Last year, Dr Bethany Hughes did an interview for English Heritage on the subject of why women were written out of history and perhaps more importantly, what we can do to redress the balance. Dr Hughes rallies, ‘We need to actively look for women’s stories, and put them back into the historical narrative, there are so many women that should be household names but just aren’t’.
So, people of Lichfield, does the name Priscilla Pointon mean anything to you? No? Nor to me either until a few weeks ago. Eight years of reading about this place and writing this blog and it’s a name I’d never come across. Yet Priscilla Pointon was a daughter of Lichfield, born here around 1740. At the age of 13, she lost her sight after a violent headache and in 1770, published a book, ‘Poems on Several Occasions’, paid for by over 1,300 subscribers from Lichfield and other areas, following an advertisement in the Birmingham Gazette on 12th September 1768. Some of those names will probably be more familiar to you than Priscilla’s – The Earl of Anglesey, Thomas Anson of Shugborough and The Earl of Donegal amongst them. On Thursday 10th August 1780, Priscilla married James Pickering, a saddler from Chester and in 1794, after her husband’s death, a second volume of work entitled, ‘Poems by Mrs Pickering’ was published.
I’m no poetry critic, but those who profess to be have questioned the quality of the actual verse itself. In Notes & Queries January 1866, ‘AG’ wrote:
“As to the merit of the poetry, it will not entitle the authoress to a very prominent niche among her surroundings and the interest which produced a subscription upwards of 1300 (including a few nobles of the land) was rather prompted by to their charity for a poor blind woman than to foster a poetical prodigy in petticoats”.
To me, PP was no poor blind woman and her poetry wasn’t written for the likes of AG to discuss its merits a century later. It was written to earn a living and also had the added benefit of providing a platform from which Priscilla could flatter her audience whilst calling out those who she felt had disrespected her or treated her badly. It might not be literary genius but it is pragmatic, shrewd, feisty and very, very clever.
In ADDRESS TO A BACHELOR ON A DELICATE OCCASION, she writes about visiting friends, and needing the toilet after drinking tea, wine and punch. However, there are no maids around, only a group of men:
Tea, wine and punch Sir, to be free,
Excellent diuretics be.
When at your house last night with you:
Blushing I own to you I said,
‘I should be glad you’d call a maid’.
‘The girls,’ you answered, ‘are from home,
Nor can I guess when they’ll return’.
Then in contempt you came to me,
And sneering cried, ‘Dear miss, make free:
Let me conduct you, don’t be nice
Or if a basin is your choice
To fetch you one I’ll instant fly’.
I blushed but could not make reply,
Confused to find myself the joke,
I silent sat silent till Trueworth spoke:
‘To go with me, Miss, don’t refuse,
Your loss the freedom will excuse.’
To him my hand reluctant gave,
And out he lead me very grave;
Whilst you and Chatfree laughed aloud
As if to dash a maid seemed proud.
But I the silly jest despise,
Since well I know each man’s that’s wise
All affectation does disdain,
Since it in prudes and coxcombes reign:
So I repent not what I’ve done:
Adieu – enjoy your empty fun.
In the 18th century, Priscilla Pointon made a name for herself by sharing her experiences of being a woman with a disability, yet 250 years later that name appears to have been largely been forgotten, even her in her home city. She may never become a household name, but surely Priscilla Pointon deserves at least a mention in Lichfield’s historical narrrative?