In 2017, I wrote a blog post here on Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs (1810), in which I lamented that more is not known about Jane Porter or her relationship with Sir Walter Scott in connection to the development of the historical novel. That gap in literary history has now been filled by a monumental biography just published by Devoney Looser titled Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës. The lack of information about Jane Porter available is apparent just in the fact that I was clueless she had a sister, Anna Maria Porter, who was also a historical novelist, and though Jane’s junior by three years, was published first.
Looser’s dedication to the sisters’ memory is extraordinary given the compiling of this 500-plus-page biography that must have taken her years to research and write. Between them, the sisters published twenty-six books, the best known today being Jane’s The Scottish Chiefs and Thaddeus of Warsaw, but Jane also wrote The Spirit of the Elbe, The Pastor’s Fire-Side, and Duke Christian of Luneberg, plus many more. Anna Maria’s titles included The Lake of Killarney, The Hungarian Brothers, and Don Sebastian, to name only a few. Beyond the novels, Looser had access to countless letters by the sisters that have only come to light in recent years. The letters show the depth of their affection for each other, as well as their humor, and give deep insight into the workings of their family and how they felt the need to write to support their family when their brothers were often falling into debt.
Looser’s book needs to be read to do full justice to the sisters. I will just briefly say it is invaluable for many reasons. One of the chief is how the critics of the day responded to the sisters, often suggesting they should put down their pens. We also get insight into the workings of the literary world in the first half of the nineteenth century as the sisters made deals to sell their books, including how many copies to be printed, what they were paid, and what they received for future editions. Looser often compares what they were paid to other writers, including Austen and Scott, to put the amounts in context. In addition, the sisters wrote for magazines, and they wrote plays that sadly were mostly failures, including due to being rewritten by others.
One of the book’s real marvels is the depiction of the social circles the Porter sisters existed within. They had many connections to members of the gentry and even nobility, counting dukes as their friends and a Russian princess as their sister-in-law. They continually tried to get favors in regards to their publishing through this network, but usually with little success. American publishers made a fortune off Jane’s novels yet paid her nothing. Jane also tried to acquire a pension from the government, going so far as to write Duke Christian of Luneburg about George IV’s ancestors to get his help. Instead of receiving a long-term annual payment, she was only given a few occasional and small monetary gifts that barely sustained the family.
The sisters’ social circles included other female authors. Brother Robert Ker Porter was an artist, which opened the art world to the sisters, plus they had many friends in theatrical circles. The result is the sisters experienced more freedom in society than one would expect, given the limited social circles of the females in Jane Austen’s novels.
And then there is the sisters’ relationship with Sir Walter Scott. I had read that Scott was friends with the Porters, but Looser makes the relationship clear that they were only acquaintances in their youth, and long before Scott took up his pen. Years later when the sisters were novelists and he was a poet, they renewed their acquaintance, but they were never really more than acquaintances. In 1814, Scott published Waverley without revealing his identity, but it was generally known he was the author. In the preface, he claimed he had begun the novel a decade before, which meant he could avoid any claim of being influenced by Jane’s The Scottish Chiefs. He also cited the names of other authors, including Maria Edgeworth, who inspired him, but the Porter sisters’ names were noticeably absent. The sisters were always cordial to him, but also resented that he never acknowledged that they had been writing historical fiction before him, and he never acknowledged it, acting as if his work were original. The sisters were clearly jealous of his popularity, though they never openly accused him of plagiarizing their works or ideas, but they did want him to acknowledge their role in the development of the historical novel. The ultimate insult came when Scott died and Jane was asked to donate to the fund to help save Abbottsford because Scott’s debts were so great. Jane had known debt all her life, yet she contributed so she would not be seen as being mean for not doing so.
I do think The Scottish Chiefs a remarkable historical novel with many of the elements Scott used in his own works. (At times, it also equals or surpasses Scott in dullness, but overall, it is a masterpiece.) Of course, its style is different from Scott’s, but I don’t think anyone can deny it is a great achievement in the historical novel that predates Scott’s work. Yes, it may be more romance than historical, but it was a vast improvement on earlier historical romances like Sophia Lee’s The Recess. Whether Jane Porter or Sir Walter Scott “invented” the historical novel may be argued for generations to come, but as much as I like much of Sir Walter Scott’s work, I would give the laurels to Jane as the true originator. As for Anna Maria Porter, I have yet to read any of her work, but I am sure she deserves partial credit given how the sisters worked together in partnership, not helping to write each other’s novels, but deliberately taking turns writing novels to support the family.
While Looser’s book is a tremendous achievement and one of the best literary biographies I have read in years, it is not without a few shortcomings. Despite the copious endnotes that list her sources, there is no proper bibliography. I would have liked to see a list of all her sources, especially those by the other few Porter scholars like Thomas McLean, whom she quotes. I also feel that the descriptions of the Porter sisters’ novels could be more extensive. Looser briefly tells us what each novel is about, but she does not go into detailed plot summaries, much less real literary criticism. I can understand this minimalism with the lesser known novels, but I think Thaddeus of Warsaw and The Scottish Chiefs could have had entire chapters devoted just to analyzing the works. Looser must have wanted to focus more on the sisters and their lives than the details of their work. Notably, Looser does not give the novels much praise herself, which suggests while the sisters are fascinating, perhaps their work is less so. I hope not since I think both Thaddeus of Warsaw and The Scottish Chiefs extremely readable and interesting, with a few lapses here and there, but if they are the two that became most famous, it’s possible the others are sub-par. Only reading them will tell. Hopefully, volumes of criticism on the Porter sisters’ novels are yet to be written.
I sincerely wish Looser’s book paves the way for a renewed interest in the Porter sisters. With the exception of Jane’s two best-known works, no critical editions exist of the other novels. Most of them can be bought in poorly produced editions online at Amazon—the kind that are often reprints with small fonts and scarcely readable. Instead, scholarly editions of all their books need to be produced, as well as ebook editions that contain their complete works so readers of Looser’s fascinating biography can get to know the sisters better.
I thank Looser for her devotion to making the Porter sisters real people who live again two centuries after they created a genre that remains one of the most popular in literature today.
Addendum: After Devoney Looser read my blog, she wrote to tell me she will be posting a bibliography at her website https://www.sisternovelists.com/
Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, the upcoming Vampire Grooms and Spectre Brides: The Marriage of French and British Gothic Literature, King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and many other fiction and nonfiction titles. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.