Devoney Looser to explore how Porter sisters navigated personal and professional life
Update: The National Endowment for the Humanities named ASU English Professor Devoney Looser a Public Scholar on Aug. 8, an honor that will provide $60,000 in funding to support her writing of the book detailed in this story.
In March the New York Times introduced a project called “Overlooked,” in which influential women whose lives and achievements had been neglected in the past were given recognition with a long-overdue obituary. Some of the names that had fallen by the wayside were shocking: Sylvia Plath, Diane Arbus, Ida B. Wells.
In an endeavor of a similar spirit, ASU English Professor Devoney Looser has been studying the early 19th-century literary sisters Jane and Anna MariaThere has been some debate as to the pronunciation of Anna Maria’s name. Looser believes it was pronounced /məˈraɪə/ (as in Mariah Carey) because of a poem she came across at the University of Kansas Spencer Library that rhymed “Anna Maria” with “fire.” Porter for more than a decade. Now that Looser has been named a 2018 Guggenheim Fellow, she’ll be funneling those years of research into a book on the sisters, which will explore their contributions to literature as well as their remarkable personal lives.
Like many of the women featured in “Overlooked,” the Porter sisters were well-known during their lifetimes, and their work received both critical and popular acclaim. But in the years that passed since their deaths in the mid-1800s, they were largely disregarded.
“I’m not bringing back two writers who were obscure,” Looser said, “but two writers who were accomplished, famous and were recognized. And we’ve just forgotten them.”
The Porter sisters began their writing careers in the early 1800s, around the same time as Jane Austen (another subject of preoccupation for Looser). Unlike Austen, whose stories were set in then-modern times, the Porters were charting new territory in what would become known as the historical novel.
One critic referred to Jane Porter’s bestselling novel “Thaddeus of Warsaw” as “the ‘Gone with the Wind’ of 1803.”
“Jane Porter brought together romance with real history and shaped it into a new kind of story,” Looser said. “She called it a new species of writing, and I don’t think that she’s entirely self-aggrandizing in saying so. She was doing something that was new, and it really struck a chord with the reading public.”
Combined, the sisters published about 26 books — most of them were Anna Maria’s, but Jane’s sold better. Interestingly, Jane was also the more serious of the two sisters, and her novels reflected that in their morally didactic nature and perfect, Christian heroes.
“She could be a battle axe,” Looser said. “But I feel sympathy toward it even when I don’t have the same point of view that she was expressing because I see that she was really backed into a corner in her life circumstances, being the one who had to be responsible.”