Eleanor Anne Porden died on 22 February 1825 following a long and ultimately unsuccessful battle against tuberculosis. Rather than concentrate on the fact of her being John Franklin’s lesser known first wife who died so tragically young, we thought we would try to paint a brighter and more positive picture of a young woman who lived as full and as happy a life as she could. Personally speaking, I have to admit that while cataloguing the Franklin collection, it was Eleanor who soon became the “star of the show”. It was particularly in her letters that her character shone really through; lively, intelligent, witty, bright, compassionate, articulate, insightful, with a streak of playful mischief. I would defy anyone who reads her letters not to think she would have made a great best friend!
Hastings Decr 18 1822
Dear Sir, I hope you have by this time received a fine saucy message of mine which I sent you through my sister, and that you have been duly angry in consequence. I had half a mind to have threatened you with endeavouring to pick up a second hand copy of “the complete letter writer” for your especial use- but to speak seriously. I am aware that you have so much compelled writing on hand that when you have done your daily task you are glad to fling the pens in the fire, and seek amusement in any other form – nevertheless
Eleanor Anne was born on 14 July 1795, the youngest child of architect William Porden and his wife Mary. She had a much older sister, Sarah Henrietta, known affectionately as Henny, but there were also other siblings whom she never had the chance to meet. The shadow of high infant mortality was ever-present at this time, and William and Mary knew the reality of it all too well. In one of William’s notebook he records the sad details of the early deaths of their several children, including two stillborn boys. In such a context the late arrival of Eleanor and her survival beyond infancy must have seemed almost a miracle in itself.
William Porden took pains to ensure that his young daughter had the best education possible. It was later described in a lengthy printed obituary as “private, and under the immediate direction her father” and “of a superior and uncommon description”. I like to think that Porden was an enlightened man and recognised the intellectual capabilities of his daughter at any early stage, doing everything to make sure that she developed them as much as she could, well beyond what would have been available to most girls. at that time. What is clear is that he did not waste his time, as Eleanor proved the most able and responsive of pupils and went on to exceed his expectations.
In Jane Austen’s Price and Prejudice (Chapter 8), the conversation among the well-heeled at Netherfield turns to the accomplishments of young ladies, with Elizabeth Bennet eventually responding to Mr Darcy’s assertion that he knew only six young ladies whom he considered really accomplished. with her amazement, given his exacting standards, that he knew any at all. I do like to think that that Eleanor would have satisfied all of Mr Darcy’s criteria and may even have exceeded them. In real life, a not dissimilar sort of conversation did take place involving Eleanor and her friend Miss Jane Griffin when they first dined together at the Pordens’ home. The following passage came from one of Miss Griffin’s journals.
“On our retiring to the drawing room we talked and joked with Miss Porden on her universal talents. She makes all her own clothes, preserves and pickles, dances, quadrilles con amore, belongs to a poetical book club, pays mornings visits, sees all the sights, never Denies herself to any body at any hour, and lies in bed or is not dressed till 9 o’clock in the morning.” [copied from Martyn Beardsley’s biography of Franklin “Deadly Winter”]
Her “universal talents” did extend well beyond those listed in that passage. In terms of her domestic skills, Eleanor, of course, would not have been unique in practicing those, but she did have to take on the extra duties of nursing her invalid mother for the last 10 years (she died in 1819) and then her father for the last year or two of his life (he died in 1822). She did indeed like a dance: even when in very poor health, she loved to take part in dancing, as in one letter wheer she tried to reassure her husband that she hadn’t overdone it. Eleanor certainly did her best to cultivate a busy social life for herself in spite of her own shyness in social gatherings (something she actually shared with her husband). She did the social rounds of morning visits, went out and saw things, and generally enjoyed what London had to offer in terms of entertainment. Once she had overcome her initial shyness with people she did not know, she was able to make and keep friends. One such friend was Miss Jane Griffin, who, in her first encounter in 1819, noted her “embarrassment and timidity of manner”, but also added that she was “a plain, stout, short woman, having rather a vulgar … countenance … and a reddish coarse face”, the consciousness of which (if really true) must have added to her shyness. This description always seems to me to go against the portrait painted by Mary Anne Flaxman, but we are dealing there with a romanticised image painted by a friend eight years earlier, when Eleanor was just sweet sixteen. In 1819 she was 23, although Miss Griffin also added that she looked more like 30! The important thing to be remembered, however, is that Miss Griffin soon saw beyond the superficial and recognised a kindred spirit in Eleanor with her intelligence, and they went on to become the best of friends. It would, in fact, be Miss Griffin who would go on to be the second wife of John Franklin in 1828, known to posterity as the formidable Lady Jane Franklin.
The “poetical book club” mentioned above now moves us on to the area in which Eleanor Porden made her mark in the wider world. This was the Attic Society, members of which were invited to write poems and deliver them to the Pordens’ family home in Berners Street, where they were put in the “Attic Chest”. This had nothing to do with a room in a house but referred to a chest made of Grecian cedarwood, the contents of which were read out loud at the meetings regularly held at the house. Eleanor was the prime force behind setting up of the Society, albeit with plenty of help from her father, who roped in some of his older male friends to take part. Among those also contributing was the renowned poet Anna Vardill, whose works are being championed and re-evaluated as those of a “lost” Romantic female poet, a fate which might perhaps be Eleanor’s as well in the future. A few people have queried the actual merit of the various contributions and the overall conceit, but the fact is that the society met for ten years between 1808-1818. It says a lot for Eleanor’s commitment, tenacity and social skills that she was able to keep the enthusiasm for it going for so long. The Attic Chest poems still survive here at the Derbyshire Record Office in the form of 41 collated manuscript “journals”, which covered no less than 95 such meetings. Transcriptions of the poems have been made by the Vardill Society and are available at https://attic.vardill.org.
Eleanor’s Attic Chest material fully attest to the extent and success of her education. Her contributions display her wide knowledge of different forms of literature, several of which she successfully pastiched, such as romantic verse (particularly Valentine Day poems), sonnets, lyric poems and literary letters. A couple of her commonplace or copy books show that she read widely, including several works by foreign authors, and she kept up to date with contemporary authors such as Byron and Walter Scott. She seems to have known some Latin, but it was Greek in which she seems to have excelled, judging by the immaculately written passages in her hand to be found in that language. It was no mere fad for Eleanor, as can be seen in the Greek books that got handed down in the family after her death. She knew Italian but was evidently much more proficient in French, as proved during the two continental holidays taken abroad with her father in 1816 and 1818. She even occasionally started letters in French to Franklin, which were examples of her “jeux d’esprit”, if nothing else.
Following on from her involvement with the Attic Chest, Eleanor took the major step to become a printed poet in her own right. With a little help from her father, she was able to get the publisher John Murray to print and bring out her work “The Veils” in 1815. This was a long poem in one volume, which sought to explain in poetical form some of the mysteries of one of her passions, science. She read widely on the subject and often attended lectures on it, including at the famous Royal Institute, occasionally to the irritation of a few fellow male attendees. Given the current anxiety to get girls more interested and involved in science, think how much more unusual it would have been then for a young woman to actually write a book about it, and what’s more, to have a success with it. “The Veils” sold well and was very well received by the critics. It even earned Eleanor a certain celebrity status, as even 4 years later she was being asked for autographs, much to her father’s delight. She was even honoured in France for her work, being elected a member of the Institut de Paris in 1816, and when on holiday in Paris she and her father was allowed in to attend a meeting at the Institut, she was alarmed to find that they were put in seats at the front, as honoured guests, rather than somewhere at the back, which she would have undoubtedly preferred much more.
Her second and last major work was “Coeur de Lion”, an epic poem based on the exploits of King Richard I during the Third Crusade. She was deeply interested in history, geography and travel in general, and for this work thoroughly researched the historical background (one notebook for it has survived). The poem itself was published in two volumes in June 1822. In the printed obituary for her cited earlier goes so far as to describe it as “one of the greatest efforts of a female pen in the annals of English literature”, no doubt an outbreak of hyperbole common to many obituaries, but still quite a thing to say.
It was, however, a smaller scale poem that Eleanor produced between these two major works which had the biggest affect on her life. Her poem “The Arctic Expeditions”, written in 1818 in response to setting off of the first set of 19th Arctic century expeditions, attracted the attention of one of its participants, John Franklin. He admired the work and made sure that he got to meet the author, thus setting off a chain of events which ultimately led to their marriage on 23 August 1823. It has been said that their union could not have been a happy one given the incompatibility of their natures, the lively intelligent Eleanor and the dour plodding John. It was just as well that neither of them was made aware of this, as it had not occurred to them that this was the case. It seems to me that it was very much a love match. There certainly were differences between them, particularly evident for a few tricky moments during their engagement, but they did actually manage to compromise and resolve them like adults to the satisfaction of both.
[All] I can say is 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. But I am not prepared to say more- I sometimes fear you have a little mistaken my character- or that you may find it changed- I can feel I am not quite the same in feelings or dispositions that I was four years ago.
There is nothing I have seen to suggest they were anything but happy in their marriage. The couple had a daughter, also called Eleanor, who was born on 3 June 1824, something which united them in joy. Unfortunately, their final months together would take place under the long shadow of the tuberculosis which would eventually kill her. Eleanor’s letters after the marriage show her determination not to let the illness overwhelm her, but also are written in the same style as before, often affectionately teasing her husband but not being afraid to speak out on their differences, as in one letter where she raised the question of Sunday observance, a subject on which they were divided. Unfortunately, we do not have Franklin’s actual response to this, but the letters we do have show no lessening of his love for her. I think their marriage was actually characterised by a huge amount of mutual respect. He responded to her lively, affectionate character, her honesty and her intelligence, a very different presence to anything he had ever experienced before. She responded to his goodness, kindness and thoroughly decent nature, making allowances for his weaknesses and perhaps crediting him with more intelligence than others have done.
Much material on Eleanor Anne Porden is held at the Derbyshire Record Office in the Gell collection under reference number D8760. One of her volunteers, Fiona Buist, has been transcribing the letters from Eleanor to John Franklin, and the majority of these can now be viewed in our online catalogue. Only the letters after their marriage remain to be done, and, hopefully, these will become available in the next couple of months.