Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Q&A with Devoney Looser




Devoney Looser is the author of the new biography Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës. It focuses on the writers Jane and Anna Maria Porter. Looser's other books include The Making of Jane Austen. She is Regents Professor of English at Arizona State University, and she lives in Phoenix, Arizona.


Q: What inspired you to write a biography of the Porter sisters?


A: I first came across the bestselling historical novelist Jane Porter (1775-1850) when I was writing a book on women’s literary history. I devoted a chapter to Porter and learned this “other Jane” not only had a birthdate very near Jane Austen’s but also that the two women’s careers had interesting overlaps.


I discovered there was even a moment when could be mistaken for each other! A late Victorian title page for Jane Porter’s bestselling novel, The Scottish Chiefs (1810), describes her as the author of Pride and Prejudice (1813).


I knew Jane Porter also had a younger sister, a more prolific and slightly less famous novelist—Anna Maria Porter—who went by Maria (pronounced like “Mariah”).


But it wasn’t until I started reading around in Jane and Maria’s voluminous unpublished letters in the archives that I began to think I might write a book about them.


The sisters exchanged beautifully written and achingly honest letters. They were best friends who shared painful obstacles in becoming authors, but they had opposite personalities. They seemed like real-life precursors to Sense and Sensibility’s Elinor and Marianne Dashwood.


And the similarities didn’t stop there. Jane and Maria’s affairs of the heart with would-be heroes struck me as fun-house mirror versions of Austen’s plots, years before the novels were published.


I got absolutely hooked, trying to piece together the puzzles of their lives, partially confessed in these letters. I read thousands of them in the archives over the course of nearly 20 years. I truly hope readers will be as captivated by these loving, brilliant, and flawed sisters as I’ve long been.


Q: The author Lucy Worsley said of the book, “The Porter sisters have found the perfect biographer to uncover their scandalously neglected story.” Why do you think their story has been so neglected, and how well known were they during their lifetimes?


A: I love that generous quote from Lucy! The neglect of the Porters has been scandalous, but it actually took a while for them to fall out of literary history.


By the time I learned about the Porter sisters, in the late 20th century, the critical consensus was that they were only “minor” novelists who’d had a couple of lucky bestsellers. It didn’t take much digging into the evidence to conclude that was a disservice to their important innovations and once-great reputations.


The sisters were long seen as major figures in English literature, not only during their lifetimes but through much of the 19th century. They published 26 books, separately and together, and achieved global celebrity. Jane’s books sold a million copies in the US alone by the end of her life.


In the decades after their deaths, their novels were frequently republished, before being abridged and increasingly relegated to children’s literature.


Through it all, the sisters had never gotten the full-length biography they deserved. It just struck me as so unfair.


I thought someone ought to write a full account of their lives and careers. I just didn’t think, at first, that it was a book I might write. The task seemed daunting, with nearly 7,000 unpublished letters spread out across the US and UK.


But the sisters’ story is just so compelling, and their contributions to literary history so important, that I wanted to try to put an end to the neglect.


Q: The book's subtitle notes that the Porters paved the way for Jane Austen and the Brontës. How would you compare the Porters with Austen and the Brontës--both in terms of their work and their lives?


A: The Porters and Austens shared many life circumstances, which I describe in the book, but the style of their novels is quite different. The Porters wrote historical fiction, which Austen once said she couldn’t write from any other motive than to save her life.


So I don’t believe Austen took direct literary inspiration from the Porters, although she must have paid attention to how this more famous author-Jane was faring in the literary world, after daring to publish under her real name.


Austen must also have noticed that Jane Porter’s book was brought out by a publisher who went on to buy, but then didn’t print, her own first work—Crosby & Co.


We don’t know very much about what Austen thought of the Porters—little evidence survives—but the Porter sisters loved Austen’s fiction.


In the late 1820s, after Austen’s death, Jane Porter corresponded with Charles Austen, the novelist’s younger brother. The sisters wanted to meet him because they admired Miss Austen’s “now buried pen (alas that it is!),” as Maria put it.


Maria went on to write a novel that was an homage to Austen’s style in Honor O’Hara (1826), which Charles Austen read. The influence among the Porters and Austen likely went in both directions.


The Porter sisters directly paved the way for the Brontës, by giving them a successful model for how to market themselves as sibling-authors—and, once the Brontës’ androgynous pseudonyms fell away, as sister novelists.


Sometimes the Porter sisters discovered they were being lumped together by critics as one author, mistaken identities they used to their advantage when they could. The Porters also found they got more attention in the popular press when they were presented as a pair. The Porters would have been a model for the Brontës for how to charge onto the literary field more or less in tandem.


It’s also possible the Porters inspired the Brontës, even in childhood. The Porters, like the Brontës, wrote fantastical juvenilia together. Anna Maria Porter actually published hers, at age 14, in 1793. The Brontës wouldn’t publish their first works until Jane Porter’s last years of life, so it’s not clear how much Porter knew about them.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I was very fortunate to have gotten crucial fellowship support for the research and writing of this book, taking me to archives in California, Kansas, New York, as well as in the UK, in Edinburgh, Durham, London, Bristol, and Surrey.


The three most important awards, which allowed me to complete the book, were a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Award, and a Rockefeller Bellagio Fellowship.


But I had early support, too, from the three libraries with the largest collections of Porter papers—the Huntington Library, the Pforzheimer Collection, and the Spencer Library—and of course from my employers, Arizona State University and the University of Missouri-Columbia.


I owe so much to those who gave me resources, time, access, and information. In fact, I dedicated the book to “the librarians, archivists, and collectors who preserve materials that make the stories possible.” Without them, this book couldn’t have been written.


I’m a library rat, for sure, which means that researching this book always had great pleasures for me.


One of the best and most surprising parts of the research was when I was at the Surrey History Centre in Woking. Manager Julian Pooley revealed to me that a previously unknown pencil drawing of Jane Porter had been placed on deposit there, thanks to a private collector.


The first time I saw the portrait, it took my breath away. It’s a casual, almost wistful image of her, from late middle age, after her beloved sister Maria had died. I’m grateful to have been given permission to reproduce it among the illustrations in Sister Novelists.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Unsurprisingly, I’m working on short essays that elaborate on material from the book, to get the word out about Sister Novelists.


I’m also working with a team of ASU students on an edition of Anna Maria Porter’s Artless Tales II (1795-96), for the Juvenilia Press. These are fabulous stories that Maria published in her teens. We’re on track for publication in 2023.


I’m still figuring out my next steps for a long-term project. I’ll continue to work on Jane Austen, of course. I’m also writing a book on roller derby, which I know will strike people as very different from Sister Novelists!


The projects have in common a focus on shining a spotlight on history’s strong, daring women. At least that’s how I describe it for the tagline for my bimonthly free author newsletter, Counterpoise, where I hope some of you might be willing to join me to remain connected to each other ( ).


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thanks for asking! I’m putting the finishing touches on a companion website for Sister Novelists at ( ). You’ll find information there about how to order the book, of course—out Oct. 25—and some teaser content about the Porter sisters’ lives and writings.


I’ve also included a gallery of extra illustrations that aren’t otherwise found in the book’s pages. (There are 16 glorious pages of illustrations in the book; the images on the website are what I didn’t have room to include.) If you like to be able to envision 19th-century people and places as you read, you’ll want to check that out.


What I’m most proud of there is the collection of 19th- and 20th-century book covers I’ve assembled, especially of Jane Porter’s two most famous novels, Thaddeus of Warsaw and The Scottish Chiefs.


It’s intriguing to see the ways these novels were marketed. Some editions were designed for boys, featuring canoes, lassos, and American Western themes, which actually have nothing to do with the content of the novel. Other editions include cameo portraits of beautiful women. These gorgeous copies show how just popular Jane Porter remained in the late Victorian period.


If you have a collectible Porter edition that’s not in the gallery, then I hope you’ll send me a photo of it (My contact information is here: ).


To my mind, sharing our love of books of centuries past is yet another way, beyond reading Sister Novelists, that we might honor all that the Porter sisters experienced, hoped for, endured, and achieved.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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