Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Anna Eliza Bray; a Victorian writer remembered




Map picture
Tavistock map with location of Bray's home
    In a previous blog I described a walk associated with the writer Anna Bray and letters of hers published in her most well-known book, Borders of the Tamar and Tavy. The piece appearing now was originally written for a local magazine. A version of it also appears on my my/writes;south-west-women-writers, another web-site. Given that Bray is one of Devon’s most significant women writers, I thought it was about time she was allowed to appear on this blog; her near absence from it is a little negligent. The following piece is a resume of her life and work.

     Mrs. Bray - the "female Walter Scott" - was in her lifetime well known for her three-volumed book, Borders of the Tamar and Tavy. This work, which was  first published in 1836, was a pioneering account of the geography, flora and fauna as well as a folk record of Dartmoor. The reader discovered a wealth of variety in its pages: other writers, history, geology, botany, ornithology,  legends, superstitions, pixies and ghosts. The book was centred around the Tavistock area where the writer lived for much of her life; it became her 'beloved town', a place she described as 'in a valley surrounded by hills, whose verdure is perpetual'.

      Even before this work was published Mrs Bray was a much acclaimed and prolific writer of romantic historical sagas influenced by Walter Scott's style - hence the comparison of her work with his. She was born in London on Christmas Day 1790. Her maiden name was Kempe; the family originally came from Cornwall. Her father was a bullion porter in the mint, her brother Alfred, an antiquary of some note. As a child Anna's acute observation and fanciful imagination were already noticeable and her early interests were the theatre and painting; through these pursuits she met Charles Stothard who became her first husband. He was an illustrator of sculptured monuments.

     They had three blissful years together during which Anna began to write. Her first work was a collection of descriptions of a long ramble that the couple embarked upon in France. Unfortunately their joy was not to last and just before the birth of their first baby Charles was killed in an unfortunate accident which occurred as he was working on one of his effigy drawings in Devon, at Bere Ferrer's church. The consequent trauma led to the premature birth of Anna's daughter who only lived for six months. Perhaps it was the shocking grief of this double tragedy that the writer began to transform into her first real fiction five years after her husband's death, which consisted of several novels with historical settings and romantic themes. These included De Foix and The White Hoods.

      Anne lived for sixty two years after her first husband's death and for much of that time she lived in Tavistock with her second husband Edward Atkins Bray, who was Vicar of the parish. The Brays' life together seems to have been contented and secure and so Anna was able to give her creative energies free- rein and to continue writing her series of novels. She adored the surrounding countryside and especially loved Tavistock Abbey, which was next to the Vicarage.


      Then in 1823 she began a correspondence which changed the mode of her writing and inspired her to write Borders of the Tavy and Tamar. Robert Southey was Poet Laureate. In 1823 he wrote to Anna after reading a memoir she had published for her first husband; she replied and thus began a friendship which lasted many years. Eventually he visited the Brays at the Tavistock vicarage.

     Initially Southey made some suggestions about her general approach to writing: he thought that for all her vivid flights of fancy her work might be more immediate if she were to focus her novels on the locality surrounding her, rather than describing remote places and distant historical periods. Anna took his advice to heart and during the 1830's a bevy of new novels appeared including: Fitz of Fitzford, Trelawney of Trelawne, Hartland Forest and Courtenay of WalreddonThese featured local traditions, folk lore and depictions of the local area and they became popular enough for a ten-volume set to be published in1845. These novels simultaneously recreate some of the episodes of South-west England's history - in Anna's words, they are 'founded on truth' - with detailed, albeit romantic evocations of the local scenery  as it then was; they can thus be read as historically important documents. For instance, in Hartland Forest; a Legend of North Devon, Bray evokes the wildness of Hartland Point:

'This great and bold promontory of the north coast stretches itself into the sea, and is united to the land by a causeway, narrow, broken, and so steep in parts as to be almost perpendicular. The angry and reverberating waves beat on either side, close to its very base. It is at once an object of terror and sublimity: to a depth that makes the brain dizzy, the eye looks down upon splintered and sharp points of rocks that rise up like spear-heads'
      Meanwhile Robert Southey continued writing letters of encouragement. He discussed with Anna the possibility of beginning a new work that would be "descriptive of the history, traditions and manners of the neighbourhood around Tavistock and agreed with her that it should be in the form of letters addressed to him. She embarked on this venture with characteristic enthusiasm and The Borders of the Tavy and TamarA Description of the Part of Devonshire bordering on the Tavy and Tamar, illustrative of its Manners, Customs, History, Antiquities, Scenery and Natural History, in a Series of Letters to Robert Southey, Esq. Fortunately this was later shortened!

     She presents her account of the moor with an adroit mixture of factual detail, romantic fantasy and sure artistic perception. In her second letter she describes Dartmoor as being
 'thirty miles in extent from north to south, and fourteen from east to west ... It is considered to drive its name from the river Dart, which rises on the moor, in the midst of a bog on Cranmere pool. This river ... is supposed to be called the Dart from the remarkable rapidity of its course.'
     Shortly after this passage Anna reveals her painterly skills:

'No one who would wish to view the Moor in all its grandeur should go there on a very fine or rather sunny day; for then it possesses none of those effects produced by that strong opposition of light and shadow, which mountain scenery and rugged rocks absolutely require to display the bold character of their outline and the picturesque combination of their craggy tops.'
        Amongst many other features of this rich and intricate text the writer shows her competence in the way she points out and assesses other writers linked with the Tavistock locality. She is particularly fond of the poet William Browne:

'... his chief excellence lies in the picturesque manner in which he imitated nature. His birds, his flowers, and his rural scenery have all the vivid fidelity of truth ... he has also studied rural character and whenever he touches on the feelings that are chiefly called into play in a country life, it is evident that he had seen and participated in those feelings he described.'

       Although Dartmoor is one of our most popular Country Parks, Mrs Bray's account of it is now all but forgotten. This is a shame because as one Bray admirer said, the book "is one of the principal sources of information about the history of Dartmoor". Anna could even be seen as one of the first conservationists. Take for instance one of her remarks in Borders:
 "Dartmoor has been a field to the spoiler and many of its most interesting memorials have been destroyed" .  
That was written in 1832, not yesterday.
     Mrs Bray moved to London in 1857, after the death of her second husband. She continued writing. An Autobiography (read online) was prepared and the re-issue of Borders. Her death was in 1853. She was 82.

   The ending of the obituary notice for Anna read at the Devonshire Association's annual meeting in 1883 provides a fitting conclusion to this piece:

'She leaves behind her a name which will long live in memory, by reason of her thorough acquaintance with every relic of a byegone age, be they preserved in monuments of stone or in the warm hearts of its people, which can be found among the cleaves and tors of the borderland of Cornwall and Devon, and for the skill with which she imparted to others both her knowledge and her enthusiasm.'