Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, Pleasance

SMITH, PLEASANCE, Lady (1773–1877), centenarian, fifth child of Robert (d. 15 July 1815, aged 76) and Pleasance (d. 27 March 1820, aged 81) Reeve of Lowestoft, Suffolk, was born at Lowestoft on 11 May 1773. Her mother shortly before marriage had recovered with difficulty from small-pox, having been treated by being wrapped in scarlet flannel and kept in a heated room without fresh air. The first child of her parents was Pleasance, born 1766, who lived five or six hours; the second, in 1767, a daughter, still-born; the third, in 1768, a son, who lived a few hours; the fourth, Robert, born in 1770, who died 9 May 1840. The family bible has this entry by the father: ‘11th May 1773.—The said Pleasance was delivered of a daughter about one in the afternoon, and [she] was baptized by the name of Pleasance.’ The Lowestoft parish register, under the heading ‘Christenings in Lowestoft, A.D. 1773,’ has the following at p. 393: ‘May 12.—Pleasance, daughter of Robert and Pleasance Reeve.—John Arrow, Vicar.’ Subsequently (1778) was born a son, James, who died 26 June 1827. Pleasance was trained by both her parents to a love of nature and of literature; her love of poetry was innate. She married, in 1796, (Sir) James Edward Smith [q. v.], had no child, and survived her husband nearly forty-nine years. Soon after her marriage she was painted, as a gipsy, by Opie. In 1804 William Roscoe [q. v.] wrote to his wife that ‘he who could see and hear Mrs. Smith without being enchanted has a heart not worth a farthing.’ The impression of her stately beauty in middle life is still a memory in Norwich, her home from 1797. In 1849 she removed to a house built by her father in High Street, Lowestoft. On her hundredth birthday in 1873 a dinner was given in the Public Hall, Lowestoft, to aged poor of the neighbourhood, and she received from the queen a copy of ‘Our Life in the Highlands,’ with the autograph inscription: ‘To Lady Smith, on her 100th birthday, from her friend Victoria R., May 11th, 1873.’ Up to this time she scarcely knew the meaning of illness; her colour was fresh, she had kept nearly all her teeth, and her eyes were bright, though the sight was beginning to fail. On 16 Feb. 1873 she had written: ‘I can yet see the landscape. This is a great alleviation, but I cannot see the lines I attempt to write.’ She continued, however, to write letters till barely a fortnight before her death. She had curious optical illusions, seeing spectral figures which enlarged as they receded; fortunately this only caused her amusement. Her hearing was almost unimpaired to the last, and her memory was singularly accurate and tenacious; a few days before her death she repeated a great part of Gray's ‘Elegy.’ She never lost her interest in political and literary topics, or her sympathy with modern movements; did not think the past age better than the present, and met fears of the dangerous tendencies of modern science with the remark, ‘I am for inquiry.’ Among her friends were Sarah Austin [q. v.], William Whewell [q. v.], Adam Sedgwick [q. v.], and Arthur Penrhyn Stanley [q. v.] In the winter of 1873–4 she had a severe attack of bronchitis, but got quite well again; and till near the end of 1876 entertained her friends at table, and took almost daily drives in her carriage. Her strength was weakening, and in January 1877 she sank rapidly. On Saturday, 3 Feb. 1877, she asked to be carried down to her favourite room; the wish could not be gratified; half an hour later she passed calmly away. She was buried on 9 Feb. beside her husband, in her father's vault in the churchyard of St. Margaret's, Lowestoft. In the church there is a window to her memory. She published ‘Memoir and Correspondence of the late Sir J. E. Smith,’ &c. (1832, 8vo, 2 vols.). Tradition ascribes to her a share in the composition of her husband's hymns.

[Times, 5 Feb. 1877; Christian Life, 10 Feb. 1877 p. 73, 17 Feb. 1877 p. 87; Spectator, 17 Feb. 1877, article on ‘The Ideal of Old Age;’ James's Memoir of Thomas Madge, 1871, p. 291; tombstones at Lowestoft; personal recollection.]

A. G.