Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers a Voice and a Face – Anna Brownell Jameson [née Murphy] (1794–1860)

A gifted woman may pursue a public vocation, yet preserve the purity and maintain the dignity of her sex. . . there is no prejudice which will not shrink away before moral energy, and no profession which may not be made compatible with the respect due to us as women, the cultivation of every feminine virtue, and the practice of every private duty.

Anna Brownell Jameson
Visits and Sketches at Home and Abroad
London: Saunders and Otley, 1834, p. 271.

The quotation above, suggested by Dr. Cheri L. Larsen Hoeckley, Professor of English and Coordinator of Gender Studies at Westmont College, comes from an essay Jameson wrote on the actress Sarah Siddons, whom she found fascinating.

It seems Miss Jameson was passionate about quite a lot of things.

She was born in Dublin, the eldest of five daughters of Denis Brownell Murphy, an Irish miniature painter and his wife. The family moved to England in 1798 and eventually settled in Hanwell, near London. Anna was educated at home, and at sixteen became a governess in the family of Charles Paulet, the 13th Marquis of Winchester. In 1821 she was engaged to Robert Jameson, but the engagement was broken off, and Anna accompanied the Rowles family to Europe as a governess for their daughter Laura. She wrote a fictitious account of her travels, published in 1826 as The Diary of an Ennuyée.

In 1821, Anna became the governess to the children of Edward Littleton, later know as Baron Hatherton, finally marrying Robert Jameson in 1825. The marriage proved to be unhappy. When Robert Jameson was appointed Puisne Judge in the Island of Dominica in 1829, the couple separated, and Anna visitied the Continent with her father and Sir Gerard Noel, perhaps as a governess for Noel’s daughter, Harriet Jane. She made her first visit to Germany, aquiring there a passion for German art and literature.

In 1833, Robert Jameson received a new appointment as chief justice of the upper province of Canada, and in 1836 he summoned his wife to Canada. He failed to meet her in New York, and she was left to make her way alone in the winter. After eight months of traveling in Canada and the United States, she felt it useless to continue a life far from all ties of family happiness and opportunities for a woman of her class and education. Before leaving, she undertook a journey to the depths of the Indian settlements in Canada. She explored Lake Huron, and saw much of emigrant and aboriginal life unknown to colonial travelers.

She returned to England in 1837 and devoted her life to writing, chiefly to support her parents and sisters. She had passionate relationships with Lady Byron and Ottolie van Goethe, and her many friends included Catherine Sedgwick, Jane Carlyle, George Eliot, Fanny Kemble, Harriet Martineau, Mary Russell Mitford, and Elizabeth Gaskell. She was a friend of both Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. It was she who assisted the poets on their journey from Paris to Pisa just after their marriage.

Mrs. Jameson was deeply concerned with the legal and educational concerns of women. Her travel writings enlighten female roles and responses. In her much acclaimed art and literary criticism, she expands the aesthetic context to propound her views on womanhood. She wrote of women celebrated in poetry, female sovereigns, and Restoration beauties. Her Shakespeare’s Heroines: Characteristics of Women analyzes the female characters of Shakespeare’s works.

Anna’s financial need, and that of her family, remained acute, although from 1851, she had a Civil List pension. In her later writings she treats the plights of governesses and the need for wider female employment opportunities. Her celebrated lectures, published as Sisters of Charity, Catholic and Protestant, at home and abroad (1855) and The Communion of Labour: a second lecture on the social employments of women (1856) focus on the pressing controversy over “Superabundant Women” and praise the good work and courage demonstated by women united in communities, while strongly rejecting any separatist ethic. Partly spurred by a sense of injustice on being omitted from her husband’s will in 1854, Anna actively supported a group of young reformers and educational pioneers including Adelaide Procter, Emily Faithful, and Barbara Bodichon. With Bessie Parkes, she helped initiate the English Women’s Journal, (1858-64).

She died on March 17, 1860.

The Armstrong Browning Library has an extensive collection of the writings of this essayist, fiction and travel writer, biographer, and literary and art critic. It consists of twelve nineteenth century books by Anna Brownell Jameson, nine letters from the Brownings, and forty-two letters to or from other Victorian correspondents.

 Melinda Creech

[1835], August 31. Anna Brownell Jameson to [Eliza Murphy]. The letter above, written to her sister, Eliza Murphy, from Vienna, describing her travels and time spent with friends, is cross-written to conserve paper and postage.