Thursday, March 18, 2021

'On An Unsociable Family' by Elizabeth Hands

Women's History Month: A month celebrating women of history! I will be posting media and book recommendations, highlighting women from (mostly) the 18th century, and otherwise sharing content with an emphasis on women in history.

Detail from a portrait of an unidentified family by William Hogarth, 18th century.

Elizabeth Hands was born in 1746 to parents Henry and Ann Herbert, who worked at unknown occupations; she had two siblings, including a sister who died at less than one year of age. Elizabeth, who worked as a domestic servant, married William Hands in 1784; the couple had two children, daughters Elizabeth and Ann.

It is unknown exactly when Hands began writing poetry, but the advertisement taken out for a subscription to her works noted that she began reading poetry while working in a variety of households, where she would find and read available literature. Support for Hands' work in the local community was instrumental in the works being published. In 1788, the rector of Birdingbury wrote to Reverend Richard Blisse Riland in an attempt to drum up financial support for the publication of Hands' poetry; and the assistant headmaster at Rugby School, Philip Homer, manage to convince the school's various masters of the poems quality, thereafter the school agreed to put out a subscription notice for her works. 

The collection was published through subscription in 1789 under the title The Death of Amnon: a Poem with an Appendix, Containing Pastorals and Other Poetical Pieces. It achieved at least 1,200 subscribers, which was referred to by a contemporary critic as an 'uncommonly numerous list of subscribers."

The poems were generally well reviewed, with the titular poem receiving the most praise. 

I've singled out this particular poem by Hands because of its striking modernity. I imagine that many readers today can identify to some degree with the awkward situation described in the poem.

 On an UNSOCIABLE FAMILY. by Elizabeth Hands

O What a strange parcel of creatures are we,
Scarce ever to quarrel, or ever agree;
We all are alone, though at home altogether,
Except to the fire constrain'd by the weather;
Then one says, 'tis cold, which we all of us know,
And with unanimity answer, 'tis so:
With shrugs and with shivers all look at the fire,
And shuffle ourselves and our chairs a bit nigher;
Then quickly, preceded by silence profound,
A yawn epidemical catches around:
Like social companions we never fall out,
Nor ever care what one another's about;
To comfort each other is never our plan,
For to please ourselves, truly, is more than we can.

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