Sunday 25th April 2021

Venue: Online

In January 2021, a very special copy of a first edition of William Cowper’s 1782 poems arrived at Chawton House after an absence of around a century. This copy was the same copy owned by Edward Knight and kept in his library at Godmersham in Kent. Austen spent around ten months at Godmersham over six visits between 1798 and 1813, enjoying hours in the library. She was already familiar with Cowper’s works, writing to Cassandra from Steventon in December 1798, ‘My father reads Cowper to us in the evening, to which I listen when I can.’ Described in Henry Austen’s biography of his late sister as one of her favourite moral writers in verse, Cowper’s influence is clear in her novels.

Cowper’s life and works are fascinating in their own right, however, from his celebration of an ethical and simple life – ‘blest seclusion form a jarring world’ – to his involvement in the campaign to abolish slavery; from the beauty of his renowned Olney Hymns to the humorous everyday detail of his long poem The Task; from his love of the countryside and the natural world to his bouts of extreme melancholy and mental illness. Cowper is a poet that speaks to many of the pressing concerns that occupy us today as we emerge from the global pandemic: home, health, happiness.

Cowper wrote, ‘Variety’s the very spice of life, / That gives it all its flavour’, and to mark the anniversary of his death on 25 April 1800, Chawton House, in collaboration with the Cowper and Newton Museum, is holding a free virtual study day, sharing a variety of short films on the many facets of his life and work from Cowper specialists across the world.


4.30pm William Cowper’s Home

An introduction from the Cowper and Newton Museum

4.45pm William Cowper at Chawton House: Godmersham’s Lost Sheep

Curator Emma Yandle discusses the Knight family copy of Cowper, and Deborah Barnum introduces the work of The Godmersham Lost Sheep Society.

Deborah Barnum is a former law librarian, now owner of Bygone Books, an online shop of fine and collectible books and ephemera in Bluffton, SC. She co-founded the JASNA Vermont Region, is a board member of the North American Friends of Chawton House, and compiles the annual “Year in Burney Studies” for the Burney Journal. She authors the blogs Jane Austen in Vermont, Bygone Books, and Reading with Austen: Returning the Lost Sheep of Godmersham.

5.00pm Why Cowper Matters [Livestream]

Professor Karen O’Brien is a Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford and a scholar of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literature and ideas.

5.15pm Cowper and Abolition

Dr Katherine Turner is a professor of English at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia. Her main areas of academic interest are eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travel writing, women’s writing, and eighteenth-century poetry. She has edited Laurence Sterne’s eighteenth-century novel, A Sentimental Journey (Broadview, 2010) and several volumes of Women’s Court and Society Memoirs in the Chawton House Library Series (Pickering, 2010). She guest-edited the Cowper and Newton Journal in 2018 on the theme of ‘Home and Away’, to which she also contributed an essay on Cowper and the Newspapers.

5.30pm Cowper, Faith and Women’s Letters

Dr Tessa Whitehouse is Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature at Queen Mary University of London, where she directs the Centre for Religion and Literature in English (QMCRLE). She is the author of The Textual Culture of English Protestant Dissent 1720-1800 (OUP, 2015) and articles on memorial practices, diaries, autobiography, letters, friendship and Transatlantic literary exchanges. She has co-edited three essay collections: Textual Transformations (OUP, 2019), Reconstructing Early Modern Religious Lives: The Exemplary and the Mundane (E-rea, 2020) and Religion and Life Cycles in Early Modern England (MUP, in press). The current focus of her research is friendship and lived religion.

5.45pm Cowper and Landscape 

Professor Stephen Bending is Professor of Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture at the University of Southampton. He has published widely on the representation of gender, identity, and emotion in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and much of his work focuses on gardens. He is editor of A Cultural History of Gardens in the Age of Enlightenment (Bloomsbury, 2013) and a monograph, Green Retreats: Women, Gardens and Eighteenth-Century Culture in 2013 (CUP, 2013). Recently, he has worked on the garden-hating popularizer of the picturesque, William Gilpin, on the symbolic meaning of plants during the Enlightenment, and on a piece of fruit bush netting woven by the poet William Cowper for the RÊVE Romantic Dwelling Virtual Collection.

6.00pm Cowper and Retirement

Professor Mary Favret is a specialist in British Romanticism, and late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literature in English at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. She is affiliate faculty in the Program for Women and Gender Studies and co-founder of the Hopkins multi-disciplinary research group, The Sensorium of Reading, dedicated to broadening understanding of the phenomenological, sensory and historical dimensions of reading in various media. Linked to that project, her own research pursues a history of obstacles to and difficulties with the practice of reading in a world that demands literacy. When she’s not thinking about reading, she tries to figure out the role of race in Jane Austen studies.  Her books include Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics and the Fiction of Letters (CUP, 1993) and War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime (Princeton University Press, 2009)

6.15pm Cowper’s The Task

Dr Tess Somervell is a Lecturer in English at Worcester College, Oxford, and is Membership Secretary for the British Association for Romantic Studies. She previously held a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Leeds. Her main area of research is British poetry from 1660 to 1830, and her first book, Reading Time in the Long Poem: Milton, Thomson, and Wordsworth, is forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press.

6.30pm Cowper and Jane Austen

Dr Jane Darcy is a Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of Comparative Literature at King’s College London. William Cowper was a central figure in her PhD study of melancholy in the eighteenth century, later published by Palgrave as Melancholy and Literary Biography, 1640-1816 (2013). She has subsequently worked on possible reasons for Jane Austen’s great attachment to Cowper and Dr Johnson.

7-8pm The Making of the Writer’s House:

from Cowper’s Orchardside to Austen’s Chawton

[Live on Zoom, co-hosted by Jane Austen’s House, with Q&A]

Professor Nicola J Watson will be discussing the writer’s house, especially Cowper’s in Olney and Austen’s in Chawton, in the light of her new book, The Author’s Effects: On Writer’s House Museums (OUP 2020). How and when did the writer’s house museum come into being? How and why do we seek to curate an author’s life through preserving domestic spaces? She’ll be talking about how domestic spaces and objects have served to provide access to something of the writerly life and to build popular notions of authorship. And she’ll be reflecting on why the idealised domesticity of Orchard House and Chawton Cottage has special appeal in a time of lockdown.

Nicola holds a chair in English Literature at The Open University. She is a specialist in the literature and culture of the Romantic period, with particular interests in the history of authorship, literary tourism and the writer’s house museum.  She is director of the AHRC-funded RÊVE (Romantic Europe: The Virtual Exhibition), which contains many exhibits related to William Cowper and Jane Austen. She is a Trustee of the Cowper and Newton Museum.



This is a free event, but tickets are required to access the Zoom event at the end of the evening.

Talks will be broadcast on YouTube, and all links and access details for the final live event will be emailed to ticket holders the day before the event.