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Anne Kingsmill Finch – ‘Versifying’ Librettist of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis

Alas! a woman that attempts the pen,
Such an intruder on the rights of men,
Such a presumptuous Creature, is esteem’d,
The fault, can by no vertue be redeem’d.

[from The Introduction by Anne Kingsmill Finch]

For 300 years, the libretto for the earliest surviving opera in English, John Blow’s masterful setting of the classic tale of Venus and Adonis, has been assigned to the oeuvre of the remarkably prolific ‘Anonymous’. However, English Literature scholar James A. Winn has recently argued persuasively that the graceful and elegant re-casting of Ovid rife with parody, and often sarcastic, commentary on the manners of the court of Charles II, is in fact the work of Anne Kingsmill, later Finch, who was a maid in honor of the Duchess of York, Marie of Modena, at the time when Blow’s ‘entertainment for the King’ was written and performed.

Considered the finest English women poet before the 19th century, Anne (1661-1720) felt constrained to anonymity through most of her life and perhaps as a result has still failed to achieve the status her sparkling, often witty and always committed poetic voice deserves.

The daughter of Sir William Kingsmill of Sidmonton, near Southampton, and Anne Haslewood, Anne’s childhood was scarred by the loss of both her parents and frequent displacement, often the result of familial legal wrangling. Her father took care in his will to provide, not only for the material support of his daughters, but also for their education and Anne learned classics, Greek and Roman mythology, the Bible, French, Italian, history, poetry and drama.

“The Kingsmills and Haslewoods were strong Anglicans and devoted supporters of the Stuart royalty. In 1682, Anne Kingsmill went to St. James Palace to become a Maid of Honour to Mary of Modena (wife of James, Duke of York, who later became King James II.) Anne Kingsmill enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of the ‘Court of Wits’, in spite of the Wits’ frequent antipathy towards women. Seeing the hostile treatment accorded to Anne Killigrew, who she may have known, Anne Kingsmill kept her own early attempts at poetry a secret. She became close to Mary of Modena, reflecting on their relationship and her time at Court years later in the memorial poem “On the Death of the Queen.” [source]

A maid of honour in such a public environment as the court would have ample reason to keep her authorship secret.  The erotic language of several passages, though mild for the period, would have been deemed inappropriate for a young lady at court and the general attitude toward the learned expression of women at the time caused Finch to wait until late in life to publicly acknowledge her authorship of her poetry. In the prose preface to a manuscript collection of her poetry apparently assembled during the 1690s, Anne commented:

‘itt is still a great satisfaction to me, that I was not so far abandond by my prudence, as out of a mistaken vanity, to lett any attempts of mine in Poetry shew themselves whilst I livd in such a publick place as the Court, where every one would have made their remarks upon a Versifying Maid of Honour; and far greater number with prejudice, if not contempt.”

Winn’s case for attributing the libretto of Venus & Adonis is based numerous and frequent verbal parallels between Venus and Adonis and later works by Finch as well as her presence in the ducal court at the time. As he explains:

“[T]he circumstances of Anne Kingsmill’s brief service at court make her a plausible candidate for the authorship of Venus and Adonis. She was in the right place at the right time, had interests in mythology, pastoral eroticism and music that could easily  find expression in the writing of a court masque, and had strong reasons to desire anonymity.”

While at Court, Anne met the Heneage Finch, a courtier, soldier, and Groom of the Bedchamber to James, Duke of York, to whom she was married in 1685. Though she was initially resistant to Heneage’s proposal, the marriage turned out a particularly happy one, and Anne made frequent reference to her conjugal bliss in her poetry, including many poems dedicated to Heneage, who encouraged and actively supported her writing.

In 1688, after the Glorious Revolution, the young couple refused to swear loyalty to the new Protestant Monarchs considering their previous oaths to James II morally binding. This led to their banishment from court and several years of harassment until they eventually settled in Eastwell, the home of the Earl of Winchilsea, who was Heneage’s nephew.

While many at the time would have felt this banishment to the countryside as unbearable exile, Anne thrived in this rural environment and a her poetry is imbued with a deep reverence for nature and a delight in the bucolic pleasures of Eastwell. Several of her poems found there way into anthologies and miscellanies, though always without attribution.

After two almost two decades at Eastwell, the Finches, risking political reprisals, returned to London where Anne became friends with Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, who both championed her work. When his nephew died without a son in 1712, Heneage became fifth Earl of Winchilsea and Anne became countess. The next year a collection of 86 of her poems was published, first anonymously, though subsequent editions bore her name. She died in 1720.

At least one more poem by Anne Finch was set to music during her lifetime. One of her lyrics, “Love, thou art best”, was published (anonymously of course) in a popular collection of songs in the 1680s and attracted the attention of Henry Purcell, who set it to music. Here’s a performance by Brandywine Baroque from their album O Sweet Delight of Love, featuring Magnificat’s own Laura Heimes together with tenor Tony Boutté.
[audio:http://blog.magnificatbaroque.com/audio/Henry Purcell_ Love Thou Art Best.mp3]

LOVE, thou art best of Human Joys,
Our chiefest Happiness below;
All other Pleasures are but Toys,
Musick without Thee is but Noise,
And Beauty but an empty Show.

Heav’n, who knew best what Man wou’d move,
And raise his Thoughts above the Brute;
Said, Let him Be, and let him Love;
That must alone his Soul improve,
Howe’er Philosophers dispute.


Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1621-1720)

Anne Kingsmill Finch, Countess of Winchilsea: poetry, biography and sources, by Ellen Moody

Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources