Playing Many Parts

3D front cover image of Characteristics of Women by Anna JamesonMrs Anna Jameson was first suggested to us as a critic of Shakespeare, and her two-volume Characteristics of Women: Moral, Poetical and Historical (1832), was one of the first works we reissued in 2009. Jameson analyses the characters of twenty-three of Shakespeare’s heroines – whom she places into four categories, characters of intellect, of passion and imagination, of affection, and historical characters – while at the same time considering contemporary issues of the education of women and their place in public life.
Next, we did Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada (in three volumes, 1838), in the context of women’s travel writing, and now we have produced the two volumes of Sacred and Legendary Art which Jameson published in 1848. (There were three later volumes, on Legends of the Monastic Orders, Legends of the Madonna, and The History of Our Lord (the last completed by Lady Eastlake (formerly Elizabeth Rigby) and published posthumously in 1864).) It seemed about time to find out more about the multi-faceted Mrs Jameson.
Anna Brownell Jameson turned out to be connected to many others among our authors. She was born in Dublin in 1794, the daughter of a miniature painter, Denis Murphy (on whom, see Strickland’s Dictionary of Irish Artists) who worked for Princess Charlotte of Wales (and failed to get payment for his work from Prince Leopold after the princess’s death). Anna, the eldest of five sisters, had been educated by a governess during a period of her parents’ relative prosperity, but by the age of twelve was herself teaching her sisters, and at sixteen took the first of several posts as a governess, to the children of the marquess of Winchester – did her father’s court connection help with this? At the age of twenty-seven, she became engaged to a young barrister, Robert Jameson (not to be confused with the mineralogist); the engagement was broken off, but later renewed, and she was married in 1825.
The marriage was not a success: when in 1829 Robert was appointed as a judge in the colony of Dominica, Anna did not travel with him; nor did she at first accompany him when he was promoted to attorney-general of Upper Canada. Her visit there in 1836–7 was probably part of an effort by Robert to demonstrate the propriety of his family life in pursuit of promotion, but on her return to England in 1838, they agreed formally to live apart. Anna spent the rest of her life (she died in 1860) travelling and writing, becoming something of a role model for the next generation of feminists, including Bodichon and Parkes.
She was the main financial support of her family after her father’s death in 1842, and, to augment her earnings from her writings, relied on both an annual pension from the Queen of £100 and another £100 a year raised by her friends. After one early attempt at fiction, she concentrated on literary and art criticism as well as travel writing: her status as a writer was considerable during her lifetime, and Sacred and Legendary Art became for travellers both an indispensable encyclopaedia of the iconography of Christian art and a handy guide to the European churches and galleries where the art was to be viewed. An obituary claimed that ‘as an art critic, Mrs Jameson was almost unrivalled’, and Carlyle referred to her as the ‘celebrated Mrs Jamieson’ [sic]; on the other hand, Ruskin asserted in Praeterita (many years after her death) that she was ‘absolutely without knowledge or instinct of painting’ and as having ‘no sharpness of insight even for anything else’. (Though of course Ruskin was known for the viciousness of his criticism – compare his cruel attack on Octavia Hill…)
But her admirers seem to have been greater in number than her critics: the Brownings were her great friends, and she was in fact complicit in their elopement. Harriet Martineau wrote an obituary piece describing her as ‘fervent, unreasoning, generous, accomplished’; Thackeray was one of the trustees of her royal pension; Mrs Oliphant edited her biography. Jameson’s various works are energetic, humorous and insightful: and definitely the place to go if you need to find out which saint is the one portrayed with a cleaver through his skull, or the one with the large-toothed saw through his middle.


P.S. Now see also her Companion to the Most Celebrated Private Galleries of Art in London!

This entry was posted in Art and architecture, Education, History, Religious Studies, Travel and Exploration, Women's Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Playing Many Parts

  1. Pingback: A Muse of Fire | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

  2. Pingback: Inspiring Women | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

  3. Pingback: Celebrated Private Galleries | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

  4. Pingback: Converting the Pope | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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