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  Elizabeth Bentley (bap. 1767, d. 1839), by unknown engraver, pubd 1820 (after Joseph? Clover) Elizabeth Bentley (bap. 1767, d. 1839), by unknown engraver, pubd 1820 (after Joseph? Clover)
Bentley, Elizabeth (bap. 1767, d. 1839), poet, was baptized on 26 November 1767 at All Saints', Norwich, the only child of Daniel Bentley (bap. 1735, d. 1783), a journeyman cordwainer, and his second wife, Elizabeth Lawrence, the daughter of a Norwich cooper. Most of what is known of Bentley's life comes from a letter of 23 July 1790, addressed to her patron and first editor, the Revd John Walker, and included among the prefatory materials to both her volumes of verse. She reports that her father, having received a good education himself, taught her reading, spelling, and writing but never gave her ‘the least idea of grammar’. When she was ten, her father suffered a stroke that disabled him from working as a shoemaker. He hawked garden produce for a living until being made bookkeeper to the London Coach, only a few months before he died, aged forty-eight.

Two years after her father's death, Bentley discovered in herself ‘an inclination for writing verses’, and although she ‘had no thought nor desire’ for them to be seen by anyone, her mother showed them to acquaintances, who encouraged her (Genuine Poetical Compositions, sigs. A3v–A4r).

So impressed was William Cowper with ‘the Norwich maiden's’ ‘strong natural genius’, that he not only subscribed to her first volume, Genuine Poetical Compositions, on Various Subjects (1791), but compared her verse with Mary Leapor's of forty years before, discerning ‘more marks of true poetical talent’ than he had observed ‘in the verses of any other male or female, so disadvantageously circumstanced’ (Hayley, 3. 295–6). The list of 1935 subscribers includes peers, gentry, members of parliament, clergymen, Cambridge dons, surgeons, attorneys, and such literati as Cowper, Elizabeth Carter, Elizabeth Montagu, and Hester Chapone. Bentley appears in the frontispiece portrait as a robust, broad-faced girl with a snub nose, crisply neat in a starched cap and neckerchief. Dedicated by permission to ‘William Drake, Jr., Esq., M.P.’, the volume announces itself as designed to fund an annuity for the author and her mother. As we might expect, there are odes to ‘Benevolence’, ‘Content’, and ‘Chearfulness’, as well as concluding ‘Lines, Addressed as a Tribute of Gratitude to the Subscribers in General’, in which Bentley regrets that she cannot ‘follow where seraphic MILTON led’ (line 20). Since her ‘lot’ has been ‘fix'd’ to ‘sing in humbler strain’, she must make do with the self-effacing modesty suitable for a poet of plebeian origins, ‘content to be the last and lowest of the tuneful train’ (Genuine Poetical Compositions, lines 30–32). In spite of her frequent reliance upon Popean rhymed couplets, Bentley most often evokes a Cowperian mood, inviting her readers to ‘quit the bustling town, where busy, anxious care your bliss destroys’, to pursue instead ‘the country's joys’ (‘On a Summer Morning’, lines 20–24). ‘On Cruelty to Animals’ and ‘On the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade’ are notably compassionate contributions to contemporary debates.

After the success of this volume, Bentley kept a small boarding-school in the London Road. Except for occasional poems in the Norfolk Chronicle, a small collection of verses for children, sold for a shilling, and a short ode on Nelson's victory at Trafalgar (reprinted in her second volume), she published nothing until Poems; being the Genuine Compositions of Elizabeth Bentley in 1821. Dedicated to John Wodehouse, lord lieutenant of Norfolk, this collection represents her as more than ever a local poet and elegist. The frontispiece portrait represents her as thoughtful and hollow-cheeked, in a shawl and frilled cap and collar.

Bentley died at Doughty's Hospital in the parish of St Saviour's, Norwich, an almshouse for aged poor men and women, on 13 April 1839 and was buried at St Stephen's, Norwich, on 17 April. In her will she bequeathed to Seth William Stevenson, of the firm of printers who had published her work, the sum of £10, and the residue of her estate, to cover funeral expenses, to Elizabeth Lawrence Whiting.

Donna Landry

Sources  

E. Bentley, Genuine poetical compositions, on various subjects (1791), preface · E. Bentley, Poems; being the genuine compositions of Elizabeth Bentley, of Norwich (1821), preface · W. Hayley, The life and posthumous writings of William Cowper, 4 vols. (1806) · parish register, Norwich All Saints (baptisms), 1739–70 · parish register, Norwich St Stephen's (baptisms and burials), 1710–81, 119 · d. cert.

Likenesses  

stipple, pubd 1820 (after drawing by J.? Clover), NPG [see illus.] · Miss Buck, engraving (after T. Bassett), repro. in Bentley, Genuine poetical compositions

Wealth at death  

under £100; £10 to Seth William Stevenson; residue to Elizabeth Lawrence Whiting: will, 1839, ANW W.65 f.94–95, Norfolk RO, Norwich