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Catherine Maria Fanshawe

born: 1765
died: 1834
country: United Kingdom

Catherine Maria Fanshawe was born in 1765. Her father was a courtier in the household of George III, and she grew up in an artistic but extremely formal household in Chipstead, Surrey. Although sources of the time describe her as ‘deformed’, she was counted the most talented of her siblings, both as a writer and sketcher and painter of watercolours. She was particularly admired by such writers as Sir Walter Scott and Cowper. Her delicate health meant that she spent a great deal of time in Italy. Her verses found a readership among friends and admirers; if they were printed it was only for private circulation. The Riddle on the letter H was erroneously attributed to Byron in at least two editions of that poet’s works. It was inspired by a discussion of the misuse of the letter H (its role as an aspirate, and perhaps the dropped aitches of working-class speech) when Fanshawe was the house guest of a Mr Hope in Deepdene, Surrey; she retired for the night, and read the poem for her fellow guests at breakfast. This woman of ‘rare wit and genius’ (as she was described by those who knew her) died in Putney Heath in 1834. There is no evidence that she had any personal contact with Byron who stole her fame – at least as far as Schumann and the lieder-loving public were concerned.

from notes by Graham Johnson

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