Perdita woman: Sarah Cowper


Sarah Cowper was born on 14 February 1644, the only child of Samuel and Anne Holled. Her father, a London merchant, died when she was eighteen, leaving her a third of his estate. Anne Holled died three years later, directing in her will that before her daughter's marriage, eight hundred pounds should be entrusted to friends, who were to invest the money for ten years on Sarah's behalf, paying her the interest. This care to ensure that Sarah's inheritance did not fall immediately into the hands of her husband may indicate that Anne Holled suspected her daughter's marriage would not be characterised by mutual support and harmony.

On 11 April 1664, two months after her mother's death, the orphan married William Cowper, a lawyer and later a baronet, at Saint Peter's Church, Paul's Wharf, in London. Although there are few records concerning the early years of their marriage, Sarah Cowper would later write that after living with her husband for "almost 14,000 days", she honestly believed that not a single one of those days had passed without "something to be forgiven him" (D/EP F29, p.185). Both in character and opinions, husband and wife appear to have been incompatible, and the friction between them was intensified by the couple's unstable political, social and financial standing. In 1675, Sir William's annual income was about £1200, an "unimpressive showing for a baronet" (Kugler, Errant, p.23). In 1681, Sir William lost his seat in Parliament after supporting Whig efforts to exclude James, Duke of York, from the throne. After the Revolution, Sir William regained his seat, and became Justice of the Peace for Hertfordshire and Middlesex; in 1689, he also was named Deputy Lieutenant for Hertfordshire. While Sarah Cowper approved the Revolution settlement and "the Whig commitment to the preservation of the rights of Parliament and the Protestant succession", she also was attracted to the "Tory message of conservatism, order, and deference" (Kugler, Errant, p.19). Writing in 1700, Cowper notes that since she is "inclined to love order and obedience", she cannot often comply with Sir William's "sentiments about government", since he is "too much a favourer of licentious liberty" (D/EP D29, p.16). In the area of ecclesiastical allegiances, Cowper espoused a moderate Anglicanism, endorsing toleration, but proclaiming herself proud to be a member of the Church of England, and diligently attending services. Sir William, on the other hand, maintained political links with dissenters, and derided his wife's devotion to the Anglican Church. The couple also quarrelled repeatedly about the direction of household affairs. Sir William seems to have been a stingy host, which embarrassed his wife. She also blamed him for refusing to correct the insolence, immorality and even violence of their servants, while consistently undermining her own authority so that she could not control them herself. Cowper records that in addition to restricting her finances and her authority, her husband also abused her both verbally and physically. Apart from engaging in bitter arguments, she retaliated for the most part in a passive manner, once going "on strike" and refusing for several months to serve as housekeeper (Kugler, Errant, p.55). She also later boasted that she was a "Mirror of Chastity" because she had managed to remain "pure" after the age of twenty-six (D/EP F29, p.61).

Cowper insisted on celibacy only after giving birth to four sons from 1665 to 1670. The second son, Samuel, lived only a few weeks and the third, John, died at the age of nineteen; William and Spencer, however, outlived her. Her husband appears to have made decisions concerning the boys' education without consulting his wife, and Cowper's later diary volumes reveal that she thought he sadly mismanaged their upbringing and denied them many advantages. Yet both William and Spencer advanced in their careers. Following their father's example, they became lawyers and early supporters of the Revolution. In 1689, Cowper, with the aid of Lady Rachel Russell, helped to secure the place of King's Counsel for William. Despite this, relations appear to have been strained between the mother and both her sons, a situation that Cowper blamed on her husband. Writing about herself and her husband in 1705, Cowper asserts, "Neither of us have power or interest with our sons; for the truth is, Sir W: hath ordered things so; they both despise us both" (D/EP F31, p.158).

Unfortunately, Cowper's social life does not appear to have offered sufficient diversion from her domestic troubles. Throughout her marriage Cowper was on friendly terms with a large number of influential clergymen, as well as with several powerful members of the Whig nobility, such as Margaret, the dowager Lady Shaftesbury, and Sarah, later Duchess of Marlborough ; yet she seems to have had few close friends apart from the writer Martin Clifford, who was her neighbour in London during the 1670s. Cowper was keenly aware of the hypocrisy that characterised many social relations, writing incisively of an encounter with an acquaintance, "We accosted each other with abundance of cringing ceremony, but perhaps not a scrap of sincere respect between us" (D/EP F30, p.71). She seems to have felt particularly isolated during the part of the year that she and Sir William spent at Hertford Castle, claiming that her time there was like being "buried alive", since she was forced to endure either solitude or unwelcome visitors (D/EP F29, p.18).

Cowper sought comfort for her lack of companionship in intellectual pursuits. Between 1670 and 1700 she compiled at least five miscellanies, a commonplace book, a history of the world and commentary on every book of the Bible. In the front flyleaf of the commonplace book, Cowper has even included a retrospective note, declaring, "If in the days of my youth, I had not diverted my thoughts with such stuff as this book contains; the unhappy accidents of my life, had been more than enough to have made me mad" (D/EP F37). Although Cowper explicitly regrets the incomplete "manner" of her "education", she seems to have satisfied her "thirst after knowledge" by reading and extracting quotations from a wide variety of texts (D/EP F29, p.117). Anne Kugler notes that within Cowper's manuscripts, she refers specifically to at least 150 separate books, as well as to broadsheets, literary periodicals, and a "plethora of letters, addresses, single, sermons, satires, topical verses, ballads, and other short printed pieces" (Errant, p.104).

In addition to copying extracts from others' works, Cowper also wrote about her own life. In her later manuscripts, she mentions a "Black Book", begun in the late 1670s, in which she recorded wrongs done to her, presumably by her husband (D/EP F29, p.33; D/EP F35, p.316). This is no longer extant, and therefore the earliest extensive life-writings available are Cowper's seven volumes of diaries, written from 1700 to 1716. These diaries are by no means completely original works: as Kugler points out, Cowper continues to copy extracts from other writers, and since she frequently incorporates the words of others "seamlessly into her own personal observations", much of what initially appears to be her own writing often proves to be quotations ( Errant, p.3).

Yet the daily entries contain enough personal details to convey the author's attitudes toward the many changes that occurred in her life during the first years of the eighteenth century. Kugler argues that Cowper's decision to begin writing the diary probably was heavily influenced by her son Spencer's trial for the murder of a Quaker woman, Sarah Stout, in 1699. Spencer eventually was acquitted, but for two years the entire family was embroiled in a public scandal, and Cowper appears to have felt even more isolated and ostracized than usual. In the 1701 election, her husband suffered defeat, and never regained his place in Parliament. The careers of her sons, however, quickly recovered, and in 1705, William was appointed Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. This advancement of her family's fortunes did not significantly cheer Cowper; in her diary, she repeatedly notes her resentment at William's refusal to share his increased power and wealth, and she denounces most of the people who now sought her society as opportunists and hypocrites.

The death of Sir William in November 1706 seems to have marked a more significant turning point in Cowper's life. In her diary, she unabashedly describes her widowhood as a "state of liberty" (D/EP F32, p.133). Gaining control of her own finances enabled her to give more generously to charities, while becoming the head of her own household allowed her finally to exercise some authority. Unfortunately, Cowper soon found that her own methods of discipline were not infallible, and she continued to have severe difficulties with her servants until the end of her life. Her relations with her sons, however, eventually improved. Although she never appears to have become particularly close with Spencer, she grew increasingly proud and fond of William. Her oldest son's second wife, Mary, seems to have been particularly kind and deferential to her mother-in-law; the couple named their first child Sarah, and asked Cowper to stand as godmother to her namesake. Cowper's diary traces William's political career, from his appointment as Lord Chancellor in 1707, to his resignation in 1710. She writes with particular venom about the preacher Henry Sacheverell, whose trial precipitated the fall of the Whigs; while she remained loyal to the Church of England, and continued to attend frequent services, she deplored more than ever High Church policies. Shortly after the accession of George I in 1714, William was reinstated, and Cowper once again was able to rejoice in his success. By this time, however, she herself was plagued with failing eyesight and hearing, as well as a palsy in her hands all of which severely restricted her social interaction and eventually forced her to stop writing on 30 September 1716.

In the absence of diary entries for this period, little information is available about the final years of Cowper's life. She died on 3 February 1720, and was buried at the Church of St Mary, Hertingfordbury . Cowper's manuscripts appear to have passed, along with the rest of her belongings, to William, and they remained with her descendants until the twentieth century. The author herself appears to have hoped that her works would be read by family members after her death. In her "History of the World", she writes, "To my daughter Judith Cowper I leave this book. Desiring her to leave it some one of our family to be kept in memory of Sarah Cowper" (D/EP F41, p.[i]). Although Judith, William's first wife, died before Cowper, the author continued to envision a posthumous audience for her works: in her final diary entry, she expresses the hope that her writings "may be useful to posterity" (D/EP F35, p.343). Since very few early references to Cowper's writings have come to light, and her works have never been published, it is difficult to assess the extent of their audience. Perhaps fittingly for a writer who seems to have enjoyed relying on the words of others, Cowper's own reputation as an author traditionally has been overshadowed by that of her relatives and friends. The celebrated eighteenth-century poet William Cowper was the grandson of her son Spencer. In the nineteenth century, the diaries of her son William, and his second wife, Mary, were both published. In the twentieth century, Allan Pritchard examined Cowper's papers for poems by Abraham Cowley, and wrote about her exchange of texts with Martin Clifford. It was not until Kugler's 2002 Errant Plagiary: The Life and Writing of Lady Sarah Cowper: 1644-1720 , that a study of Cowper's own writings became available to the public.

Biography by Faith Lanum.


Cowper, Mary, Diary of Mary, Countess Cowper: Lady of the Bedchamber to the Princess of Wales, 1714-1720, London, John Murray, 1864
Cowper, William, The Private Diary of William, first Earl Cowper, Lord Chancellor of England, [E.C. Hawtrey], Eton, Roxburghe Club, 1833
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, D/EP F29
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, D/EP F31
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, D/EP F32
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, D/EP F35
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, D/EP F37
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, D/EP F41
Kugler, Anne, Errant Plagiary: The Life and Writing of Lady Sarah Cowper: 1644-1720, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2002
Kugler, Anne, "Cowper [née Holled], Sarah, Lady Cowper (1644-1720)", in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004
Pritchard, Allan, "Six Letters by Cowley" Review of English Studies, New Series, 18 1967 253-263

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies: D/EP F29
Sarah Cowper's Diary, Volume 1 (1700-1702)
(Author, Scribe) Sarah Cowper

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies: D/EP F30
Diary, Volume 2 (1703 - 1705)
(Author, Scribe) Sarah Cowper

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies: D/EP F31
Diary, Volume 3 (1705-1706)
(Author, Scribe) Sarah Cowper

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies: D/EP F32
Diary, Volume 4 (1706-1709)
(Author, Scribe) Sarah Cowper

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies: D/EP F33
Diary, Volume 5 (1709-1711)
(Author, Scribe) Sarah Cowper

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies: D/EP F34
Diary, Volume 6 (1711-1713)
(Author, Scribe) Sarah Cowper

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies: D/EP F35
Diary, Volume 7 (1713-1716)
(Author, Scribe) Sarah Cowper

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies: D/EP F36
Miscellany (1670-1710)
(Compiler, Scribe) Sarah Cowper

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies: D/EP F37
Commonplace Book (1673-1710)
(Compiler, Scribe) Sarah Cowper

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies: D/EP F38
Miscellany (1675-1684)
(Compiler, Scribe) Sarah Cowper

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies: D/EP F39
Commentary on the Bible (1680-1685)
(Compiler, Scribe) Sarah Cowper

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies: D/EP F40A
Miscellany (Started in 1683)
(Compiler, Scribe) Sarah Cowper

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies: D/EP F41
History of the World (1686)
(Compiler, Scribe) Sarah Cowper

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies: D/EP F42
Index Volume (After 1686)
(Compiler, Scribe) Sarah Cowper

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies: D/EP F43
Miscellany (1690, 1698 and later)
(Compiler, Scribe) Sarah Cowper

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies: D/EP F44
Miscellany (Started in 1700)
(Compiler, Scribe) Sarah Cowper

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies: D/EP F40
Prayer Book (Before 1720)
(Compiler, Scribe) Sarah Cowper?