Novelists, Interrupted

Revisiting the lives and letters of Jane and Anna Maria Porter, Nineteenth-century literary sensations. By Charles E. Reineke

As she neared the end of her long life, Jane Porter, the prolific novelist who, along with her younger sister Anna Maria, had helped invent the historical fiction genre, saw her once-unrivaled popularity hit rock bottom. It has never recovered.

In better times, Jane and her sister had been household names, the toast of Regency-era England. Their “biographical romances,” densely plotted fictional accounts of heroic men and virtuous women, were eagerly embraced by a reading public primed to pay for uplifting adventure tales. The Porters were bright, pretty and in demand; their literary success allowed them to transcend their lower-middle-class roots to move easily among England’s smart set, fussed over and feted by the soldiers, statesmen and artists who were busily transforming Britain into the most powerful nation on earth.

But by the time they reached their mid-40s, the party was over. Britain’s arbiters of taste had moved on to celebrate new practitioners of historical fiction, most notably—and maddeningly for the Porters—the sisters’ childhood acquaintance Walter Scott. Sales of new work stalled, bills piled up, and the Porters found themselves under intense pressure to publish and promote still more new novels. As volume increased, quality suffered, and sales slumped further. A brother’s storybook marriage to a Russian princess only worsened the Porters’ financial situation, as the princess overspent her dwindling fortune.

Anna Maria died of typhoid fever in 1832. Jane soldiered on until her own death in 1850, age 74, struggling to the end to achieve the financial recompense and critical recognition she craved. A handful of the Porters’ early novels remained in print and continued to sell. But as the years rolled on, the sisters gradually faded from public memory.

Eventually, Jane and Anna Maria’s literary legacy was reduced to snide asides. The author of the 1907 edition of the Cambridge History of English and American Literature, for example, wrote that readers were highly unlikely to chance upon one of Anna Maria’s books. If one did, he continued, “neither such chance contact nor deliberate research will discover much in any of her books but amiable incompetence.” Jane Porter’s novels received a similarly patronizing dismissal: The books, the author wrote, contain “adventure only exciting to the rawest palate, and a general diffusion of silliness... Only to a taste so crude as their own can they give any direct pleasure now; but, to the student, they may still be of some interest as an example of the days of ignorance of the historical novel.”

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Listen to Devoney Looser read a selection from The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter

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Devoney Looser is a professor of English at MU and one of the nation’s most respected scholars of British literature and women’s writings. She sighs audibly when reminded of this harsh judgment of the Porters’ literary legacy. “Yes,” she says. “I’ve read these things.”

Looser is working on a biography that she hopes will restore the Porters, “two talented and unjustly forgotten writers,” to their rightful place in literary history. Her book-in-progress, tentatively titled Sister Novelists, will likely be completed in the fall of 2011, slightly more than 200 years after the publication of Scottish Chiefs, Jane Porter’s biggest best seller.

“The Porters,” Looser wrote in a prospectus for the National Endowment for the Humanities, “deserve to be brought back into our literary histories and to the historical record. Their lifetime impact and posthumous legacies (at least into the 1890s) suggest the need for a series of literary and biographical studies, much less a first one.” Reviewers at the NEH agreed, awarding Looser one of several fellowships she’s received in support of the new book.

Working Women

Looser grew up in Minnesota, the daughter of an insurance-underwriter father and a mother who worked in a hospital kitchen. On her mother’s side, Looser was the most recent of four generations of hardworking eldest daughters—a matrilineal pedigree that Looser says sparked her interest in the lives and labor of working women, especially those whose contributions have been pushed to history’s margins.

“Four generations of women in my family worked as laundresses and house cleaners—three generations of them for the same wealthy St. Paul steel magnate’s family,” Looser says. “When I was young, I saw my grandmother working for hours on end at her mangle. I knew how hard she worked.”

“My maternal grandmother’s stories, in particular, really shaped my sense of the world,” she continues. “My grandmother told of sharing a makeshift bed on an outdoor porch with one of her sisters. At night, her mother would pass the two girls out of the window onto the porch, along with some mason jars with hot water in them to keep their feet warm. The girls slept on this porch through Minnesota winters, which still just amazes me.”

Having a less difficult life meant succeeding at a different kind of labor, Looser recalls her mom telling her. “If I wanted a more comfortable life, if I wanted to support myself with work that allowed me to use my brain—not wear out my hands cleaning or washing for very little pay or depend on a man who might or might not turn out to be dependable—then pursuing an education was the best way to work toward that possible future.”

She took the advice to heart. Looser excelled in high school, earning a scholarship to Augsburg College, a small but prestigious liberal arts college in Minneapolis. She graduated four years later, summa cum laude with English honors, the first of her extended family to receive a college degree.

While at Augsburg, like countless thousands of smart young women before her, Looser was attracted to the writings of Jane Austen. She enrolled in the doctoral program at the State University of New York-Stony Brook fully intending to pursue a career in Austen studies. Cliff Siskin, her dissertation advisor, didn’t exactly discourage her, but suggested that women’s literature of the period extended beyond the friendly confines of Mansfield Park.

Siskin, now a professor of English at New York University, was one of a handful of scholars who focused academic interest on what some call the “great forgetting,” a phrase meant to call attention to the removal from the literary canon of early women novelists not named Brontë or Austen.

“What was happening, starting in the 1980s with scholars like [Janet] Todd and others, was the beginning of the recovery of women writers,” Siskin says, a process that began with a realization that many now-forgotten women writers were, in fact, key players in the literary scene of the time.

“In the long 18th century that we study,” he says, “women writers were very important: important in terms of their popularity and circulation, important in terms of the critical discussions of the time. It wasn’t really going back and finding writers who were obscure back then, and then became more obscure. It was a process of recovering women who played a major role in the literary scene at various times during the century, but for various reasons were not amplified in the way that male writers were.”

The period straddling the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the 19th centuries—a tumultuous period known as the Romantic era—is a case in point, Siskin says. For decades, scholars who focused on Romanticism tended to concern themselves with the male-only “big six:” Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. “Some of these writers, like Shelley for example, sold an incredibly small number of poetry volumes while they were alive. At the same time, there were these women writers who played major roles in the conversation at the time, whose works were bought and sold and talked about in very important ways. These writers represent a tremendous opportunity to rethink all of literary history.”

Siskin says Looser distinguished herself in this project of “rethinking” right away. “She has a very agile mind,” Siskin says. “She had a clear command of the kind of theoretical work that many of us were engaged in, but also was incredibly good at research.”

Precarious Path to Success

Looser’s first foray into the Porters’ lives began with the second of two books she published with Johns Hopkins University Press. The book, Women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750-1850, included a poignantly detailed account of Jane Porter’s increasingly fraught attempt to maintain even a modest middle-class lifestyle.

Making a living as a novelist has never been easy, and in the Romantic era the odds were particularly long. Being female didn’t help. Though women like the Porters had helped establish the novel as England’s dominant form of literary expression, their contributions were consistently undervalued.

Photo of Devoney Looser

Reputation Rebuilder Devoney Looser is intent on bringing Anna Maria and Jane Porter, “two talented and unjustly forgotten writers,” back to their rightful place in literary history.

In a letter to her friend Elizabeth Dillon around 1824, a middle-aged Anna Maria Porter captured the world-weary tone of a cash-poor writer who—chiefly because of her gender—has suffered enough personal and professional disappointment to counsel against a younger woman following in her footsteps.

“From the first time I published, money was my object—support for myself and others dearer to me than self,” Anna Maria wrote. “Fame certainly had its graces in my young eyes for the first few years—but I soon learned that a woman’s public fame is the death blow to her private happiness.”

The reason, she continues, is that men are by nature ill suited to partnering with “public” women. Even the very best males, she says, have a genuinely difficult time imagining themselves living with a wife whose work involves the glare of publicity. Less admirable males, she adds, are simply threatened by the idea of female success. “Inferior men dislike it, because wishing to keep women subservient... they look upon any approbation of [women’s] talents as putting arms into the hands of a slave.”

The passage, says Looser, gets to the heart of the Porters’ central predicament: in their day a woman’s success was typically defined as making a good marriage, not a good book. That women like the Porters continued to write anyway speaks volumes about their dedication and courage. The written legacy of the Porters’ struggles, both published and unpublished, also provides invaluable insights into how two high-profile women navigated the eddies and shoals of personal and professional life in what Looser describes as “the tumultuous Romantic, Regency, and Victorian eras.”

“Their letters in particular have the kind of humor and wit and pathos that their novels only show glimpses of,” Looser says. “So for me, the letters and their descriptions of the Porters’ lives and struggles are just as important—and, because of the depth of the manuscripts they left behind, in some ways more important—than recovering the fiction.”

Important, but not easy. Already, Looser says, the project has consumed hundreds of hours of painstaking archival research; time spent pouring over Porter-related documents in collections spread across the U.S. and Britain.

Conveniently for Looser, the mother of two young sons, a large portion of these materials are housed here in the United States, most notably at the New York Public Library, the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., and, closer to home, the Spencer Library at the University of Kansas.

Looser has been at MU since 2002. She is married to George Justice, a scholar recently named vice provost for advanced studies and dean of the MU Graduate School. Justice is an associate professor of English and fellow Jane Austen aficionado. Their sons, Carl, age 6, and Lowell, 4, are already old hands at the research enterprise, Looser says, and have unwittingly shared an intimate bond with Jane and Anna Maria Porter.

“I was fortunate enough that I had family who could travel with me to archives when my kids were infants. My husband or my parents would take care of each baby while I was working; inside the library I’d be immersed in 1810, then come out every couple of hours to breastfeed my son.”

Romantic Intrigue

The porters’ busy lives didn’t include children. Nor did either Jane or Anna Maria marry, a circumstance with consequences for today’s researchers. Because only their youngest brother Robert left an heir—a daughter in far-away Russia—a huge trove of Porter papers entered the public domain, via auction in London, soon after Jane’s death in 1850.

Few potential buyers were terribly concerned about preserving the Porters’ literary legacy, Looser says. But there was plenty of interest in the sale. Jane and Anna Maria were the guardians of many secrets, and scores of prominent British subjects worried the Porter papers might prove more than a little bit embarrassing.

They had reason to be anxious: while in their prime, the sisters led lives of “all-night masquerade parties, artful flirting, proposals of marriage, secret correspondence, social machinations, and unrequited love in ways usually associated with the fiction of the time,” Looser has written. For particularly sensitive topics, she says, there is even evidence that the sisters used lemon juice to compose “invisible ink” letters to one another.

“I’ve talked with the librarians at the Huntington to determine whether we could find out if letters that look like they have a blank page might actually have secret lemon-juice messages embedded in them,” Looser says. “What they came up with was that they’d need a heat source to reveal any writing, something that would likely damage the letters.”

A shame. But plenty of interesting tidbits are extant. Accounts of Anna Maria’s exploits, for example, frequently border on the infamous—at least by early 19th-century standards. Looser describes Anna Maria as “a dynamic and passionate woman, whose scrapes and romantic intrigues seem uncannily similar to those of a novel’s heroine.” In other words, prone to the sort of behavior that today might land her on TMZ.

These included getting booted off an aristocrat’s estate after becoming too “close” to the wealthy youngest son who often resided there. “Prior to this relationship,” Looser writes, “Anna Maria risked her reputation when she initiated a secret correspondence with a man whom she had fallen in love with at first sight and to whom she was not engaged.”

Jane was more demure, but had her own life-long secret love interest (unrequited) in Sir William Sidney Smith, a swashbuckling, bed-hopping, debt-saddled hero of the Napoleonic Wars.

Looser says not all of the papers are so titillating, though they have validated her view that the young Porters were no prudes. Jane and Anna Maria were acquainted with numerous famous and infamous figures, among them the Kemble acting family and Mary “Perdita” Robinson, Britain’s most celebrated, and notorious, courtesan. Looser has also determined that both Jane and Anna Maria admired the revolutionary feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.

Still, Looser says, the sheer volume of the Porter papers means unearthing the juicy bits is anything but glamorous.

“Sometimes they are just sitting unsorted in big file boxes,” Looser says of the materials. “At Kansas, where they have untold thousands of Porter-related things, each individual item is in a separate file folder, and they allow you to look at one folder at a time. So I’m constantly going up to the front desk, taking a folder back to my table, then back up to the desk. All this for a scrap that could be one or two lines long.”

Between them, the Porter sisters published 26 novels, a handful of plays, and numerous works of non-fiction. They founded a literary journal, albeit anonymously. They kept detailed diaries, some of which survive. And they wrote letters, thousands of letters.

“It’s an embarrassment of riches,” Looser says. With somebody like Jane Austen, if you find one tidbit about her that’s new it’s practically on the front page of The New York Times. With the Porters, there is just so much that they have written to each other that no one has looked at. It’s not like looking for a needle in a haystack. It’s like facing the haystack itself.”

Unfortunately for the sisters, their prodigious output did not lead to prodigious profits. The Porters usually agreed to take a single lump sum payment for the rights to their work. If the book bombed, the publisher took a bath. If it sold well, subsequent profits belonged to the publisher.

“There was a time when I had no occasion to apologize for a dull letter,” wrote Anna Maria to a friend in the 1820s. “But now—I am one of the Has beens; that numerous and doleful family!”

The lack of a system of royalties—cash paid to authors based on total sales—meant even runaway bestsellers rarely resulted in riches for writers. At best it made it possible to negotiate for a larger payment for the next manuscript.

Anna Maria’s books made an early splash—she began publishing at age 13—but were soon eclipsed by those of her older sister. Two of Jane’s novels became bona fide hits: Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803), the tale of one man’s failed struggle to preserve the independence of Poland and his new life in England; and The Scottish Chiefs (1810), a stirring adventure based on the life of the doomed Scottish patriot William Wallace.

Both novels continued to be published throughout the nineteenth century. Later work, most notably The Pastor’s Fire-side (1817), also attracted readers. But none of these novels would assure Jane and Anna Maria the income they needed to support themselves and their widowed mother. Nor could their three brothers be counted upon to contribute to the family finances. So the sisters continued to write, piling up the pages, increasingly with an eye solely on the bottom line.

One such project-for-pay, a novel called Duke Christian of Luneburg(1824), would come to haunt Jane’s literary legacy.

The book, commissioned by one of King George IV’s sycophantic courtiers, was meant to be a flattering dramatization of the lives and adventures of the monarch’s illustrious ancestors. Porter appeared to genuinely hope the novel might find an audience. But, failing that, she supposed a grateful sovereign might at least reward her with a royal pension.

The plan didn’t go well. The resulting novel drew mostly yawns from the public and, eventually, reputation-killing sneers from the chattering classes. Most damning was the revelation many years later that another Jane—Jane Austen—had previously rejected a similar deal as an affront to her literary independence. (“I must keep to my own style & go on in my own Way,” Austen famously wrote.)

Porter’s book did, apparently, make the king happy. But, sadly, not so happy that he actually granted her a pension. Nor did the book inspire him to intervene, as Porter had hoped, on behalf of her much-loved brother, Robert Ker Porter, a cash-strapped but famous artist in his own right. Robert ended up representing the crown’s interests in Venezuela, a post that carried some prestige but little pay. This was a problem because Robert, at least in part, had sought the foreign service job to avoid creditors who thought he might be more properly posted to a debtors’ prison.

After the failure of Duke Christian, the sisters published several more novels jointly. They took small commissions for short stories, reviews and other non-fiction pieces. But the trajectory of their careers was pointing downward, a fact even the previously indefatigable novelists were forced to confront.

“There was a time when I had no occasion to apologize for a dull letter,” wrote Anna Maria to a friend in the 1820s. “But now—I am one of the Has beens; that numerous and doleful family!”

Discounted and Ignored

This is not to suggest the Porter sisters went gently into that good night of “has been” status. They continued to argue, albeit with a proper sense of decorum, that their work deserved greater acclaim.

Why, they wondered, should they be ignored while Walter Scott, the still publicly unacknowledged author of Waverley, was universally praised? Scott’s work, they both agreed, would not have been possible without their own. That they had known him as children in Edinburgh added insult to injury.

“He evidently uses our novels as a sort of store house, from which... he draws unobserved whatever odd bit of furniture strikes his fancy for his own pompous edifice.” Anna Maria wrote to Jane circa 1819. “I do not say he steals the thing itself, but the idea & fashion of it; and if he had the honesty to shew that he thought well of our writings, by a word or two of such commendation as he liberally gives to works that have no resemblance to his own, I should say the conduct was fair and allowable.”

For Looser, such comments speak more to the Porters’ frustration with their own financial plight than to any obvious transgression by Scott. Yet the comments go beyond just sour grapes, she says.

“The relationship seems to have been cordial, but the Porters certainly felt discounted and ignored by him, in that he gave credit to some female predecessors but he never acknowledged them,” says Looser. “He mentioned several women writers who inspired his fiction: Maria Edgeworth, Anne MacVicar Grant, Elizabeth Hamilton. But he doesn’t name the Porters, and they felt, justifiably, very put out by that.”

Scott’s reluctance to credit the Porters isn’t easy to pin down, Looser says. One theory is that Scott, while privately conceding that the Porters had blazed the trail that led to historical romance, felt his own work was of an entirely different class of literary achievement.

“You might say that he thought that he was doing historical fiction at a much higher level, and that to acknowledge them as any kind of inspiration would be to say, ‘My genius came out of your trash,’” Looser says matter-of-factly.


“I would love it if more people would return to the Porters’ novels and find what I see there: a fascinating study of morality, of war, of domesticity, of gender,” Looser says. “I love their cross-dressing warrior women and femme fatales. I find them fascinating. I even love their often weeping, always-perfect Christian warrior heroes. I know they’re not to everyone’s taste. So I think trying to hang the importance of the biography on whether the Porters are undiscovered Jane Austens is probably not the right hook, ultimately.”

“I feel sad saying that,” Looser continues with a laugh. “I wish the irony, the wit and the humor that people love in Austen’s fiction were in the Porters’ fiction, too, rather than only in their letters. But the Porters were up to something different in their fiction. And I think for their time it was something very important, and very successful.”

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