A small group of eight letters in the LSU Libraries’ Special Collections sheds new light on an episode in the life of an eighteenth-century woman writer who proved that the pen is mightier than the sword.
Anna Maria Bennett was a bestselling author during her lifetime. Although seldom read today, her seven novels, published between 1785 and 1806, were admired by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and novelist Sir Walter Scott and even mistaken for the work of Fanny Burney, one of the leading women writers of the eighteenth century.
The documents relate to an incident that indirectly launched Bennett’s career as a writer. Born around 1750 to a Welsh customs officer (some sources say grocer), for sixteen years she was the housekeeper and mistress of Admiral Sir Thomas Pye, bearing him at least two illegitimate children. Nicknamed “Goose” Pye by fellow Navy officers because of his reputation for incompetence, the admiral accidentally sent a love letter to Bennett that was intended for another woman. The mistake set off an intense war of words between them.
Reading the letters is like following a soap opera. The earliest, written in 1784 and possibly during Pye’s final illness (he was in his seventies and died a year later), ends with a display of verbal pyrotechnics that would have been at home in one of Bennett’s future novels.
“To say I wish you happy,” she wrote, “would be to speak against my feelings… May you feel in the solitary moments, when existence will be a burthen, all the sorrows your treacherous duplicity have implanted in my soul. May your last moments rock with the horror of unavailing repentance and may the tears I have shed, the sighs from my soul, be then present to your imagination. May your eyes be closed by the venal hands of hypocrisy, unmarked by a single groan, unaccompanied by one warm friend, unembalmed by a single crystal drop. May you breathe your last in the arms of a prostitute, and may you find to your everlasting terror a solemn truth that there is a hereafter.”
Pye’s secretary, summarizing the letter, wrote on the back, “Her curses on you.”
The letters are of interest not only as an early example of Bennett’s writing, but also for what they tell us about how women in the eighteenth century were able to negotiate with powerful men.
In one undated letter, for example, Bennett threatened to blackmail Pye if he did not promise to provide for her and her children. In 1779, during the American Revolution, Pye had reluctantly presided over one of the most famous trials of the day, the court martial of Admiral Augustus Keppel. He evidently expressed his personal opinions on the case to his mistress, who later threatened to use them against him and also expose his womanizing. “What ought to prevent my informing Captain Martin of the dupe he has been made between you and the strumpet his wife,” she warned, “… of reminding Lord Sandwich [First Lord of the Admiralty] of the vain efforts he made to entice you to a private interview in order to bias your judgment in the memorable trial at which you presided, of letting the Lords Bathurst, Howe, Richmond, and many others, not to mention His Majesty [King George III] himself, know your private sentiments of them, their abilities, and their actions.”
Bennett and Pye reached an agreement not long afterwards.
Despite their conflict, the two apparently retained feelings for each other. The rest of their letters, including an unusual one in which Pye wrote between Bennett’s lines, discuss the details of their settlement.
At his death in 1785, Pye left his house in the London suburbs to Bennett, but to earn money, she turned her talents to writing. Her first novel, Anna, or Memoirs of a Welch Heiress, which she must have written during her dispute with Pye, appeared that same year. It sold out within a day of publication. Most of her later novels were equally successful, some going through multiple editions. Their plots typically feature young, low-born, sexually liberated heroines. How much was Bennett’s own life a model for her novels? We invite you to study these letters and decide for yourself!
The Anna Maria Bennett letters are part of the George De Forest Collection (Range 77:41, Box 7). For more information, please contact us. Also be sure to check out the library’s growing collection of books by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British women writers.