COWPER, William (1731-1800). Autograph letter signed ("Wm Cowper") to Lady Hesketh ("My dear Cousin"), [Olney], 12 October 1785. 4 pages, 4to, autograph address panel, small tear to seal affecting a few words, tipped to mount.
A response to: -- HESKETH, Lady Harriet (1733-1807). Autograph letter signed ("Harriet Hesketh") to William Cowper, London, 10 October 1785. 6 pages, 4to, free frank address panel in the hand of her father and co-heir Ashley Cowper, tipped to mount, some minor dustsoiling and slight wear at folds, but generally in good condition.
A CELEBRATED EXCHANGE OF LETTERS. Lady Hesketh renews her relationship with her cousin Cowper with an enthusiastic reception of his recent work: "and now I talk of literary Performance pray tell me the title of the Book you publish'd lately? Mrs. Maitland ask'd me in her last letter, whether I had read it? She praises it highly ... I was most pleas'd with yr. verses in the Gentlemans Magazine upon ye. Death of little Tiney, one of your 3 Hares ... but write what you will - nothing will, or ever can equal that most truly Delectable history of John Gilpin! -- you know I suppose the Rage that prevaild for it, all last winter, when it was recited by Henderson at freemasons Hall! by sev'ral others upon the stage! hung up in print shops! - sung in the streets! & in short was in ev'ry bodys Mouth and in ev'ry Body's Rooms!"
Lady Hesketh's exuberance lifted Cowper. He replies: "It is no new thing with you to give pleasure, but I will venture to say that you do not often give more than you gave me this morning ... We are all grown young again, and the days that I thought I should see no more, are actually returned ... I need only recollect how much I valued you once, and with how much cause, immediately to feel a revival of the same value ... The hours that I have spent with you are amongst the pleasantest of my former days." The range of his letter is broad, as he writes of his recent troubles ("it is under Providence owing, that I live at all"), the forces that drive him to poetry ("Dejection of Spirits, which I suppose may have prevented many a man from becoming an Author, made me one"), his whereabouts, recent publications and the many animals he houses.
The importance of the exchange has been noted by numerous critics and biographers, among them James King, who describes the letter by Lady Hesketh, one which was to lead to a renewed correspondence and close friendship broken only by Cowper's death, as "perhaps the most important letter he was ever to receive" (William Cowper, 1986, p.158). King analysizes extensively this dramatic highpoint, as does David Cecil in The Stricken Deer: "One morning he was excited to receive a letter in a familiar hand. He tore it open, to be faced with the demonstrative, opinionated, entertaining, helter-skelter style, the heavily underlined writing of Harriet Hesketh. She had read his poems; she thought them perfectly delightful; she had felt she must get into communication with him again. Cowper was overjoyed ... He hurried from the table and wrote off an enthusiastic letter of thanks." Cowper's letter published in The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, ed. James King and Charles Ryskamp, 1981, pp.380-4. (2)