Perdita woman: Octavia Walsh


Octavia Walsh, poet and prose-writer, was a member of a gentry family resident at Abberley, Worcestershire. Abberley, an ancient property mentioned in the Domesday Book, had passed to the Crown in the late fifteenth century, and in 1531 was granted by Henry VIII to Walter Walsh, page of the privy chamber, and his wife Elizabeth. Their descendant, Joseph Walsh, fought on the Royalist side in the Civil Wars, and though deprived of his estate in the early 1650s, successfully petitioned for its return after the Restoration. He and his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of Sir Brian Palmes of Lindley in Yorkshire, had eight children: William , a distinguished poet and critic (1663-1708), Anne, who married Francis Bromley of Holt, Walter, who died, aged twenty, at St Helena, returning from the East Indies, Victoria, Mary, Elizabeth, Katherine and Octavia. After William's death, Abberley passed to Anne Walsh and her heirs. (It is possible that the 'children' mentioned on fol. 1v of Octavia's manuscript were the offspring of Anne and Francis, who had two sons and five daughters, born around the last decade of the seventeenth century.) The property remained in the family until the death of Anne's grandson in 1803; subsequent owners pulled down the Walshes' Abberley Lodge and built a new hall on the same site.

Little is known about Octavia Walsh. According to the Abberley parish records, she was christened on 1 January 1676 (New Style), and so was presumably born in December 1675. Apart from what may be inferred from her manuscript, the main source of information about her is a memorial tablet in Worcester Cathedral, where she was buried on 12 October, 1706. According to the inscription, Octavia Walsh died unmarried on 10 October, 1706. Conventionally, she is praised for her virtue and piety, but also for her sharp mind and devotion to learning. Since the last poem in the reversed section of her manuscript, 'The Princely Persian lead his warlike Host' (fols 131-122 rev.) - by far the longest poem in the collection - is evidently unfinished, it is possible that death interrupted her work on the miscellany.

Politically and religiously, Octavia Walsh had affiliations with the Whig faction which supported the accession of William and Mary and the dispossession of James II and his heirs. Her brother, William Walsh, who was M.P. for Worcestershire between 1698 and 1702, and for Richmond, Yorkshire, in 1705, was 'a consistent supporter of the Protestant succession and Whig war policy' (The Victoria History of the County of Worcester, vol. IV, p. 220). He was a political protégé of the Whig Lord Chancellor, John Somers (to whose influence he owed his election to the House of Commons), and was also befriended by Charles Talbot, Duke of Shrewsbury, who during the late 1690s was associated with the Whig 'Junto' led by Somers. He was also a member of the prestigious Whig society, the Kit-Cat Club. More moderate Whiggish affiliations are suggested by the posthumous publication of a number of Octavia Walsh's religious poems in a collection of Poems upon Divine and Moral Subjects ... By Dr. PATRICK, late Lord Bishop of ELY, and other Eminent Hands (1719). Both Simon Patrick and the dedicatee of the Poems, William Talbot, bishop of Salisbury (previously dean of Worcester from 1691 until his translation to Salisbury in 1715) took the oath of allegiance to William and Mary, and were broadly associated with the low church party within the Church of England (Patrick had originally taken Presbyterian orders, before seeking episcopal ordination). However, Simon Patrick was also widely respected across the disparate factions of the Church on account of his learning and, especially, his devotional writings. William Walsh, moreover, had ecumenical sympathies, at least when poetry was at issue: he had literary links with numerous Catholic writers, and is known to have corresponded with Dryden, Wycherley and Pope.

Through her brother, Octavia Walsh had connections with some of the most eminent writers of the time. Dryden wrote a preface for William Walsh's Dialogue concerning Women (1691), and, in the postscript to his translation of Virgil, praises him as the best critic of the age. Walsh appears to have been shown a copy of Pope's unpublished 'Pastorals' by Wycherley, and subsequently, in his correspondence with the young poet, advised him on points of style and on the reading of pastoral poetry. (Pope later, in the Essay on Criticism and Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot, praised Walsh's literary discernment.) Literary members of the Kit-Cat Club included Joseph Addison, Richard Steele and Matthew Prior, as well as William Congreve and John Vanburgh (with whom Walsh collaborated on a play, The Cornish Squire). It is not known whether Octavia Walsh ever visited London, but several of her poems rework the traditional debate between the rival merits of city life and country retirement. In one poem, The Grove, she mentions two London actors, Nokes and Doggett. It seems likely that Octavia Walsh's poetic practice was pervasively influenced by her brother's example. Both siblings wrote pastoral poetry, and there are numerous (if minor) verbal similarities between their poems. Versions of two poems published as William Walsh's in the 1721 anthology The Grove ('Phillis's Resolution' and' Clelia to Urania: An Ode') are included in Octavia Walsh's manuscript (fols. 149r. (rev) and 141r (rev).

Biography by Gillian Wright.

See also new ODNB entry for 'Walsh, Octavia (1677-1706).'

Bodleian Library: MS Eng. poet e. 31
Verse miscellany with additional recipes (1691-1706)
Octavia Walsh (Author, Scribe)