Britain in the 19th century was a wonderland of inspiration for great novelists. The country's rigid class system, its decadent aristocracy, its yawning extremes between rich and poor — all of this was mined for literary gold by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope and the Brontës, writers whose books have never gone out of print.
Arizona State University professor Devoney Looser is a Jane Austen expert and author of several books. She thought she knew this era. Then one day, researching in California's Huntington Library, she happened upon the letters of Jane and Maria Porter, the sister novelists of the title of this book. A new window into the age opened to her, and this biography of two writers of "blazing genius" is the result.
The Porters were enormously popular in their day, but their books have not aged well, weighed down by the baggage of 19th-century convention. Looser writes of one book: "The hero is too perfect and the good characters too good. The story's culminating events are filled with impossible coincidence. All the reunions! Economic problems are brushed away in a stroke."
But the letters between Jane and Maria are something else — scathing and funny, observant and thoughtful, "funhouse mirror versions of Austen's famous characters and plots." Unaware that they would ever be read by anyone else, the sisters opened their hearts to one another, and what a lot of heartbreak they had to share.
They both "fell for impossibly handsome and deeply flawed men." They both struggled to provide for their family. They needed every bit of mutual support to take on "the overwhelming challenges that nineteenth-century women writers of genius faced, in public and private."
Their father died young, and they shouldered the burden of providing for their mother and three feckless brothers. They wrote continuously — poems, plays, essays, stories, novels. Jane, grave, serious and beautiful, handed the business end of things: editing, negotiating, scrutinizing publishers' statements.
Maria, vivacious and entertaining, worked the social scene to keep them on society's radar. Some of the most excruciating 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. Though Maria knew how to "go along with her host's whims, errands, and excursions," her visit ended abruptly when Maria realized her host was opening and reading her intimate letters.
The cultivated begging the sisters had to do to survive raises the question of how many other female talents of this era were snuffed out by poverty and disparagement. But Maria and Jane didn't let resentment bring them down. Their letters reveal their struggles, but they also are a candid, catty and at times hilarious chronicle of the age. Jane to Maria on one partygoer: "A lady so loaded with feathers, flowers, ribbons, &c. &c. that I should have expected to see her fall over, had it not been for the size of her bottom."
No dashing suitor ever rescued them, and they eventually fell victim to the diseases and incompetent medicine of the age. But they were their own heroes, and how I mourned them when they were gone. Writing about the trailblazing Porters, Looser writes, "felt like paying a debt." Debt repaid.
Mary Ann Gwinn is a book critic and writer in Seattle.
Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës
By: Devoney Looser.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 576 pages, $30.