1871 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Anna Maria Porter

S. C. Hall, "Jane and Anna Maria Porter" in A Book of Memories: Great Men and Women of the Age, from personal Acquaintance (1871) 128-32.



I knew the sisters JANE and ANNA MARIA PORTER so long ago as the year 1816, when they resided with their brother, a physician, at Bristol. I was a lad at school; but I had read the "Scottish Chiefs," and the author of that most popular novel was to me all but an object of adoration. Jane Porter was then in the zenith of her beauty as well as fame: she had hosts of worshippers, and among them, it is no exaggeration to say, there were princes and kings; for that novel had made its way, by translations, into nearly every court of Europe, and "Thaddeus of Warsaw" had been proscribed by the Emperor Napoleon — he who was, in 1816, a chained eagle on the rock of St. Helena. I can even now — though more than fifty years have passed, and she has been twenty years in her grave — recall the fine form and intellectual grace of the author, then a woman in her prime. "Waverley" had not been issued when Jane Porter was a Power in Fiction; and, although an almost total eclipse obscured her light, if it did not altogether destroy her renown, when a loftier genius absorbed public attention, the readers of her novels were, and are, enthusiastic admirers of her skill in devising a story, and her talent in portraying character.

We may marvel at the enormous popularity her romances achieved. They would find few readers now; but, as I have elsewhere observed, fifty or sixty years ago, when a woman wrote a book she became an idol; common-place was magnified into genius; and all the novel readers in England — they were as tens then to thousands now-were ready to kneel in homage at her feet. Let the most easily satisfied try to get through "Thaddeus of Warsaw," and he will wonder how it was possible its author could have obtained such renown.

Their mother was a native of Durham — a thorough lady in all respects. Their father was an Irish gentleman of good family, and had been an officer in the Enniskillen Dragoons. The mother became a widow not long after her marriage, and resided in Edinburgh, chiefly to be within reach of education for her two sons, one of whom, afterwards becoming Sir Robert Ker Porter, an officer of rank in our own army, held a distinguished post in the service of Russia, and was a man of mark. Many can remember his panorama of the Storming of Seringapatam, one of the earliest, if not the first, of the pictures of that class. He was a remarkably handsome man, and had married a Russian princess.

Jane was born in 1776, and Anna Maria in 1781. It was during the residence of the mother and sisters at Esher that we knew most of the eminent and truly estimable family. They lived therein comparative retirement in 1828, and during several subsequent years, resting mainly on the fame and means they had acquired; the one largely, the other to a limited extent, yet sufficient for limited needs.

It was a pretty cottage, and we hope is so still; the neighbourhood is very charming, full of interesting traditions of the long ago; their little garden was backed by the Park of Claremont; some relics are there associated with Cardinal Wolsey; and Hampton Court is not far off. There the mother died, and in the adjacent churchyard she was buried. The last time we saw Jane we promised we would occasionally visit her grave, and we have done so. The tomb is here pictured.

This is the inscription on the tomb:—

Here sleeps in Jesus a Christian widow,
JANE PORTER,
Obit. June 18th, 1831; Aetat. 86,
The beloved mother of W. Porter, M.D., of Sir Robert Ker Porter,
And of Jane and Anna Maria Porter,
Who mourn in Hope, humbly trusting to he born again
With her onto the blessed kingdom of their
Lord and Saviour.
Respect the grave, for she ministered to the Poor.

I borrow Mrs. Hall's portraits of the sisters:—

"No two sisters of the same parents could have been more opposite in appearance Anna Maria was a delicate blonde, with a 'riant' face and an animated manner; I had almost written she was peculiarly Irish, rushing at conclusions where Jane would have paused to consider and calculate. The beauty of Jane was statuesque, her deportment serious though cheerful, a seriousness quite as natural as her sister's gaiety. They both laboured diligently, but the labour of the one seemed sport when compared with the careful toil of the other. The mind of Jane was of a lofty order; she was intense, ponderous perhaps, and obviously felt more than she said; while Anna Maria said more than she felt. They were a pleasant contrast, yet the harmony between them was complete. Indeed, an artist might have selected them as apt subjects for portraits of L'Allegro and Il Penseroso; certainly of Thalia and Melpomene."

Writing in 1812, Crabb Robinson describes "the stately figure and graceful manners" of Jane. He might have praised both nearly fifty years afterwards.

I insert a characteristic letter I received from Jane Porter:—

"October 25th, 1836.

DEAR MR. HALL,

I wish to tell a little story, by way of excuse for troubling you again on the subject of publishing those MSS. I sent to you in the New Monthly. In short (though in matters of assisting our fellow-creatures, beyond themselves, the 'right hand should not know what the left hand does'), I am one whose never very extensive purse-strings often fail in meeting the stretch some hard necessity may require of them, and my object in wishing to publish those papers was to meet one of these exigencies. A poor lady, whom I knew in my own youth, — beautiful, admired, affluent, — first made an unfortunate marriage, then was left in struggling circumstances; and from one calamity to another overwhelming her, she has some time been reduced to so depressed and friendless a condition, that, as a last attempt to obtain a bare subsistence, she took a small house in Manchester to let its rooms, except one for herself and two daughters, and her parlour, into lodgings for humble occupants. She could not venture engaging a place suitable for persons of any higher degree, therefore their pay could not but be humble as their circumstances. To add to her means a little, I recommended to her collecting a few books to let out in the way of a circulating library, and what amusing books of my own that I had, or others I promised from kind friends, I sent to her. But of course, from so narrow a channel, the collection could be but small; the profits therefore short of any mentionable assistance. Hence, from time to time, as almost the only friend now left to the poor friend of my former days, she turns to me in any of her pecuniary distresses, and to the utmost of my own circumscribed limits of power I relieve them. Her times for paying rent and taxes are usually her trying seasons, for the fluctuation of lodgers often leaves her quite a-strand. In apprehension of this, lately, and in short to save their daily expenses, Theodora, her youngest daughter (to whom she gives charge of their little money concerns), has denied herself all other aliment but tea and dry bread. You may suppose, on a delicate girl (who also assists her poor mother in doing the household work of their small abode), that such abstinence has already brought symptoms on her which cause alarm to her mother. When I became aware of this sad effect, I dispatched a sovereign to her in a letter, begging, for the sake of the life of her daughter, it might be applied to providing each day a little light animal food even as medicine for her. Before I received her answer to this, I obtained from my venerable host here a little donation of game, &c., which I sent without delay to my poor friend. It is her letter in acknowledgment for this that I inclose to you, to show you, in her own artless language, a little of her story, and therefore to explain more forcibly than my own could do, my reasons for wishing to gather a few pounds by Christmas by the publication of the papers I sent to you, for indeed her succour in her great anticipated need.

Yours most true,

JANE PORTER."

When we last saw Jane Porter (for Maria died many years before her sister — at Montpelier, near Bristol, in 1832), it was at Bristol, in her brother's house; she was then but the shadow of her former self, and could not rise from her couch without assistance; yet she had the grace and dignity that appertain to honoured old age, and was still beautiful — the beauty of age. She was still the same gentle, holy-minded woman she had ever been, bending with Christian faith to the will of the Almighty — biding her time. She died there on the 24th of May, 1850; and I presume she is buried in that city of neglected and forgotten worthies. As with the other admirable women of whom I have here given Memories, the sisters were never seduced by public homage to neglect the duties of private life. They were hard and earnest workers with the pen, but they were zealous in all the thoughts, cares, and industries that render a home tranquil and happy. They were prolific authors, indeed; but never forgot that there are duties more paramount, more honourable — more profitable, in truth, in the better sense of the term — than those they discharged for the benefit of the public.