COWPER, WILLIAM (1731-1800, poet) and HARRIET COWPER, Lady HESKETH (1733-1807)
A CELEBRATED EXCHANGE OF LETTERS. James King described Lady Hesketh's letter as 'perhaps the most important letter he was ever to receive (William Cowper, 1986, p. 158). King comments at length on the exchange (pp. 158-167) - it is one of the high-points in Cowper's life. Lady Hesketh was Cowper's first cousin and intimate friend.
Possibly the best-known retelling of the episode is that by David Cecil in The Stricken Deer: 'One morning he was excited to receive a letter in a familiar hand. He tore it open, to be faced with the demonstrative, opinionated, entertaining, helter-skelter style, the heavily underlined writing of Harriet Hesketh. She had read his poems; she thought them perfectly delightful; she had felt she must get into communication with him again. Cowper was overjoyed...Harriet was associated with some of the pleasantest days of his life...all the forgotten beloved scenes of the past crowded in a glowing memory before his mind's eye. He hurried from the table and wrote off an enthusiastic letter of thanks...his renewed friendship with Lady Hesketh...engaged his attention as no personal relationship had done since his first meeting with Lady Austen five years before: he neglected all his other correspondents in order to write to her' (1933 edition, pp. 212-213).
Cowper's letter is published, with the first page illustrated, in The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, ii, edited by James King and Charles Ryskamp (1981), pp. 380-384, with extracts from Lady Hesketh's letter quoted p. 380 n. 1.
(1) COWPER (WILLIAM) AUTOGRAPH LETTER SIGNED ('Wm Cowper)', to Lady Hesketh ('My dear Cousin'), later inscribed by her at the head, furnishing her with his autobiography in the years they did not correspond but in which he secured his reputation as a poet, and telling her of the forces that drive him ('...My dear Cousin, Dejection of Spirits, which I suppose may have prevented many a man from becoming an Author, made me one. I find constant employment necessary, and therefore take care to be constantly employ'd. Manual occupations do not engage the mind sufficiently...But composition [especiall]y of verse, absorbs it wholly. I write therefore generally three hours in a morning, and in an Evening I transcribe...'); the letter begins with a dazzling evocation of their friendship in the prelapsian days before his breakdown and expressions of his great pleasure in hearing from her and in his memories of her:
'It is no new thing with you to give pleasure, but I will venture to say that you do not often give more than you gave me this morning. When I came down to breakfast and found upon the table a Letter frank'd by my Uncle, and when opening that frank I found that it contained a letter from you, I said within myself, this is just as it should be; We are all grown young again, and the days that I thought I should see no more are actually returned. You perceive therefore that you judged well when you conjectured that a line from you would not be disagreeable to me. It could not be otherwise, that as in fact it proved, a most agreeable surprize, for I can truly boast of an affection for you that neither years nor interrupted intercourse have at all abated. I need only recollect how much I valued you once, and with how much cause, immediately to feel a revival of the same value; if it can be said to revive, which at the most has only been dormant for want of employment. But I slander it when I say that it has slept. a thousand times have I recollected a thousand scenes in which our two selves have formed the whole of the Drama, with the greatest pleasure; at times too when I had no reason to suppose that I should ever hear from you again. I have laugh'd with you at the Arabian Nights Entertainment, which afforded us, as you well know, a fund of merriment that deserves never to be forgot. I have walked with you to Nettley Abbey, and have scrambled with you over hedges in every direction, and many other feats we have performed together...the hours that I spent with you were among the pleasantest of my former days, and are therefore chronicled in my mind so deeply as to fear no erasure...'
The letter covers many aspects of his life including his recent troubles ('...That I am happy in my situation is true. I live and have lived these 20 years with Mrs. Unwin, to whose affectionate care of me during the far greater part of that time, it is under Providence owing, that I live at all. But I do not account myself happy in having been for 13 of those years in a state of mind that has made all that care and attention necessary...'); his fixed way of life ('...You ask me where I have been this Summer - I answer, at Olney. Should you ask me where I spent the last 17 Summers I should still answer Olney. Ay - and the Winters also. I have seldom left it...'); his recent publications ('...My book is called the Task. I would order you one from the Booksellers, were the Publication now my own. but being rather, as you know, of the least opulent of those who may be called Gentleman Rhimers, I cannot afford to print at my own expence, and am therefore forced to make a present of the Copy...'); and the much-loved animals in his household ('...My poor Puss is in good health, except a Cough which never troubled her 'till this day. Herself, a Housedog and a small Spaniel, were just now basking in the beams of our fire-side, very comfortably in a group, but the great beast Mungo desired to let into the Kitchen just before I could tell you so. He is very fond of Puss, often salutes her with his black muzzle, and licks her face. the bread that she happens to leave is his constant perquisite, so that he may not be altogether disinterested in his attachment...'); he also comments on her father and on filial affection ('...to have that late day enlivened with the vivacity of youth, is much more, and in these post-diluvian times a rarity indeed. Happy for the most part are parents who have daughters. Daughters are not apt to outlive their natural affections, which a Son has generally survived even before his boyish years are expired. I rejoice particularly in my Uncles felicity who has three female descendants from his little person, who leave him nothing to wish for on that head...') and tells her that 'Olney is Direction enough. Mr. Newton is now Minister of St. Woolnoth, and has been several years...'
4 pages, quarto, seal tear when opened with the loss of a few letters, inscribed at head by Lady Hesketh ('This was in Answer to a letter written to me Oct 12 -85 after a Silence of some years during which I had been Abroad. He had been extremely ill - and I was deeply engaged for 3 yrs after my Return to England by the illness and death of my very dear friends!') and numbered '1' (evidently by Harriet), autograph address panel inscribed by Lady Hesketh ('First letter in answer to one I sent him after some years Silence. H'), straight line 'OULNEY' postmark, guarded onto a large sheet of handmade paper, [Olney], 12 October 1785
Cowper is widely accepted as one of the great exponents of the letter as an art form. John King comments specifically on his letters to Lady Hesketh: '...Lady Hesketh is the muse of the letters, for it is in his elegantly contrived and honestly expressed letters to her that the fullest force and vitality of his prose is found. Although Lady Hesketh's role as a muse was not public, it was very real, and Cowper's most beautiful letters are suffused with his affection for her' (James King, William Cowper, 1986, p. 173).
(2) HESKETH (Lady HARRIET) AUTOGRAPH LETTER SIGNED ('Harriet Hesketh'), to William Cowper (variously called in the letter 'Friend', 'my good Cuz:', 'my old Friend', 'Amiable Cousin', 'my dear Cuz:', and 'my dear Cousin'), writing after eighteen years silence and opening 'Will you not be surprised my dear Cousin at receiving a letter at this distant period from an old Correspondent, and still older Friend? one who tho she has long neglected to be the former, can never cease to be the latter nor can ever forget the many happy hours, & years, of friendly Intercourse, wch she formerly enjoy'd with her valuable Friend, & Relation, Wm Cowper!...'; assuring him that she is still alive and in perfect health, informing him that she has often heard of him and kept up 'a sort of silent Intercourse' with him, following his literary career and mentioning in particular his verses on the death of his hare Tiney and 'John Gilpen', giving a full account of the circumstances of her life in the intervening years mentioning allusively the death of her husband and his kindness and generosity to her; she also describes her recent trip to Margate which she largely did for the benefit of her father ('...'tis so different from the Generality of sea Coasts, which seldom afford any view of the sea and sky...I hardly ever saw any Country more highly Cultivated than the Isle of Thanet, there is such a profusion of Corn, Beans, and Clover, that the Air is perfume'd with the two latter in the highest degree...'), tells him of her father's removal to Chelsea ('...the dear little soul seems to enjoy as large a share of health, & spirits, as he could have done at Twenty...') where he is living with her sister [Theodora] but at the cost of the latter's capacity for friendship and welfare ('...I confess I think the Society of ones friends, or to speak perhaps more properly, of ones Intimates, form the greatest Comfort of life, & I wish for life no longer than I am able to enjoy that Society...it wd be better for her, who is not the strongest person in the World, if she had more assistance in a Task, which however pleasing, is rather too much to sustain alone...'), she recommends a periodical paper, the 'Mirror' ('...these Papers have many Beautys, & please me, in whatever Mood they find me...')
6 pages, quarto, free frank address panel (care of John Newton, Olney) in the hand of her father [Cowper's uncle] Ashley Cowper, Clerk of the Parliaments, later inscribed by Harriet Hesketh 'Mr Newton had left Olney long before I wrote but that I did not know' and 'This letter occasion'd His to me mark'd One', her name written large in a calligraphic hand and surrounded by a double-line box, guarded onto a large sheet of handmade paper just clipping some letters, some very minor dust-staining and wear at folds (repaired), seal tear in blank area (filled), good impression of armorial seal, Bishop Mark, docketed with the date possibly by Cowper, New Norfolk Street, Grosvenor Square, 10 October 
'...and now I talk of literary Performances pray tell me the title of the Book you publish'd lately? Mrs. Maitland ask'd me in her last letter, whether I had read it? she praises it highly, but as she don't name the title, I am quite in the Dark - I was most pleas'd with yr verses in the Gentlemans Magazine upon ye Death of little Tiney, one of your 3 Hares, of whom I find you some Months before made honorable mention...but write what you will - nothing will, or ever can equal that most truly Delectable history of John Gilpin! - you know I suppose the Rage that prevail'd for it, all last winter, when it was recited by Henderson at freemasons Hall! by sev'ral others upon the stage! hung up in print shops! - sung in the streets, & in short was in ev'ry bodys Mouth, and in ev'ry Body's Rooms!, 'tis to be sure of all droll things the Drollest, and brings my Dear Cuz: and all his Comical, pleasant Ideas, so strongly to my Mind, that I believe it has some share in producing this letter...'
Harriet Hesketh and Cowper are thought to have disagreed in 1767 about religious matters; she had disliked 'extremely' the 'methodistical Cant' with which she felt Cowper then filled his letters. Despite their 'sincere affection' and that she had at one time entertained the idea of marrying him they drifted apart; also she was jealous of the attachment between Cowper and her sister Theodora. Mrs Thrale classified Lady Harriet as one of the three 'Women I like the best in the World'. The renewed contact with her effected by her letter brought the social world and the best moments from the past to his attention once more. She also helped him with Homer, enlisted subscribers, and led the negotiations with his publisher. She moved for five months to Olney and was instrumental in his removal to Weston Underwood. For the rest of his life she proved to be a loyal friend, confidante and advisor and took a large part of the responsibility for his welfare.