Olivia Elder: ‘Poor, poetess and ancient maid’

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2017), Volume 25

A newly discovered manuscript throws a vivid, uncensored and revealing light on an Ulster Presbyterian community and an otherwise obscure eighteenth-century cultural world.

By Andrew Carpenter

Although several women living in the southern provinces of eighteenth-century Ireland published poetry in English, remarkably little of the verse written by women from Ulster during this period has survived. Literacy levels were high in Ulster and many people read and enjoyed poetry; but there were few towns to facilitate reading circles or lending libraries, and very few outlets for the printing of verse. Thus, though we have evidence that poetry was written, recited and passed around in rural Presbyterian communities, virtually none of it was thought to have survived. Recently, however, a substantial manuscript of poems (published this spring by the Irish Manuscripts Commission) written during the 1760s and 1770s by the daughter of the Presbyterian minister at Agadowey, near Coleraine, has come to light.

Presbyterian ministers—not eligible to receive tithes, and recipients of only minimal state aid—were often forced to supplement their income by becoming farmers. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that Olivia was involved in farmyard as well as ‘domestick’ duties. In one of her verse letters, she laments that she cannot spend her time as she would like—reading or writing poetry—but is forced, instead, to undertake such tasks as building a turf stack, boiling potatoes, brewing, baking, pickling, washing dishes, cleaning out ashes, lifting pots, cleaning shoes, mending clothes, herding cows, sewing, knitting, killing a goose, spinning flax, whitewashing a wall and gardening. She also had to hang ‘stockens’ on the line, make butter, mend clothes for those working on the farm and empty chamber-pots while she would much prefer to have been writing poetry:

For in spite of all sublimer wishes,
I needs must sometimes wash the dishes.

Nay, at this very present Writing,
As this Epistle I’m inditing,
When all are busy bearing hay to us,
I’m forced to go and boil Potatoes.

Above: One of William Hincks’s 1783 prints of the Ulster linen industry, depicting the harvesting of flax. Olivia Elder lamented that ‘spinning flax’ was one of the chores that keep her away from reading or writing poetry. (Linen Hall Library)

Olivia’s friends were, like herself, in charge of households. There is an attractive verse letter ‘To Miss E— L— written almost extempore’ in which she asks ‘Betty’ to send her ‘some flower roots’; these include a Christmas rose, ‘Polly Anthus’, primrose, ‘spiderwort of shaded blues’, ‘collumbine’, pinks (double, dwarf and matted) and musk mallow. It is unusual to hear details of a garden being created and tended by a middle-class woman for her own delight and that of her friend, who will enjoy the flowers ‘ev’ry time you come to see them in their prime’. Better-off women, such as Mary Delany and those whose work is considered in Amy Prendergast’s recent Literary salons across Britain and Ireland in the long eighteenth century (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), had gardeners, while other women poets of eighteenth-century Ireland—Mary Barber, Constantia Grierson and Laetitia Pilkington, for instance—were too busy raising children, making a living or fending off suitors to get their hands muddy. Olivia Elder’s poetry shows us eighteenth-century Ulster from a refreshingly novel perspective.

Most of the women Olivia wrote about were (in her eyes) hard-working and honourable, but she had little time for any men except her beloved father, ‘dear old Dad’; she saw all other men as untrustworthy deceivers and seducers. The classic example of this was ‘half-hanged’ John MacNaghton, who had (‘With Hell-taught arts and blandishments’, as Olivia put it) seduced and subsequently murdered the virginal Mary Ann Knox, the daughter of a local landowner. Olivia ended her elegy for Mary Ann by hoping that ‘A Band of Angels’ would ‘waft her to the Shoare / Where crimes and death and sorrow come no more’. Meanwhile, MacNaghton, having been condemned to death for shooting Miss Knox, startled the crowds around the gallows by surrendering to the sheriff to be hanged a second time after the rope broke at the first attempt. Olivia did not—unluckily for us—witness this event.

Unlucky in love
Olivia was disappointed in matters of the heart: she tells the reader that she had been ‘cruelly deceiv’d’ in love. Her first three passionate attachments, to various ‘nymphs’, ended badly: ‘Tyrannic love of sway, and selfishness, / Take place by turns’. After these disasters, Olivia decided to try her fortune with ‘t’other sex’ and set her sights on ‘one in virtues fairest guise’. Unfortunately, this too ended acrimoniously, since the object of her affection was in love with someone else. When confronted by Olivia and told of her passion, he exhibited ‘envy, rankling spleen, and sour dislike’. Fed up with lovers of both sexes, Olivia damned them all: ‘All, All are Liars Sure!’

One wonders whether it was at least partly Olivia’s sharp tongue that isolated her from others. For instance, when a stout friend called Helen was about to protest at Olivia’s unflattering treatment of her, Olivia wrote:

But here perhaps you’ll tell me pat
The Grecian Beauties were all fat;
It’s true, but yet we may suppose
Dame Helen did not fill her Hose,
Nor yet her Stays so well by half
Or she had only raised a laugh
Instead of raising Greece’s Ire
And setting Men and gods on fire.

Elsewhere in the manuscript, there is an unflattering description of the same Helen descending, naked, from a bathing machine into the frigid sea off County Antrim.

Religious matters affected Olivia Elder, as they did all those living in eighteenth-century Ulster. Her Presbyterian father seems to have been on reasonable terms with the local Church of Ireland clergyman, though Olivia described him as ‘dull’ and ‘stupid’. She reserved particular venom for the ‘Old Light’ Presbyterian ministers of the area, whose belief in original sin and predestination riled her. One verse in a long song attacking them reads:

But if e’er you are tempted to cheat one another,
O’erreaching a friend or defrauding a brother,
You may sin on the strength of your predestination,
For if you’re elected you’re sure of salvation . . .

Her assertion that these Presbyterian ministers were guilty of hypocrisy, drunkenness, fornication, lying and slander suggests that the theological differences between differing branches of Ulster Presbyterianism spilled over into personal attacks.

Olivia also levelled accusations of unchristian behaviour at the Church of Ireland rector of Coleraine, Revd Robert Heyland, in the one poem she sent to be printed; it appeared in the Freeman’s Journal in June 1772. Not surprisingly, the rector and his relatives were furious when they read, in the public press, Olivia’s assertions that he was guilty of dishonesty, lechery, pride, vanity and cruelty; as far as I can see, however, no legal action was taken, so perhaps there was a spark of fire behind the smoke.

Above: Coleraine from the River Bann, as it would have appeared in Olivia Elder’s time.

National politics was another subject for Olivia Elder’s verse, and it seems as if the Presbyterian community in which she lived took an active interest not only in sectarian debate but also in political events in London. George III’s ministers were dismissed as men indifferent to the abilities of the women around them, being instead intent ‘On pleasure, gain or dirty politicks’. Though she approved of John Wilkes’s patriotism, the indiscretions of his private life led Olivia to write: ‘For wicked Wilks and his Northbritton, / Why—let them both be P[isse]d and S[hi]t on’.

The general perception of eighteenth-century Ulster Presbyterians as sober, serious citizens is somewhat undermined by Olivia’s free use of strong language in her verse and by her descriptions of Presbyterian life: she describes wagers being laid at card games by the women of Coleraine and suggests that sexual activity outside marriage was not unknown, even if it was officially frowned upon.

‘Matrimony at the Throne’

Above: A page from the National Library of Ireland manuscript of Olivia Elder’s poems (NLI MS 23254).

A particularly strange poem is a fantasy entitled ‘Matrimony at the Throne’. An extended note explains that ‘The Throne’ was the name of the house of two brothers, ‘the eldest very drunken & very stupid but good natured’ and the other ‘tolerably sensible & sober, but proud, surly and remarkable for a sneering ironical manner’. Olivia Elder and her friend Miss B used to ‘divert themselves by supposing they were married to these two gentlemen’. The poem imagines Olivia (‘a great hater of drunken men’) married to the toper and Miss B (the ‘worst oeconomist’) tied to the surly, fussy, penny-pinching one. When the poem begins, the two women have been chatting in the dining room after Miss B has been laying the table. But the fussy husband enters, criticising everything B has done:

Those strawberries why were the[y] pick’d?
I’ve seen a better Housewife kick’d:
In that Beaufett a cup’s misplac’d—
Nay turn about and view your waste—
Who pinned your gown so mighty tight?
Your Head! Why, ’tis enchanting quite! . . .

If the first brother is presented as fussy and lecherous by turns, the other is a confirmed sot. He arrives home, drunk, at three in the morning:

Quick bounces L[iv]y from the couch
And gives admittance to the slouch.
With many totters, haws and hums,
At length into the room he comes,
Then hiccups out—how are ye L[iv]y?
Come my dear girl, a Kiss I’ll give ye—
With scorn she shuns the drunk caress
And sullen helps him to undress . . .
But mutters as she pulls his stocken,
To serve a brute like this is shocking . . .

The scene shifts to the breakfast room, where the brothers continue their insulting behaviour. The poem, as a whole, shows rare imagination and energy, as well as remarkable skill in handling conversational exchanges.

Ulster Scots
Though most of Olivia Elder’s verse is in standard English, rhymes often suggest that the poet and her circle spoke a form of Ulster Scots. In one poem she exploited the energy of this broad vernacular in a lively ‘imitation’ of one of Allan Ramsay’s poems, a mock obituary on a parish clerk. Olivia amended the original poem considerably and set it in her own parish, where the ghost of the ‘kirk-treasurer’s man’ was seen haunting the church and in the local slaughterhouse (‘the stinking stile’). This mock elegy reflects the same vernacular anti-establishment vigour that is found, a generation later, in the energetic Ulster-Scots of the ‘Weaver’ poets of County Antrim.

Olivia’s admiration for women and for poetry is most clearly seen in the poems she wrote in response to the work of Anna Laetitia Barbauld. Throughout England and Ireland, a chorus of praise greeted the appearance in London and Belfast of Barbauld’s Poems (1773); Olivia Elder went further than most admirers and wrote a long poem to Barbauld, describing herself as ‘a sister Puritan’ and offering herself as a friend. However,

Around me too external things conspire
To damp the genius rather than inspire.
Far north in bleak Hibernia’s stormy isle
Where softest seasons scarcely know to smile;
Where fruitless labour toils the painful year,
Scarce ploughs in hope, and often reaps dispair;
And honest industry disponding flies
His native home, for more indulgent Skys;
Where civil liberty her forehead droops,
August Religion to the shackles stoops,
But where, indignant of the shameful chain,
Hard war with bigot rage her sons maintain,
Has fortune fix’d my lot . . .

The rate of emigration from Presbyterian Ulster to North America was high at the time Olivia was writing, and it is interesting that she singled out lack of civil and religious liberty as a key reason why individuals would seek more tolerant communities overseas. Her comments on ‘bigot rage’ also reflect the violent factional disputes that flared up in her area during her lifetime. The bleak description of her environment and lifestyle in this poem contrasts somewhat with the much more cheerful mood one finds elsewhere in her verse, but the weather in Ulster, as Olivia Elder made clear, could depress her.

By the late 1770s, Olivia’s health was deteriorating; some time after suffering a serious illness, which, she says, ‘much broke her constitution’, she went through her copybook, amending some poems and deleting lines from others. She also seems to have torn some leaves out of the book. But she obviously hoped that someone would eventually read her work—as has now happened. Perhaps she herself should be accorded the last word: deeply affected by the death of her father and mother, Olivia Elder foresaw her own demise in a sombre epitaph:

Here lies O[livi]a E[lde]rs mortal clay,
Who life endured in hopes of Heaven’s great day;
Her friends already all her Bosom know,
To others, what she was that day will show.

My thanks to Dr Linde Lunney of the Dictionary of Irish Biography for help in identifying people and places in Olivia Elder’s work.

Andrew Carpenter is Professor Emeritus of English at University College Dublin.

Read More:
Olivia Elder

P. Backscheider, Eighteenth-century women poets and their poetry: inventing agency, inventing genre (Baltimore, 2006).
P.R. Backscheider & C.E. Ingressia (eds), British women poets of the long eighteenth century (Baltimore, 2009).
A. Carpenter (ed.), The poems of Olivia Elder (Dublin, 2017).
R. Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets (Oxford, 1989).


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