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Biography of Anne Grant
    (Biography / Anne Grant)
  Pam Perkins, June 1999
Anne Macvicar Grant (1755-1838), letter writer, essayist, and poet, spent the first half of her life in what many of her contemporaries would have considered exotically primitive surroundings, and she built her literary career on her memories of those places. Her parents were both Highland Scots from Argyllshire, but following their marriage in 1753, they settled briefly in Glasgow, where Anne Macvicar, an only child, was born on 21 February, 1755. Shortly thereafter her father, Duncan Macvicar, joined the British army and was sent with his regiment to America. His wife and daughter followed him, arriving in Charleston, South Carolina in 1758. By 1760, the family had settled near Albany, New York, and while they lived most of the following decade in that area, they also spent time in more isolated places, including one winter and spring in Fort Oswego on the south-eastern shore of Lake Ontario, then a remote wilderness outpost. Writing about her journey to the fort nearly forty years later, Anne Grant remembered it as an exciting adventure, one on which, to her delight, her party occasionally camped in the open woods, lighting huge fires to deter hostile Indians and wild animals. Back in Albany the following year (1761), the young Anne Macvicar attracted the interest of Catalina Schuyler, a member of a prominent New York family. Grant provided at least three versions of their meeting: in the earliest, she writes merely that Madame Schuyler was delighted to see her quietly entertaining herself by reading Paradise Lost. Some years later, she improved the story by describing herself quoting a few lines from the poem during an adult conversation, and finally, in a memoir written late in life, Grant had herself repeating from memory the long passage describing Eve's dream [1]. Whatever happened, Madame Schuyler was sufficiently impressed to take an interest in the child and to provide her with what formal education she received until, in 1768, the Macvicars departed for Glasgow. They originally planned to stay only until Duncan Macvicar recuperated from a lingering illness, but the political situation in America rapidly worsened over the next few years, and they never went back. As a result of the revolution, the family lost some property which they had purchased in what is now Vermont (Anne Grant was still trying to reclaim it as late as 1797), but Grant claimed to be more distressed by what she saw as the Revolutionaries' shattering of an Edenic world of natural virtue than by any personal losses.

However much she disliked the new United States, Grant idealised the America of the 1760s and insisted that the simple, honest people among whom she was raised shaped her character for life. Looking back as an adult, she presented herself, as a thirteen-year-old newly arrived in her native country, as something of an exotic child of nature, lacking 'the embellishments of education ... yet familiar with books, with plants, and with trees, with all that regarded the face of nature; perfectly ignorant of the customs and manners of the world' (MC 1: 10). Once back in Glasgow, this American 'primitivism' rapidly modulated into a passionate Scottish patriotism. Even before her return to Glasgow, Grant had already developed 'an enthusiasm for Scotland' from her reading of Blind Harry's Wallace (MC 1: 6; her near-contemporary Elizabeth Hamilton, then growing up near Stirling, was similarly inspired by the poem). Five years later, when she accompanied her father to his new posting at Fort Augustus, her enthusiasm for nature and simplicity had been reinforced by her discovery of the work of 'Ossian', which coloured her prose style and which inspired a number of descriptive passages in her early letters to her friends in Glasgow. While years later Grant admitted that her first sight of the Highlands left her more dismayed than overwhelmed (ESH 2: 335), nothing but proper Ossianic enthusiasm shows in her letters written during that journey.

Anne Macvicar lived in Fort Augustus for six years until, on May 29, 1779, she married James Grant, a former army chaplain and the minister of the remote Highland parish of Laggan. Aside from occasional visits to family and friends, mainly in Glasgow and Inverness, she remained there for the next twenty-three years, raising a large family. She had twelve children between 1780 and 1799, three of whom died in infancy or early childhood, while a fourth died at fifteen, just a few weeks before the youngest child was born. While in Laggan, she became fascinated with the Highland culture, not only learning Gaelic herself, but also ensuring that her children spoke it as their first language, 'never desir[ing] to hear an English word out of their mouths till they are four or five years old' (LM 2: 94). It was a matter of some disappointment to her that her youngest child lost all his Gaelic after the family left the Highlands while he was still a very young child. Her educational ideas were vaguely Rousseauvian; she dreamed fondly of 'grafting elegant sentiments and just notions on simple manners and primitive ideas' (LM 2:94). Despite her isolation and her heavy family responsibilities, she also remained keenly interested in literary and political issues, especially during the upheavals of the 1790s. She read - and strongly disapproved of - Mary Wollstonecraft and Helen Maria Williams, and as she became increasingly dismayed by the direction of the French Revolution, she seemed to look ever more closely at Highland life both as a model of all the virtues that England was in danger of losing and as a potential source of cultural renewal.

In December, 1801, James Grant died suddenly, leaving Anne Grant a widow with eight children ranging in age from two to twenty-one to support and some heavy debts to repay. Except for two small pensions (totalling barely £40) which she was able to secure from church provisions and as the widow of a regimental chaplain, she had no income. The next few years were, inevitably, unsettled, and it was not until 1803, when the family moved to Woodend, near Stirling, that Grant began her literary career with the publication of a volume of poems. Soon afterwards, she began collecting the letters she had written from Fort Augustus and Laggan, publishing them in 1806 as Letters from the Mountains, the work which made her reputation. By then, she had moved from Woodend into Stirling and was travelling frequently, both in Scotland and to England.

Despite constantly insisting upon her own amateur status as a writer, Grant was, from the inception of her career, very practical about sales and income, reporting with pleasure that her poems were selling well in London, and observing with considerable interest the growth of a leisured and educated reading public which created a market for literary 'luxuries' and oddities such as her letters (LM 214-15). Such practical-mindedness was necessary as her financial situation was always precarious; she described her writing as a 'hard, and, I trust, not unsuccessful, struggle for independence' (MC 1: 72). Beginning in 1805, she supplemented her literary work by educating a few live-in pupils. At first, she took in young boys (including the nephew and heir of Scott's close friend John Morritt of Rokeby), but most of her pupils - apparently all of them after 1808 - were adolescent girls. In some cases, these pupils became close friends; Joan Glassell, for example, an orphaned heiress who arrived in the Grant household in 1811 and stayed there for nearly eight years, was, unsurprisingly, a favourite. Another former pupil, Isabella Smythe, who died in 1814 -- 'the greatest loss I could possibly meet with out of my own family,' Grant wrote sadly on hearing the news (MC 2: 56) -- left Grant a legacy of £1000 as a testament of her esteem. When Grant and her family moved from Stirling to Edinburgh in 1810, after having briefly considered settling in London, at least two of her pupils moved with her.

By that time, Grant was an established author. She wrote Memoirs of an American Lady, a two-volume biography of Catalina Schulyer interspersed with Grant's memories of her own childhood in New York, while visiting friends near London in the summer of 1808. In the summer of 1811, she finished Essays on the Superstitions of the Highlanders, and then followed that with a long poem, 'Eighteen Hundred and Thirteen' (perhaps in part a rejoinder to Anna Laetitia Barbauld's Eighteen Hundred and Eleven) in 1814. That was the last of her major publications, but for the next two decades, she continued to take an active, even enthusiastic role in Edinburgh literary society, documenting her encounters with Sir Walter Scott, Francis Jeffrey, Henry Mackenzie, and many others in her voluminous correspondence, collected and posthumously published by her son. In the relatively small Edinburgh literary world, she rapidly seemed to meet everyone and know everything; not only did she immediately guess the author of Waverley (admittedly, so did almost everybody else in Britain), but also she didn't hesitate to identify Mary Brunton as the author of the anonymous best-seller Self-Control or Susan Ferrier as the author of Marriage.

She continued to write poetry for much of her life, becoming one of the major contributors to George Thomson's Scots Musical Museum in the early years of the century, and as late as 1823, she was translating poems from the Gaelic for the very elderly Henry Mackenzie. She apparently wrote some criticism as well; in 1819 she described, with an edge of self-mockery, her hesitant decision to 'put on [her] veil' and write an anonymous review for a competitor of Blackwood's Magazine (probably a short-lived magazine owned by Archibald Constable).

That hesitation seems to have arisen from political, not literary, concerns. The 'Blackwoodians' -- young men who might 'fear God but certainly do not regard man'-- would, Grant thought, undoubtedly subject her to cruel caricature 'if they knew that I forsook (as they would suppose) the true standard of Toryism' (MC 2: 236). It is doubtful that anybody else would have accused Grant of doing anything of the sort. She was, in the rueful phrase of a radical friend, the literary hostess and autobiographer Eliza Fletcher [2], 'a great lover of Kings' (Autobiography, 131) and, like Sir Walter Scott, a sentimental Jacobite who easily reconciled her romantic admiration for the House of Stuart with intense loyalty to the House of Hanover. (For example, in an 1823 letter to the Scottish antiquarian George Chalmers, Grant imagined how thrilled George IV must have been to visit the rooms of Mary Stuart, 'his hard fated Great very Great Grandmother' (NLS ms 3813 f.116), suggesting that in her eyes Hanovers were really Stuarts under the skin.) Despite her occasional ladylike disclaimers of any interest in politics, her political opinions were so openly and firmly Tory that Henry Cockburn thought her 'love of individual Whigs, particularly of [Francis] Jeffrey, in spite of her amusing horror of their principles' was worth noting as a quality 'honourable to her heart' (Memorials 260).

Whatever her success in the literary world during these years in Edinburgh, Grant's private life during that time was less happy. Letters from the Mountains helped defray the expenses of extricating Duncan Grant, the elder of her two surviving sons, from the consequences of an 1804 mutiny at a military academy he attended in Marlow and of redirecting his career by sending him out to India the following year as a seventeen-year-old cadet. This incident, which sent Grant on a hasty midwinter journey to London and left her 'inexpressibly wretched' (MC 1: 71), was the first of what Scott called her 'great domestic calamit[ies]' (Journal 21). Over the next two decades, all but one of Grant's children died (John Peter, the youngest, was the only one of the twelve to survive her), often following cruelly lingering illnesses. The success of Letters from the Mountains was overshadowed not only by Duncan Grant's troubles, but also, much more seriously, by the relatively sudden death from influenza of Grant's seventeen-year-old daughter Charlotte, who had been apprenticed to a milliner in London. That was in April 1807; that August, while travelling with another daughter in delicate health, Anne Grant got word that her second child, Catherine, had died unexpectedly after having apparently recovered from an illness which had been troubling her since the spring. In 1814, two more of Grant's children died within days of each other: Duncan, still in India, and Anne, then twenty-two, who had been in failing health for nearly a year. Grant's youngest daughter, Moore, fell ill in 1817, spending the four years until her death in 1821 in a state of gradually increasingly invalidism. The two remaining daughters, Isabella and Mary (who died in 1823 and 1827, respectively), were both in poor health more or less continuously following Moore's death, Mary apparently suffering some sort of mental breakdown in the last years of her life. In 1825, Grant wrote that her daughter was - unsurprisingly - subject to 'a degree of feebleness and depression' (MC 3: 82), but Scott, in his journal, referred more bluntly to a complete 'alienation of mind' (22) [3].

These years were also marred by Grant's own ill health and continuing financial worries. A fall in 1820 left her unable to walk without crutches, and by 1825, her income had deteriorated to the point that she was facing 'hitherto unfelt privations' (BL Add. Mss 38,300, f188). Yet the mid-1820s seem to have been the low point of her fortunes. In 1825, a petition from several leading Edinburgh literary men (including Scott, Jeffrey, and Mackenzie) won her a royal pension of £50 -- although accepting that sum seems to have hurt her pride [4]. Scott, annoyed by her unhappiness at being offered only fifty pounds, wrote irritably in his journal that she was 'proud as a Highland woman, vain as a poetess, and absurd as a bluestocking,' but that he expected she would take the money anyway, as 'your scornful dog will always eat your dirty pudding' (21). He was right, and he was later able to record, with unkind flippancy, that 'the stout old girl' had 'intimate[d] that she will take her pudding -- her pension, I mean' (30). Despite the smallness of the pension, her son reported that some other legacies received late in life helped ensure her reasonable comfort during her last years. By that time, as well, John Peter Grant had become established in his profession as a Writer to the Signet, and during the final decade of Grant's life, he was able to support her, taking her into his house when he married in 1833. Anne Grant died at eighty-three on 7 November, 1838 and was buried in St. Cuthbert's Cemetery in Edinburgh.


[1] In Memoirs of an American Lady, Grant says the lines she quoted were 'When nature rests, / Oft in her absence mimic fancy wakes, to imitate her, / But misjoining shapes, wild works produces oft' (AL 2: 151). In her posthumously published memoir, she is less precise, saying that she produced 'a long quotation from Eve's fatal dream infusing into her mind the ambition that led to guilt' (MC 1: 8).

[2] Fletcher was so radical that -- much to her amusement -- rumours circulated in 1790s that she had constructed a miniature guillotine and begun practicing on mice. Grant and Fletcher were warm friends, but the two women's comments on each other in their autobiographical writing suggest the extent to which, even among women, the highly politicized world of early nineteenth-century literary Edinburgh required careful negotiation of political differences within private friendships.

[3] This sad catalogue of family deaths was augmented by those of a number of other younger relatives and friends of Anne Grant. Shortly before her husband's death, she was devastated by the loss of a much-loved niece who had been raised as part of the family, and shortly afterwards she nursed a nephew through his final illness. At least three of her long-term pupils besides Isabella Smythe died young, including Joan Glassell, as did John Peter Grant's first wife, whom Anne Grant had known from childhood. The memoirs of Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus suggest that Grant's misfortunes acquired an almost folkloric quality at the time: she not only misremembered John Peter as being the only survivor of nineteen (rather than twelve) children, but believed him to have narrowly escaped death in a notorious shipwreck off the west coast of Scotland in 1825. In fact, Anne Grant herself had been booked on the steamer but had changed her mind at the last moment and was reported among the dead in initial newspaper accounts.

[4] John Peter Grant states in his memoir of his mother that the pension was £100 (ML 29), but, in addition to Scott's discussion of Grant's disappointment about receiving only £50 in his journal, this sum is confirmed by the letter informing Grant that the petition was successful (BL Add. Mss. 38,300, f200).


Pam Perkins, University of Manitoba

© 1999 Pam Perkins / Sheffield Hallam University