Jane Porter

For International Women’s Day 2023, the historic libraries of Magdalene are highlighting the life and work of the novelist Jane Porter (c.1775-1850).  There has been renewed interest in Jane Porter and her sister Anna Maria (1778-1832)  due to the recent publication Sister Novelists by Prof. Devoney Looser.  A copy of this biography of the Porter sisters is available in the New Library for current Magdalene students to borrow. 

Looser demonstrates the importance of the Porters’ work as a precursor to the novels of Jane Austen, Mary Shelley and the Brontës, and makes extensive use of the vast collection of Porter family correspondence, which is spread between several repositories such as the Huntington Library in California.  We may now add, albeit in a small way, Magdalene College to this list of repositories.  The Old Library holds two letters by Jane Porter in the Van de Weyer albums, a collection of autograph letters and engraved portraits compiled by Jean-Sylvain Van de Weyer (1802-1874), a Belgian diplomat in the court of Queen Victoria.

Jane Porter published seven novels between 1799 and 1824 (the most notable being Thaddeus of Warsaw and The Scottish Chiefs).  She also co-authored works with her sister, Anna Maria, and arranged and edited works by her brothers, Robert Ker Porter and William Ogilvie Porter. Although Jane Porter’s novels have somewhat faded into obscurity, they were relatively well known in their day, to which their large print runs and translations into other languages can attest.  The Scottish Chiefs was said to be a favourite book of Queen Victoria’s,[i] and features William Wallace as its main protagonist.  It can also claim to be one of the earliest works of the historical novel genre[ii].  To what extent Jane Porter’s work influenced Walter Scott, with whom she was acquainted in her childhood in Edinburgh, is a subject of much debate.  However, it was clear that Porter herself thought her work had informed Scott’s.  As Looser describes in Sister Novelists: ‘By April 1815, Jane had become irate…Jane complained to Maria that both Scott and Southey were doing for historical verse what Jane and Maria had done for historical fiction’[iii], and quotes from a letter from Jane to Maria, ‘It is monstrous how these poets play the vampire with our works.’[iv]

The two letters from Jane Porter present in the Van de Weyer albums date from the 1830s, and are somewhat administrative in nature but nevertheless give some interesting insights into Porter’s life.  One of the letters addressed to Van de Weyer himself, and one to Aaron Vail, an American diplomat who served as chargé d’affairs in the United Kingdom under Queen Victoria.  As diplomatic colleagues, it is possible that Van de Weyer was given this letter by Vail to add to his collection of autographs and prints.

A letter from Jane Porter to Aaron Vail dating from 1833
Old Library Van de Weyer Albums, Album 6, ff.35r-35v. Jane Porter to Aaron Vail, 23 November 1833

Porter’s letter to Vail is a somewhat typical example of those with diplomatic responsibilities being called upon by friends and acquaintances to send correspondence to their home countries.  Jane asks that Vail would have ‘the goodness to forward by his free dispatches’ a letter she encloses.  Porter’s need to economise was particularly prominent at the time of her writing this letter in the winter of 1833.  Her sister Maria had died the year before, and therefore they could no longer share their incomes.   Jane addresses her letter from ‘Dr Porter’s, Bristol’, referring to her brother William Porter and his wife Phoebe, with whom she stayed most winters.[v]

A letter from Jane Porter to Jean-Sylvain Van de Weyer possibly dating from 1837

Old Library Van de Weyer Albums, Album 5, ff.115r-115v.
Jane Porter to Jean-Sylvain Van de Weyer, 26 June [1837?]

Porter’s letter to Van de Weyer is similar in content in regard to her request for his help in forwarding communications to his home country of Belgium.  However, this letter does provide a few more clues.  We note that Porter and Van de Weyer are personally acquainted and that she is asking for Van de Weyer’s assistance in contacting Sarah Belzoni, an Egyptologist and travel writer with a fascinating life story.  Jane attempted to assist Belzoni with her publishing endeavours while Belzoni was residing in Belgium.[vi]  Jane wrote this letter from Shirley Park, the country residence of the Skinner family.  Looser writes that ‘it was through Mrs. Skinner that Jane formed a significant new friendship with the up-and-coming poet Nathaniel Parker Willis….Willis, like Jane, became a fixture at Shirley Park, which was filled with a gaggle of authors, all of whom seemed constantly writing’.[vii]

An engraving of Jane Porter wearing a veil, similar to a nun's
Old Library Van de Weyer Albums, Album 5, ff.114v.
Jane Porter, engraved by James Thomson.

This letter in the album is placed opposite an engraved portrait of Jane Porter.  Porter has every appearance of a nun in the image, which may seem odd at first glance.  Porter is dressed as a member of the Teutonic Order of St Joachim, of which she was made a Canoness after her novel Thaddeus of Warsaw was translated into German.[viii]

The wealth of correspondence from several eminent 19th century figures in the Van de Weyer albums, including Jane Porter and other notable women, is now coming to light due to an ongoing cataloguing project of these albums.  This cataloguing project will, in the near future, enable researchers and the wider public to search the contents of these albums online.

By Catherine Sutherland

Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections

[i] Morton, G. William Wallace : A National Tale. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014, p.134 in Looser, Devoney. Sister Novelists : The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022, p.xiii.

[ii] ‘Porter, Jane’. In Birch, D. (Ed.), The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Retrieved 6 Jan. 2023, from https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780192806871.001.0001/acref-9780192806871-e-6092.

[iii] Looser, Sister Novelists, p.315.

[iv] Huntington Library, Jane Porter Papers 1707, Jane Porter to Anna Maria Porter, 25 April 1815.

[v] Looser, Sister Novelists, p.407.

[vi] McLean, Thomas. 2011. ‘Jane Porter’s later works, 1825–1846’ in Harvard Library Bulletin 20(2), Summer 2009: 45-63. p.54.

[vii] Looser, Sister Novelists, pp.409-410.

[viii] McMillan, D.  ‘Porter, Jane (bap. 1776, d. 1850), novelist’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 4 Jan. 2023, from https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-22571.

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