This non-fiction tour-de-force is as pacey as a novel – never a dull moment. A mesmerizing and impressively well-researched work which makes Georgian England spring to life.
In fact, as I read it, I kept thinking what a fantastic TV series it would make…
Here we have the tale of two lovely, dramatic, and gifted young Regency sisters – though disconcertingly poor – triumphing, despite being mostly taken for granted by men, whether the men concerned were rivals, publishers, potential suitors or even their own brothers. Both Jane and Maria expended no little energy keeping their brothers out of debtor’s prisons, while otherwise dodging the advances of older men, being manipulated by publishers, breaking hearts – or, having their own hearts either sprained or else broken.
In other words, in Devoney Looser’s Sister Novelists we’re gifted with an utterly believable glimpse into what living in Georgian times might have felt like – at least, if literary – rubbing shoulders with Byron and Scott (and royalty) while simultaneously, sometimes desperately, trying to keep up appearances.
The sisters are equally fascinating. Jane is a powerhouse: passionate, resourceful and resilient, holding the family together even when Edmund Keen – no less – deliberately chooses to shipwreck the premiere of her first play at Drury Lane. Maria – almost as gifted and much more prolific – emerges as rather more vulnerable and romantic, capable of falling for a young Guardsman on sight and – oh! the scandal! – even conducting a clandestine correspondence with him.
It is also Maria who suffers upon ending up, in hopes of assisting their brother, in a ‘nest of vipers’. This particular nest is dominated by a rich aristocrat who makes Lady Catherine de Bourgh look like a badge-laden Girl Scout – fomenting rumour, violating her houseguests’ private correspondence, and messing about with her underlings’ love lives. Not to mention the appalling Mrs Campbell, who attempts to blackmail Jane’s love, Henry, by threatening to besmirch Jane Porter’s own reputation – a blackmail he scorned.
At about two inches thick, this book is a massive achievement in every sense, but the pages just fly by. Austen lovers will relish such wicked subtleties as ‘Mrs Crespigny, handsome, clever, and rich, had been known to Jane and Maria for several years.’ And, ‘by eleven, he had delighted Mrs Porter long enough’ (!) Looser is mischievous – but also intensely serious. She makes a powerful case against the sexism that held back not only the Porters, but Austen and many other female novelists of the time.
To sum up, we have a elegantly written, beautifully presented book with:
1) a thrilling storyline
2) vivid characters – and they’re all real, as well!
3) meticulous research
4) silky prose
5) immaculate pacing
6) and as neat a summation of what it felt like, to be a supremely gifted member of London society without either a famous name or money, as could be contrived.
Sister Novelists is a TV series crying out to be made. It has the lot: the manipulative Margravine of Ansbach, the sensitive Maria, the passionate-but-less-impulsive Jane, not to mention all the men who pursue or annoy them. And we even have the dramas of the stage: the struggles to be ‘seen’ as women as equal artists to a man – and even a brush with plagiarism.
Whether Sir Walter Scott really acted as ‘vampire’ to Jane Porter’s own work for his Waverley series is not made entirely clear, but that the pair of sisters succeeded, by talent and guts alone, against all odds, is perfectly obvious. Even their own brothers cheated them, but their final image here is one of resilience – yes, and of triumph, too.