Late in 1814 the Marquess of Abercorn issued an invitation. Abercorn was in his fifties, a known eccentric; in the manner that other people kept pets, he kept celebrities, filling the guest bedrooms of his London home with the notable and good-looking. At the time, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon recalled, the work of a novelist named Jane Porter was “making a noise” in literary circles. “‘Gad,’ said Lord Abercorn, ‘we must have these Porters. Write, my dear Lady Abercorn.’” What happened when Jane and Maria Porter, two sisters famous for their ambitious, sweeping novels set during dramatic moments in European history, came to stay was little short of a catastrophe. Haydon recounted:
They arrived. Lord Abercorn peeped at them as they came through the hall, and running by the private staircase to Lady Abercorn, exclaimed, “Witches, my lady! I must be off,” and immediately started post, and remained away till they were gone.
This episode, which took place at the pinnacle of the Porter sisters’ fame, became the stuff of gossipy legend, recycled in memoirs and recollections such as Haydon’s. By the end of the century, it was part of canonical literary history. The author of Jane Porter’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography (1896) gave as kind a version of events as she was able: “Lord Abercorn had anticipated greater personal charms in his visitors, and…ungallantly left his wife to receive them.”
Very little of this was true. In December 1814 Abercorn had already met Jane and knew perfectly well what she looked like. Maria, far from repulsing him, seems to have been the object of lascivious attentions on his part that she found alarming. In Sister Novelists, her lively new biography of the Porters, the Jane Austen scholar Devoney Looser explains: “The predatory Abercorn apparently then cast aspersions on his would-be prey, spreading rumors about their poverty and ugliness.” His cry of “Witches, my lady!,” a fabricated slur, became “the century’s most ubiquitous story of the Porter sisters in middle age.”
How Jane and Maria were viewed, the way they established and managed their reputations, mattered more than it might have for other well-known women. Abercorn’s story stuck because it gratified, in a comic fashion, a popular feeling that there was something monstrous about female authorship: that it involved a kind of unsexing, the exposure of femininity to intellectual and commercial spheres it wasn’t supposed to infiltrate. “I liked these two sisters exceedingly, although they were authoresses,” one male acquaintance commented.
The problem was exacerbated in the Porters’ case by their success. Their productivity was extraordinary—taken together, they published more than twenty works of fiction, of which most were multivolume novels—and their books sold in huge numbers. Jane’s Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803), a narrative about Poland’s struggles for independence, inspired the names of towns in Kentucky and North Carolina. In London, Percy Shelley was said to have chosen lodgings on Poland Street because “it reminded him of Thaddeus of Warsaw and of freedom.” Her most famous novel, The Scottish Chiefs (1810), was reported to be both Queen Victoria’s and President Andrew Jackson’s favorite book. Napoleon, concerned about its encouragement of spirited patriotic resistance to imperial oppression, had the French edition destroyed. The model for the historical novel that both sisters developed and popularized—combining an accurate rendering of real people and events with fictional characters and romance plotlines—struck readers as a revelation.
During their lifetimes, the Porters were aware of the gradual eclipsing of their star by another. Walter Scott’s multiple best sellers, drawing heavily (though without acknowledgment) on their scenes and methods, were admired as setting a new standard of excellence in the historical genre. By the end of the Victorian period, Jane’s books were still read—increasingly by children, who were given abridged versions—but the sisters’ names had begun to fade. Influential early-twentieth-century studies of historical fiction, such as Georg Lukács’s The Historical Novel (1937), took Scott’s books as their pattern and excluded the Porters. Modern critical work on the sisters, overshadowed by the recovery of other, better-known female novelists of the period, has had to contend with the absence of published correspondence or a bibliography. Until now, there has been no biography.
Looser’s telling of Jane and Maria’s story is a persuasive bid to set the record straight. Taking as her material the hundreds of letters the sisters sent each other over the course of their lives (largely preserved, until the mid-twentieth century, in the dusty rooms of the Victorian “bibliomaniac” Thomas Phillipps’s estate in Worcestershire), her narrative is the kind of tale the Porters might have spun about themselves. Jane and Maria wrote even if they were separated for a day or by a few miles. They documented the minutiae of the “daily dramas” that absorbed them, setting down long conversations from memory (emphases, dialects, and all), reimagining and fixing the people they met.
“Their real-life adventures,” Looser writes, “read like funhouse-mirror versions of Austen’s famous characters and plots”: they bounced from bad romantic decision to bad romantic decision, fell for soldiers, sailors, and landowners, mistook silent men for enigmas and flakes for geniuses. When life failed to supply them with the endings they looked for, they wrote novels that did. Maria could be sniffy about the blandness of Scott’s fiction as she saw it; of The Antiquary (1816), she declared that “the author paints Love with a pencil died in water gruel.” No one could ever have accused her or Jane of that.
Jane and Anna Maria Porter were born in 1775 and 1778, two of the five surviving children of William Porter, an impoverished Irish military surgeon, and Jane Blenkinsop Porter, the daughter of a Durham innkeeper. During the long periods when William was away on postings, the family made their home in the back rooms of the Star and Rummer, the Blenkinsops’ coaching inn on the Great North Road. (Later, seeking to put a new spin on their origins, Jane and Maria claimed that Peter Blenkinsop, their grandfather, had been “in the church.”) In 1779, when Maria was less than a year old, William died suddenly, leaving his wife with five mouths to feed and a modest military widow’s pension. “You were left with a small Family, without Friends, without Money, and I may safely say without the smallest ray of Hope to Support them with the Common Necessarys of Life,” a relative wrote to Mrs. Porter, unhelpfully. To make ends meet, she packed up Jane, Maria, and their brother Robert—the two elder boys, John and William, had enrolled at Durham School on scholarships—and moved them across the border to Edinburgh, where she set up as a landlady.
The Porter girls’ education was unusual. Jane and Maria were accepted at an experimental charity school run by a former journeyman printer, where they learned to read and write using the print shop’s movable type. Maria, on this method, was said to be able to “recite Shakespeare with precision and emphasis” by the age of five. Back in Durham in 1786, Mrs. Porter wrangled permission for the girls to read in the city’s grand Cosin’s Library, typically used by scholars and clergy rather than “daughters of widows who kept boardinghouses.” Jane, who rose at four in the morning to begin studying, kept careful records, compiled a book of favorite extracts from Plato and Aristotle, and wrote maudlin sonnets. Maria didn’t bother with records, but loved Shakespeare, fairy tales, and reading dramatically from her own sensational fiction (“Sir Alfred; Or, The Baleful Tower”). In 1790, when Jane was fourteen and Maria eleven, the family decamped to London, where they hoped Robert, the artistically gifted youngest son, might be admitted as a pupil at the Royal Academy. Cultural work was to become the family business: Robert, Jane, and Maria’s creative talents seemed to offer a means for the Porters to thrive, or at least to cling to middle-class respectability.
Life and art intertwined in everything the sisters did. “I make bold to tell your Ladyship that the elements are up in arm’s against me, the Wind’s are whistling behind the Arras,” Jane wrote to Maria in one teenage letter, pretending they both lived in a gothic castle. In Artless Tales (1793), a collection of Maria’s short stories whose publication the Porters financed by subscription, two of the tales featured fatherless families, resourceful widows, and hungry children. Both sisters wrote indiscreet sonnets on the physical beauty of the male friends they cultivated in London, whom they code-named, not very subtly, in their letters: Agamemnon, Endymion, Apollo.
Maria’s first novel, Walsh Colville (1797), noted by the Gentleman’s Magazine as being based on “incidents in real life, in which the fair and youthful author was in some measure personally interested,” was even less delicate about its influences. In the novel’s crucial scene, the dashing but foolhardy redcoat hero, Walsh (possessed of “a pair of the most eloquent blue eyes that nature ever formed”), is snubbed in Hyde Park by his love interest. To date, the most significant incident in Maria’s romantic life, concerning a young guardsman named Wade Caulfield and a passionate declaration of love by proxy, had taken place on a busy path in St. James’s Park. “How will this end?” Jane wrote, thrilled, in her diary. In Walsh Colville, misunderstandings clear up and the novel concludes with four marriages. In Maria’s real life, the only resolution was a tragic one; Wade died of consumption at twenty-one.
Literature provided the sisters with a model for their encounters, a means of reading and misreading what happened to them. Jane’s passionate, never-quite-declared feelings for Wade Caulfield’s younger brother, Henry, a charismatic actor known to be having an affair with a married woman, ran the gamut of the available literary genres, passing through melodrama to Richardson-style sentiment: “Bad as Henry is, one day he may repent.” The most literary relationship in the sisters’ lives was Maria’s protracted dalliance with Lieutenant Frederick Cowell, a soldier whose “azure eyes” and “carnation complexion” she’d spotted outside her window in 1803. A year into a covert epistolary exchange, during which they never met but “managed to have disagreements, arguments, and disappointments,” Frederick sealed their engagement by sending her a lock of his “bright, beautiful” hair. In 1806, after a long separation, the lovers came face-to-face in London. Maria, though declaring herself “still Fifteen in credulity and sanguineness!,” found reality hard to cope with. Frederick “was so altered in appearance,” she told Jane: “his complexion entirely faded, his fine hair cropt quite close, and his figure completely changed—he is grown fat—and I confess I was so weak as to feel my heart recede.”
The family finances proved the biggest obstacle to their happiness. Maria might have married Frederick, though, as she acknowledged, “his Beauty is gone, and his mind has lain waste”; but since he, too, had no money, it would have been impossible. Jane observed in 1804 that it might have been smart to have accepted a proposal she’d lately received from the miniaturist Charles Rivers, who was clinging and lugubrious but, ultimately, solvent. (“While I submit my right hand to be cut off, I can take up a rose with my left.”)
The Porter brothers, duty-bound, conventionally, to support their unmarried sisters and mother, were proving little help. John, the eldest, had undertaken a mercantile apprenticeship in colonial Antigua and lost everything when his mentor died, ending up in the army and in debt; William, the second brother, ran up additional debts attempting to establish a medical practice; and Robert, the young painter on whom the grandest hopes were pinned, was threatening to be the most expensive of all. After an initial, starry success—a panoramic history painting illustrating one of Britain’s bloodiest colonial battles, displayed in 1799—he spent and borrowed wildly. The various schemes he concocted over the following decades to escape his angry creditors succeeded only in making things more difficult for his family. There was an ambitious plan to recoup his losses by painting at the court of Tsar Alexander in Russia, which meant, in practice, abandoning his mother and sisters; a long-postponed marriage to a wealthy Russian princess, who was supposed to solve everyone’s problems but ended up hemorrhaging money; and several rather self-regarding, expensively produced travelogues, for which Jane, uncredited, did much of the research, writing, and editing.
In Thaddeus of Warsaw, written during the brief, hopeful years after Robert’s success, art provides the hero, an impoverished Polish exile in London, with a means of subsistence. One Covent Garden printshop turns him away rudely, but another accepts his landscape sketches and commissions him to produce “six such drawings every week.” A year after Thaddeus’s publication, in 1804, the connection between artistic accomplishment and security looked shakier. It was, in Robert’s words, a “season of inconveniences”: all three brothers were dangerously in debt, and Mrs. Porter, Jane, and Maria, in order to “retrench,” moved out of London into a rented house in Surrey.
A year later even this “social burial,” in Looser’s phrase, had become a stretch. Between 1805 and 1825, decades during which the Porter sisters became two of the country’s most celebrated novelists, they occupied a five-room cottage with a shattered roof and no water pump; only one of its bedrooms could support a fire, and the others were often too wet to sleep in on rainy nights. Jane and Maria’s fame didn’t translate into riches. They received flat fees up front for their works, rather than a share in the profits, and a combination of mounting family debt, rent payments, and medical bills rapidly swallowed up their advances. “It behooves us, not to appear, falling in the world,” Maria observed; the stench of “poverty” would mean the end of respectability. Their habitual recourse in hard times, to reduce the number of mouths to feed, was for one sister to pay an extended visit to wealthier friends. In such settings, temporarily away from the unhealthy damp of the cottage, they were desperate to write. Instead, they found themselves “captives to the set of their hostess,” as Jane put it: required to be amiable, to keep up an intensive social round, to take care of small children. “We are tethered, in general, every where.”
Perhaps because the real men they knew were so disappointing, the sisters were obsessed with heroes. As a child in Cosin’s Library, Jane discovered the Elizabethan poet-soldier Philip Sidney, whose writings and deeds made him her “lifelong favorite.” In 1801, when she was twenty-six, she made the acquaintance of Sir Sidney Smith, a naval officer and wartime celebrity, who paid a visit to the Porters’ house in Covent Garden to sit for one of Robert’s paintings. She quickly developed romantic feelings for Smith—in 1806 she confessed to a confused passion for him and Henry Caulfield simultaneously, and later deputized Maria to visit Smith’s aunt on an information-gathering mission—but she also put her admiration to use.
In the early years of the century, when fears of a French invasion of Britain were at their height, nationalist rhetoric encouraged popular veneration of the new stars of wartime, who were held to inspire the young in the service of their country. In Jane’s view, to be truly inspirational, heroes couldn’t just be warlike. They needed to be virtuous as well as brave, pious as well as gallant, on the model of her two favorite Sir Sidneys (increasingly blurred in her imagination into a single, ideal figure). In 1807 she published Aphorisms of Sir Philip Sidney, a collection of the poet’s remarks on moral subjects, accompanied by her own admiring commentary. Sidney embodied, she wrote in a preface, the kind of heroic pattern she hoped modern young men might imitate: “The fine gentleman,…united with the scholar, the hero, and the Christian!”
In her best-known historical novels, Jane made heroism her subject. Thaddeus of Warsaw pitches its fictional nobleman protagonist into Poland’s struggles for independence, sending him into battle against rapacious Russian armies, then into exile. The Scottish Chiefs tells the story of William Wallace’s part in Scotland’s fourteenth-century campaign against the English, using Wallace to dramatize a selfless, public-minded militarism—the opposite, pointedly, of Napoleonic aggression.
In both books, there are set-piece reminders of the distinction between true and false patriotism. Thaddeus, gazing across the battlefield after a Polish victory, observes “with pity” “those four thousand Russians” who “had fallen a sacrifice to the insatiate desires of ambition.” “He well knew,” the narrator cuts in, “the difference between a defender of his own country and the invader of another’s.” “I had not learnt, till frequent conversations with the young and ardent Sobieski taught me, how to discriminate between ferocity and valour,” his friend Somerset helpfully observes. Characters who make the mistake of thinking that heroism depends on pragmatism and political intelligence—in The Scottish Chiefs, the unlikable Lady Mar raises such germane questions as the distribution of power and the viability of resistance—are shut down. Mar’s virtuous stepdaughter, Helen, knows what alone counts: “Who can despair, my dear madam, in so just a cause?”
The novels’ historical particularity comes from their frequent, extended battle scenes, accurate renderings of the ebb and flow of European conflicts. In her preface to Thaddeus, Jane signaled her awareness that these constituted something new in the fiction of the day, subjects apt to strike her reader as unnecessarily violent or jarring: “I must beg him to peruse the whole first volume. He needs not be alarmed at the battles; they are neither frequent, nor do they last long.”
Sometimes these battle episodes could be, in Jane’s words, more like “a political paper” than a piece of fictional imagining. Maria, who was much the more prolific of the sisters—publishing eleven substantial works between 1803 and 1830 to Jane’s six—tended to be a hastier writer. In The Hungarian Brothers (1807), her tale of two soldiers set during the French Revolutionary Wars, one of the crucial combat passages reads like a journalist’s dispatch: “Jourdan’s position was highly favourable to success; the Archduke’s was full of peril. The French commenced the attack at the break of day, upon each of the Austrian wings.”
In Jane’s set pieces, by contrast, prose rhythms adapt effectively to the movement of battle, its swiftness and flow, capturing the disorientating experience of things happening both consecutively and all at once. Early in Thaddeus, the narrator follows the Polish troops as they defend their lines to the death:
The Poles fought like lions; quarter was neither offered to them, nor required; they disputed every inch of the way, till they fell upon it in heaps; some, lying before the parapets; others, filling the ditches; and the rest, covering the ground for the enemy to tread on.
At its finest, this battle writing takes on painterly qualities of space and depth. Jane was exposed to history painting through her brother—starting in 1799 she researched and ghost-wrote the explanatory pamphlets that accompanied Robert’s panoramic battle pictures—but also through his circle of Academy friends, who gathered at the Porter lodgings in Covent Garden to practice historical landscape painting. In Thaddeus, the fighting is observed as if from a great distance, its large, choreographed movements made legible to the eye. But details are gradually elaborated in the foreground: a single character, a particular moment of peril. Plot—the story within the story, the private conflict within the public arena of battle—emerges from the places the eye is drawn to.
Scott, despite the significant similarities in approach between his historical novels, published between 1814 and 1831, and the Porters’ best-known works—the interweaving of war and political turmoil with domestic strife; the mixing of real figures and fictional characters—never publicly acknowledged any influence. Of Jane’s Scottish Chiefs, whose dramatization of border conflicts and English oppression made Waverley (1814) look suspiciously familiar, he remarked merely that she’d made a mess of the hero: “I cannot endure to see the character of Wallace frittered away to that of a fine gentleman.”
For more than a decade, the sisters maintained a dignified silence on their rival’s practice of “play[ing] the vampire with our works,” in Jane’s words. That Scott was behind the Waverley books was, technically, uncertain; though almost everyone took his authorship for granted, he maintained a cautious anonymity. Then, in 1827, he came out into the open, and Jane seized her opportunity. In a magazine piece entitled “Nobody’s Address,” she satirized Scott’s sudden decision to take ownership of his works, playing on the suspicion, which had long been in the air, that he’d been benefiting from the hidden labor of multiple helpers:
Sir Walter was so kind as most apropos to open his good-humoured mouth, and, with the one astonishing gulp, swallowed up the giant and all his mysteries!… Every man was dumb…. Some, with envy of the glorious meal the worthy baronet had made.—Others, with admiration of the inward capacity, which could hold so mighty a mass, without apparent indigestion or inflation; for he looked just the same after he had stomached the prodigious morsel, with all its garniture of laurels and other deleterious appendages.
Jane knew her Swift. Like all the best satiric metaphors, hers here is both bizarre and self-evident, reducing a matter of high intellectual import to matter for the digestion. The “prodigious” size of the “morsel” Sir Walter gulps down (“so mighty a mass”) points to the vastness of his—allegedly—solo literary achievement; it threatens to be too big to swallow, promising “indigestion,” trapped wind, an embarrassment. The “laurels” and “appendages” Scott has accrued over the years, including his baronetcy, become “garniture”—decoration, frippery, a bit of parsley on the dish. Nothing is left of the meal for anyone else.
What this satire and the unpublished material in Looser’s biography make clear is the range of tones and styles Jane and Maria were capable of. Their letters, whose contents they went to great lengths to hide—using fake names and code words, contemplating writing in “milk or lemon”—were where they really went to town. Privacy was freedom: with each other they could “step off the beaten path” and “show life as it was,” as Looser argues. They were especially good at voices. Jane captured the plaintiveness of a rich widow she overheard at a ball in Grantham: “I’ve lost my Brasslet—my people put it on—its very valuable—I am so frighted, it has thrown me into a nervous fever, altho I only drink Barley-water.” Their character assassinations were spectacular and precise. Of Therese De Camp, an actress and onetime romantic rival of Jane’s, Maria concluded, “She is lively, free, commanding, and self-assured—exactly what she appears on the stage, only losing twenty per cent in the person, as you approach nearer.”
Glimpses of this appear in the novels. Maria’s Hungarian Brothers contains some acidic material, gleaned from personal experience of visits to grand houses, on the behavior of the upper classes. (“Some readers may not believe the union of so much pride with so much meanness.”) In Thaddeus, when a hotel cook, observed “sulkily basting the fowl,” exclaims of the young hero, “I will be sworn, he’s just such another king, as that palavering rogue was a French duke, who got my master’s watch, and pawned it!,” you want to cheer. Elsewhere, the high tone prevails. Everything is impossibly significant: tears flow abundantly; characters speechify at the least provocation; there’s no such thing as irreverence. Style, here, is the outward sign of the sheer grandeur of the task the sisters set themselves—of how much they believed could be achieved in the present through the example of the past. History paintings, after all, weren’t full of laughs.
For years, the literary world saw the grandeur and responded in kind. In the months after its publication, Thaddeus was acclaimed as a national treasure, “entitled to notice, as the original production of our own country,” a “work of genius.” Praise of The Scottish Chiefs was fulsome, dwelling on its sublime, epic qualities: “Milton or Virgil do not surpass it in sentiment.” But the language, as time went on and the sisters produced more novels, shifted and slipped. Masculine critical categories stopped being applied; other, more invidious ones crept in. In an otherwise admiring piece on Maria’s Don Sebastian (1809), the Critical Review yoked “Miss Porter” together with “some other female writers,” remarking on shared bad habits of “affectation” and “inflation.” Sexism and ageism joined forces in a Literary Gazette article of 1828, in which the reviewer observed, under the guise of kindness, that given the many years that had elapsed “since our fair authoresses began their literary career,” it was “scarcely fair to try their works by the ordeal of modern opinion.”
By the 1820s Maria was ready to call herself, only partly in jest, “one of the Has beens; that numerous and doleful family!” In the early years of the century, when she and Jane were riding high, their publishers were willing to be generous. Longman and Rees agreed to decent advances; in 1808, they loaned the sisters two hundred pounds to keep them afloat. In later years, the screws tightened. Sales began to decline: Jane’s Duke Christian of Luneberg (1824), a written-to-order historical novel about King George IV’s Hanoverian ancestors, proved a “non success” (a publishing euphemism); Maria’s Honor O’Hara (1826), an attempt at a “light” novel of contemporary society, was a flop. Longman and Rees, in response, declared themselves unable to offer fees at the same rate. To earn the three hundred pounds a year the sisters calculated was necessary to support themselves and their mother, they had to take turns publishing every two years, one writing at speed while the other recuperated. The enforced pace registered in the quality, which in turn told in the sales; and it ruined their health, damaging Maria’s eyesight and almost paralyzing Jane’s hands. “You should not kill yourself by over exertion in writing,” Owen Rees warned Maria in 1820, with some suggestion that anything short of that would be fine.
“I confess, from my youth upwards,” Jane told Robert in 1835, “I was ambitious on many, many objects!” Everything that happened to the sisters in later life seemed a kind of foreclosure, a premature end to their hopes. The men they admired or depended on disappointed them, one by one. Smith had let himself down by marrying a wealthy widow in 1809, after what was whispered to have been an affair. (“What a sad, sad collapse of all his brightness,” Maria wrote.) John Porter and Henry Caulfield were jailed for debt and died as prisoners, John starving in appalling conditions on the Isle of Man. Robert abandoned his family for a diplomatic post in Venezuela in 1825, leaving only his vast debts behind. In 1831 William, the other brother, declined to appear at their mother’s deathbed. The fascinating new men they encountered—the actor Edmund Kean; the young American poet N.P. Willis; a roguish Waterloo hero, Colonel Daniel Mackinnon—fascinated chiefly because they reminded them of the men they’d already lost, like ghosts.
After Jane lost Maria, her greatest love, to typhus in 1832, she lived for another eighteen long years, moving peripatetically between friends’ houses, making annual appeals to the government for financial aid, living out the strange disparity between her worldwide fame and her worries about how she might pay for coal. In her early seventies, not long before her death, she scraped together enough to purchase an annuity that brought her a small income of forty pounds. It was the first time in her adult life that she wasn’t compelled to write to survive.