Anna Murphy Jameson, A True Pioneer

A True Pioneer

On October 2008, 25- & 26th  we occupied a booth at the Ottawa Book Fair. The doors opened and  within a very few minutes a charming young man made his way to our location, briefly looked about and then scooped up a circa 1845 manuscJameson_Letter_John_boughtript letter  of Anna Murphy Jameson written to “My dear Mrs. Macready,” . This was the very first sale for Lord Durham Rare Books at a live book fair. It was this sale that set us on our way to fame and fortune as rare and fine booksellers.  Well, that’s what we had hoped for.  Anna became one of my favorite people that day and not just as a result of the sale of the handwritten letter but because I developed an interest in she and the other “Babes in the Bush” as I so fondly refer to Susanna Moodie, Catherine Parr Traill, and E Pauline Johnson.  John, who purchased that Anna Jameson letter has over the years made many more purchases  and is very much a special friend of LDRB. I do hope he reads this article and realizes it is he to whom I refer.

Her fathers portrait of Anna

Her fathers portrait of Anna

There can be no dispute that Anna Murphy Jameson was a true pioneer. Granted she was not the tree chopping, bee keeping, candle  making pioneer the likes of Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie but she most certainly blazed a trail for women with her attitudes and life style.

Anna Murphy was not born to privilege or title but through her life she would rub elbows with some of the most famous and influential people of her time.

Her first exposure to the world of art would be as a result of having been born the daughter of the Irish miniaturist painter Denis Murphy and his English wife in 1794.  Her affection and knowledge of art grew as she traveled with the Rowles family  throughout the continent in 1821 in the capacity of governess  to the Rowles’ young daughter, Laura, which led to the writing of her first book.

Robert Jameson

Robert Jameson

Prior to her departure for the continent Anna Murphy had taken up a relationship of sorts with  Robert Sympson Jameson of Ambleside. The affair of the heart extended mostly to their mutual love of literature and their fondness for literary society. Eventually the relationship evolved into an engagement to marry but rather than culminating in nuptials the engagement was called off and Anna left for the continent.

Travel, sight seeing, art galleries and society became Anna Murphy’s world and she reveled in it. She writes, “I had an opportunity of witnessing a most magnificent spectacle, an eruption of Mount Vesuvius and ascended the mountain during the height of it.”

Upon returning to England, she had hoped to open a school of her own however short on finances, she became governess to the children of Edward John Littleton, later to become the  1st Baron Hatherton, a post she retained until her marriage to Robert Sympson Jameson in 1825.

The marriage was not to be a success but it was with the encouragement of her husband, Robert that Anna Jameson wrote her highly successful first travel book, published anonymously in 1826 under the title A lady’s diary and then as Diary of an Ennuyée. The story was a fictionalized romance of her travels on the Continent and when it was revealed it was she that was author she became “the lioness of the hour in London society.”

Robert Jameson left England in 1829 for an appointment as chief justice of Dominica. Anna, rather than pine away with the broken heart of the newlywed, made  no secret of her unhappy marriage and her delight in the absence of ‘the hubby’.  For Anna, life was all about  travel and writing. Anna’s writing became a much welcomed remedy for the growing number of women desperate for new, exciting material to read.  As an advocate for the importance of education for women, Anna’s writing was not only successful but rewarding as it reinforced her own feminist opinions for the rights and improved opportunities for women.


Anna – a young Lady

In the fall of 1836 Anna grudgingly set sail from London to New York and continued on to Toronto to join her husband who had by this time been Attorney General of Upper Canada for a few years. Jameson who had his heart set on becoming Vice-Chancellorship of the Court of Chancery, had begun to build a house in which he and Anna would live happily ever after enjoying their social position as the perfect couple.  Unfortunately, Anna had not received the memo as her own reason for making the trans Atlantic voyage was to cement a financial deal with Robert to ensure the future well being of her aging parents and herself maintaining the lifestyle to which she had become happily accustomed.

The bad news is the marriage ended in a legal separation,  Anna returned home to England and Robert reneged on his agreement to support Anna and her family financially.  In fact upon his death it was learned that Anna was all  ut birtually written out of his will. The good news was that Anna wrote her finest  and the best known travel book, of the 19th century,  “Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada”.  The book tells of Anna’s incredible experiences as she traveled through Upper Canada (Southern Ontario) including Niagara on the Lake, Hamilton, London and Port Talbot . She then traveled to Detroit and hopped a steamer to continue her tour visiting Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.) and by open boat to Sault Ste Marie (Ont.), and back by way of Lake Huron and Manitoulin Island.  Anna returned to Toronto in 1838 for a brief visit in order to sign the final separation papers and it was back to England for Anna.

Jameson's voyage down Lake Huron

Jameson’s voyage down Lake Huron

In Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada Anna Jameson’s writes a delightful and  entertaining account of her adventures in Upper Canada including the tale of her “wild expedition” by canoe into Indian country and the shock and discomfort that comes with the terribly cold winter. In “Summer rambles” Anna is at her best, as an enthusiastic explorer. Her utter joy in meeting people of different cultures and enjoying their customs was of huge interest to Anna.

She was delighted to be “the first European female” to shoot the rapids at the Sault along with her companion a part-Indian friend, George Johnston. She tells of her voyage homeward down Lake Huron in a bateau rowed by four voyageurs, she was awestruck by the unspoiled beauty of the islands around her, “fairy Edens” as she called them: “I remember we came into a circular basin, of about three miles in diameter, so surrounded with islands, that when once within the circle, I could perceive neither ingress nor egress; it was as if a spell of enchantment had been wrought to keep us there for ever.”

Anna Brownell Jameson 1844

Anna Brownell Jameson 1844

When she returned to England, Anna took to writing almost exclusively of Christian art: Sacred and legendary art (1848), Legends of the monastic orders (1850), Legends of the Madonna (1852), and The history of Our Lord (1864) which was completed post mortem by her friend Elizabeth Rigby, Lady Eastlake, the wife of Sir Charles Lock Eastlake.

Always the social butterfly, Anna was never without friends in high places and of great repute. In later life she developed a very close friendship with Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Upon her death in 1860, Harriet Martineau herself a well known English traveller and author wrote of Anna Murphy Jameson,  “accomplished Mrs. Jameson . . . a great benefit to her time from her zeal for her sex and for Art.”

Anna Murphy Jameson was truly a woman of talent, experience, passion, humour, a great pioneer and as fine an example for women in the 21st century as she was in the 19th century.


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Article written by Julia McLaren, The Lord Durham Report editor ( )

© text Lord Durham Rare Books, all rights reserved.

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