Anna Eliza Kempe was born in Surrey in 1789 to John Kempe and Ann Arrow. In 1818, she married Thomas Stothard's youngest son, Charles, an illustrator who provided the artwork for her first book, a travelogue entitled Letters Written During a Tour Through Normandy, Brittany and Other Parts of France (1820). Unfortunately, their personal and professional partnership was short-lived; just three years into their marriage, in 1821, Charles died from a head injury sustained from an accidental fall. Within weeks of Charles' death, Bray gave birth to their daughter, but the child ultimately died. Following these two devastating losses, Bray set about preserving her husband's legacy, publishing the last issues of Charles' Monumental Effigies of Great Britain (1823) and Memoirs, including Original Journals, Letters, Papers and Antiquarian Tracts of the Late C.A. Stothard (1823) (Low 175-6).
In 1823, she married the Reverend Edward Bray, and her career as a novelist blossomed. Before his untimely death, Charles had encouraged Bray to compose a story based on the Count De Foix; now married to Edward and having regained stability in her personal life, Bray began to write. This first triple-decker, De Foix, was completed in a year, and within five years, Bray had written and published as many novels (Low 176-7).
With such speed, she was a quite prolific writer, publishing two travelogues, two edited collections, five biographies, a children's book, a book on the folklore of Devonshire, and fourteen novels over the course of her lifetime (Low 6-7). The major works of fiction listed in her posthumously published autobiography include
- De Foix: A Romance of Bearn (1826)
- The White Hoods: A Romance of Flanders (1828)
- The Protestant: A Tale of the Times of Queen Mary (1828)
- The Talba, or The Moor of Portugal (1830)
[Novels Founded on the Traditions of Devon and Cornwall]
- Fitz of Fitz Ford: A Tale of Destiny (1830)
- Warleigh, or The Fatal Oak (1834)
- Trelawny of Trelawne (1837)
- Henry de Pomeroy (1841)
- Courtenay of Walreddon (1844)
- Hartland Forest, and Roseteague (1871)
Bray was not only a successful novelist; she also forged friendships with two important literary figures of her time: the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, and her cousin, the poet Christina Rossetti. One of her most enduring works, A Description of the Part of Devonshire Bordering on the Tamar and the Tavy (1836), was the product of her correspondence with Southey. The text featured collected folklore and legends of the county of Devon (Low 135). Later, Bray adapted material from this book to create a children's book entitled A Peep at the Pixies, or Legends of the West (1854). It was A Peep at the Pixies which Rossetti used as source material for her most famous poem, "Goblin Market" (178).
Her nephew, John Kempe, complimented her love of learning and her ability to "invest the dry bones of obscure fact with life and reality" (Bray 19) but described her as infatuated with and "surrounded by relics of the past" (16), a "small but well-made figure, generally disguised by voluminous wrappings of shawls and flannels; her eyes guarded by a large green shade hanging over her forehead; the candlesticks muffled in green baize to shut out the glitter of silver" (31).
Perhaps her perpetually backwards-looking perspective is, in part, the reason that her novels are no longer widely read; however, her impact on the genres of historical romance and folklore continues to be felt. Aside from serving as one of the few female nineteenth-century antiquarians, Bray created fiction that "provid[ed] an alternative to linear military and political history" (Hamer 16) and nonfiction that served a precursor to modern studies of historiography, ethnography, and folklore (7).
Despite her isolated existence, brought on by constant concerns about delicate health, which she termed her "nervousness" (Bray 18), Bray lived to the age of 93. She died in 1883. The Athenaeum ran the following notice: "The death is announced of the oldest lady who claimed a considerable place among living writers. Mrs. Bray, who has passed away in her ninety-third year, was the last link between us and the generation which was in its prime in the early years of this century" (qtd. in Low 185).
Bray, Anna Eliza. The Autobiography of Anna Eliza Bray: Born 1789, Died 1883. Ed. John A. Kempe. London: Chapman and Hall, 1884.
Hamer, Lynne. "Folklore and History Studies in Early Nineteenth-Century England: Jane Porter and Anna Eliza Bray." Folklore Historian 10 (1993): 5-28.
Low, Dennis. The Literary Protégées of the Lake Poets. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006.
Last modified 11 July 2008