Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës by Devoney Looser - review by Norma Clarke

Norma Clarke

Sense & Insolvency

Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës

By

Bloomsbury 576pp $30
 

The Porter sisters, Jane (1775–1850) and Anna Maria (1778–1832), pioneered the historical novel that Walter Scott was later credited with inventing. Their innovative fictions combined historical figures with invented characters and imagined events. Jane’s four-volume Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803) was a literary phenomenon and her five-volume The Scottish Chiefs (1810) was said to be Queen Victoria’s favourite book. Between them the sisters published some twenty-six books and were ‘celebrity authoresses’, hailed as literary wonders in Regency London. By 1820 they were more famous than Jane Austen, yet there has been, until now, no book about them.

The material has not been lacking. There is a cache of Porter papers at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, and more elsewhere. The sisters wrote at a time when many other women, whose lives have been written about, pursued professional careers as authors: Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, Felicia Hemans and Maria Edgeworth, to name but a few who supported themselves and their families and dealt with publishing companies and the press. They lived through years of war and revolution that have been heavily researched. Scholarship illuminating the period is abundant, but Devoney Looser, an Austen specialist, has chosen not to make as much use of it as might be expected.

Looser took the decision to ‘center the sisters’ own voices’, by which she seems to mean she intends to tell as much of the Porter sisters’ story as possible from surviving correspondence. This was a mistake. It means we are treated to tedious paraphrases of matters that occupied

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