More famous than Jane Austen in their day, discover the fascinating lives of the now little-known novelists, the Porter sisters, who feature in our current exhibition, ‘Quills and Characters’.

Described as “the most famous sister novelists before the Brontës” the hugely popular Porter sisters were among the most widely-read writers in Regency England. Between them, Jane (1775 – 850) and Anna Maria (1778–1832) published 26 books, enjoying global fame and recognition in their lifetimes.

Maria Porter published her first novel, Artless Tales, by subscription at just 14. Publishing under her own name ushered her into the spotlight, commencing a level of public fame that Maria later wrote of as the death of private happiness.

The Porter sisters pioneered the historical novel, entertaining their readers with heroic tales and virtuous characters, but also interesting them in the study of history. Walter Scott did not acknowledge his debt to them, much to their annoyance.

Jane Porter’s 1803 novel Thaddeus of Warsaw was set against the backdrop of a against Russian invasion of Poland in 1790s and includes grisly battle scenes and an account of the noble Polish hero as he becomes a refugee in England. The questions raised about liberty and national struggles against tyrannical invasion have chimed with many audiences in the 220 years since publication: it has been through at least 84 editions.

The Porter sisters were far more famous than Jane Austen, publishing under their own names, and mixing in celebrity and literary circles. Their work was enjoyed for decades – Queen Victoria, William Thackeray and Emily Dickinson were all fans.

Whilst the Porters were clearly familiar with Austen’s work, they only get one mention in Austen’s letters to Cassandra: in 1808, Jane describes her nephew Edward intent on reading Anna Maria Porter’s 1804 novel The Lake of Killarney ‘twisting himself about in one of our great chairs.’ Years later, Jane’s brother Charles became friends with Robert Ker Porter in the 1820s, while serving in the Navy in the West Indies.

Like many of the women writers in our collection, the prolific Porter sisters were ‘forced to write for bread.’ Despite their literary successes, and their 26 published books, they were often on the brink of poverty, writing to support their indebted brothers rather than being supported by the men in their family.

Although they never married, the Porter sisters’ lives were definitely not devoid of romance. Both Jane and Maria fell in love often, but sadly often with Very Bad Men.

The youngest three Porter siblings were curious, lively, intelligent children who were encouraged in their learning by their mother. Like the Brontës, however, it was the Porter’s brother William who was initially marked as the genius of the family. A talented artist, he entered the Royal Academy in 1791 at just 14.

The Porters participated in their share of scandal. The angriest letter in our Quills and Characters exhibition was penned to Jane Porter by an enraged Margravine of Ansbach: ‘The M. hopes this will be a warning to the Miss Porters to confine their compositions to novels, where only sentiments of gratitude & respect are found in those young ladies. It is somewhat Ludicrous to observe the the love of one young Lady – & the credulity of another should transform a sick & Cold young man into a sighing Lover.’

These facts are taken from Devoney Looser’s fantastic new biography of the Porters: Sister NovelistsThe Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës (Bloomsbury, 2022). To find out more about their lives, loves, literature, and letters, and about the detective work that went into piecing their stories together, join us on Wednesday for an online talk with Devoney Looser on the Porter sisters at 7-8.30pm BST.

Tickets £6