Austen-tacious and (Por)ter-rific: NEH Seminar visits KSRL
On a hot July morning two Mondays ago, a bus pulled up in front of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library and out stepped seventeen scholars. The erudite visitors were participants in Jane Austen and Her Contemporaries, a five-week NEH Summer Seminar for College and University Teachers held at the University of Missouri and led by Dr. Devoney Looser. After some much-needed tea and victuals in Spencer’s North Gallery (the bus had left Columbia, MO at 5:45 am, after all), the scholars settled in for a day of workshops and research. No time for pianoforte or leisurely games of cards for these visitors! The morning’s activities included sessions with Spencer Library staff addressing genres of documents prevalent during Austen’s time, 18th- and 19th- century handwriting, and reference resources for working with rare books and manuscripts.
Say “Northanger Abbey!”: Participants in the NEH Summer Seminar “Jane Austen and Her Contemporaries”
with Spencer Library staff.
In the afternoon, the scholars retired to the reading room where they threw themselves into conducting research with some of Spencer’s late 18th- and early 19th-century manuscript collections.
In fact, it was the opportunity to work with Spencer’s Porter Family Collection that spurred the visit. The Porters were an English family whose five siblings included novelists Jane Porter (1776-1850) and Anna Maria Porter (1778-1832), and painter and diplomat Sir Robert Ker Porter (1777-1842). Contemporaries of Jane Austen, the Porter sisters were well-known in their day, though their reputations had already begun to fade by the end of their lives. Nevertheless, Jane Porter’s historical novel about William Wallace, The Scottish Chiefs (1810), was reprinted throughout the nineteenth century and has since been adapted as a children’s book, with illustrations by N. C. Wyeth, and as a comic book. It is also likely that it served as an (uncredited) source for the film Braveheart. Younger sister Anna Maria Porter published her first volume by the age of fifteen and led a romantic life that vied with her writing in terms of public speculation and intrigue. Prior to their arrival at Spencer, the seminar participants had read Anna Maria’s The Lake of Killarney (1804), placing it into conversation with Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
However, it isn’t the novels but the family’s voluminous correspondence that forms the core of Spencer’s holdings. Letters account for roughly two thirds of the 3000 items in the collection. These missives, some of which exceed forty pages in length, offer scholars like Dr. Looser insight into lives and aspirations of the Porters. The collection also includes a small number of manuscript notes and fragments (particularly for Jane Porter’s The Pastor’s Fireside), diaries for Robert Ker Porter (some containing his sketches), and materials related to the Porter’s household — from receipts, to account books, to recipes.
“Miss Jane Porter’s Hair in 1806” Call Number: MS 28, Box 44, Folder 51 (click to enlarge).
Finally, among the more unusual items are twenty different locks of hair and hastily-drawn patterns for Sir Robert’s stockings and gloves. Though to modern eyes the hair may seem a little ghoulish, it would have been a cherished and not uncommon keepsake during that period. Its presence in the collection offers a more corporeal way to connect with these writers born over two hundred years ago.
To learn more about the Spencer Research Library’s holdings for the Porter family, please consult the newly-posted online finding aid for the collection. Also, stay tuned for a future blog post exploring one of the more fascinating manuscript formats present within the collection: the “crossed letter.”
Special Collections Librarian
Tags: Anna Maria Porter, Devoney Looser, Elspeth Healey, Jane Austen and Her Contemporaries, Jane Porter, NEH, nineteenth-century literature, Porter Family Collection, Robert Ker Porter, women writers