Remembering the forgotten novelist, Anna Eliza Bray

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West Sussex has many well-known literary figures illustrating its history books: Shelley, Keats, Blake, Austen, Wilde and Tennyson are but just a few.

Now it is hoped another name can be added to this list of celebrated writers. The papers of Anna Eliza Bray, a once notable (and now almost forgotten) 19th-century author, are held at West Sussex Record Office, having recently been catalogued.

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Although she was not from West Sussex, her fascinating archive contains some interesting connections to the county.

She was born Anna Eliza Kempe in 1790 in Newington, Surrey, the daughter of Alfred Kempe and Ann Arrow, and sister of the distinguished antiquary Alfred John Kempe.

Two later members of the Kempe family also have their archives housed at the Record Office: the mathematician Sir Alfred Bray Kempe and Alfred Humphrey Meadows Kempe, who was vicar of Donnington and Apuldram between 1946 and 1963.

In August 1814, Anna accompanied her mother on a trip to Worthing and Arundel, which included an excursion to Bignor Roman Villa over weeks before it opened to the public, possibly making her one of their first visitors!

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She writes a letter to her father about George Tupper, the farmer who discovered the mosaics, showing them around the site and goes on to give a very descriptive account of what she saw.

In February 1818, she married Charles Alfred Stothard, an antiquarian draughtsman whom she met a number of years before through his father, the Royal Academy artist Thomas Stothard (himself a friend of many notable artists including William Blake and JMW Turner).

She travelled to France with her husband in 1820 for his work, and afterwards published her first book Letters written during a tour of Normandy’; this publication established her as a writer and enabled her to progress into the literary circles of her day, circles which included Sir Walter Scott, John Murray, Amelia Opie and Letitia Elizabeth Landon.

Charles Stothard also visited West Sussex at various times in his career, making drawings of church monuments in Arundel, Amberley and Ifield, and the mosaics at Bignor Roman Villa.

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He tragically died in 1821 after a fall from a ladder in Bere Ferrers Church in Devon, while sketching the stained glass window.

In late 1822, Anna Eliza Stothard married Edward Atkyns Bray, the vicar of Tavistock, and settled down to a life of writing in Devon for the following 20 years.

She published, among other works, a set of ten historical novels, most of them set in the West Country.

It was during this period that a close friendship developed with the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, which lasted from 1831 until his death in 1843.

Her most famous work, the three-volumed Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy, documenting the folklore, history and legends of West Devon, was published as a series of letters to Southey by John Murray in 1836.

Her correspondence with the Southey family continued with Caroline Southey, the poet’s second wife, until her death in 1854; the archive also includes letters from Southey’s son, Charles Cuthbert Southey, daughter Edith May Warter and her husband John Wood Warter, who was the vicar of West Tarring, Durrington and Heene from 1834-1878. St Andrew’s Church, West Tarring, includes a memorial window for Robert Southey and monumental inscriptions inside the church are dedicated to members of the Southey and Warter families; the Rev Warter oversaw the restoration of the church in 1853.

Robert and Caroline Southey also visited Edith at West Tarring vicarage; one recorded occasion was after their wedding in 1838. After the Rev Bray’s death in 1857, Mrs Bray moved back to London where she continued to write well into the 1870s.

She died in 1883 at the grand age of 92, leaving behind her a great literary legacy and a very eventful life that has sadly faded somewhat into obscurity.

Holly Wright will be presenting a talk at the Record Office entitled ‘A Peep at the Pixies: exploring the life and literary archive of Anna Eliza Bray’ on Tuesday November 24, at 7pm. Tickets at £7.50, including refreshments, and a selection of documents from the archive will be on display. Tickets must be booked in advance by phoning 01243 753602.

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