From the desk of Katie Jackson:
If you’ve ever wished that Jane Austen’s family had preserved more of her personal letters, have I got a surrogate wish-fulfillment for you. It is my pleasure to introduce the gifted nineteenth-century novelists Jane and Anna Maria Porter. Although their copious correspondence remains unpublished—and may always, as the writers themselves expressed was their wish—it has been carefully curated into a stunning biography of these innovative writers.
The Other “Jane”
Several years ago, I had the privilege of attending a small book club meeting hosted by none other than Austen scholar extraordinaire Devoney Looser at my alma mater, Arizona State University. (Yes, I silently fangirled in the corner, as one does, and barely found two coherent words to put together.) The topic of discussion was her fantastic book, The Making of Jane Austen, but I recall her mentioning the current work she was doing to research and write about “the other Jane” Porter. Little did I realize at the time that the forthcoming book had not been in the works for a mere few years, it had been a passion project of roughly two decades. And finally, we are all invited to discover the two authoresses, who created historical fiction as we know it, in the epic Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës by Devoney Looser.
“Jane Porter as a “Lady Canoness.” She was not a nun, although her quiet reserve and love of veils sometimes resulted in her being mistaken for one. This portrait shows her with the gold cross of the European chivalric order she’d been elected to, in recognition of her contributions to literature.“
Truth is Stranger than Fiction
“The lives of these remarkable sisters may sometimes read like a novel, but it’s a true, blazing history.” Prologue XX
Jane and Anna Maria (“Maria”) Porter were born in 1770s England into genteel poverty. As was common for the time, their three brothers were given every possible advantage to establish careers for themselves. Despite a lack of access to the formal education their brothers benefited from, the sisters acquired knowledge in any way they could, then used their formidable pens to eventually support themselves and aid their disappointing brothers.
Celebrity & Lauded Acquaintances
As I read through their biography, I was completely amazed by the celebrity of these sisters whose fame has since been largely lost to time. The impoverished Porters claimed acquaintances with people in all levels of society, even some of the nineteenth century’s most lauded figures, including royalty. As Maria once said, “The world contains numberless rare creatures, and we know many of them.” (235) Their remarkable experiences certainly informed the stories they told.
“Anna Maria Porter (called Maria and pronounced “Mariah”) was a gifted writer whose prolific output helped keep her chronically indebted family financially afloat.“
The dozens of books they wrote were not only well-known, but some could even be considered bestsellers by modern standards.
“Jane Porter’s books had sold not just thousands, or hundreds of thousands, but more than a million nineteenth-century copies in the United States alone! Why had we lost sight of her?” Prologue XI
“Her signature books about history’s underdog war heroes in nations fighting off tyrants were considered politically dangerous enough to be banned by Napoleon.” Prologue XIII
Yet the authors of such powerful books have fallen into puzzling obscurity.
I was repeatedly struck throughout the Porter sisters’ biography by their impressive will to press on against a seemingly endless onslaught of trials. While some of their persistence was certainly the result of necessity, there was also a sense of admirable determination.
“As Maria mock-cheerfully put it, ‘Well, patience and perseverance; and then we succeed—and then if we do not—why, we drop into our graves, and all our unsuccessful attempts are forgotten by the head and heart that once ached in making them.’” (57)
Frequently at a disadvantage, economic and otherwise, as a result of the heavily ingrained sexism and classism in society, the sisters were inevitably expected to marry. But their experiences with men continually left much to be desired. Even the best of men seemed to wish for a delicate, subservient wife.
“As [Jane] opined, most men of talents liked to discourse with learned women, but few liked to marry them.” (61)
Through it all, the Porter sisters remained honorable and generous, always seeing the best in those around them—even those who least deserved their favor.
Without a doubt, Sister Novelists was impressively and deeply researched. I greatly admire the astonishing effort that clearly went into meticulously piecing together the seemingly unlimited, minute details to boldly paint the incredible portrait of two deserving yet forgotten authoresses. There is simply not enough space in this review to showcase all of the delightful interactions that have been left behind in their letters.
“‘I am out of patience with the Public,’ Maria wrote to Jane. ‘Good novels, excellent novels multiply, and they receive them, as a spoiled child does a new plaything, dashes them away, and cries for another.’” (305)
The Hard-Earned Spotlight
From the sheer volume of source material referenced, it is astounding how well the Porter family, and those who came into possession of it later, preserved their documents for posterity—not only letters, but even scrapbooks of meaningful ephemera. It’s a bit sad to think how hopeful they were, only for their legacy to fall dormant and largely unknown for more than a century. It took the care and attention of a dedicated scholar to bring them back into the hard-earned spotlight. It brings to mind a tireless mother taking her children to endless rehearsals, then standing off-stage in the shadows, proudly watching them shine in the limelight. And in the literary limelight is where the Porter sisters deserve to be.
Sister Novelists is a triumphant and moving biography, drawing the revolutionary Porter sisters out of literary obscurity and into prominence once more.
5 out of 5 Stars
Here are just a few of the 26 published works by the Porter sisters.
By Jane Porter:
By Anna Maria Porter:
Devoney Looser is Regents Professor of English at Arizona State University and the author or editor of nine books on literature by women, including The Making of Jane Austen. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Salon, The Washington Post, and Entertainment Weekly, and she’s had the pleasure of talking about Austen on CNN. Looser, who has played roller derby as Stone Cold Jane Austen, is a Guggenheim Fellow and a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with her husband and two sons.
- A triumph of literary detective work and storytelling, this is a must-read for the Austen and Brontë crowd.” ―Kirkus starred review
- “Clever, compassionate, and compelling, Devoney Looser is my favourite person to read on the subject of writers. The Porter Sisters have found the perfect biographer to uncover their scandalously neglected story.” ―Lucy Worsley, author of Jane Austen at Home, and f Walls Could Talk
- “Jane and Anna Maria Porter leap into view in Devoney Looser’s brilliant joint biography. … Looser cannily lets the sisters display in their own words their kaleidoscopic lives of romantic infatuations, glamour, poverty and literary grind. This powerful biography delivers history through personal experience, while telling the achingly poignant story of lifelong sisterly love.” ―Janet Todd, author of Jane Austen: Her Life, Her Times, Her Novels
- Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës, by Devoney Looser
- Bloomsbury Publishing (October 25, 2022)
- Hardcover, eBook, & audiobook (576)
- ISBN: 978-1635575293
- Genre: Literary Biography
We received a review copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Cover image courtesy of Bloomsbury © 2022; text Katie Jackson © 2022, austenprose.com.