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Despite recent scholarly interest in the historical novel and national tale, Jane Porter has not received the critical attention paid to other Romantic-era novelists like Sir Walter Scott, Maria Edgeworth, and Lady Morgan. This essay argues for the importance of Porter's work, in particular her 1803 novel Thaddeus of Warsaw, in the development of the historical novel. The essay's first half examines Porter's literary and epistolary responses to the novels and celebrity of Sir Walter Scott as well as Scott's responses to Porter's work, and then considers explanations for the scholarly neglect of Porter. The second half argues that Thaddeus of Warsaw anticipates several key features of the historical novel identified by Georg Lukacs, features that would regularly reappear in the Waverley novels. Porter's interest in human virtue links her to eighteenth-century writers like Mackenzie and Richardson, but she differs from those predecessors in focusing on the actions of virtuous individuals in periods of historical disruption, thus moving the man of feeling onto scenes of revolution.
In June 1827 The Ladies' Monthly Museum published "Nobody's Address," the first installment of a bizarre, four-part story describing the adventures of a wandering spirit named Nobody. The inspiration for the story, which was signed "J.P.," was Sir Walter Scott's February 23 announcement in Edinburgh that he was indeed the Waverley author, formerly known as the "Great Unknown." The combination of subject and familiar initials probably alerted a few early readers to the author's identity. A manuscript copy of the story's first installment in the University of Kansas Spencer Research Library confirms that the author of this previously unattributed story is Jane Porter. (1)
"By the 1820s," Peter Garside states, "it was a critical commonplace that Scott was the founder of a new historical fiction" (31). Yet the Edinburgh announcement may have genuinely surprised the Porter sisters. Scott had been a childhood friend of the Porters, who moved from their native Durham to Edinburgh in the 1780s. (2) The friendship was only renewed in April 1815, however, when Porter and Scott met briefly in London. On April 13 Porter wrote to her sister Anna Maria, "Walter Scott is in Town, & I saw him yesterday for a few minutes.--I knew him instantly at the door he was coming out of; his picture, but more the face I had remembered in Scotland, assured me it was him.--He kindly expressed much pleasure at seeing me" (POR 1704). (3) Porter, like so many literary Londoners, believed that Scott--already an enormously popular poet--had written the earliest Waverley novels, and she thought highly of those works. In May 1816 she wrote to Germaine de Stael,
Three novels have appeared amongst us, which are attributed to Walter Scott, & I believe very justly.--Their titles are--Waverley--Guy Mannering--and The Antiquary.--The last is only published this week, and though I have it in the house, I have not yet had leisure to read it.--But the two other are excellent.--Waverley, seizes on the heart; Guy Mannering, on the Imagination.--(753.c)
From that time until Scott's death in 1832, the relationship, at least on Porter's side, seems courteous if not exactly warm. A handful of letters from Porter to Scott survive, mostly introductions for friends visiting Edinburgh. And in April 1828 Porter sent Scott a copy of her historical novella The Field of Forty Footsteps, claiming, "it comes in the light of a tribute, however humble the offering, to the rightful Lord of the soil!" (3906: 196). (4)
Yet in previous years, the Porter sisters had far more ambivalent feelings for the Great Unknown, believing that he had ransacked their own historical romances for his novels. In June 1823, while reading Quentin Durward, Anna Maria Porter wrote to her sister,
I am somewhat vexed at the unfairness of this concealed writer. He evidently uses our novels as a sort of store house, from which ... he draws unobserved whatever odd bit of furniture strikes his fancy for his own pompous edifice. I do not say he steals the thing itself, but the idea & fashion of it; and if he had the honesty to shew that he thought well of our writings, by a word or two of such commendation as he liberally gives to works that have no resemblance to his own, I should say the conduct was fair and allowable. But I quarrel with the self-interestedness of valuing the hints we give him, yet never owning that he does. (POR 819)
Katie Trumpener has argued that Romantic-era writers of national tales and historical novels created their works from "the same generic repertoire": "Names, characters, set pieces, and plots are constantly borrowed back and forth between the genres, even among writers of sharply divergent political views" (131). Trumpener goes on to show the influence of Charlotte Smith's Desmond and Jane West's The Loyalists on Scott's Waverley, noting, "[t]hroughout his novelistic writing, Scott systematically plays down all of these influences, acknowledging only [Maria] Edgeworth as a precedent" (139). Trumpener does not mention the Porters, but clearly they felt similarly overlooked. But Anna Maria's comments also suggest that the Porters believed in the originality of their own work and feared their becoming unacknowledged source material for other writers. Still, she hesitates to condemn their childhood friend as literary thief: later in the letter she reiterates her belief that the Waverley author is actually a "manufactory," though she does credit Scott with authoring the "Tales of My Landlord" (POR 819).
In light of these feelings, it seems less surprising that "Nobody's Address" barely conceals its author's (or authors') resentment at the fickleness and injustice of literary fame. The story's first installment reads like a Swiftian satire on the abilities and appetite of Scott. The narrator describes the shocked response of the Edinburgh audience in discovering that "the Great Unknown, which the majority of his marvellous admirers had conceived to have been nothing less than a congregation of clever persons like themselves" was in fact "one of the Titans! a huge preternatural being, the very last of the race of Briareus; with heads and hands not to be numbered; and all at work at once." Fortunately, "Sir Walter was so kind as most apropos to open his good-humoured mouth, and, with the one astonishing gulp, swallowed up the giant …