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The Attic Chest

Anna Jane Vardill’s ‘An Englishman’s Farewell to a Converzazione’, published in the European Magazine for September 1820 (Vol. 78, p. 263) is a whimsical account of the ignominious expulsion from an unnamed literary circle of a member caught dozing during the reading of a contribution by a lady called “Ida”.

In several beautifully crafted lines Vardill captures the tense anticipation of circle members awaiting comments on their anonymous contributions:

... starry eyes which shun th’ enquirer’s gaze,
 And cheeks whose blushes mean a kind reply.

and their joy upon receiving favorable criticism:

How rich, how balmy, to the fainting bard,
 One drop of comfort from that stream to sip,
Or from his fair one’s hand to claim reward,
 While praise and custard mingle on her lip.

In memorable lines reminiscent of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, but predating that translation by over thirty years, the unfortunate “Englishman” offers the following excuse for the drowsiness that overcame him:

One long, long day, and half a tedious night,
 In vain for tuneful syllables I sought;
I dipp’d my silver pen, but could not write,
 And nought was all, and every thing was nought.

Interested readers will find a complete version of this poem on the Vardill website.

Vardill does not provide footnotes for this poem and the reader is left wondering how much of the story is fiction, and how much is based on fact. Particularly puzzling are two references:

Ah! who can tell the transports of that hour,
 When licens’d hands the rich portfeuille unlock,

* * *

When the light Graces tempt th’ elastic floor,
 And Phœbus drops his lyre—to call a dance.

What are the “licens’d hands” that unlock the portfolio of literary contributions? Is the portfolio physically or metaphorically unlocked, and who has the authority to open it?

The poem informs us that the reading of contributions is followed by a torrent of bright chit-chat and, presumably, snacks and confections—including custard.

This break for refreshments is followed by dancing, which seems a little extravagant for a small literary soirée.

A solution to these puzzles may be found in William Axon’s paper[1] on the authorship of a sequel to Coleridge’s Christobal published in the European Magazine for April 1815.[2] Axon identifies the author as Anna Jane Vardill. He also embellishes his paper with quotations and anecdotes relating to Vardill’s life and work.

Perhaps the most intriguing of these quotations comes from Vardill herself, in a manuscript written for her daughter Agnes, and dated December 30, 1830. She writes of a “young friend” who kept a locked box of Athenian cedar, through an aperture in which acquaintances slid pieces of prose or verse. On the first and second Wednesdays of the winter months the owner of the “Attic Chest” unlocked the box and the anonymous contents were read to a small group of select friends.[3]

Vardill’s “young friend” was Eleanor Anne Porden[4], the hostess of a small literary group called the Attic Chest.

Her ownership of an authentic Greek chest and her unlocking of it twice a month solves the puzzle of the “licens’d hands” opening the portfolio.

The puzzle of the dance is also solved in Vardill’s note to her daughter. She writes:

On the last of these evenings each acknowledged his or her share, and a dance concluded the social pastime.

The “last” presumably refers to the last of the winter gatherings, and a dance to celebrate the conclusion of the literary season is not unreasonable.

The Attic Chest was far more than a small cĂ´terie of female authors of the kind parodied by Vardill in her “Tabby Hall” contributions to the European Magazine. In her manuscript Vardill lists the principal contributors as “Dr. Benjamin Franklin’s only son, Dr. Hutton [or Hatton] and his grandson, Flaxman[5] and his gifted wife and sisters, William Mayley and two or three friends of Walter Scott and Lord Byron Coleridge and Wordsworth”, all of whom, she notes, had passed away at the time of writing.

This clarification from the pen of Vardill herself does, however, leave one or two tantalising loose ends. One is the identity of the Englishman who falls asleep during the reading of a contribution by “Ida”; the other is the identity of Ida herself. Considering that the eclectic membership of the Attic Chest included several men, it is possible that one of these did, indeed, fall asleep during the reading of a piece by the angelic Ida.

It is tempting, and romantically satisfying, to identify Ida with Eleanor Anne Porden, and conclude that among the male members of the Attic Chest she had a fervent though luckless admirer.

Notes

  1. Axon, William E. A., and Ernest Hartley Coleridge. “Anna Jane Vardill Niven, the Authoress of ‘Christobell,’ the Sequel to Coleridge’s ‘Christabel.’ With a Bibliography”. Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature. 2nd series 28 (1908): 57-88. 
  2. Coleridge’s Christabel was published in 1816, resulting in debate over the authorship of the earlier sequel, and the circumstances under which it was written. Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867), a friend of Coleridge, was known to read manuscripts of the poet’s unpublished verse to small groups of friends, and it was at one such reading that Vardill encountered an early and incomplete version of Christabel (Henry Crabb Robinson: “Took tea with the Flaxmans, and read to them and Miss Vardill Coleridge’s Christabel, with which they were all delighted, Flaxman more than I expected” 19 December 1814; in Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence (1872) 1:242.). In his comments on Axon’s paper, Ernest Hartley Coleridge (1846-1920), grandson of the poet, considers it improbable that Vardill could have captured the content and style of Christabel after only one hearing. He suggests that Crabb Robinson, with S. T. Coleridge’s permission, lent Vardill a copy of the manuscript. S. T. Coleridge’s later comments about his procrastination in publishing Christabel, and his enigmatic remark that “It is a singular affair,” would lend credence to E. A. Coleridge’s conjecture. (see Axon's paper.) 
  3. A recent paper on the interest shown by Porden and her friends in contemporary scientific discoveries (Johns-Putra, Adeline (2011) “Blending Science with Literature: The Royal Institution, Eleanor Anne Porden and The Veils”, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 33: 1, 35-52) states that the meetings of the Attic Chest were held on Sundays and that the contributions were sent in packets addressed to her father.(p. 36) No mention is made of the cedarwood Attic Chest that gave the group its name. The source for these statements is the archive of Porden’s papers and correspondence held by the Derbyshire Record Office. In the absence of quotations from these records, perhaps it would be prudent to rely on Vardill’s far more detailed and enlightening recollection. 
  4. Eleanor Anne Porden (1795-1825), the daughter of architect William Porden and his wife Mary Plowman. Her first major work, The Veils: or the Triumph of Constancy, was written at the age of sixteen but published in 1815 when she was twenty. She married the Arctic adventurer Sir John Franklin and died of tuberculosis after giving birth to a daughter in 1824. 
  5. According to Vardill, John Flaxman (1755-1826) was the donor of the Attic Chest. His half-sister Mary Ann (Maria) Flaxman (1768-1833) painted the well-known portrait of Eleanor Anne Porden. Vardill notes that both were members of the Attic Chest, although Mary Ann was still alive in 1830.