Porter, Jane (1776–1850)
Porter, Jane (1776–1850)
English novelist. Born on December 3, 1776, in Durham, England; died on May 24, 1850, in Bristol, England; daughter of William Porter (an army surgeon) and Jane (Blenkinsop) Porter; sister of Anna Maria Porter (1780–1832) and Robert Ker Porter; educated at George Fulton's School in Edinburgh, Scotland; never married; no children.
The Two Princes of Persia, Addressed to Youth (1801); Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803); Sketch of the Campaign of Count A. Suwarrow Ryminski (1804); The Scottish Chiefs: A Romance (1810); The Pastor's Fire-Side: A Novel (1817); Owen, Prince of Powys (play, 1822); Duke Christian of Luneberg (1824); Sir Edward Seward's Narrative of His Shipwreck and Consequent Discovery of Certain Islands in the Caribbean Sea (1831).
Born in 1776 in Durham, England, Jane Porter was the eldest daughter of army surgeon William Porter and Jane Blenkinsop Porter , whose family already included sons John Blenkinsop Porter (b. 1771 or 1772) and William Ogilvy Porter (b. 1773 or 1774). A year after her birth, the Porters welcomed the arrival of third son Robert Ker Porter, who would become a much-traveled painter and writer. A 1777 letter from William Porter to his wife reveals that his aspirations for his daughter were quite different than his hopes for his sons. He wrote that John, whom he called Jacky, showed the promise of becoming "a lad of Genius," while he expressed hope that William would be made a "good scholar." About Jane, whom he called Jenny, he wrote: "My Jenny is beautiful; it will be my pride to dress my little Queen handsomely and decently. The rest I leave to your good sense to make up the rest of her education fitting her for a good wife to an Honest Man." William Porter died two years later, only months before the birth of Anna Maria Porter in early 1780. Jane's devastation at the loss of her father at so early an age was reflected later in life in her idealization of fatherhood and what critics have characterized as a tendency to turn the heroes of the past into father figures.
Left in straitened circumstances by the death of her husband, Jane's mother decided to move with her three youngest children (the two eldest boys remained in school in England) to Edinburgh, where living costs were less expensive than in Durham. The love of both Jane and Anna Maria for the written word can probably be traced, at least in part, to their schooling in Edinburgh at an academy run by George Fulton, a compiler of dictionaries. Though both sisters were good students, Anna Maria proved especially precocious and was said to have been reading Shakespeare by the age of five. Fulton was just one of the influences in Edinburgh that helped to shape the girls' love of storytelling. Household help introduced the girls to the heroic tales of early Scottish history. A neighbor woman, "Luckie" Forbes , regaled Jane and Anna Maria with more about Scotland's colorful heritage, drawing a parallel between early Scottish heroes and Old Testament patriarchs. Their mother developed a friendship in Edinburgh with Anne Rutherford Scott (mother of Sir Walter Scott), who played with the Porter children and shared adventure stories with them. In 1790, the family moved to London, where family friends included writers Anna Letitia Barbauld and Hannah More .
By age 16, Anna Maria had published the first volume of her Artless Tales. Jane was slower to develop as a writer, although by 1796 she was writing short stories under the pen name of "Classicus." In her diary in 1800, Jane wrote that she had developed a strong affection for actor Charles Kemble and would gladly marry him if only he would ask. Regrettably no such offer was forthcoming. Perhaps to take her mind off her disappointment in romance, Porter threw herself into a study of the exploits of exiles and émigrés. This research led to the writing of Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803), her first romance novel, an immediate popular success that also won the approval of Polish patriot and American Revolutionary War hero General Tadeusz Kosciuszko. An article the following year in the Imperial Review noted that the book "is one of the few which, once opened, could not pass unread. The attention is arrested by the first page, and never suffered to diverge till the final denouement." So enthusiastic was the public's response to Thaddeus that 20th-century critic Robert Tate Irvine called Jane Porter "the Margaret Mitchell of 1803." A year later, her Sketch of the Campaign of Count A. Suwarrow Ryminski was published.
Porter's next literary venture, Aphorisms of Sir Philip Sidney; with Remarks (1807), a collection of quotations organized by subject, was praised by one critic as a "valuable pocket and traveling companion" but failed to excite much interest among readers. In 1810, Jane published The Scottish Chiefs, which celebrated (without strict regard to historical accuracy) the heroic exploits of Scotland's William Wallace, who was executed in 1305 after a failed uprising against the British crown. The book was hugely popular, praised by such writers as Joanna Baillie , Thomas Campbell, and Mary Russell Mitford , and was translated into Russian and German.
Porter next decided to try her hand at theater, which proved a disappointment. Her first play, Egmont, or the Eve of St. Alyne, was never printed or performed. Although it took some time to reach the stage, her second effort, Switzerland, was finally produced with Edmund Kean in the starring role. However, he gave a dreadful performance (some suspect he was drunk), and the play soon closed. In 1822, the Theatre Royal staged Porter's Owen, Prince of Powys; or Welsh Feuds, but it, too, was a failure.
During her venture into playwriting, Porter also wrote a well-received historical novel, The Pastor's Fire-Side, in 1817. Less popular with readers was her Duke Christian of Luneberg, written at the request of King George IV and published in 1824. Jane and her sister Anna Maria collaborated on a collection of short fiction entitled Tales round a Winter Hearth, published in 1826. Another collaboration between the sisters followed in 1828, when together they published a three-volume work, in which the first two volumes contained Anna Maria's novel Coming Out and the last contained Jane's The Field of Forty Footsteps.
Both sisters contributed work to The Amulet, a literary annual edited by Samuel Carter Hall, husband of Anna Maria Hall , a well-known author of Irish novels. In 1831, Jane published Sir Edward Seaward's Narrative of His Shipwreck and Consequent Discovery of Certain Islands in the Caribbean Sea, which she claimed was an actual diary concerned with real events that she simply had edited. This assertion eventually was proven false by a literary journal, but Porter nonetheless continued to refuse to admit that the book was fiction. Edgar Allan Poe reportedly considered the Narrative superior to Robinson Crusoe. In the summer of that year, the sisters were dealt a severe blow by the death of their mother, who had been central to their lives. The two returned to London, and in June 1832, while visiting their brother in Bristol, Anna Maria died of typhus.
The loss of her mother and sister in such a short time took a heavy toll on Jane, leaving her with little interest in writing. Of that period, she later recalled, "I neither felt the power nor the desire to touch a literary pen again. They were gone whose words had kindled my emulations, whose approving smiles had been the most prized reward of my labors." Nonetheless, two years after Anna Maria's death, Jane wrote "A Scottish Tradition" for inclusion in The Tale Book, a collection of short fiction by such literary luminaries as Mary Shelley , Walter Scott, and Washington Irving. She also contributed to New Monthly Magazine, another periodical edited by Samuel Carter Hall, in 1836.
Porter wrote little in the last 20 years of her life. Her health slowly deteriorated, and, while she maintained a home in London, she spent much of her time traveling throughout Europe to visit friends and her brothers. After the 1841 death of her brother Robert while she was visiting him in St. Petersburg, Russia, Jane Porter returned to England to settle his estate. She then moved to Bristol to live with her brother William, and died there on May 24, 1850.
Adams, Michael. "Jane 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. "Jane 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