Life beyond Elmbridge
Jane Porter was born on Friday 3rd December in 1775 at The Bailey, or The Peninsula, Durham. This was an historic area of the city, shaped like a peninsula thanks to a sharp meander in the River Wear.
Jane was the third child born to William Porter, an army surgeon who had served in the 6th Inniskillen Dragoons, (The Black Dragoons) for twenty-three years. Her mother, also named Jane (née Blenkinsop), married William in Durham, in the church of St Mary-Le-Bow in the North Bailey on 17th July 1770. Jane had three older brothers, John born in 1772, William in 1774 and Robert in 1775. A sister, Anne was born in 1778. All the Porter children were baptised in St Mary le Bow.
Her father William Porter died in 1779 whilst the family were still living in Durham. Jane was then three years old, and her sister, Anna was born after his death. William Porter's death left his family in financial difficulties and his eldest son John was sent to live with his grandparents. Two years later in 1780 Jane's mother moved her family to Edinburgh. A record of where they lived cannot be traced. The children attended George Fultons' school.
From the tender age of six Jane began to take a keen interest in the life that surrounded her in Edinburgh, soaking up heroism and romanticism from the stories about William Wallace and Robert Bruce. These were gleaned from the maids in her nursery and the serving men in the kitchens. Her home was a hive of literary activity. Her mothers 'Salon' was often visited for 'tea' by accomplished scholars and esteemed friends. It is widely rumoured that Walter Scott was among them (although there is no evidence that they met here), and a letter written to him by Jane in later life comments on the 'recent nature of their acquaintance', indicating they did not meet over a cup of tea in Edinburgh.
The family resided in Edinburgh for the next ten years. Jane's brother Robert was fast becoming a promising artist and in 1790 their Mother decided to move again, this time to London to enable Robert to study at the Royal Academy under the American artist Benjamin West (feted for his painting 'The Death of General Wolfe', 1770).
The family settled into 6 Gerrard Street. Jane and her sister Anne, aged 14 and 11 years respectively, were keen visitors to her brothers studio at 16 Great Newport street, near Leicester Square. Here they would meet a young artistic group called the 'Brothers', or the 'Girtin's Sketching Club, or 'Sketching Society' who were to inaugurate a school of historic landscapes, with each illustration accompanied by a poetic subject. When Jane was present she was often invited to select the themes. At these gatherings she would sometimes meet 'poor London artists', on whose experiences she would draw for her future highly acclaimed Polish novel, 'Thaddeus of Warsaw'.
Jane and her sister Anna Marie had been writing newspaper and woman's journal articles together and in collaboration with established writers since their late teens and early twenties, Jane's Polish novel was her first attempt at 'romantic writing'. Thaddeus of Warsaw was published in 1803 when Jane was 27 years old and proved highly successful. It tells of the Polish struggle for independence after the Russian Invasion of 1792, through the eyes of the novels hero Thaddeus Sobieski. The inspiration for this story was General Kosciuszko, the hero of the conflict, who Jane and her brother once met. Further inspiration was drawn from the sight of the refugees wandering London, when on her walks in St James's Park, where many of them had taken refuge in a large camp site. This novel was translated into many languages gaining Jane literary awards and recognition across Europe.
From 1804 to her sister's death in 1832 Jane lived in Elmbridge. In 1833 she planned a visit to St Petersburg. She wished to visit her now eminent brother, Robert Ker Porter. Her brother had gained a place in Society as a painter of epic battle scenes, diplomat, writer and traveller. He was even appointed historical painter to the Tsar of Russia.
Jane's safe arrival in St Petersburg delighted Robert and he planned a long wished permanent return to England. His daughter had married and there was no reason for him to stay in Russia. Everything was planned for Jane and her brother to return to England. His final farewells had been made, all but one, to the Emperor. The day before their intended journey began Robert went to the palace, was graciously received, and then drove home, but when the servant opened the carriage door at his own residence he was dead. The year was 1842.
Little is known of Jane's movements from 1834 (when she joined her brother in St Petersburg) to 1842. It is suspected that she wandered around Europe and Great Britain for the next ten years or so.
Jane then travelled back to England and went about settling his estate, a task of some difficulty. In particular she wished to sell some of his watercolours, which had been assembled into book form partly by Robert himself and partly by Jane, to the British Museum. This museum today houses two items collected by Robert, one of which was a Babylon brick dated somewhere from the 7th Century.
In 1844 Jane Porter moved to her brother William's house in Bristol and remained there till she died on the 24th May 1850. Jane was 75 years old. Her novels Thaddeus of Warsaw and The Scottish Chiefs are still in print. Her numerous letters, diaries, and personal papers are available to view in Universities across America, Scotland and Great Britain. She and her sister Anna Maria rate very highly amongst writers of their generation and are still highly commended today. At the University of California a stipend was awarded to a Literary Professor to write a book on the life of Jane Porter. This was due for publication in 2011.
Life in Elmbridge
By 1804 Jane's health was not good, and by the end of the year Mother and daughters had moved to Thames Ditton in Surrey to take advantage of clean country air. Here they lived in a quiet country cottage in a beautiful wooded area. Thames Ditton in 1804 had a thriving boat building industry: mainly for boats plying the Thames. The area afforded many pleasant walks for the three women and many letters written by them to friends and family tell of the, 'tranquil times to be found here'.
Jane and her sister Anna Marie, both writers, never married. In the early 19th Century it could not have been easy to find suitors willing to accept as a wife someone who was powerful, famous and intellectually interesting. If the sisters had been very wealthy women, then their other 'attributes' could have been 'glossed over' for financial gain. Yet this was not the case. Although the sisters socialised with the elite, mixed in societies highest circles, they had a secret: they were financially destitute. One of the brothers, John, who had been sent at an early age to live with his grandparents, died in a debtors prison and in her later years Jane wrote continuously to the Crown and Government requesting a pension, with no luck whatsoever.
In 1810 Jane's most famous and widely read romantic novel 'The Scottish Chiefs' was published. Dealing with William Wallace's fight to free Scotland from Edward l it tells of the bravery of the Scottish soldiers against the English armies. This book is still in print today and from blogs on the Internet it is still widely praised. After her success as a novelist Jane turned her hand to writing plays. Her first effort was never performed and her second attempt was a complete disaster, it abruptly ended her career as a dramatist. However throughout her life Jane wrote prolifically - ten more novels, poems prose and historical papers, often in collaboration with members of her family, but all listed under her name.
The air in Thames Ditton proved too humid for Jane, her Mother and sister, so sometime in the 1820s they moved to Esher. Jane commented in a letter 'our abode at Esher was in the village, and a cottage still; but its situation was cheerful and airy, on the summit of a hill. This 'cottage' is the house called Alderlands at the top of Esher High Street, and still exists today as the ABC Music Shop. At the time of the family's residence their garden backed onto Claremont Park, and the front of the house looked out over the main Portsmouth road, which at that time was edged by large elm trees. A popular walk accompanied by the family spaniel, was to 'Wayneflete Tower' - the remaining gatehouse of the once extensive Esher Palace.
Whilst presiding in their cottage in Esher Anna Maria Porter claimed to have seen a man known to her enter a room and sit down, before suddenly rising and leaving again. She thought the gentleman looked unwell, and sent a servant over to his house, who discovered that he had died earlier that day!
The sisters had lived in Esher for ten years when their mother died - on the 21st June 1831. She had become a popular figure in Esher and was regarded by friends as a gentle kind loving woman. The sisters were devastated, they left heir home in Esher to stay for a while with their second brother Doctor William Porter (a surgeon in the navy) but within the year Anna herself died, of typhus, aged fifty one. Jane returned her sisters body to be buried with their Mother in the local Esher Churchyard.
- The works of Anne Katharine Elwood
- Durham University Library
- Rosemary Marangoly George, The Politics of Home: Postcolonial Relocations and Twentieth-
- Century Fiction (London: University of California Press, 1999)