Anna Williams (poet)

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For other people of the same name, see Anna Williams (disambiguation).

Anna Williams (1706 – 6 September 1783) was a poet and companion of Samuel Johnson.

Life[edit]

Early life[edit]

She was born at Rosemarket, Pembrokeshire to Zachariah Williams (1668/73–1755) (a scientist and doctor) and his wife, Martha. Her father provided her with a wide artistic and scientific education, including Italian and French. In 1726/7 Zachariah and Anna moved to London, staying at the Charterhouse, where she helped him while he experimented in using magnetism in pursuit of the longitude prize and being his home-help when, from 1745, he became bedridden and hospitalised. Despite her failing sight in the 1740s, she was able to sew and, in 1746, to publish a translation of a French life of the emperor Julian.

Life with Johnson[edit]

In 1748 her father was evicted from hospital and they appealed to Dr Johnson, who had taken an interest in Williams's experiments and assisted in his publishing of his theory of longitude. Johnson also later arranged for Samuel Sharp to operate on Anna's cataracts; after this failed, she became a member of his household, just before her death. She then lived with Johnson in all his various residences. The only exception is the period from 1759–65, when he moved from Gough Street into the Inner Temple, during which time she lodged in Bolt Court, Fleet Street - there Johnson drank tea with her "every night … before he went home, however late it might be, and she always sat up for him"[1] and, in August 1763, Boswell proudly made good his "title to be a privileged man" by being "carried by him in the evening to drink tea with Miss Williams".[2]

In 1765 Williams moved back into Johnson's household in 7 Johnson's Court, Fleet Street, and then from March 1776 to her death in 8 Bolt Court, supervising his household management and expenses from a ground-floor apartment in both houses. Regularly helping Johnson when he entertained at home, she also accompanied him on visits or, if not, had a dish sent home to her by him. Knowing a variety of literary works, she could express herself well and, having lived long with Johnson, knew his habits and how to draw him out into conversation,[3] whilst Johnson, for his part, was not above playfulness towards her: Frances Reynolds records that he would ‘whirl her about on the steps’ when visiting.[4]

Anna had annual gifts of money from acquaintances, including Lady Philipps of Picton Castle, an old family friend, but had this income supplemented by Johnson who, for example, arranged for David Garrick to give a benefit performance of Aaron Hill's Merope at Drury Lane theatre on 22 January 1756 ‘for a gentlewoman deprived of her sight’[5] and in 1774 helped her application to Hetherington's charity at Christ's Hospital (which failed since Welsh applicants were ineligible).

Last days and death[edit]

As Williams grew old and frail she became more and more intolerant towards the other members of the household, though this did not affect Johnson's care for her - he wrote a prayer for her in her last illness, and after her death wrote that: ‘Her curiosity was universal, her knowledge was very extensive, and she sustained forty years of misery with steady fortitude. Thirty years and more she has been my companion, and her death has left me very desolate’.[6] His circle, whilst acknowledging her peevishness, also acknowledged her learning and intelligence. She left £200 in stocks at her death, and £157 14s. in cash left to the Ladies' Charity School, Snow Hill, London.

Works[edit]

  • Miscellanies in Prose and Verse, published in 1766 as a quarto edition by Thomas Davies with Johnson adding a preface and several prose and verse pieces. First advertised in 1750, there were waspish claims from Anna's friends that Johnson had not put himself out in getting it produced, though it was moderately successful and earned the author about £150.[7]
  • A dictionary of philosophical terms probably inspired by Johnson's own Dictionary - begun in 1754 but abandoned despite Johnson's support (he wrote to Richardson the printer that ‘she understands chimistry and many other arts’[8]).
  • Occasional verses, such as "On the Death of Sir Erasmus Philipps, Unfortunately Drowned in the River Avon".

Her Dictionary of National Biography entry states that "as a writer Williams had craft but not genius...[a writer of] capable [and] effective if conventional ... verses". Miscellanies is a collection of disparate pieces, verse, prose, and dramatic fragments. Alexander Pope is an influence, as seen in this quotation:

For me, contented with a humble state
'Twas ne'er my care, or fortune, to be great.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Boswell, Life, 1.421
  2. ^ ibid., 463
  3. ^ Boswell, Life, 1.463
  4. ^ Johnsonian Miscellanies, 2.273
  5. ^ Letters of Samuel Johnson, 1.83 - it is said to have raised £200
  6. ^ Letters of Samuel Johnson, 3.74
  7. ^ Boswell, Life, Year 1766, Note by Malone
  8. ^ Letters., 1.54

Sources[edit]

  • Jones, William R. "Williams, Anna". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/29486.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.). The first edition of this text is available as an article on Wikisource:  "Williams, Anna". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900. 
  • Boswell, Life, 1.232–3, 241, 350, 393, 421, 463; 2.5, 286, 427; 3.48, 132; 4.235; 5.276
  • J. Hawkins, The life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., ed. B. H. Davis (1962), 134–6
  • Lady Knight, ‘Anecdotes and remarks’, in Johnsonian miscellanies, ed. G. B. Hill, 2 (1897), 171–5
  • J. P. Phillips, ‘Mrs Anna Williams’, N&Q, 3rd ser., 1 (1862), 421–2
  • Richard Fenton, A Historical Tour through Pembrokeshire (1811), 197–200
  • Johnsonian miscellanies, ed. G. B. Hill, 2 vols. (1897), vol. 1, pp. 114–15, 401–3; vol. 2, pp. 217–18, 279
  • The letters of Samuel Johnson, ed. R. W. Chapman, 3 (1952), 69–75
  • Nichols, Lit. anecdotes, 2.178–84
  • G. W. Stone, ed., The London stage, 1660–1800, pt 4: 1747–1776 (1962), 522
  • ESD Journal