The Costs of Women’s Writing: On Devoney Looser’s “Sister Novelists”

Thomas McLean reviews Devoney Looser’s “Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës.”

By Thomas McLeanFebruary 2, 2023

The Costs of Women’s Writing: On Devoney Looser’s “Sister Novelists”

Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës by Devoney Looser. Bloomsbury. 576 pages.

JANE PORTER (1775–1850) and her sister Anna Maria Porter (1778–1832) were the most famous 19th-century British novelists that you’ve never heard of. From 1793 to 1831, they published more than 25 titles, mostly works of fiction. Many of their historical romances went into multiple editions, and several became enormous popular favorites. When the publishers Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley produced their Standard Novels series in the 1830s, the Porters rubbed literary shoulders with James Fenimore Cooper, William Godwin, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Walter Scott, the most popular novelist of the era, had a series all to himself). Jane Porter’s fame was especially evident in the United States: the towns of Warsaw, Kentucky, and Warsaw, North Carolina take their names from her 1803 novel Thaddeus of Warsaw, and President Andrew Jackson’s favorite book was said to have been The Scottish Chiefs (1810).


Jane and Anna Maria, along with their brother Robert Ker Porter, spent most of their youth in Durham and Edinburgh. Their father, a military surgeon, died the day after Anna Maria’s baptism, and two older brothers only sporadically entered their lives — usually when they needed financial assistance. Their mother moved her three youngest children to London in 1790 so that Robert, an aspiring artist, could attend the Royal Academy. They gradually gained friends and connections in London’s literary, theatrical, and art worlds. Anna Maria was in print by her early teens, but Robert was the first sibling to experience national fame, thanks to a series of his panoramic paintings of military battles (1800–05), first shown in London’s Lyceum Theatre and then exhibited around Britain and Ireland. In the first two decades of the 19th century, the sisters surpassed Robert’s success with a run of fictional works that introduced many of the generic elements of the historical novel that we know today. The Porter sisters became literary celebrities, but their finances were always uncertain. While Robert traveled the world, from Russia and Persia to South America, the sisters wrote books, cared for their mother, transcribed their brother’s travelogues, and bargained for the best deals with publishers.


Despite their contemporary fame, the Porters never received a book-length biography before Devoney Looser’s Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës (2022). This fact in itself makes Looser’s book a necessary and important publication. But the wealth of new information presented in Sister Novelists, most of it drawn from unpublished Porter diaries and letters, means that every student of 19th-century literature can benefit from this work. For anyone interested in the challenges facing British women writers in the era of Jane Austen, Sister Novelists is essential reading.


Looser, a professor of English at Arizona State University, has published on a wide variety of women writers from the 18th and early 19th centuries. She is one of her generation’s leading writers on Jane Austen. The Porters, though exact contemporaries of Austen, present very different scholarly challenges. Most new biographies of historical figures build on at least two or three, and sometimes dozens, of previous studies. At the very least, there will be a posthumous “Life and Letters” volume assembled by an admirer or descendant that gathers key biographical episodes and documents. But neither Jane nor Anna Maria Porter ever received such a volume. Shorter biographical essays offer scant information about the sisters’ lives, and only a few engage in detail with the Porters’ writings.


A further dilemma faces the would-be biographer. In the case of Austen, only some 160 letters survive, so the challenge is finding something new to say. When it comes to the Porter family, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Thousands of unpublished letters and documents survive, housed in dozens of archives around the globe, from Scotland to New Zealand. And while Austen’s handwriting is, with a little practice, quite readable, the vagaries of Jane Porter’s penmanship often stump scholars. Meanwhile, the handwriting of both her brother and sister is atrocious. I’ve published a few articles on the Porters, and my eyesight is permanently the worse for it.


Given these challenges, it’s a wonder that anyone has been willing or able to sort out the complicated familial relationships, the secret and sometimes unrequited romances, and the previously unidentified publications that fill the Porter sisters’ lives. Looser has been grappling with these issues for close to two decades, and her biography is the impressive summation of that work.


Looser’s narrative approach to biography is a hybrid of accessible prose and meticulous research, providing an intriguing model for popular literary scholarship. Individual chapters have a completeness in themselves, almost as if they were intended to stand alone. Each tells a story: of an important relationship, of an individual journey. Occasionally, a chapter reaches forward into the future, to explain what happened to a figure or a family that will not return to the narrative. As a result, the volume sometimes feels like a collection of linked short stories rather than a single narrative. From a scholarly perspective, it is no exaggeration to say that every chapter offers new information about the Porters and their circle.


As one might expect, Sister Novelists is peppered with celebrity sightings: Walter Scott was a childhood acquaintance and, later, a supposed rival; J. M. W. Turner attended the Royal Academy with Robert; and Lord Byron is admired at a society gathering. Robert’s travels brought his sisters within a degree of separation of Tsar Alexander and Simón Bolívar. The celebrated actor Edmund Kean plays a larger role in their story, destroying Jane Porter’s playwriting career, as Looser outlines in fascinating detail. But the Porter circle included many figures who were famous in their time but are little-known today. As a result, Looser must introduce her readers to a very large cast of mostly unfamiliar players. She does this well, and it will be interesting to see if Sister Novelists inspires new research on (say) the eccentric abolitionist Percival Stockdale, the poet and historian Elizabeth Benger, or the moody artist Thomas Kearsley.


Most importantly, Looser captures the extraordinary difficulties faced by women writers in the early 19th century. At a dinner party, Jane almost breaks down when she hears of the death of her friend Mary Robinson, the controversial actress and poet, and then is forced to publicly deny knowing her for reasons of propriety. The story of Jane’s captivity in Northern England at the hands of Stockdale, and her attempted rescue by an emotionally confused Anglican minister, could have come straight out of a gothic novel. The sisters composed (without credit) the detailed pamphlets that accompanied their brother’s panoramic battle paintings, and they had to use their pens, connections, and earnings on numerous occasions to rescue his often precarious career as an artist, writer, and diplomat.


Other episodes suggest that the strong-willed sisters could be their own worst enemies. Anna Maria spent three years in an epistolary romance with a young soldier posted to Jamaica — even though she had never actually spoken to him. Not surprisingly, their eventual meeting makes for hard reading. Jane remained loyal to the amateur actor Henry Caulfield, supporting him through a suit for “criminal conversation” (i.e., adultery), secretly meeting him outside debtors’ prison, and nursing him on his deathbed.


And then there’s Robert’s marriage to a spoiled Russian princess, whose fleeting wealth is built on owning serfs (Looser is especially attentive to the Porters’ recurring dependence on individuals whose affluence comes from enslaved people), and who leaves a trail of unpaid bills that the sisters must settle up. Suddenly, the surprising plot turns and coincidences of the Porters’ novels seem far less remarkable; it is little wonder such ideas came to their minds when equally extraordinary events were happening to and around them.


One wishes that the images, gathered at the center of the book, had been dispersed throughout, but in every other way Sister Novelists is handsomely and generously presented. Nonspecialists might be annoyed to find 90 pages of footnotes at the back of the biography, but this level of bibliographical responsibility is necessary, given the nature of the book. On occasion, I felt an unsourced statement or paragraph deserved a footnote, but not very often, reminding me of the formidable task Looser had undertaken.


Will Sister Novelists inspire a rediscovery of the Porters’ writings? Thaddeus of Warsaw deserves a place among the best novels of the Romantic era (as co-editor of a contemporary edition, I guess I would say that), and its narrative of a Polish war refugee in London has gained new resonance in our own era. Looser calls The Scottish Chiefs Jane Porter’s fictional masterpiece, and it has always had its admirers. Anna Maria may have peaked with her final novels, Honor O’Hara (1826) and The Barony (1830), even though they appeared at a time when the Porters’ style of writing was out of fashion. In reality, though, many of their four- or five-decker novels could lose a volume and be far more enjoyable. But publishers paid by the volume, and the sisters couldn’t afford not to pad their stories.


As Looser suggests, the Porters’ greatest contribution to 19th-century letters might be their own correspondence. Looser quotes extensively from these letters, and their effect builds as the biography proceeds to a poignant conclusion and a rather surreal epilogue. Sister Novelists shows not only how difficult it was for Romantic-era women to make a living in the arts but also the remarkable privilege and entitlement of the men around those women. It’s one thing for someone living today to argue that this was the case; it’s another to have the sexist realities of 19th-century literary culture recorded by women whose reputations have been obscured for so long because of it.


¤


Thomas McLean is an associate professor in English at the University of Otago in New Zealand, author of The Other East and Nineteenth-Century British Literature: Imagining Poland and the Russian Empire (Palgrave, 2012), and co-editor, with Ruth Knezevich, of Jane Porter’s 1803 novel Thaddeus of Warsaw (Edinburgh, 2019). He has written on art, literature, and migration for The Conversation UK and the New Zealand monthly North & South.

LARB Contributor






Thomas McLean is an Associate Professor in English at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He is the author of The Other East and Nineteenth-Century British Literature: Imagining Poland and the Russian Empire (Palgrave, 2012) and co-editor with Ruth Knezevich of Jane Porter’s 1803 novel Thaddeus of Warsaw (Edinburgh, 2019). He has written on art, literature, and migration for The Migrationist and The Conversation UK.




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