On July 16, Devoney Looser, Regents Professor of English at Arizona State University, gave us an illustrated and compelling preview of her new book on the Porter sisters, which will be released on October 25, 2022.
She began her presentation by noting that, “If you haven’t heard of the Porter sisters, rest assured you are not alone.” Yet they were once globally famous, she explained, and they and Jane Austen were featured together in the Standard Novels illustrated editions of the early 1830s. “The Porter sisters were some of the first to appear in that series. So the Porters and the late Austen were literally found on a shelf together in the same series of classic books in that era,” Looser said. Their stature was similar to Austen’s in the late 19th century. But Austen’s star was rising and the Porters’ descending during the late Victorian era. While it was right to elevate Austen, Looser added, “It was wrong to relegate the Porters to oblivion.”
She undid the myth that only a handful of women novelists were active during that period. “It isn’t a truth universally acknowledged, although it is actually true, that enormous numbers of 19th century British women writers were disappeared from the literary canon, from classrooms and from mass readerships by the middle of the 20th century,” Looser added. “This was the case not only for authors who were little known in their own day but also for those who were actually very successful and famous in their own day.”
Clifford Siskin, who was Looser’s dissertation director, called the process the “great forgetting,” which resulted in the neglect of virtually every British woman author from 1700 to 1830 who wasn’t named Jane Austen or Mary Shelley.
Looser also busted the myth that Sir Walter Scott was the first historical novelist, with his Waverley novels. “Absolutely no one got more ripped off by the myth of Sir Walter Scott as the originator of the historical novel than Jane Porter,” Looser noted.
The second half of her talk gave us a fascinating portrayal of the sister novelists, the more acclaimed Jane Porter and the more prolific Anna Maria Porter. “In Regency-era London, people went to great lengths to see these female curiosities who were hailed as literary wonders and known as geniuses and beauties. They traveled in the same circles as celebrity actors, poets, activists, publishers and politicians, and hobnobbed with nobles and royalty.”
A lively and broad-ranging Q&A session followed the insightful talk. You can watch the entire presentation on our YouTube channel.
Looser has authored or edited nine books on literature by women. Her book The Making of Jane Austen was named a Publishers Weekly Best Summer Book (nonfiction). Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, Salon and Slate. She’s also played roller derby as Stone Cold Jane Austen and served as plenary speaker at multiple JASNA Annual General Meetings. Looser earned her PhD in English, with certification in women’s studies, from SUNY Stony Brook, N.Y., and graduated summa cum laude from Augsburg College in Minneapolis with an English Honors BA.