Devoney Looser is Regents Professor of English at Arizona State University and the author or editor of 10 books on literature by women, including The Making of Jane Austen. Her most recent book, Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022), is partly based on research she conducted at The Huntington on the British novelist Jane Porter (1775–1850) and sister and fellow novelist Anna Maria Porter (1778–1832).
During their lifetimes, the Porter sisters, separately and together, published 26 books, including groundbreaking historical novels that were bestsellers in their day. Looser’s joint biography of the sisters explores the social position of women writers in 19th-century Britain and examines the Porters’ posthumous reputation.
The Huntington’s Jane Porter Papers document her literary output, including drafts of works and correspondence. It features family correspondence that describes life among the gentry and literary figures during the Regency and early Victorian eras, illuminating the social customs and traditional roles of women. The letters also reflect the family’s dire financial straits and the struggles they endured to maintain their expected and desired place in society. The following excerpt comes from Looser’s prologue to Sister Novelists.
I was sitting in the reading room at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, during the summer of 2004. Any scholar fortunate enough to have worked at its pristine desks knows it’s a beautifully silent place, save for the low-grade clacking of fingers on keyboards and the occasional clearing of a throat. In front of me there was a folder—number 839 out of 2,662—from the Jane Porter Papers. It contained a long letter written in a sharp, half-curvy hand, dated July 15, 1820. It began, “Dearest Jane!” and was signed, “your Maria.”
As I read, I found myself needing to stifle laughter. The letter’s pages were filled with delightfully snarky gossip. One sister was writing to another about how she’d “escaped alive” from a boring, gluttonous dinner party hosted by neighbors. So much food was served that, as Maria put it, “I was literally crammed with as many different things as there were animals in the ark.” Maria decided to approach the meal like a soldier heading into battle, circumventing the meat in favor of a sophisticated attack on fine fruit.
The other guests were described with unsparing mockery. One man, she joked, must have fallen “desperately in love with me, as he sat gazing either with horror or admiration at me all the time he was playing whist.” Another man, choosing conversation over card games, “went off like an alarum at particular words.” The scene was ridiculous. Maria confessed, “I longed for Miss Austin’s now buried pen (alas that it is!) to have immortalized the whole company.”
What struck me as I read Maria’s words was that this letter could go head-to-head with any of the 160 or thereabouts that survive from Jane Austen. The sarcasm was dripping, the comic timing was impeccable, and the implicit social criticism was pointed. With a light touch, Maria deftly eviscerated the meal, the silly human-alarm man, and the inscrutably staring boor. No doubt he was gawking at her because she was a “celebrity authoress,” as women writers were called. At the time, Maria Porter was far more famous than Miss Austen, who’d died just three years before and wasn’t yet a household name.
I was savoring every detail in Maria’s letter when I was jolted back to the present. The walkie-talkie on the desk in front of me buzzed. For a split second, I couldn’t remember what year it was. Okay, I couldn’t remember what century it was. This kind of cognitive lapse may be hard to imagine for some, but for those of us who spend countless hours in libraries reading unpublished letters by long-dead people, our work is a time-traveling excavation of lost stories. It sometimes proves difficult to dig yourself out.
The walkie-talkie’s buzzing required my attention. It was a signal from my husband, asking me to meet him outside the library because our infant son was crying from hunger. The buzz was noisy proof that I lived in the twenty-first century, that it was time to nurse our baby, and that the labor of a man was making possible my archival work on the history of nineteenth-century women. I could imagine what some of the writers I study might have had to say about my priorities and this unusual role reversal.
To women writers then, including the sisters whose vast correspondence I was reading, how wondrously jumbled, and impossible to pull off, would my identities as scholar, professor, writer, wife, and mother likely have seemed. The risks that Jane and Maria Porter took to publish—obstacles faced, criticisms endured—had absolutely paved the way for me and other scholars to recover their life stories. Reading their correspondence sometimes felt like voyeurism. It also felt like repaying a debt.
I began to mention these brilliant literary sisters to anyone who’d listen. Few had heard of them. It sounds clichéd, but I felt called to scour the Porter family’s thousands of letters gathering proverbial dust on shelves. I got grants to travel to dozens of libraries. When I began to read from the sisters’ remarkable output of twenty-six books, I was upset to learn how they’d lost the credit they’d been given, and deserved, for creating the historical novel as we know it. 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?
In the months after that walkie-talkie moment in 2004, I got pregnant again, and our second child was born. We’ve now raised out two Gen Z sons almost to adulthood. But rarely has a day gone by during those chaotic years of childrearing when I haven’t thought about the Porter sisters. It felt so unfair that the sisters never had the benefit of a full biography, while hundreds of books on Austen and the Brontës—many with little new information to recommend them—churn from presses. I decided to do something about it.
A biography of the Porter sisters could be written as a surface-level tale, recording an impressive litany of their once-heralded literary achievements. The sisters published innovative novels that many nineteenth-century readers worshipped, although skeptics criticized these books as outlandish and improbable tales. But the fact is that the Porter sisters’ lives, beneath the surface, were often outlandish and improbable. Their real-life adventures often read like funhouse-mirror versions of Austen’s famous characters and plots.
For the Porter sisters, there were few conventional happily-ever-afters. As they supported their widowed mother and three chronically disappointing brothers, the sisters fell hard for impossibly handsome and deeply flawed men. Nearly every major decision Jane and Maria made in the hopes it would bring them requited love, or domestic comfort, did exactly the opposite. During the writing of this book, I had moments when I wished I could shake these brilliant sisters by the shoulders and ask, “What are you doing?”
But as I grasped the complex contours of their overtly polite but covertly audacious lives, I saw the Porter sisters as learned women whose judgment understandably ricocheted between wise and naïve. I made the decision to center the sisters’ own voices in this first telling of their stories, both to honor their significant achievements and to showcase their personal strengths and faults. This centering also reflects the imaginative-meets-real world the sisters had built around themselves and inhabited together since childhood—a world that propelled them to create great historical fiction. The Misses Porter were single women without fortunes whose dreams and schemes helped and hampered them by turns. They made their way together in settings where they were never meant to compete, much less to triumph.
In the following pages, I’ve used the sisters’ private correspondence and other sources to piece together the true stories of their daily dramas as they unfolded. Jane and Maria often exchanged letters with long sections of reported dialogue, as if their lives were the stuff of plays or novels. They were so closely connected that they wrote each other long letters even when they were separated for a day or two or even if that separation was by just a few miles (as was often the case), as one sister accepted an invitation to stay overnight with nearby and more well-off friends, while the other stayed home in cramped circumstances with their widowed mother.
From the conversations recorded in these manuscripts, I’ve reconstructed their stories of experiencing authorship and fame, as well as hidden and forbidden love. But what I hope this biography shows is that it was the sisters’ unshakeable love for each other that proved their most significant, enduring relationship. It provided their alternative happy ending, as each one encouraged the other to keep writing, book after stunning book.
Jane and Maria deserve to be put prominently back into our literary histories for their central roles in creating historical fiction. But they may be even more important to posterity for their stunning unpublished letters, which reveal not only their genius as writers but the overwhelming challenges that nineteenth-century women writers of genius faced, in public and private. Jane Austen’s life remains a myth-laden mystery because most of her correspondence was apparently destroyed by her family in the years after her death in 1817. But the Porter sisters lovingly preserved their letters. In them, these long-forgotten sister novelists not only immortalized each other. They immortalized the whole company they kept, in the dazzling, perilous era during which they shined so brightly.
Miss Jane Porter and Miss Anna Maria Porter were the most famous sister novelists before the Brontës. People went to great lengths to see these female curiosities, who were hailed as literary wonders by Regency London. The sisters were known to be beauties; they’d sat as models for famous painters. They traveled in the same circles as celebrity actors, poets, activists, publishers, and politicians. They hobnobbed with nobles and royalty. A marquess, it was said, once paid to get a glimpse of them.
But not everyone approved. At the beginning of their careers, anonymous reviewers repeatedly told the ambitious sisters they should give up on novel-writing—and on having ambitions. Yet most readers ended up in awe of their literary powers. Their dozens of heartrending, uplifting novels of love and war were seen as so true to life that it seemed impossible the sisters hadn’t been on battlefields themselves.
The Misses Porter gained global fame, with Jane the more famous and Maria (as she was called) the more prolific sister. Jane’s bestselling historical novel The Scottish Chiefs (1810) was said to be Queen Victoria’s favorite book. Across the Atlantic, it was President Andrew Jackson’s favorite. Novelist William Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair, remembered The Scottish Chiefs as the first novel he’d read as a boy. He’d so cherished it that he couldn’t “read to the end ... of that dear delightful book for crying,” because finishing it would have been “as sad as going back to school.” Jane’s earlier novel of war-torn Poland, Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803), was also a literary phenomenon. Emily Dickinson’s well-worn copies of Jane’s two bestselling novels have dozens of folded-over page corners, showing intense engagement with the books. Fans told Jane they stayed up all night reading Thaddeus of Warsaw, losing themselves in its pages. Her signature books about history’s underdog war heroes in nations fighting off tyrants were considered politically dangerous enough to be banned by Napoleon.
Until the end of her life, Jane’s novels were widely read, rarely out of print, and translated into many languages. After she died, her works lived on, although they were shortened, and then relegated to children’s literature. The Scottish Chiefs was abridged with illustrations by N. C. Wyeth in the 1920s. In the 1950s, it was featured as a Classics Illustrated comic book. Later still, Jane’s novel served as the probable, though uncredited, source text for Mel Gibson’s Academy Award–winning film Braveheart (1995). But by then, the name of Jane Porter was best known as Tarzan’s wife, and the original Jane Porter’s less celebrated sister, Anna Maria Porter, was no more than a footnote.
To read more, you can order Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës from the Huntington Store.
Devoney Looser is Regents Professor of English at Arizona State University and the author or editor of 10 books on literature by women, including The Making of Jane Austen. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, Salon, the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Post, and Entertainment Weekly, and she has talked about Jane Austen on CNN. She has played roller derby as Stone Cold Jane Austen and is a Guggenheim Fellow and a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar.