The Folger Manuscript Book of Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea

Anne Finch manuscript book
This manuscript book of poems by Anne Finch is part of the Folger Shakespeare Library collection. N.b.3. (Photo: Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet)

The Folger’s outstanding collection is usually associated with Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but scholars who focus on women writers of Restoration and eighteenth-century literature know that the Folger holds the most important manuscript book of the works of poet and playwright Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661–1720). Admired by writers as different as Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and, in the Romantic era, William Wordsworth, Finch’s work has increasingly attracted readers in our era.

This volume, known to Finch scholars as simply “The Folger Manuscript,” is an imposing folio, completed by 1701 or 1702, titled “Miscellany Poems With Two Plays By Ardelia” (her pen name). Its impressive size and deluxe binding reveal the significance she and others accorded the book. Its covers hold the largest and most diverse collection of her works, intended to be read by her family and an extended network of friends.

Anne FinchBorn Anne Kingsmill, Finch would produce an oeuvre deeply shaped by her early, intimate experience at the Stuart court. In 1682, she served as Maid of Honor to Mary Beatrice, the second wife of the Duke of York, the future King James II. As a court insider and participant in Mary Beatrice’s circle of international women writers and artists, Finch would prove that the bonds forged there between her political and artistic convictions were unbreakable. Even after marrying Heneage Finch in 1684, she remained in this circle because of her husband’s position in James’s court. But soon their lives would be shattered: with the Revolution of 1688, James II was driven from the throne to be replaced, ultimately, by William and Mary.

By the time the Folger Manuscript was completed, Finch and her husband had lived for years in internal exile in the English countryside. Heneage, charged with treason in 1690 on being discovered as he attempted to leave for France to defend the Stuart cause, would eventually see the charges dismissed. But watched by authorities and never permitted to leave England, he lost all means of income: the Finches depended on friends and family to house and support them.

Denied the future of serving his king, Heneage soon became Finch’s primary amanuensis—a highly unusual role for a husband to adopt in this era. Her handwriting indicates why she needed someone to transcribe fair copies of her work. In the few examples that have survived, the letters are sometimes awkwardly formed, making her hand difficult, though not impossible, to read. All of the Folger Manuscript was transcribed by Heneage, but it holds important clues about the authority that Finch appears to have maintained over the manuscript. Several corrections in the folio have been made in her hand. We cannot know fully Heneage’s possible changes (intentional or unintentional) to her works when he produced fair copies. Given the gender norms of the era, we might expect that some husbands would censor elements of their wives’ compositions. But Finch’s corrections to Heneage’s transcriptions in the Folger Manuscript evince her assertion of authorial control. Further evidence of his intention to reproduce her work faithfully appears in his will dated 1726 (now at the National Archives, Kew). There, he specified that, should any of his relations and executors publish Finch’s work, “I would have them very carefully printed as she left them without any manner of alteration[:] her own words best Expressing her own thoughts.”

For most of her life, Finch chose to circulate collections of her work in manuscript books only. (She did submit several individual poems to be printed in multi-authored miscellanies throughout her career, but for most of her life she adamantly refused to have a volume of her work printed.) The readers she desired were ones whose judgment she respected—not the unknown and, what she saw as contentious, reading public of print. The Folger Manuscript includes the works in her canon that are most explicitly proto-feminist and Jacobite (i.e., supporting King James II and his successors in the exile after the Revolution of 1688). The volume’s contents tell us that she expected these “fit . . . though few” readers to understand, if not necessarily agree with, her subversive political values and her innovative poetic standards. Only the Folger Manuscript preserves this critique of women’s constraints in marriage described in her poem “The unequal Fetters” (lines 16–17):

Mariage does but slightly tye Men
Whilst close Pris’ners we remain[.]

And only this manuscript includes the authorized transcription of Finch’s potentially seditious praise of King James II in the elegy that concludes the volume. Although this incendiary poem did reach print, Finch’s anonymity was preserved in that medium: all three pamphlets thus far located attribute the elegy to “a Lady.”

For the complete contents of the Folger Manuscript and detailed information about its material features and the contexts of its works, readers may consult Volume 1—Early Manuscript Books—of the first scholarly edition of Finch’s work, the two-volume Cambridge Edition of the Works of Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea. Complementing the print edition is an open-access digital archive that provides detailed information about featured poems: The Anne Finch Digital Archive.

Jennifer Keith and Michael Witmore
Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet

The libretto for John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, considered the earliest English opera, has been attributed to Finch. In collaboration with Opera Lafayette, the Folger Shakespeare Library held an event on November 14, 2019, to explore the libretto, Finch’s life and work, and other female literary voices of the Restoration era. A conversation between Folger Shakespeare Library Director Michael Witmore and Dr. Jennifer Keith was followed by an exhibition of related rare materials from the Folger collection.

⇒ Related: Venus and Adonis: The classical myth that inspired Shakespeare’s epic poem and John Blow’s 17th-century opera