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Anna Jane Vardill

Biographical Notes

Anna Jane Vardill Memorial

Sacred to the Memory of ANNA JANE.

Relict of James Niven of Glenharm and Kirkcudbright, Scotland, Esqre. and Only Daughter of the Late Revd. John Vardill, D.D. and of Agnes his Wife, Only Daughter of the Late John Birtwhistle of Skipton in Craven, Esqre.

The Said Anna Jane Was Born in London, Nov. 19th 1782 and Died in Skipton June 4th 1852, Aged 70 Years.

This Monument to the Memory of a Beloved Mother is Erected by Her Only Child, Agnes Vardill Niven.


The daughter of John Vardill, rector of Skirbeck and Fishtoft, Lincolnshire, an American loyalist who had emigrated to England in 1774. She was educated by her father, and published a volume of translations in 1809 that went into three editions. Afterwards she contributed verse to the European Magazine using the signature “V.” In 1822 she married James Niven, thereafter residing with her family at Kirkcudbright in Scotland.


Vardill [married name Niven], Anna Jane (1781–1852), poet, was born on 19 November 1781 in London, the only child of the Revd Dr John Vardill (1749–1811) and his wife (d. 1826). Her father, who was born in New York state, moved to England in 1774. He was a loyalist spy, a professor, and a clergyman who served as rector of Skirbeck and Fishtoft in Lincolnshire, from 1791 until his death in 1811. He wrote at least one play, The Unknown, which was performed at the Surrey Theatre in 1819.

Vardill grew up in Galloway, London, and Lincolnshire. Her father provided the strongest influence on her education. In the preface to her first published work, Poems and translations, from the minor Greek poets and others, written chiefly between the ages of ten and sixteen, by a lady (1809), she states that ‘[a] most indulgent father . . . found amusement in familiarizing his only child with the Poets of Antiquity’ (Vardill, iv). This first published volume went to three editions. It contains precocious translations of Anacreon, Sappho, Theocritus, Horace, and others, in addition to original works such as ‘The rights of woman, a burlesque essay’, in which Vardill cites a wide range of supposed authorities on the subject and satirizes both sexes before concluding that woman’s role should be that of prime minister to man’s king.

Vardill published The Pleasures of Human Life: a Poem, in 1812. Like much of her work, this poem is an effective imitation of a particular style—Augustan, in this case—and a tribute to her father, who had died the previous year. From 1813 to 1822, as ‘V’, she produced a number of works in the style of various Romantic poets, including Walter Scott, Robert Southey, and Lord Byron, for the European Magazine. Her most famous contribution to the magazine was a continuation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, published in April 1815, over a year before Coleridge’s original appeared in print. She had heard the poem read aloud in December 1814 by Henry Crabb Robinson, a family friend who later became her mother’s executor. ‘Christobell’ demonstrates Vardill’s remarkable ability to imitate contemporary poetic forms, allowing the previously inaccessible Romantic idiom to filter into popular literary culture.

After her marriage to James Niven (d. 1830) in 1822, Vardill moved from London to his estate at Kirkcudbright in Scotland. Their only child, Agnes, was born in 1825. After her husband’s death Vardill returned to England, where she divided her time between London and Skipton until her death in Skipton on 4 June 1852.


One of the European Magazine’s most prolific contributors during its later years was the writer of numerous poems and multi-part tales printed under the signature “V.” Alfred Beauchamp, editor of the European Magazine in 1821, provides essential information concerning the identity of “V.” in his own poem, “The Editor’s Compliments of the Season; to his well-beloved public, readers, contributors, and correspondents” (EM 80 [1821]: 533-534). “Away with all initials!—we shall give / Full names and titles in our verse to live!” Beauchamp exclaims. Turning to the contributor hitherto known only as “V.,” he writes:

What, Variella, can we wish to thee?
 For thou possessest all that’s dear unto man;
Wit, Talents, Erudition, though they be
 Not always so delightful in a woman;
Yet those who read thy Tales and Poems, see
 A soaring mind, and genius most uncommon.
Still, still soar on!—In prose and verse still charm us,
For while thou lead’st the van, there’s nought can harm us.

Beauchamp’s lines supply four crucial clues to the identity of “V.”: first, that the contributor was a woman; second, that she was the author not only of the poems but also of the tales bearing the signature “V.”; third, that she was a person of “erudition” with “a soaring mind, and genius most uncommon”; fourth, that her name was very likely akin to the variant “Variella”—the stem “Var” plus a feminine ending. The information Beauchamp provides strongly suggests that “V.” was Anna Jane Vardill (1781-1852).

Anna Jane Vardill was the daughter of Rev. John Vardill, rector of Skirbeck and Fishtoft, Lincs. (ca. 1751-1811). Both the European Magazine and the Gentleman’s Magazine record his death (EM 59 [1811]: 156; GM 81-i [1811]: 92) and the GM supplies further details:

The late Rev. Dr. Vardill was educated in King’s College [now Columbia University], New York, of which he was elected principal, and appointed Regius Professor of Divinity. When America claimed independence, he resigned his bright prospect there, and embraced the cause of the mother country; where he distinguished himself by many publications worthy an acute and liberal politician. He was a rare example of splendid talents, devoted to the purest philanthropy; and of profound scholastic knowledge, blended with the most endearing social virtues. During the last ten years, severe sickness withdrew him from those public circles, of which his wit, eloquence, and urbanity, had rendered him the ornament; but his memory will be treasured while those who knew him exist. [GM 81-i (1811): 672]

The Alumni Oxonienses records no doctorate, noting instead that he was “created M.A. 28 June, 1774,” several months after being ordained by the Bishop of London. What the EM, GM, and Alumni Oxonienses fail to mention is the fact that, though named professor of natural law at King’s College and assistant minister of New York’s Trinity Church, Vardill chose to remain in England as a Loyalist spy, ingratiating himself into the confidence of supporters of the Colonies, surreptitiously reading their letters, and suborning the theft of correspondence between the French government and American agents negotiating the Franco-American alliance of 1778.

Vardill’s only child, Anna Jane Vardill, was the author of two separately published works: Poems and Translations, from the minor Greek poets and others; written chiefly between the ages of ten & sixteen, by a Lady (London, 1809) and The Pleasures of Human Life, a Poem, by Anna Jane Vardill (London, 1812). The European Magazine’s review of the former work (55 [1809]: 140-142) quotes Anna Jane Vardill’s autobiographical account with its evidence of her extraordinary erudition:

‘The translations, or imitations of the minor Greek poets [she writes] were the productions of a still earlier age’ (than betwixt eleven and sixteen). ‘A most indulgent father, in the retirement permitted to his station in the church, found amusement in familiarising his only child with the poets of antiquity’. . . . We also learn that she passed the early part of her life at the village of Gatehouse, of Fleet Galloway, Scotland, noted for the extensive cotton works of a near relation, and commanding a view of the beautiful and extensive pleasure grounds, elegant mansion, and gardens of Broughton Murray, Esq.

It was in this enchanting retreat that she composed most of her poems. Here she pursued her studies under the guidance of [her father] the rector of Shirbeck [a misprint for Skirbeck], of her uncle, and of her French tutor, Mr. Cramozin, of Rouen [p. 141].

The European Magazine likewise notices the second edition of Poems and Translations (EM 56 [1809]: 126-127) and The Pleasures of Human Life (61 [1812]: 275-280), again warmly praising Anna Jane Vardill’s precocity, her astonishing intellectual gifts, and the breadth of her knowledge. Those qualities are evidenced in the intellectual diversity displayed in the poems and popular tales signed “V.” that appear in the European Magazine from 1811 to 1822, contributions that frequently make use of Scottish settings and occasionally display flashes of erudition. (“V.”’s “An Arctic Islander in London” [EM 74 (1818): 289-294], for example, incorporates Greek verse into the text [p. 291]; “V.”’s carefully annotated “La Morte d’Arthur” [EM 79 (1821): 553-555] is taken from a manuscript in the Harleian Library; “V.”’s “The Eldest King of Britain” [EM 77 (1820): 166-167] was based on a passage in William Gunn’s 1819 edition of Nennius’s Historia Britonum; “V.”’s poem, “Another Edition of Edwin and Angelina” [EM 76 (1819): 66-67] contains notes addressing “the Lombard-system of squaring a circle” [p. 66n] as described by Jacob Bryant and Jeremiah Milles and directs readers to citations from Edmond Malone, William Warburton, Richard Gough, Thomas Pennant, Thomas Warton, and Johnson.) If further evidence were needed to conclude that Anna Jane Vardill was “V.,” it is instructive to note that in the European Magazine for December 1817 (72: 550-551) a poem attributed by the EM to “the late Dr. Vardill” is followed immediately by a poem signed “V.,” the proximity of the two reinforcing the identification of Anna Jane Vardill with the “V.” contributions.


Vardill, Anna Jane, later Niven, 1781-1852, poet, only child of American-born John V., professor and clergyman, who moved to England in 1774 and became a Loyalist spy. She grew up in Galloway (where an uncle lived), London and Lincs. (where John V. became a rector in 1791), wrote her first poem at six, translated from Anacreon at eight, and began at ten a knowledgeable, ambitious, Popean ‘Essay on Music’ addressed to her mother. After an attack of blindness, she published, as ‘a lady’, Poems and Translations, 1809. Besides juvenilia this includes memorial and charity poems, Scottish landscape sonnets, occasionals, impromptus, and imitations of Persian, Hungarian, medieval, Scots, and other styles. ‘The Rights of Woman’ cites authorities humorously but with exhaustive learning: woman, it concludes, is prime minister but man is king. The Pleasures of Human Life, 1812 (with her name), is weightily, effectively Augustan, ending on heavenly pleasures and a tribute to her father, d. 1811. As ‘V’, AJV was a leading poetry contributor to the European Magazine from 1814. Her exotic verse tales in many voices of the new romanticism include a sequel to Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’ (in print before the original, which she had heard read aloud: see Donald H. Reiman in The Wordsworth Circle, 6, 1975). Many emanate from an imaginary hermitage ‘seized’ in 1816 by a group of spinsters, who ‘left less dignified records’: often mock-heroic, with satire on both sexes, and ingeniously blended symbolism and modern realism. ‘My Godmother’s Legacy, or The Art of Consoling’, ironically titled prose, 1822, derives from Jane Collier on tormenting. AJV married between 1820 and 1826, and returned to Scotland.

Source: Blain, Virginia, et al. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.