Great Britain at the 19e century was an inspirational paradise for the great novelists. The country’s rigid class system, its decadent aristocracy, its gaping extremes between rich and poor – all of this has been mined for literary gold by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope and the Brontës, writers whose books are not never run out.
Devoney Looser, a professor at Arizona State University, is a Jane Austen expert and author of several books. She thought she knew that time. Then one day, doing research at the Huntington Library in California, she came across the letters of Jane and Maria Porter, the novelist sisters of this book’s title. A new window on the era has opened up to her, and this biography of two writers of “flamboyant genius” is the result.
The Porters were enormously popular in their time, but their books have aged badly, weighed down by the baggage of 19e-congress of the century. Looser writes of a book: “The hero is too perfect and the good characters too good. The climactic events of the story are filled with impossible coincidences. All the reunions! Economic problems are swept away in one fell swoop.”
But the letters between Jane and Maria are something else – scathing and funny, observant and thoughtful, “amusing mirror versions of Austen’s famous characters and plots.” Unaware that they would one day be read by someone else, the sisters opened up to each other and shared much grief.
They “both fell in love with incredibly handsome and deeply flawed men”. They both struggled to provide for their families. They needed all of each other’s support to meet “the overwhelming challenges faced by women writers of genius in the 19th century, in public and in private”.
Their father died young and they took on the burden of supporting their mother and three inept brothers. They wrote continuously – poems, plays, essays, stories, novels. Jane, grave, earnest and beautiful, took care of the business: drafting, negotiating, reviewing the publishers’ statements.
The vivacious and entertaining Maria worked the social scene to keep them on society’s radar. Some of the most harrowing stories in “Sister Novelists” concern the literary patrons who invited the sisters to visit and then monopolized their every moment. One, called the Margravine, lectured Maria and choreographed her every move. Although Maria knew how to “bend herself to her host’s whims, errands and excursions”, her visit ended abruptly when Maria realized that her host was opening and reading her intimate letters.
The cultured begging the sisters had to do to survive begs the question of how many other female talents of this era were stifled by poverty and denigration. But Maria and Jane didn’t let resentment get them down. Their letters reveal their struggles, but they’re also a candid, mean, and sometimes hilarious chronicle of the times. Jane to Maria on a reveler: “A lady so laden with feathers, flowers, ribbons, etc. &c. that I should have expected to see her fall, were it not for the size of her buttocks. “
No dashing suitor ever saved them, and they eventually fell victim to the diseases and incompetent medicine of the time. But they were their own heroes, and how I mourned them when they were gone. Writing about the pioneering Porters, Looser writes, “I felt like I was paying a debt”. Debt repaid.
Mary Ann Gwinn is a literary critic and writer in Seattle.
Novelistic Sisters: the pioneering Porter Sisters, who paved the way for Austen and the Brontës
By: Devoney Looser.
Editor: Bloomsbury, 576 pages, $30.