1014. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 8 January 1805

1014. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 8 January 1805 ⁠* 

Jane Power [1]  was placed in the Irish Nunnery at Belem near Lisbon [2]  when xxxx but a child. she grew up there & took the vows. Shortly after there came over a <young> Irish woman by name Louisa Bourke, [3]  who went thro her year of probation resolutely & professed. She had left her own country & thus abandoned the world in a fit of jealousy. Her lover at length traced her, followed her & spoke with her at the grate. They corresponded upon the means of getting her out by way of dispensation – the scheme was discovered – & it was said Louise died xxx soon after. Jane Power was ill at this time. After her recovery being in a remote part of the Convent which was not xx in use, she heard Louisa’s voice as within the wall, thought it was her spirit & asked if she should order any services for her soul. Louisa directed her how to find an entrance to her place of confinement, which was on a higher story, matted round & so entirely remote from all hearing that she had even her instrument there. She had that day got down by finding some means of slipping back a lock or bolt & by the same means Jane was enabled to visit her which she did regularly every night for some months. Once she staid later than usual, because her friend appeared more depressed than she had ever seen her; in consequence of this delay her lamp being exhausted went out in the cloisters, she was afraid that she might mistake her cell & thus be discovered, & therefore sat herself down to wait for day break. When the dawn came she thought she would first go back & tell Louisa how she had past the night. She knocked & received no answer. She pusht the door & found something against it. – xx on opening it saw Louisa lying on the ground with her throat cut from ear to ear. Jane Power immediately fainted – & in that state was found by the Nuns who came with food for their prisoner. They made her take a solemn vow never to reveal what she had seen.

She continued several years longer in the nunnery – her sister’s husband had a xxx civil appointment in our army there: – (his name is Heatley or Headley) & latterly the frequent visits of her sister & her English friends made her life more chearful than that of a nun usually can be. When the troops were removing she complained bitterly to her sister & Heatley determined to carry her off. he conveyed boy’s cloaths to her, & gave her his watch to know the hour, & that all might be well made the male part of the establishment drunk. xxx Jane in her disguise came to the door the key creaked – she had resolution to go back to the dormitory & dip it in the lamp. The hour was too soon – for never having <had> a watch before she had not wound it up, & she flung the watch over the wall for a signal instead of a stone. However she effected her escape.

Still there remained a difficulty. The Captain of the Packet who had promised to carry her repented & refused after she was out of the convent. She was got on board by the management of Colonel Trents wife [4]  who went in the same packet & the Captain of a Frigate who was acquainted with the story convoyed the vessel out, declaring that if Todd [5]  would not take her, he would run all risques & carry her to England himself rather than she should be carried back. There came on rough weather & poor Jane whispered that perhaps it was sent because of her. However she reached Falmouth safely. – & the last I heard was that her friend was endeavouring to procure a dispensation for her from the Pope.

I give you the story as Mrs Trent gave it to me. Mrs T. is a very extraordinary woman. Her husband was among the persons stopt in France. She went over, obtained his liberty, & smuggled home the son of Hopner the painter. [6] 

When Jane Power saw the mail coach she cried out that the King was coming. & the first thing she asked for when she was housed after her escape was a looking glass – for since she was five years old she had never seen her own face.


Here is a prompt reply to your letter. I am engaged out this evening & can add no more at present. Were I with you you should have the story of Doctor Daniel Dove of Doncaster, & his horse Nobbs – a tale which like the mysteries of the Druids must never be committed to writing. [7] 

Pococke [8]  would give the ship as you see it suo periculo [9]  – being supplied with one from Williams’ tapestry. [10]  I am certain sure he is wrong.

My next shall be a sample of Ballad-seed. [11] 

God bless you


Tuesday Jany 8. 1805.


* Address: C W Williams Wynn Esqr/ Wynnstay/ Wrexham
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: [partial] 2QR
MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4812D. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Frances Williams Wynn, Diaries of a Lady of Quality from 1797–1844, ed. A. Hayward (1864), pp. 10–13; Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), I, pp. 373–375. BACK

[1] Southey first told this story to John May; see Southey to John May, 4 July [1802], The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Two, Letter 689. While this anti-Catholic anecdote refers to many real people and places, the story cannot be verified. BACK

[2] The Dominican convent of Our Lady of Bom Sucesso, Belem in Portugal (founded in 1639). BACK

[3] Untraced. BACK

[4] Possibly the wife of Colonel Trent (dates unknown) who commanded a force of Portuguese infantry in the Peninsular War. BACK

[5] Captain Fortescue Todd (dates unknown), succeeding his father Lovell Todd (dates unknown), had command of the Falmouth-Lisbon packet boat in the 1790s. BACK

[6] It has not been possible to identify which of the sons of John Hoppner (1758–1810; DNB) is referred to here, whether Catherine Hampden Hoppner (1784–1828), a magistrate in the service of the East India Company, Richard Belgrave Hoppner (1786–1872; DNB), the British Consul general at Venice, Wilson (sometimes known as William) Lascelles Hoppner (1788–?), an artist and lunatic, or Henry Parkyns Hoppner (1795–1833), a naval officer and Arctic explorer. BACK

[7] Southey did eventually commit this tale to writing in his novel The Doctor (1834–1847). On the tale and its origin, and Coleridge’s role in disseminating it, see David Chandler, ‘“As Long-Winded as Possible”: Southey, Coleridge, and The Doctor &c.’, Review of English Studies, 60 (2009), 605–619. BACK

[8] Nicholas Pocock (1740–1821; DNB): marine painter, formerly a merchant seaman. Pocock exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy from 1782–1815 and was a founder member of the Old Watercolour Society in 1804. Southey felt that Pocock spoilt the image of Madoc’s ship that he had been commissioned to make for the 1805 edition of the poem, by drawing an anachronistic vessel. BACK

[9] Meaning ‘at his own risk’. BACK

[10] The Bayeux tapestry, commissioned by Bishop Odo (d. 1097), the half-brother of William I, the Conqueror (1027/8–1087; reigned 1066–1087; DNB), completed c. 1077. BACK

[11] See Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 10 January [1805], Letter 1016. BACK

People mentioned

May, John (1775–1856) (mentioned 1 time)