... brilliantly if belatedly gives both women their due ... One of the highlights of Ms. Looser’s compelling biography is her impassioned defense of her subjects’ achievements. She fights in the Porters’ corner against Scott and argues that once his reputation was cemented, it became inconvenient to mention the sisters or their fiction ... Ms. Looser skillfully expounds on the craft, artistry and intelligence that went into each book. She also recounts the real-life experience that the sisters incorporated into their pages, and provides insightful critical appraisals of each novel ... Time will tell whether “Sister Novelists” will galvanize a literary salvage operation that puts the Porters back on the map and their books back on shelves. Perhaps not all of their books would pass muster with modern readers: Ms. Looser talks of sprawling epics, holier-than-thou heroes and moralistic messages. In which case, it might be enough to bring out a selection of the sisters’ vivid and witty letters. Whatever happens, we at least have Ms. Looser’s fascinating account of their 'overtly polite but covertly audacious lives.'
Looser also draws on their correspondence to offer minutely detailed exegeses of Jane’s and Maria’s tortuous relationships with a parade of men who entangled them in emotionally charged friendships that promised to blossom into love and marriage but never did. How much a reader enjoys these passages depends on the level of their interest in exchanges such as Maria’s with a young painter, Thomas Kearsley, she thinks may be interested in her ... it can be maddening to watch Maria and Jane pining after men who kept them dangling, or waffling over how they really felt about men they ultimately rejected. A little agonized soul-searching goes a long way, and Looser might profitably have made more selective use of the sisters’ atmospheric correspondence ... She is more cogent on the question of why these popular and influential authors are virtually unknown today ... although Looser’s thickly detailed biography could stand to be a little less detailed, it pays overdue tribute to pioneering siblings unjustly neglected by literary history.