115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

On the Margins of Genre and History: Sir Edward Seaward’s Narrative

Thomas McLean, University of Otago

Sir Edward Seaward’s Narrative was one of 1831’s most discussed publications, but its authorship was a mystery. Attributed to novelist Jane Porter, it was in fact the work of her brother William. Using unpublished correspondence, this paper explores the work’s history and appeal in an era between revolution and reform.


Sir Edward Seaward’s Narrative of his Shipwreck was one of the most discussed publications of 1831. Its editor, the 55-year-old novelist Jane Porter, claimed that the work was based on an eighteenth-century diary belonging to a family friend. Porter had gained great fame in the early nineteenth century with her historical novels Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803) and The Scottish Chiefs (1810), and the success of Seaward brought her new public attention. But the work’s author was in fact her elder brother, William Ogilvie Porter. Jane Porter never publicly admitted the truth about the work, claiming Sir Walter Scott as a predecessor: “Sir Walter Scott had his great secret; I must be allowed to keep my little one.” Of course, Scott had actually written the anonymously published Waverley novels, so Porter’s pronouncement seemed to confirm her as Seaward’s author. Posthumous editions often named her as the author. This Crusoe-like narrative remained in print for most of the nineteenth century. It describes the experiences of Edward and Eliza Seaward after being shipwrecked on an island near Jamaica. But its position between history and romance caused some controversy. After the second edition appeared in 1832, the Quarterly Review devoted some 25 pages to praising the work as romance (and, in an unintended sting, suggesting it was one of Jane Porter’s best works) but debunking its historical pretentions. Rather remarkably, Jane Porter, in a new introduction for the third edition, attempted to prove these doubters wrong—though she knew they were right. William Porter had spent several years in the West Indies, and his experiences informed Seaward’s plausibility and Jane Porter’s claims of authenticity. Using unpublished correspondence between Jane and William Porter, I hope to clarify the history of the writing and publication of Sir Edward Seaward and argue for its place as a remarkable meeting of travelogue, historical work, and romance. But I also want to explore its position between the Romantic and Victorian eras. The Quarterly praised Seaward for returning to the Defoe school of story telling “in this eager age of novelty and change, reform and retrenchment.” If the novel’s generic instability troubled some critics and readers, its descriptions of the Seawards’ simple daily activities and their trust in divine forces must have appealed to readers shaken by revolutions threatening continental Europe and the movement for reform at home.

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