Born in London, the first child of Bryan Waller Procter (the poet “Barry Cornwall”) and Anne Skepper, Adelaide Anne was a highly gifted child, attaining considerably proficiency in geometry, piano, drawing, French, German and Italian. She was also a voracious reader.
Adelaide’s early poetry was presented to her parents’ distinguished literary circle in manuscript form. At eighteen, she contributed to the “Book of Beauty” and in 1853 to Household Words under the pseudonym “Mary Berwick” in order that the editor, Charles Dickens, should not be prejudiced by his friendship with the Procter family. Dickens was so attracted to Adelaide’s first poem that he asked ‘Mary Berwick’ to send in further contributions, only discovering much later — and rather by accident — the poet’s true identity. In the following six years the magazine published much of Adelaide’s poetry, her poems also appearing in All the Year Round, Cornwall and Good Words. The first series of Adelaide’s principal work, Legends and Lyrics, appeared in 1858 and ran through nine editions in seven years; a second series published in 1860 met with similar success. In 1866, a further edition appeared together with an introduction by Charles Dickens, and there have been numerous reprints of Legends and Lyrics to the present day. Believed to have been Queen Victoria’s favourite poet, Adelaide is reputed to have sold more volumes of poetry during the Victorian era than any other poet except Tennyson.
In her mid-twenties, Adelaide became a Roman Catholic, an act that appears to have influenced her poetry for much of her Legends and Lyrics is infused with a strong Catholic sensibility suggestive of the ‘convert’s fervour.’ It is unsurprising that her devotional lyrics were used in both Catholic and Protestant hymnals, examples being I do not ask, O Lord, that Life may be, and My God, I thank Thee who hast made.
A shelter through the bleak winter nights, leave to rest in some poor shed instead of wandering through the pitiless streets, is a boon we could hardly deny to a starving dog. And yet we have all known that in this country, in this town, many of our miserable fellow-creatures were pacing the streets through the long weary nights, without a roof to shelter them, without food to eat, with their poor rags soaked in rain, and only the bitter winds of Heaven for companions; women and children utterly forlorn and helpless, either wandering about all night, or crouching under a miserable archway, or, worst of all, seeking in death or sin the refuge denied them elsewhere. It is a marvel that we could sleep in peace in our warm comfortable homes with this horror at our very door.
Adelaide: from the Preface to her
Chaplet of Verses.