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News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Archive Spotlight on The Derbyshire Record Office: A Marriage of the Romantic and the Scientific

Thank you to Val Derbyshire (University of Sheffield) for this intriguing and charming account of her experience carrying out research at the Derbyshire Record Office – and the letters she spent time reading there. You can also read Val’s BARS blog report from the Thelwall Conference here.

‘Unrestrained Epistolary Intercourse’: A Marriage of the Romantic and the Scientific

by

Val Derbyshire, PhD Researcher, School of English, University of Sheffield

Mary Ann Flaxman, Detail of portrait of Eleanor Anne Porden, undated.

Mary Ann Flaxman, Detail of portrait of Eleanor Anne Porden, undated.

I first stumbled across the works of Eleanor Anne Porden (1795-1825), Romantic poet and first wife of Arctic explorer, John Franklin (1786-1847) quite by chance whilst working a night shift on an out of hours helpline at Derbyshire County Council.   I quite often used these night shifts – which were invariably quiet – to study for the MA I was completing at the time.  During one shift, I was  researching an assignment on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and reading Jen Hill’s excellent study from 2008, White Horizon: The Arctic in the Nineteenth-Century British Imagination (New York: University of New York Press, 2008), when I came across Hill’s analysis of Porden’s The Arctic Expeditions: A Poem (1818).  Hill’s research had accessed the personal correspondence between Porden and her fiancé, Franklin, which were held just down the road from where I was sitting, at the Derbyshire Record Office.  Like all good explorers, I decided to follow in Hill’s footsteps and read this correspondence for myself.

It took me a couple of years, however, to get around to it.  Indeed, I was in the middle of my PhD and undertaking a work placement at the University of Derby before I finally viewed the letters for myself.  My brief at the University of Derby was to design a new MLit course for students concerning the long Eighteenth Century.

The focus was to design a course which would permit students to study texts with a ‘distinctly Derby’ theme.  With this in view, I visited the Record Office to transcribe the love letters between Porden and Franklin.  These letters would then feature as part of the students’ course reading.

Derbyshire Record Office, New Street, Matlock – home to a large collection of personal correspondence between Eleanor Anne Porden and John Franklin.

Derbyshire Record Office, New Street, Matlock – home to a large collection of personal correspondence between Eleanor Anne Porden and John Franklin.

The holding is situated at the top of a very steep hill in Matlock, Derbyshire (a town which was visited by both Mary Shelley and her fictional progeny, Victor Frankenstein, although one suspects Shelley probably visited the more picturesque Matlock Bath, dubbed ‘Little Switzerland’ by the locals).

Matlock Bath, dubbed ‘Little Switzerland’ by locals – the more picturesque side of Matlock town and home to a park and pleasure ground which has been in use since the 1780s.

Matlock Bath, dubbed ‘Little Switzerland’ by locals – the more picturesque side of Matlock town and home to a park and pleasure ground which has been in use since the 1780s.

The archive contains an immense number of letters from Porden to literary friends as well as the romantic correspondence between herself and Franklin.  Franklin’s letters alone in this holding number in the hundreds.  With this in view, I focused my research upon the period from 1815 to 1823, which covered Porden’s first meeting with Franklin, her publication of Coeur de Lion (1822), her somewhat surprised receipt of Franklin’s marriage proposal upon his return from his first expedition to the Arctic, the death of her much beloved father, her marriage to Franklin, concluding at the point of her demise in 1825 from tuberculosis which was accelerated by the birth of her daughter (Eleanor Isabella, born 1824).

The letters are immensely rich and rewarding to read.  They contain extracts of original poetry, tinges of regret at the creative projects she left unfinished (which she refers to as ‘a ghost’ which ‘haunt[s]’ her with ‘so many delightful phantoms of other years’[1]), and charts her relationship with her fiancé.  This in itself is a journey worthy of exploration.  Porden travels from a starting point of grief at having just lost her father, surprise at Franklin’s unexpected proposal of marriage, through a peculiar epistolary courtship, which warms as time progresses, but ultimately becomes as cold as the Arctic itself at Franklin’s suggestion that she should relinquish her literary career after their marriage.  Indeed, some of the letters seem to express extreme doubt upon Porden’s behalf that they should proceed with the marriage at all.

The ‘love letters’, if you can term them this, commence upon Franklin’s return from his first fraught voyage to the Arctic.    During this initial exploratory trip, 11 of Franklin’s 20 men died, primarily from starvation, although it is speculated that one may have been murdered, and hints of cannibalism sullied the reputation of the voyage.  Upon Franklin’s return, his first action is to write to Porden from the Hudson’s Bay Ship, Prince of Wales, Atlantic Ocean, ‘at the distance of 600 miles from the Orkney Isles’[2].  Here, in an opening romantic gesture, he informs Porden that he has named some of the Arctic archipelago after her: ‘I can only now say that I have named some islands in the Arctic Sea ‘Porden’ as a tribute of my regard for your family.’[3]

Porden’s response, however, is perhaps not the one Franklin anticipated.  On mourning stationery, with a thick black border, Porden informs that her ‘poor father was laid in his grave just one month ago’, although she thanks him for ‘fixing our names upon the globe [and] shall feel proud to see them figure in the map which will be prefixed to your work.  Proud, less perhaps for my own sake than that of those who are no more.’[4]

Once safely back on terra firma, Franklin wastes little time in proposing marriage, in a meeting in London which Porden describes as ‘exquisitely […] painful’, although she does concede ‘that there is no one else in all my acquaintance, who, if I am any judge of my own feelings, could have spoken to me on the subject you have done, without meeting an instant and positive denial’.[5]  It’s hardly the language of love, and, indeed, once Porden has accepted his proposal, the epistolary courtship proceeds in a strangely formal manner.

However, by the end of December 1822, Porden seems to have embraced her new future and begins to send more informal letters to her fiancé.  Sending him ‘a fine saucy message’, she begs that he will write frequently to her, in order that they may ‘arrive at a more intimate knowledge of each other’s feelings and sentiments from unrestrained epistolary intercourse’.[6]  It becomes, however, a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’, as aspects of Franklin’s character emerge, which, it becomes clear, Porden would really rather not know.  The most pressing of these is his rather patriarchal view that she should relinquish her literary career upon their marriage.

In a very formal and lengthy epistle dated 23rd March 1823, Porden remonstrates with Franklin upon his belief that she should cease writing, informing him that she was ‘asking no favour’ and ‘claiming no concession’ with the continuance of her literary career.  ‘My tastes and habits had been fully known to you from the first moment of our acquaintance’ and I could not have supposed that any man, to whom they were in the slightest degree disagreeable, would ever have thought of addressing me’.[7]  ‘[I]t was the pleasure of Heaven’, she tells him, ‘to bestow those talents on me, and it was my father’s pride to cultivate them to the utmost of his power.  I should therefore be guilty of a double dereliction of duty in abandoning their exercise.’[8]  At the close of this letter, Porden offers Franklin a way out of their engagement:

If on the contrary you find that your imagination has sketched a false portrait of me, that your feelings are changed, or, no matter what the causes, that you have taken a rash and inconsiderate step, do not hesitate to tell me.[9]

Although the tone of subsequent letters fluctuates, it almost seems as if Porden is seeking an exit herself from this moment onwards.  During the ensuing months prior to their marriage, Porden’s letters are suffused with doubt, and the resulting letters question disparities in their religious beliefs, and her sociable nature and many friendships as opposed to his more solitary leanings.

The wedding, however, duly took place in August 1823.   In a final romantic gesture, Porden wore a wedding dress, which had flowers discovered in the Arctic by Franklin and his team, and detailed in the descriptions of his voyages, embroidered upon the hem.  Unfortunately, the gesture was somewhat wasted on Franklin who ‘did not discover the compliment paid […] until it was pointed out to me’.[10]  The incorporation of the flowers, ‘Eutoca, […] Richardsonil and Hoodil’ into the wedding ceremony demonstrates perhaps more than anything how this was a marriage between the Romantic and the Scientific natures of the participants.[11] Porden’s letters are personal, charming and ever seeking a point of connection with her fiancé.  Franklin’s are much less easy to read and are slightly clinical in tone, although there can be no doubt of the ‘sincere esteem’ he entertains for her.[12]   Here, it can be seen how the participants struggle to locate neutral territory and balance the conflicting demands of romance with scientific and literary endeavour.

The archive is voluminous, with the Derbyshire Record Office holding much of Porden’s writings, both personal and professional, as well as Franklin’s huge correspondence.  If researchers have an interest in this, there can be no better place to start an exploration of both the romantic and the scientific than in a small archive at the top of a Matlock hill.

Plate delineating species of Arctic Flowers, some of which would feature upon the hem of Porden’s wedding gown. From John Franklin, Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea in the Years 1819, 20, 21 and 22 (London: John Murray, 1823).

Plate delineating species of Arctic Flowers, some of which would feature upon the hem of Porden’s wedding gown. From John Franklin, Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea in the Years 1819, 20, 21 and 22 (London: John Murray, 1823).

 

[1] Eleanor Anne Porden, Letter to Mr.Elliott dated 12th July 1822, held in the Derbyshire Record Office holding number D3311/8-13.

[2] John Franklin, Letter to Eleanor Anne Porden dated 19th October 1822, Derbyshire Record Office holding number D3311/8/3/1-40.

[3] Eleanor Anne Porden, Letter to John Franklin dated 22nd October 1822, Derbyshire Record Office holding number D3311/8/3/1-40.

[4] Eleanor Anne Porden, Letter to John Franklin dated 22nd October 1822, Derbyshire Record Office holding number D3311/8/3/1-40.

[5] Eleanor Anne Porden, Letter to John Franklin dated 5th December 1822, Derbyshire Record Office holding number D3311/8/3/1-40

[6] Eleanor Anne Porden, Letter to John Franklin dated 22nd December 1822, Derbyshire Record Office holding number D311/8/3/1-40.

[7] Eleanor Anne Porden, Letter to John Franklin dated 29th March 1823, Derbyshire Record Office holding number D3311/8/3/1-40.

[8] Eleanor Anne Porden, Letter to John Franklin dated 29th March 1823, Derbyshire Record Office holding number D3311/8/3/1-40.

[9] Eleanor Anne Porden, Letter to John Franklin dated 29th March 1823, Derbyshire Record Office holding number D3311/8/3/1-40.

[10] John Franklin, Letter to John Richardson dated 7th July 1823, Derbyshire Record Office, holding number D3311/12.

[11] John Franklin, Letter to John Richardson dated 7th July 1823, Derbyshire Record Office, holding number D3311/12.

[12] John Franklin, Letter to Eleanor Anne Porden dated 10th July 1823, Derbyshire Record Office, holding number D3311/8/3/1-40.