The Sisters Acton

In December of 1846, sisters Mary Harriet and Rose Acton published a 150-page volume entitled Poems. Finding biographical entries or information about the sisters proved challenging.  Early in our Stainforth DH project, neither author had a virtual international authority file record (VIAF) but recently I found that each has a stub of a VIAF record which lacks any concrete detail. I thought it curious that I could not find the birth and death dates for either writer but fortunately, a brief entry published April 20, 1847 on page 9 in the death notices section of the Times of London  announced “…in the 24th year, Mary Harriet Acton deeply regretted by all who knew her.” Searching Nineteenth Century Collections Online (NCCO) I found an application for relief that Rose Acton submitted to the Royal Corporation of the Literary Fund dated May of 1847. The eight-page submission revealed that Rose was twenty-three years old, single and the cause of her distress was “Insanity of her father followed by his death + now the death of her only sister.”  The application detailed that their father, a solicitor, lost his business, “… died about a year ago in a lunatic asylum (that would be some time in 1846) leaving a widow and two daughters just arrived at womanhood in a state of complete destitution.” Rose’s application further explained that her sister Harriet having recently recovered from the measles then succumbed to consumption and died, “leaving not even the means to pay her funeral expenses.”  Handwritten notes scrawled over the application were difficult to decipher but it looks as if Rose’s request for support was denied. [Note in 1898 Rev. Stainforth’s son, Francis Edward, aka Frank, requested relief from the Royal Literary Fund and was denied assistance.]

Prior to the Acton family’s tragic turn of events, Harriet’s poem, “The Ivy and the Oak” may have first appeared in an 1844 issue of London’s Friendship’s Offering magazine. Apparently undaunted and astutely, after Harriet’s death in 1847, Rose managed to get “The Ivy and the Oak” published in magazines and nineteenth-century gift book serials such as:

  • The Golden Rule: Odd Fellows’ Family Companion: Popular Literature, Instruction and Amusement, Vol. VI, no. 23, Saturday, June 5, 1847, page 376.
  • The Amaranth, or, Token of Remembrance: a Christmas and New Year’s Gift for 1849.
  • The Garland; or, Token of Friendship: a Christmas and New Year’s Gift for 1850.
  • The Magnolia; or, Gift-book of Friendship, published in 1851.
  • The Keepsake of Friendship: a Christmas and New Year’s Annual for 1851.
  • The Casket: a Gift Book for All Seasons, 1853.

A Wikipedia entry provides an explanation of the popularity of this genre and cites Thomas N. Baker’s 2001 publication, Sentiment and Celebrity: Nathaniel Parker Willis and the Trials of Literary Fame. Baker noted that “Many gift books were among the first periodicals to pay contributors and editors regularly. This was a draw to many writers, many of whom tailored their work to suit the readers of these types of publications.” It appears that Rose Acton persevered financially while promoting Harriet’s work but did not publish again after her sister’s death.

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