Anstey described in a letter as "a very worthy and agreeable man."
The story of An Election Ball is that of Madge Inkle, who, thrilled to be invited to the ball, creates a magnificent head-dress, crowned with feathers from the rump of a live cockerel.
As sure as I live there was Madge in her smock
Laying hard at the tail of our old dunghill cock!
She plucked it and pulled it and tore from the stump
All the feathers which clothed his unfortunate rump,
And away to her toilet her image to view
On the wings of impatience and rapture she flew,
While Susan behind, with a simper and leer,
Unmoved heard the clamours of poor Chanticleer.
The primary concerns of the poem are taste and fashion; there is satire on the outrageous head-dresses for women and the macaroni style for men, with coats short and tight and cut away to sloping skirts, breeches skin tight. When Billy Dasher invites Madge to dance,
His air was so pleasing, so soft were his speeches,
Not to mention his new satin flesh-coloured breeches,
With a shoe like a sauce boat and steeple-clocked hose,
And a silken soubise that bobbed up to his nose.
There are numerous digressions on topics as diverse as school-teaching methods, electoral practices and Captain Cook’s voyages to the South Seas.
An attractive portrait of Christopher Anstey by William Hoare, in the late 1770s, shows Anstey seated with pen poised over paper while his daughter Mary, holding a doll with a head-dress remarkably similar to that of Madge Inkle, seeks to attract his attention.
Anstey’s satire was generally directed against human follies and types, rather than individuals, but there were exceptions, as when he referred to the marriage of the historian Catherine Macaulay, aged 47, to a 22-year-old surgeon’s mate:
You have no other physical course to pursue,
Than to take a young husband, your spring to renew;
You may take him – I think – at – about twenty two! (Winter Amusements)
Lady Miller’s sudden death at forty, in 1781, put an end to the literary assemblies in Batheaston, and for a long time Anstey’s muse was silent. He wrote in a letter that year, ‘The very long journeys I used to take towards Parnassus I have reason to think did my constitution no good, and I had determined never to mount the muse’s steed any more’.
The 1780s started with the Gordon riots. Anstey was in London, but returned to Bath, where there were also No-Popery riots. In this decade, Anstey met Fanny Burney. She had described The New Bath Guide as ‘so excellent, so diverting, so original a satire’, but when she met Anstey she found him ‘shyly important and silently proud’. There was a difference of thirty years in their ages, and perhaps Anstey was practising what has been described as ‘that silence which is the strongest and most delicate satire on the insignificance and nothingness of small-talk’. In these years, Anstey often visited CW Bampfylde at Hestercombe House near Taunton. Bampfylde supplied him with Cider. Other friends included Col. Isaac Barre, Hannah Moore, Sir William Draper, and Warren Hastings.
A major activity resulted from Anstey’s appointment to the Committee of Bath General Hospital (The Mineral Water Hospital). He served on this committee 1781–1795. Anstey composed the Appeal, printed 1785, which hung in the Pump Rooms, of which it was said, ‘No discourse from the pulpit, by the most eloquent of orators, would strike deeper into the heart.’ His last major contribution was his involvement with the contract and supervision of the building of the Attic Storey.
Events in France in 1789, and subsequent war brought Anstey much anxiety. With his son John he joined at the Guildhall the Bath Association for Preserving Liberty, Property and the Constitution of Great Britain against Republicans and Levellers.
After a barren decade, Anstey’s muse returned. We see the influence of Hannah More and morality in two poems, The Farmer’s Daughter and Contentment. Other poems were topical such as Britain’s Genius, which lamented the tragedy of the sailors’ mutiny at the Nore in 1797.
List, oh list! If mid confusion,
Reason’s voice your ear can gain,
Wakened from your curs’d delusion,
Hear me speak, no hear in vain. . . .
To old England firm and hearty,
And obedient to her laws,
Sailors own no other party
Than their King’s and Country’s cause.
In November 1798, Bath celebrated Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile. Anstey decorated the outside of his house with a portrait of King George III and a quotation from Shakespeare.
Throughout his life Anstey composed verses in Latin, and his final published work was a Latin Ode in praise of Dr. Jenner for his work on vaccination against smallpox.
Anstey had enjoyed good health throughout his life, but in 1805, his 80th year, he experienced a weariness and general deterioration. He died in August that year at the house of his daughter Caroline in Wiltshire. His remains are interred in St. Swithins Church, Walcot. A monument was erected in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey.
We started with a 19th Century quotation from Macaulay, and can finish with a 20th Century quotation from John Betjeman’s The Newest Bath Guide, published in the 1960s:
It is two hundred years since he got in his stride
And cantered away with the New Bath Guide,
His spondees and dactyls had quite a success,
And several editions were called from the press.
That Guidebook consisted of letters in rhyme
On the follies and fashions of Bath at the time.
Christopher Anstey. The New Bath Guide, (ed) Gavin Turner (Bristol, Broadcast Books,1994); Christopher Anstey: An Election Ball (ed) Gavin Turner (Bristol, Broadcast Books, 1997). Both are still available.
Turner, Gavin. Christopher Anstey: A Life in Eighteenth Century Bath (Broadcast Books, 2005).
Some questions followed:
When did Mrs. Miller become Lady Miller? John Miller was awarded an Irish baronetcy in 1778 – quite late in his wife’s life, but she is always referred to as Lady Miller.
Did Captain Miller acquire his title by making a contribution to government funds? This is probably true. Like Anstey he also served on the board of the Bath Hospital, but the proceeds from the book which was published with contributions to the salon went to another hospital – which became the RUH. (There is a copy of this in the BRLSI collection)
Did Anstey know Ralph Allen? There is no evidence. Allen died in 1762 or 3 – before Anstey became well-known as a writer. They could have met, but there is no record.
There was a question about the status of the Epilogue to the New Bath Guide. Gavin Turner said that it had been published very shortly after the Guide, and was usually included in subsequent editons. But Horace Walpole had thought badly of it. Turner said that although there were good things in the Epilogue, in his opinion it destroyed the unity and structure of the original Guide. It consisted of an apology for any offence. Turner has relegated it to an appendix in his edition, as it does the Guide no favours.
What has happened to Anstey Hall Trumpington? It is now in the possession of the Ministry of Agriculture. The outside can be seen.
Geraldine Lindley, who kindly chaired the meeting on behalf of Janet Cunliffe-Jones, thanked Gavin Turner for his ‘discursive, witty, well-researched and beautifully illustrated talk’.