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SISTER NOVELISTS by Devoney Looser Kirkus Star


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

by Devoney Looser

Pub Date: Oct. 25th, 2022
ISBN: 978-1-63557-529-3
Publisher: Bloomsbury

Buried for 200 years, the story of the indomitable Porter sisters comes to light.

Household names in their time, these forgotten Regency novelists have gained an effective champion in Jane Austen biographer and scholar Looser, who points out that Jane and Anna Maria's "real-life adventures read like funhouse-mirror versions of Austen's famous characters and plots." The author sets a tale of talent, relentless hard work, and a profound sisterly bond against grueling physical privation, financial insecurity, disappointments in love, and betrayals by family. While one sister sat scribbling at home to produce the every-other-year novels that allowed them to barely support themselves and their mother, the other would cobble together a string of houseguest opportunities with friends of the family. Their brother, Robert, was a successful historical painter and married into the Russian royal family, but he was such a spendthrift that Jane spent most of her life and much of her income dealing with his debts. Though Looser doesn’t claim that the sisters' oeuvre would interest modern readers, she argues that they pioneered the historical novel and that their achievement was pirated by their childhood friend Sir Walter Scott. Jane stewed about this for years, ultimately speaking out via a sharp parody. Anna Maria's temperament was more placid. "To be happy, not celebrated, is my aim,” she wrote to Jane, “whether I become so by making a pudding or making a Book, it is all one to me." Looser has ferreted out many wonderful lines from the vast correspondence between the sisters, which was lost to history for a century when purchased by a "literary hoard[er]" shortly after Jane's death, an act that “had the effect of shutting up the sisters' larger-than-life stories in a dusty castle, like a Gothic novel's captive heroines." From the 1950s to the ’70s, the manuscripts were exhumed, divided into lots and sold around the world. Looser puts it all together at last.

A triumph of literary detective work and storytelling, this is a must-read for the Austen and Brontë crowd.