- Anne Finch as Playwright:The Purposes of Manuscript and Print in Her Pro-Stuart Plays
When Heneage Finch transcribed his wife’s selected writings into a folio manuscript after James II’s death in September 1701, he preserved two plays essential for understanding both Anne Finch’s artistic development and her method of political intervention.1 The Triumphs of Love and Innocence (c. 1688-1690) and Aristomenes (c. 1690) participated in a mode, like songs and occasional verse, favored by writers in Finch’s courtly milieu. The plays reflect her experimentation with various genres, as she composed first a tragicomedy in which the evil are banished and the good rewarded, and next, a tragedy about a charismatic but flawed ruler and his conflicted children. Both plays reveal Finch as an avid student of favorite dramatists, such as Shakespeare and Otway. The plays also show that like her peers at James II’s court, Finch intended her plays to comment on contemporary political events through well-established literary devices and subtle allusions. For various reasons, Finch’s plays have not been sufficiently examined, especially in their political dimensions. But attention to the political implications of Finch’s plays, both in manuscript and print, support arguments that Finch intended her writings to encourage positive reaction to James’s policies while he was king, and afterward, support for his restoration. In this essay, I argue the importance of Finch’s manuscripts to informed consideration of her writings, and particularly that study of Finch’s plays in their manuscript and, in one case, printed version supports interpretations of Finch’s works as politically dynamic. Indeed, Finch’s purposeful revisions of Aristomenes for print demonstrate her support for the Stuart cause during the critical year preceding Anne’s death. I conclude that a standard critical edition of Finch’s writings, providing access to Finch’s revisions throughout her canon, is urgently needed to advance scholarship on her work, in its political and all other dimensions.
Critical consensus has declared Anne Finch “the best woman poet of the [eighteenth] century,” and her Miscellany Poems, on Several Occasions (1713) “the most accomplished [End Page 19] volume of poems published by a woman between 1660 and 1789.”2 Despite her prominence, however, there has been to date no complete critical edition of Finch’s writings. Lack of ready access to thorough annotation, textual variants, and the original order of presentation has impeded, but not deterred, serious discussion of her work. Yet Finch’s methods, style, and purposes, like those of other writers, are best understood after careful study of both manuscript and print witnesses. Since the late nineteen-nineties, for example, scholars have paid increased attention to the political aspects of Finch’s approximately two hundred forty poems and two plays, extant in three manuscript collections and several contemporary miscellanies as well as in the 1713 edition.3 Particularly influential have been studies by those privileged to peruse Finch’s manuscripts housed in the Northamptonshire, U.K., Record Office and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. After comparing the Folger’s folio manuscript with later, printed versions of Finch’s verse, for example, Carol Barash interpreted Finch to have adjusted her fairly bold political stance to a pose of withdrawn, private political opposition.
Barash traces the transformation of Finch’s persona to her preparation of the 1713 Miscellany Poems, on Several Occasions. Publishing in the dangerous period between Queen Anne’s illness and death, when Stuart hopes for a restoration were high and the Finches’ precarious security threatened, Finch, in Barash’s view, chose to rework her explicitly political manuscript verse into more muted expressions.4 Two years after Barash’s ground-breaking study, Barbara McGovern and Charles Hinnant reached a different conclusion in their edition of Finch’s Wellesley Manuscript Poems. Pondering the reason for Finch’s decision to print her collection, McGovern and Hinnant speculate that “It may be a coincidence, but Finch’s Miscellany Poems on Several Occasions was published at the very moment when the political prospects for a reign by the exiled Stuart king appeared to be at their brightest.”5 Instead of the muted Stuart support deduced by...