Sister Novelists, a biography by Jane and Maria Porter, book review


Although the morally uplifting melodramas of Jane and Maria Porter have little in common with the wry comedies of Jane Austen or the impassioned chronicles of the Brontë sisters, literary scholar Devoney Looser’s subtitle for her book “Novelist sistersrightly claims the Porters as trailblazers who paved the way for other women writers. They published under their own name at a time when English “authors” had to hide behind ambiguous pseudonyms or remain anonymous. Both were best-selling authors, and Jane was also a ruthless businesswoman, negotiating with their publishers for better terms as their reputations – and sales – grew. Looser’s dual biography paints an admiring portrait of two single women from humble circumstances who seized fame and precarious economic security through talent and determination.

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Jane must have been a tough negotiator; the porters were kindly poor. Their father, a military surgeon, died in 1779 when Jane was 3 years old and Maria less than a year old. Their mother supplemented a meager army pension by running a boarding house. Jane and Maria’s education consisted of a few years at a charity school, but both were avid readers and precocious writers. Maria’s first collection of stories, “Artless Tales”, was published when she was 14; he did well enough to lead the sisters to hope that their literary work might support their mother while their three brothers were in apprenticeship and at school. Jane, calmer and more cautious than her vivacious and talkative sister, made up for a slower start by “creating the historical novel as we know it” in her 1803 tale of a Polish war hero who becomes a refugee in England. “What Was New About ‘Thaddeus of Warsaw,’ explains Looser, “was its mixture of climactic historical events with the conventions of biographies, romantic tales, and probable domestic romances.” Contemporary critics dubbed it “a work of genius” and it was a sensational bestseller.

Maria, who had bounced among fictional genres, followed Jane in a historical romance with ‘The Hungarian Brothers’ in 1807, and ‘The Scottish Chiefs’, Jane’s epic 1810 tale of William Wallace’s fight for independence. of Britain, cemented the sisters’ reputation as the leading historical novelists of their time. Despite fame and sales, their income rarely covered their expenses. The Porter brothers ran up debts, which their sisters often covered, and offered little financial help when their fortunes improved. Jane and Maria saved and traded their fame by making long stays in the homes of the wealthy patrons they cultivated. Looser makes good use of the letters the sisters exchanged during these times to paint a neat picture of a class-stratified society in which the social inferiors enjoying the conveniences of an aristocratic household were meant to be at the disposal of their benefactors.

Looser also draws on their correspondence to offer painstakingly detailed exegeses of Jane and Maria’s torturous relationships with a parade of men who entangled them in emotionally charged friendships that promised to blossom in love and marriage but never did. A reader’s appreciation of these passages depends on his interest in exchanges such as that of Maria with a young painter, Thomas Kearsley, she think may be interested in her, as Looser summarizes from Maria’s letter to Jane:

“So you have affection for certain people?” asked Mary.

“For many,” he said. “And I can love and endure many others.”

“Can you support us? [Maria] Kearsley pointedly asked.

Kearsley looked down for a few moments at this charged and daring question. Suddenly he stepped forward and grabbed Maria’s hand.

“Yes,” he said, his eyes burning with ardour. “I can stand you!”

And so on, for three pages. On the one hand, this scene charmingly evokes the cult of “sensitivity” that spread across Europe at the height of Romanticism. On the other hand, there are a lot of scenes like this, and it can be infuriating to see Maria and Jane pining for the men who kept them in suspense, or dithering about how they really felt about the men they ultimately rejected. A little angsty soul-searching goes a long way, and Looser could have made more selective use of the sisters’ atmospheric correspondence.

She is more compelling on the question of why these popular and influential authors are virtually unknown today. The root cause of the decline of the sisters’ literary reputation and ultimately of sales, Looser writes, was the phenomenal success of Walter Scott’s “Waverley” in 1814 and the author’s failure to recognize that the methods he employed in his historical novels were very similar. to the Porters: “Critics would increasingly claim that Waverley’s novels had elevated the genre of fiction – and historical fiction in particular – by bringing to it a new superior (masculine) excellence, while correcting the supposed (feminine) flaws ) earlier.”

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Jane in particular disliked this and in 1827 wrote a pointed short story, “Nobody’s Address”, which implicitly accused Scott of reducing his literary forerunners to dummies. By the time of her death in 1850, having outlived Maria by 18 years, Jane was reduced to living with a brother and receiving charitable grants from the government. His accomplishments deserved better recognition, and while Looser’s very detailed biography might be a bit less detailed, it pays a deserved tribute to pioneering brothers and sisters unjustly neglected by literary history.

Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theater and America, 1931-1940”.

The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, who paved the way for Austen and the Brontës

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