The stories a passport tells

October 21, 2022

The coveted scholarship and endowment helped Devoney Looser put together the Porter Sisters’ literary postscript

Devoney Looser, Arizona State University English professor, literary critic and Jane Austen aficionado, takes fellow Austenites and bibliophiles into the world of another Jane — and her sister — in a revealing new biography, 20 years of preparation.

“Sister Novelists” is the story of two sisters – Jane and Maria Porter – once very popular writers of the Regency era in England – until they were no longer so and disappeared from literary history .

Looser’s biography explores the lives, loves, and letters of the Porter sisters in a tale that Looser says is as gothic and gossip-worthy as the sisters themselves.

Ahead of the biography’s October 25 release, Looser sat down with ASU News to share her journey in rediscovering the novelist sisters.

Question: Congratulations on the completion of your Porter sisters book, “Sister Novelists.” Your work on this book was made possible in part by the award of several prestigious scholarships and grants, but your interest in the Porter sisters was sparked long before your research support. What was it about these nearly forgotten literary sisters that motivated you to give their story – and their stories – a proper narrative?

Answer: In 2004, I vaguely knew Jane Porter as a once-famous, wrongly-forgotten voice and pioneer of historical fiction. I decided to add a chapter on her in my next book, “Woman Writers and Old Age in Britain, 1750-1850”. It could have gone all the way! But as I was doing research for this chapter in the archives, I started to dig into other letters from Jane to her younger sister, Anna Maria, who was called Maria (pronounced “Mariah”), and then into the letters from Maria to Jane. I was absolutely fascinated.

The letters from these sisters were so full of secret stories and gossip that I couldn’t put them down in writing. Sometimes I came across pages that said, “Burn this letter!” I felt like a fly on the wall in Regency England, as Jane and Maria described their adventures and related conversations they had or overheard, using dialogue. Their letters were a training ground for their writing of fiction, of course, but they were also incredibly fascinating! I knew the Porters were the most famous literary sisters before the Brontes and had written 26 novels, separately and together. What I didn’t know was that they had left behind over 7,000 unpublished letters. I felt called to try to shape them. Sounds a little crazy, I know! But that’s how I thought about it at the time – I felt called.

Devoney Looser

Q: Tell us a bit about your experience and the process of piecing together the Porter sisters’ story through letters. Where were these letters all along, and how did you get access to them?

A: The story of the survival of the Porters’ letters is almost its own gothic novel, which I recount briefly at the end of “Sister Novelists.” Jane, who lived longer, could not bring herself to destroy Maria’s letters. She hoped that after her death, their papers would be entrusted to a biographer friend. But after his death in 1850 no friend intervened, and a few years later Porter’s correspondence was auctioned off for a pittance in a confused mess. Eventually, a notorious hoarder of Victorian manuscripts bought them and took them away. Then his heirs spent a century trying to unload his mad collection. Porter’s papers again found themselves at auction, sold in parts from the 1950s and 1970s. By then, few had even heard of the Porters, and no objections were raised to the export of their papers in the United States.

Thousands of their letters and manuscripts ended up in the Huntington Library in California, the Pforzheimer Collection at the New York Public Library, and the Spencer Library at the University of Kansas, each of which granted me short-term scholarships. term to read their Porter articles. I found hundreds of other articles at Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Indiana, McGill, the British Library, Durham University and so on. If I had known it would take me 20 years of research, believe me, I would never have started this book. The two long-term fellowships awarded to me (Guggenheim and NEH) gave me the time needed to complete the work. This book could not have been written without the generosity and help of these agencies and libraries, and especially the librarians, archivists and collectors, to whom I dedicate this book.

RELATED: ASU English professor to probe lives of literary sisters with Guggenheim Fellowship

Q: Where does your book start in the career of the Porter sisters? What happens in the world around them when you spot their story?

A: I begin the story of the Porter sisters with their middle-class parents, who met in Durham in the mid-1700s. Their Irish father, an army surgeon, died suddenly in 1778, leaving his English widow with five children under 8 years old. The first chapters of the book describe how Mrs Porter, an uneducated single mother, fell into poverty and moved to Edinburgh. to try to do it as an owner. She miraculously found a charity school that welcomed not only her youngest son but also her two smart daughters. It was the only formal education Jane and Maria would receive, but they began to read and write together voraciously and became each other’s best friends, teachers, critics, editors, and supporters.

Anyone familiar with American or European history will recognize that it was a tumultuous time. The Porter sisters came of age during the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and what some have called “the longest revolution,” the struggle for women’s rights, as well as the early ripples of the movement to abolish the slavery and slavery. Trade.

The Porter sisters were immersed in these conflicts and changes. They were not immune to the unfair, dangerous and ugly aspects of life. Although they didn’t always make the choices we might have wished they would make now, they tried in their writing to espouse freedom and give voice to inequalities of gender, race and history. , at a time when a single woman chooses to sell her words, instead of being quietly married, was in itself a bold thing.

Book cover of the novelist sisters

Q: What did you learn about the Porter sisters through your research and what do you think readers will find fascinating about their story after reading your book?

A: I think readers will find the sisters’ stories of how their literary lives collided with their romantic lives both dramatic and moving. Jane and Maria died single – their love for each other would prove to be the most important relationship of their lives – but they also fell in love with flawed and handsome men. And when they fell in love, they told each other everything, at a time when a polite woman wasn’t supposed to show she had feelings for a man until he professed his for her.

Much of what we were told was the rules governing the behavior of educated women in those days – things we picked up from Jane Austen novels or Regency romances – that’s just not the way which the Porter sisters actually lived, day to day. That shouldn’t be a surprise, right? The ideals of model behavior and the messy choices of real life have always come into conflict.

Q: What else would you like us to know about your research, your book, and the Porter sisters?

A : When Jane Porter died, an obituary declared her one of the greatest novelists England had produced. He is credited with inventing a new species of writing, the historical novel, or what we would today call the modern historical novel. It’s breathtaking, isn’t it? Why haven’t we heard of her? One of the reasons, discussed in the biography, is that although she was, for a time, largely credited with this invention, it was ultimately entrusted to someone else: Sir Walter Scott, although he published “Waverley” (1814) a dozen years after his “Thaddée of Warsaw” (1803).

The Porter sisters were very angry about this, calling it theft and vampirism. They thought Scott was ungenerous at best in not acknowledging that Jane and Maria’s books inspired his own. They were especially angry because they had all been childhood friends. Jane then vowed to take her case to the public. She eventually did, but you’ll have to read “Sister Novelists” to find out how it turned out.

I think it’s hard for us to grasp how famous Jane Porter was, given how forgotten she is now. I would like to mention one last fascinating figure, taken from an article which appeared in an American newspaper in 1844. It reported that a publisher in New Hampshire ran five presses throughout the year, just for the works of Miss Porter, and had printed over a million volumes. . Jane Porter, aged and living in England, received none of the benefits. In fact, she was then homeless and trying to live on less than a clerk or teacher could earn, but she was still one of the most famous and best-selling authors in the world. We can never give Jane the comfortable old age she should have had, but we can give her and Maria their due in a way. We can learn more about their remarkable lives and writings and send them, along with other unjustly overlooked voices, back to literary history.

Top photo: St. Paul’s Church, Portland Square, Bristol, England, final resting place of Jane and Maria Porter. The image is included in the book “Sister Novelists” by Devoney Looser.

Suzanne Wilson

Senior Media Relations Officer, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


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