JAMESON, ANNA BROWNELL MURPHY
Publication17 March 2023
Born, Dublin, Ireland, 1794. Died London, England, 1860.
Author: Laura Smith
Anna Brownell Murphy Jameson was an unwilling first-time visitor to Canada in 1836. The Irish-born travel writer, art historian, feminist, and literary critic was married to Robert Sympson Jameson who was appointed attorney general to Upper Canada (now Ontario) in 1833. Jameson was building a house and pressed his wife to join him. Anna, who had for some time believed her marriage was over, resisted at first, but finally relented in 1836. Her short stay in Upper Canada would produce a remarkable piece of writing, Winter Studies and Summer Rambles.
Anna was born in Dublin in 1794. Her English-born mother’s name has not survived, but we know that her father Denis Brownell Murphy was a portrait artist who specialized in miniatures and enjoyed the patronage of Queen Charlotte in the 1770s. His biographers describe him as a “patriot” and suggest he was sympathetic, if not active, in the United Irishmen. His departure from Ireland in April 1798, just before the outbreak of rebellion, was likely no coincidence. The family moved around northern England as Murphy cobbled together a modest income. He was appointed as “painter-in-ordinary” to Princess Charlotte in 1810, giving the family some temporary stability until the princess’s death in 1817.
Anna was a precocious child who excelled academically and was adept at learning languages. From her father she learned to sketch and paint, skills she carried over into her literary career. Her abilities and ambition meant she took an early responsibility for her family’s precarious finances. From the age of sixteen, she worked as a governess for aristocratic families, which gave her the means and opportunity to travel, widened her social circle, and provided her with source material for her writing.
In 1825 she married Robert Sympson Jameson, an English barrister. In 1829 he was appointed chief justice of Dominica where he spent four productive but lonely years. Rather than accompany her husband to the Caribbean, Anna continued to build her career (her first travel book had been published in 1826 to modest success) while touring the continent. She counted numerous literary figures as her friends and began to be known for her advocacy for the rights and education of women. Jameson was supportive of his wife’s career, but once he was appointed to Upper Canada, he believed that his career and respectability required his wife at his side. For Anna’s part, her independent income was still not sufficient to support her dependent family and as such she required her husband’s good will and financial support. She relented and arrived in Toronto in December 1836.
Written as part fragmentary letters to a friend, part confessional journal, part academic thesis, Winter Studies and Summer Rambles begins with her arrival in Toronto and follows its author through the boredom and despair of her first (and only) Canadian winter. With the arrival of spring, the text accompanies Anna on her two month “summer rambles” tour of the colony starting in Niagara proceeding southwest through the settlements of the London district to Detroit before going north to Michilimackinac, Sault Ste Marie, and Manitoulin Island.
Her husband’s position meant that the book contains no explicit discussion of colonial politics, and only occasional allusions to the conflicts that were, by the mid-1830s, turning the colony into a political powder keg. But Anna did not shy away from disparaging the social backwater that was Toronto, opining on the defects in the colony’s governance, and detailing the issues endemic in the province. Ever the literacy advocate, she argued that the colony’s troubles might be solved if books were as cheap and as plentiful as whisky.
Its European inhabitants had only a hazy knowledge of the history of the place, and no real affection or loyalty for their newly adopted home. Their ignorance and vulgarity were matched only by their prosperity amidst the abundant resources and fertile land to which they had easy access. That these Europeans from the lowliest labourer to the officials in the colonial government, were overwhelmingly Irish, went uncommented on unfortunately, though Anna did delight in the presence of other “Old English” with whom she could relate, upon her visit to Niagara.
Amidst all the good fortune on display in the colony, Indigenous people were highly visible and active, though deriving few benefits from European settlement. Though she used phrases such as “fated race” and anticipated their eventual demise, Anna delighted in the company of the Indigenous people she met and was fascinated by their history and customs.
Winter Studies and Summer Rambles was well-received upon publication, though less so amongst the Upper Canadian elite of which her estranged husband, now vice-chancellor, remained a part. The work drew some criticism for its overt comparisons between the plight of European and Indigenous women in the colony and the suggestion that the latter held a more honoured and easier place in their respective society. Anna had long engaged implicitly with the “woman question” in her work, but for some critics this comparison went too far.
Winter Studies and Summer Rambles has been reprinted countless times since its publication nearly 200 years ago and has been the subject of numerous scholarly analyses. It has been hailed as an important work of early feminism, travel writing, and of epistolary literature. For twenty-first century Canadians the book is a remarkable glimpse of a virtually unrecognizable Ontario covered in dark, forbidding forests, impassable unhealthy swamps, criss-crossed by blazed trails and ineffective corduroy roads. Not only did Anna capture this world with words, but she produced some 40 sketches of her experiences, the places she visited, and the people she met. Unfortunately, these images have never been published with her text, but survive in the archives of the Royal Ontario Museum and the Toronto Public Library.
Anna Brownell Murphy Jameson never returned to Canada nor to her husband. She spent her remaining decades publishing works of art history. She died in London in 1860.
John D. Blackwell, “Jameson, Robert Sympson,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003 shttp://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/jameson_robert_sympson_8E.html.
Paul Caffrey, “Denis Brownell Murphy,” Dictionary of Irish Biography https://www.dib.ie/biography/murphy-denis-brownell-a6073.
Anna Jameson, Winter Studies and Summer Rambles,
Wendy Roy, ““Here is the picture as well as I can paint it” Anna Jameson’s Illustrations for Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada” Canadian Literature 177 (Summer 2003) 97-119.