Born in London on October 30, 1825, Adelaide Anne Procter was the eldest child of Bryan Waller Procter (“Barry Cornwall”) and Anne Skepper Procter. A precocious child, she had the advantage of living in a home frequented by William Wordsworth, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Frances Kemble, and Mary Howitt. Dickens wrote that before she could read she carried about like a doll a little book of favorite poems her mother copied for her (“Adelaide,” p. 740).
Educated entirely at home, Adelaide learned French, German, and Italian, as well as mathematics and the required “lady like” pursuits of piano playing and painting. Her great love, however, was writing poetry. In 1843, at the age of eighteen, she contributed her first poem to The Book of Beauty. Ten years later, when Dickens was editing the magazine Household Words, she began submitting poetry under the pseudonym of Miss Mary Berwick, reasoning she wanted no unfair advantage over other contributors simply because she was a friend. Dickens was delighted with her work and tried repeatedly to discover her true identity. Only after he had praised her while dining one evening with the Procters did he learn the truth. It has been calculated that a full sixth of the entire output in Dickens’s magazine was Procter’s work. She also contributed to other periodicals. Many of her poems, notably “The Lost Chord,” were set to music and used as Catholic and Protestant hymns.
Procter and two of her sisters converted to Catholicism in 1851. Their aunt, Emily de Viry, who was a Catholic, may have influenced their decision. Converting was an act of bravery for the three women since it occurred at a time of heightened anti-Catholic feeling in England. All published accounts agree, however, that their decision had no ill effect on the household.
Although she never married and lived at home her whole life, Procter demonstrated an independence of spirit through her intellectual and philanthropic endeavors. She belonged to the Langham Place circle, a group of women who