The Forgotten Sisters Who Pioneered the Historical Novel

From Smithsonian Magazine:

If one were to pinpoint the precise moment the Porter sisters experienced the pinnacle of literary fame, it would likely be the year 1814. By then, Jane and Anna Maria Porter were in their late 30s and living together outside London. They’d published 17 books, including several international bestsellers, and gained reputations as two very different paragons of feminine talent. Jane’s looks and personality proved a tall, dark and serious contrast to Maria’s, as light, bright and sparkling. With no more than a charity-school education, the sisters had grown up nurturing each other’s ambitions, editing each other’s writing and turning themselves into household names.

The Misses Porter (as they were sometimes called) arguably created the modern historical novel, weaving fascinating, romantic tales out of facts and events culled from history books. The sisters were certainly the first to achieve critical acclaim and bestseller status with such novels, starting with Jane’s Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803), Maria’s The Hungarian Brothers (1807) and Jane’s The Scottish Chiefs (1810). Their protagonists—a mix of historical figures and invented characters—participated in bloody conflicts on past battlefields, then faced domestic hardships at home and abroad. Both sisters used compelling flourishes, and an undercurrent of clear moralism, to bring history’s heroes and despots to life.

It’s no accident that Jane and Maria made these contributions to literature during the Napoleonic Wars, when the threat loomed of a despot’s global domination. Their novels about liberty and independence, set in threatened nations of decades and centuries past, couldn’t help but shed light on the situation near at hand. Indeed, Napoleon himself understood the dangers the sisters’ books posed to him: He banned Jane’s novels from publication in France, presumably because they might encourage popular uprisings. The narrator of Thaddeus of Warsaw describes the hero’s thinking in a way no tyrant would have approved of: “He well knew the difference between a defender of his own country and the invader of another’s.”

When Jane died in 1850, she was called “one of the most distinguished novelists which England has produced” and “the first who introduced that beautiful kind of fiction, the historical romance.” The Porter sisters’ careers ended just as the Brontë sisters were getting started in the early Victorian period. And over the next century, as the Brontës became literary history’s most visible sisters, the Porters were gradually—and then almost entirely—forgotten.

Link to the rest at Smithsonian Magazine

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