A short biography of Adelaide Anne Procter, one of the most popular poets of the Victorian age
She may not be a famous name in the world of English literature nowadays, but Adelaide Anne Procter (1825-1864) once enjoyed considerable popularity. Who was Adelaide Anne Procter, and what did she write?
1. Adelaide Anne Procter co-wrote ghost stories with Dickens. It was Charles Dickens who published much of Procter’s work in his periodicals Household Words and All the Year Round, and Procter even worked with Dickens, as well as Dickens’s friend Wilkie Collins, on several Christmas ghost stories, ‘A House To Let’ and ‘The Haunted House’. Elizabeth Gaskell, another author Dickens published, was another contributor to ‘The Haunted House’.
2. Dickens was a family friend, but that wasn’t why he published her work. When she first submitted her poetry to Dickens for possible inclusion in his Household Words, Procter feared that her work would be accepted because of her father’s friendship with the editor rather than because it was good enough for publication. (Procter’s father, a lawyer, also wrote poetry under the name Barry Cornwall.) So she decided to submit her work under a pseudonym, ‘Miss Mary Berwick’. Dickens loved her work and published it, only realising later that the author was already known to him. In 1866, Dickens even contributed a foreword to the (posthumous) reprint of her 1858 volume Legends and Lyrics.
4. Her first poems were published while she was still a teenager. A precocious talent, Procter – who had been born in 1825 – dictated her earliest poems to her mother, before she had even learnt to write. In 1843, her first poem, ‘Ministering Angels’, appeared in print. In 1851, she converted to Roman Catholicism and the influence of her Catholic faith can be seen in her later poems, many of which refer to the Virgin Mary. To modern readers her poetry is emblematic of Victorian writing: sentimental (often excessively so) and pious.
5. She was hugely popular during her lifetime. At the height of her fame, demand for Adelaide Anne Procter’s poetry was exceeded only by that for a new Tennyson poem – according to another contemporary, Coventry Patmore (who coined the famous phrase ‘the angel in the house’). Adelaide Anne Procter died in 1864, of tuberculosis, aged just 38. (The press described her death as a ‘national calamity’.) But her work continued to find an appreciative readership in the ensuing decades, with a number of her poems being turned into hymns. Perhaps her most famous poem is ‘The Lost Chord’, which Arthur Sullivan set to music in 1877. Yet Procter herself is more or less forgotten now. Is such neglect fair? Judge for yourself. You can read ‘The Lost Chord’ here.
Image: Opening bars of ‘The Lost Chord’ by Arthur Sullivan, 1877; Wikimedia Commons.