Porter, Anna Maria (1780–1832)
Porter, Anna Maria (1780–1832)
English novelist. Born in 1780 in Durham, England; died of typhus on September 21, 1832, in Bristol, England; daughter of William Porter (an army surgeon) and Jane Blenkinsop Porter; sister of Jane Porter (1776–1850) and Robert Ker Porter; attended school in Edinburgh, Scotland; never married; no children.
Artless Tales (2 vols., 1793, 1795); Walsh Colville, or a Young Man's First Entrance into Life (1797); Octavia: A Novel (1798); The Fair Fugitives (play, 1803); The Lake of Killarney: A Novel (1804); A Sailor's Friendship, and a Soldier's Love (1805); The Hungarian Brothers (1807); Don Sebastian, or The House of Braganza (1809); The Recluse of Norway (1814); The Knight of St. John (1817); The Village of Mariendorpt (1821); The Barony (1830).
Born in Durham, England, in 1780, Anna Maria Porter was the youngest of five children of William Porter, an army surgeon who died shortly before her birth, and Jane Blenkinsop Porter . She was also the younger sister of Jane Porter , who achieved much more lasting recognition as a novelist; the sisters and their mother remained extremely close throughout their lives.
Shortly after Anna Maria's birth, her mother moved the now-fatherless family to Edinburgh, Scotland. Both Anna Maria and her sister Jane later attended George Fulton's school in that city, where, at the age of only five, Anna Maria was ranked at the head of her class, which included pupils as old as sixteen. (At that age she was also reportedly reading Shakespeare.)
The two sisters displayed an early interest in storytelling and writing, perhaps inspired in part by some neighborhood influences. In Edinburgh, the Porters lived but a short distance from a youthful Walter Scott, who often entertained them, and Anna Maria and her sister were also charmed by the fairy tales and accounts of Scottish history they heard from an elderly neighbor named "Luckie" Forbes . By age 16, Porter had published a two-volume collection of her stories, Artless Tales (1793, 1795), which captured the fancy of readers during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, perhaps because they were drawn from contemporary life. Most knowledgeable observers of the day, however, recognized Anna Maria's shortcomings as a writer. One later critic, George Saintsbury, attributed the eventual disappearance from print of Porter's work to her "amiable incompetence." Though her skills as a storyteller improved over time, Anna Maria seems never to have done much to polish her writing style.
By the time her first book was published, Porter and her family had moved from Edinburgh to London. Two years after the publication in 1795 of the second volume of Artless Tales, Anna Maria published her first novel, Walsh Colville, which Jane described as "a good warning, to young men, who are plunged into the same sea of Dissipation and Dangers" as the hero of the book. The social and moral culture of the final days of the 18th century was not altogether welcoming to novels, but both Anna Maria and later her sister Jane managed to overcome some of the suspicion to this literary form by their preferred subject matter, which was usually the attempts by basically moral characters to resist the corrupting influences of the world around them. Members of the Anglican Evangelical movement, who formed the bulk of the Porter sisters' audience, welcomed a literary theme in which the central characters managed to stay on the path of righteousness despite the siren call of temptation.
The publication of Anna Maria's second novel, Octavia, in 1798 met with critical response that can most charitably be characterized as indifferent. One critic described it as "a novel, without any particular merit, or any particular fault," while another suggested that the author "may with care become respectable as a poetess; but we would advise her to relinquish the task of writing novels." And, indeed, in her next undertaking Porter moved away from the novel, writing the book and lyrics for The Fair Fugitives, a musical drama that debuted at Covent Garden on May 16, 1803. The play proved a failure at the box office and ended forever her venture into the world of the theater. Porter next published The Lake of Killarney in 1804 and A Sailor's Friendship, and a Soldier's Love in 1805. The former attracted a somewhat mixed reaction from critics, one of whom wrote favorably of it, suggesting that "it awakens no sympathies that are not … friendly to the cause of virtue." For her part, Anna Maria apologized to readers in advance for the weaknesses of her novel, allowing that it had been written "merely as an amusement for the languid hours, which followed long and repeated fits of sickness." Seizing perhaps on this admission by the author, another critic said of the novel that "the thread which connects the story together does not continually serve to conduct the reader along through the winding paths. We attribute this defect to the state of the author's health, which probably interrupted the chain of ideas, and weakened their mutual dependence on each other." (It should be noted, however, that such "apologies" by authors, particularly women authors, were by no means unheard of at the time.) Of A Sailor's Friendship, critics had little to say.
In 1807, Porter published her most popular novel, The Hungarian Brothers, a historical romance set against the backdrop of the French Revolution that went through more than 15 printings and was translated into French. Although they were not quite as impressed as its readers, most critics conceded that this novel represented an improvement over some of Anna Maria's earlier work. Critical Review, which had once suggested that Porter would do well to abandon her writing, grudgingly admitted that in this novel "the incidents are striking … and many of the characters finely drawn."
Porter also wrote a number of other historical romances, including Don Sebastian, or The House of Braganza (1809); The Knight of St. John (1817); The Village of Mariendorpt (1821); and The Barony (1830), her last novel. None of these works, however, achieved the popularity of The Hungarian Brothers. With Jane, Anna Maria also collaborated in the writing of Tales Round a Winter Hearth (1826) and Coming Out (1828).
The Porter sisters lived for many years with their mother in Esher, Surrey, returning to London after her death in 1831. The following year, during a visit to her brother in Bristol, Anna Maria Porter contracted typhus and died at the age of 52.
Adams, Michael. "Anna Maria Porter" in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 116: British Romantic Novelists, 1789–1832. Edited by Bradford K. Mudge. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.
The Concise Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford and NY: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. British Authors of the Nineteenth Century. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1936.
Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford and NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Woolsey, Linda Mills. "Anna Maria Porter" in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 159: British Short-Fiction Writers, 1800–1880. Edited by John R. Greenfield. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1996.
Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania