The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës
by Devoney Looser
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Pub Date 25 Oct 2022 | Archive Date 31 Oct 2022
Bloomsbury USA, Bloomsbury Publishing
For readers of Prairie Fires and The Peabody Sisters, a fascinating, insightful biography of the most famous sister novelists before the Brontës.
Before the Brontë sisters picked up their pens, or Jane Austen's heroines Elizabeth and Jane Bennet became household names, the literary world was celebrating a different pair of sisters: Jane and Anna Maria Porter. The Porters-exact contemporaries of Jane Austen-were brilliant, attractive, self-made single women of polite reputation who between them published 26 books and achieved global fame. They socialized among the rich and famous, tried to hide their family's considerable debt, and fell dramatically in and out of love. Their moving letters to each other confess every detail. Because the celebrity sisters expected their renown to live on, they preserved their papers, and the secrets they contained, for any biographers to come.
But history hasn't been kind to the Porters. Credit for their literary invention was given to their childhood friend, Sir Walter Scott, who never publicly acknowledged the sisters' works as his inspiration. With Scott's more prolific publication and even greater fame, the Porter sisters gradually fell from the pinnacle of celebrity to eventual obscurity. Now, Professor Devoney Looser, a Guggenheim fellow in English Literature, sets out to re-introduce the world to the authors who cleared the way for Austen, Mary Shelley, and the Brontë sisters. Capturing the Porter sisters' incredible rise, from when Anna Maria published her first book at age 14 in 1793, through to Jane's fall from the pinnacle of fame in the Victorian era, and then to the auctioning off for a pittance of the family's massive archive, Sister Novelists is a groundbreaking and enthralling biography of two pioneering geniuses in historical fiction.
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Average rating from 13 members
Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës by Devoney Looser is an amazing look into an impressive pair of women who were sisters, authors, and true talents that lived before their time.
It is such a true shame that these truly talented women have been largely forgotten over time versus and amongst some of their peers that appeared on the scene chronologically around the same time/slightly afterwards during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is also equally sad that I had not heard of Jane and Anna Maria Porter until I picked up this book…and I intend on changing that asap.
The author does an amazing job with her obvious passion and research to reintroduce to the whole world this talented duo that churned out so many novels during the era of great writers (Regency England). I was able to learn all about their origins/family, their schooling and upbringing, their many travels between England, Scotland, and Ireland, and some of the breadth and depth of pool of talent that surrounded them.
I was able to find out more about their works, their accomplishments, the troubles that they experienced, and what occurred so that their legacy is minimized in the mainstream culture versus their counterparts.
I will leave the reader with a few questions unanswered to keep it fresh and interesting…like…what does Walter Scott have in connection with said writers…Thaddeus of Warsaw…The Scottish Chiefs…and how did it all end?
Thank you NG and Bloomsbury Publishing for this wonderful arc and in return I am submitting my unbiased and voluntary review and opinion.
I am posting this review to my GR and Bookbub accounts immediately and will post it to my Amazon, Instagram, and B&N accounts upon publication on 10/25/22.
Devoney Looser's Sister Novelists is an in-depth look at sisters Jane and Maria Porter, a pair of novelists I, admittedly, had not heard of prior to picking the book up. I have a pretty amateur interest in Regency era history and literature--insert necessary Bridgerton reference here--and this book was a fantastic entry point for more intermediate research. Much of the book referenced names of people, places, and media I was unfamiliar with, but Looser presents the information in such a way that is easy to follow without having to water it down. Her passion for the Porter sisters' work was evident from the first chapter, wherein she laments the fact that history has, unfortunately, seemed to forget the sisters behind.
I will say, while Looser's research was clearly extensive and fueled by a respect for the novelists, I do believe it could have been a bit more concise. At nearly 600 pages, Sister Novelists was definitely an intimidating read at first. You get a lot of backstory, however, on not just sisters Jane and Maria, but on other members of the family--namely their brother, Robert--and historical context to support readers' understanding of the times. The historical context that Looser gave was especially compelling; beyond one class on eighteenth-century novels I took in undergrad, my understanding of writing and social conventions in this time frame is pretty basic.
Despite the length, Sister Novelists is well worth the read for an aspiring novelist, history buff, English major, or otherwise interested party. Delving into the Porter's lives, through Looser's eyes, opened up conversations beyond what is going on in Jane or Maria's day-to-day life. The book made me question what it means to have a legacy to leave behind. For writers so prolific in their day, why have we not continued to read their works? Why have we kept Jane Eyre or Persuasion stocked on bookshelves, but not Thaddeus of Warsaw or The Scottish Chiefs? In two-hundred-years time, who will be the writers we remember? I can think of modern writers I think will continue to be read for years to come, but if not Jane or Maria, who is to say Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Haruki Murakami or some other big name might some day have a similar book written praising their since-forgotten talents?
Thank you to NetGalley and to the publishers for giving me the opportunity to enjoy the ARC edition of Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës. This is one I will be thinking about for a while to come. 5 stars out of 5, all the way.
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