Thursday, October 27, 2022

Devoney Looser's "Sister Novelists"

Devoney Looser is Regents Professor of English at Arizona State University and the author or editor of nine books on literature by women, including The Making of Jane Austen. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Salon, The Washington Post, and Entertainment Weekly, and she’s had the pleasure of talking about Austen on CNN. Looser, who has played roller derby as Stone Cold Jane Austen, is a Guggenheim Fellow and a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with her husband and two sons.

She applied the Page 99 Test to her new book, Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës puts the reader in the middle of a chapter titled, “Gone Theatrical Mad: Maria’s Plays, Jane’s New Romance, and the Enchanting Kembles (1801).” It’s about Jane Porter (the older sister) and Anna Maria Porter (the younger, who went by Maria) coming of age as writers among dazzling London actors, including the famous Kemble family, especially youngest brother Charles, with whom Jane was about to fall in love. The Porter sisters were being pulled into the Kembles’ dizzying love triangles, along with their brother, the newly famous artist, Robert “Bob” Ker Porter. The figure who’s described at length here is Maria Theresa de Camp, a gorgeous actress in her mid-20s, known to the public as Miss De Camp.

Page 99:
Everyone knew the painful reasons why she [Miss De Camp] was thought worldly. It was the subject of salacious, open gossip. Part of her reputation, and part of the [Kemble] family’s objection to her as a wife for Charles [Kemble], must be laid at the feet of his brother, John Philip Kemble, who’d sexually assaulted Miss De Camp five years earlier, in 1795. She’d forcibly resisted him. There were witnesses. Some said Charles himself pulled his older brother off the actress. Others said it was Miss De Camp’s brother who did. The evidence of his crime must have been incontrovertible, because John Philip Kemble took the rare step of issuing a public apology, carried in the newspapers. Sadly, and predictably, the fashionable world found it a matter of comic mirth and moved on to the next scandal.

After the attack, Miss De Camp remained in the acting company, and Charles fell in love. But faced with the family’s objections to his marrying her, he couldn’t merely defy their wishes. There were promises made and perhaps threats. Anyone could see that if Charles went against his powerful elder siblings it would mean the end of his London theater career and Miss De Camp’s, too. The Kembles succeeded in pulling the couple apart. By the time the Porters were keeping company with Charles, there was no longer talk of him marrying Miss De Camp. The two actors still worked together, and although there was continued contact and tension, offstage they’d officially separated.

Miss De Camp’s response was to throw herself in the path of other men, including Robert Ker Porter. Maria wrote to Jane, in December 1800, “Bob sups with Miss de Camp on Sunday. I think she sets her cap at him. She wants to give C. K. a celebrated rival.” A desire to get closer to the newly famous and dashing Robert may be what led Miss De Camp to seek out Maria’s friendship, too. She’d written to Robert, hoping to solicit the honor of his sister’s acquaintance. After such a letter, Maria couldn’t refuse to meet her without making Miss De Camp her enemy. Yet the Porter family was concerned that this would prove yet another frowned-upon social connection for Maria among their morally upright friends, especially Mrs. Crespigny.

It was decided that Maria would accompany Robert to a party at the De Camp sisters’ home on Tottenham Court Road. There Maria found Miss De Camp to be an excellent, attentive host, both fascinating and good natured. She watched the actress flirt with her brother but was unable to tell whether she was... [99 to 100] really charmed with him or if she were a practiced coquette offstage, too.
I think the Page 99 Test works well! The page gives the reader a taste of the colorful social circle into which the Porter sisters were plunged as they came of age as published writers in their early 20s. This page telegraphs the social dangers and personal intrigues they’d face. The sisters were trying to maintain polite reputations as single women and public figures in a world that was very unforgiving about anything that smacked of female worldliness, including not only flirting and partying but acting and authorship. In subsequent pages, the charismatic Miss De Camp wraps Robert, Jane, and Maria around her little finger. That was also characteristic. They sisters were repeatedly manipulated by powerful people who took advantage of their naivete, loyalty, and generosity of spirit. They became global celebrities whose pioneering historical novels sold more than a million copies in the US alone before 1840, yet who never owned a home of their own. I hope readers will want to learn more about the Porter sisters’ fascinating, once-celebrated, and long-forgotten lives and careers, in this first biography devoted to them. Its material is drawn from thousands of their surviving, unpublished letters, which I’ve been working on for almost twenty years. I’m eager to share the Porters’ funny, heartbreaking, and moving stories about writing and striving in women’s lives.
Visit Devoney Looser's website and the Sister Novelists website.

--Marshal Zeringue