During the early 1800s, more and more people in England were leaning to read. In 1800, 60% of men and 40% of women were literate, but the numbers were growing every year. Supporters of public education declared that the purpose of reading was to give people access to the Bible. But the secret passion of the new readers was often to read fiction—stories that brought excitement and pleasure into their lives. And the people who wrote the stories that people clamored for were often women.
Two of the women who provided popular fiction for the masses were the sisters Jane and Maria Porter. They were born in the 1780s to an Irish doctor and his wife who were then living in Durham, England. Besides Jane and Maria, there were three sons in the family and their father encouraged them all to read, write and learn as much as they could. Unfortunately, the father died young, shortly after Maria was born, leaving them without a secure income. His widow moved the family to Edinburgh where the two girls attended a charity school. Both of them were attracted to reading and writing and as they grew older, they began publishing short articles. In 1790 the family moved to London.
While the boys in the family tried to earn their livings by joining the army or becoming diplomats, both of the girls turned to writing. Between them, they may have invented the historical novel. Jane Porter’s first novels, Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803) and The Scottish Chiefs (1810) were based on well-known figures and were written in a popular style. Both became bestsellers. Many of Jane’s books went through numerous editions and some remained in print for more than 100 years. In fact several editions of The Scottish Chiefs are still available on the Amazon website. But, despite the pleasures of fame, being a bestselling author during the nineteenth century was not easy, especially for a woman.
At the time when the Porter sisters were writing, women were expected to be dependent on men for economic security. Either their fathers or their husbands were supposed to earn money; women stayed at home. The three Porter brothers should have taken on responsibility for supporting their widowed mother and the two girls, but instead they spent much of their time building up debts of their own. The girls took over, but writing and publishing novels was not an easy way to earn money.
Today, authors expect to earn royalties on the books they write. The more popular a book becomes, the more money the author earns. During the early 1800s, there was no such thing as royalties. Books were sold to the publisher for a flat payment and if they were reprinted and sold widely, the publisher made the money, not the author. The only way the writer could earn more money was to update and change the story and sell it to a publisher as a new book.
The Porter sisters were always short of money, because they supported themselves as well as their mother. The best solution to find security would have been to marry a man with a good income. Both Maria and Jane were attractive women and men clustered around them at social events. Several times they met men who appeared ready to suggest marriage, but somehow, when a wealthier young woman appeared on the scene, each of the Porter’s suitors decided to marry for money rather than to propose to a penniless writer.
Besides not having royalties, the Porter sisters also suffered from the lack of international copyright. Their books sold well in America, but the authors received no money at all from these sales. Late in her life, after Maria died, and while Jane was struggling to keep going, her American publisher wrote to her to say that he believed she deserved some share of the profit he was making from her books. Instead of sending money, however, he sent a gift—a large chair, which turned out to be useless because Jane had no place to keep it.
Both Jane and Maria Porter have been almost forgotten, but fortunately for us, they exchanged numerous letters with one another and the letters have survived. In 2022, their lives were retold in a remarkable book–Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontes (NY: Bloomsbury 2022) by Devoney Looser. It makes me happy to know that Jane and Maria are being honored at last and I’m sure many readers will join me in celebrating their lives.