Letters to Emma

Lichfield Garrick


Anna Seward was The Swan of Lichfield, famous daughter of the cathedral city, or at least she would have been had she not been a woman, and when it came to the 18th century, women didn’t really count.

Not that much changed in that respect in the 19th, 20th and, whisper it quietly, even the 21st century. Even Seward herself was caught up in the sexual mores of the day, believing in equality, or at least an Orwellian view of equality, with men still more equal than women.

Well educated with regular visitors to the family home including the likes of Erasmus Darwin, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, she also joined in discussions of the Lunar Society when they sometimes met at her family home.

Yet she did not feel she could write on manly subjects confining herself largely to poetry, which had  some merit despite history and critical appraisal, by mostly men, regarding it as lightweight, as was the ”provincial” Seward herself.

Not only that she was very friendly with a married man, so was seen as a homebreaker and probable adulterer, and she never married and had female friends so was obviously a lesbian – with neither supposition having any supporting evidence.

What is known, though, is that Anna had an intimate relationship with Emma, writing 39 long involved letters to her, expressing her deepest thoughts and ideas. Emma was her confidante, her sounding board, her friend and her very own invention, a friend who lived entirely in her imagination, a made-up figure. She wrote to her from 1762-1768 with a final letter in 1779.

And that correspondence is the cornerstone of Lichfield writer Carolyn Scott Jeffs’ new play, except her Emma is an Eng Lit student at Loughborough University who has just lost her boyfriend, has parents who are a pain and a gran living life to the full on a world tour while she is stuck on, or rather off, her meds struggling to find not only a subject for her dissertation but a way of coping, of muddling through.

Thus, we have Anna, surrounded by books, intelligent, well-educated, self-confident, knowin her place, and yet regarded, even by herself, as inferior to men, discovering herself by writing to her imaginary friend Emma and, 250 years of so on, we have Emma, a student, discovering herself by writing about Anna with her own imaginary friend, the internet, that uneasy mix of valuable information and, at times, the puerile, and at times, vicious social media.


Heather Westwell as Anna Seward, surrounded by an early form of Google, called books. Pictures Pamela Raith Photography

In the mid-18th century Anna’s put downs were gentile and accepted; the words woman and equality never being found in the same volume let alone the same sentence - it was just the way of the world.

For 2017 Emma’s put downs are less sophisticated, less gentle, while taking the mickey out of her boyfriend unleashes a torrent of twitter trolls to prove sexism is alive and well and living under a rock.

For her time Anna was a shining beacon of equality, a crusader in the battle of the sexes, but today, her achievements, and ideas, fall well short of what Emma would even consider to be the norm, but, slowly it dawns on her that Seward is merely another stepping stone in a stream that had yet to be crossed.

Lizzie Wofford, another Lichfeldian and once a member of the Garrick Youth Theatre, is becoming an accomplished actress, and brings Emma to life as the student training for a marathon, studying for a dissertation, missing ball committee meetings, internet dating and just about holding her life together on and off the internet.

Her research on Seward throws up Kathy Switzer the first woman to run the Boston marathon back in 1967. No big deal you might say, except it was a men only race back then and she had a running battle, quite literally in this case, with officials and other runners.  Her story is the inspiration for Emma, who even finds a cause on the internet to support with her run, a girl Sarah, suffering from cancer.

Anna, who, incidentally had a sister, Sarah, who died of typhus, is played by Heather Westwell, last seen at the Garrick in the very funny Crimes against Christmas.

She gives us a rather prim and proper Seward who might have been a radical in her own time but is a rather staid conservative in ours. The comparison between the in yer face Emma and the in your place Anna is quite telling, 1760s against 2017.


Lizzie Wofford as struggling student Emma with her life projected on a screen behind her

Emma’s research throws up important figure in feminism, such as the French intellectual Simone de Beauvoir, whose scandalous behaviour and strange sexual relationship with Jean Paul Sartre, hardly went unnoticed but she also found  women who history and convention had studiously ignored or dismissed.

Women such as radio pioneer Hilda Matheson, palaeontologist Mary Anning, and mathematician Ada Lovelace, who wrote the first computer programme more than a century before the first computer appeared.

Picture frames, hanging from the ceiling, frame each character as Wofford gives them life, while running through Anna’s world were the sons of Lichfield, the grumpy Samuel Johnson, the corpulent Erasmus Darwin and, the greatest actor of his age, David Garrick, after whom the theatre is named.

The two parallel lives once separate, slowly converge until it is hard to decide if Anna is a figment of Emma’s imagination or is she the figment of Anna’s brought up to date.

One we know is real – after all she is in Wikipedia and can be Googled, dammit she even has books – but then Emma has Facebook, twitter and other accounts so she must be real as well, so do we believe real reality or virtual reality. Make you own mind up,

The studio set by Connie Watson is simple and clever with Emma sprawling over a student desk, laptop and phone always at hand with a running machine to prepare for her marathon and relive frustration.

Anna sits in a four poster of a room, an ivory tower, lit by a candle and surrounded by books and learning.

The Garrick technical team have done a superb job projecting computer images and screens onto the back wall, with instant pics, and all manner of graphics and messages in what is an interesting and intriguing production.

It is also a production that makes Lichfield Garrick a producing house of original works for the first time. True, it has commissioned its own pantos, and the Rep had its own productions of plays such as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Blue Room, Haunting Julia and The Entertainer,  but this is the first original  play produced by the theatre, and was commissioned to mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of David Garrick.

Scott Jeffs has seen her Fanny – a New Musichall and Wolfie and the Showgirl appear recently, winning awards and garnering positive reviews and this will only enhance her growing reputation. Directed by Garrick artistic director Tim Ford, Letters to Emma runs to 07-10-17

Roger Clarke


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