Pride and Prejudice - Favourable and Critical Evaluation – Austen #
Jane Austen is an accomplished writer who polarises her audience; they either passionately adore or absolutely abhor her; either at her feet, or at her throat. Some, who initially reacted negatively toward her, become grudging converts to the intimate portraits of characters and scenes she draws. Most of what see writes is a subtle satire of society, making her an invaluable chronicler of her time.
Other critics remain unimpressed, dismissive and strident in their denunciations.
We are fortunate in having a record of comment throughout the past 200 years including this one from **Henry James, “The Lesson of Balzac,” **The Atlantic, August 1905
The key to Jane Austen’s fortune with posterity has been in part the extraordinary grace of her facility, in fact of her unconsciousness: as if … she sometimes, over her work-basket, her tapestry flowers, in the spare, cool drawing-room of other days, fell a-musing, lapsed too metaphorically, as one may say, into wool-gathering, and her dropped stitches, of these pardonable, of these precious moments, were afterwards picked up as little touches of human truth …
Regardless of your tastes, she is a writer of merit and maintains a tremendous influence on the development of the English Novel.
FAVOURABLE and UNFAVOURABLE COMMENTARY
1826—Sir Walter Scott eleven years later, after Austen’s death, his enthusiasm having grown
Also read again and for the third time at least Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvement and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. …the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!
The animality of Mark Twain’s repugnance is probably to be taken as the male’s revulsion from a society in which women seem to be at the center of interest and power, as a man’s panic fear at a fictional world in which the masculine principle, a! though represented as admirable and necessary, is prescribed and controlled by a female mind. Professor Garrod, whose essay “Jane Austen, A Depreciation,” is a summary of all the reasons for disliking Jane Austen, expresses a repugnance which is very nearly as feral as Mark Twain’s; he implies that a direct sexual insult is being offered to men by a woman author.
1826—Chief Justice John Marshall, letter to Joseph Story
I was a little mortified to find you had not admitted the name of Miss Austen into your list of favorites.. . . Her flights are not lofty, she does not soar on an eagle’s wings, but she is pleasing, interesting, equable, yet amusing. I count on your making some apology for this omission.
1848—Charlotte Brontë, letter to G. H. Lewes
What a strange lecture comes next in your letter! You say I must familiarise my mind with the fact that “Miss Austen not a poetess, has no ‘sentiment” (you scornfully enclose word in inverted commas), “no eloquence, none of the raying enthusiasm of poetry”; and then you add, I must “learn to acknowledge her as one of the greatest artists, one of the greatest painters of human character, and one of the writers with the nicest sense of means to an end that ever lived.”
The last point only will I ever acknowledge.
Can there be a great artist without poetry?
1866 – Lord Maucalay
Shakespeare had neither equal nor second. But among the writers who have approached nearest…we have no hesitation in placing Jane Austen ….she has given us a multitude of characters, all,…commonplace….yet perfectly discriminated as if they were the most eccentric of human beings.
Miss Austen’s books did not secure her any sudden fame. They stole into notice so gradually and slowly, that even at her death they had not reached any great height of success. . . . We are told that at her death all they had produced of money was but seven hundred pounds, and but a moderate modicum of praise. We cannot say we are in the least surprised by this fact; it is, we think, much more surprising that they should at length have climbed into the high place they now hold. To the general public, which loves to sympathise with the people it meets in fiction, to cry with them, and rejoice with them, and take a real interest in all their concerns, it is scarcely to be expected that books so calm and cold and keen, and making so little claim upon their sympathy, would ever be popular.
They are rather of the class which attracts the connoisseur, which charms the critical and literary mind.
Practically overlooked for thirty or forty years after her death, she perhaps really stands there for us as the prettiest possible example of that rectification of estimate, brought about by some slow clearance of stupidity.. . . This tide has risen high on the opposite shore—risen rather higher, I think, than… her intrinsic merit and interest. . . . Responsible. . . is the body of publishers, editors, illustrators, producers of the pleasant twaddle of magazines; who have found their “dear,” our i dear, everybody’s dear Jane so infinitely to their material pur pose….
The key to Jane Austen’s fortune with posterity has been in part the extraordinary grace of her facility, in fact of her unconsciousness: as if, at the most, for difficulty, for embarrassment, she sometimes over her work basket. . . fell. . . into woolgathering, and her dropped stitches. . . were afterwards picked up as. . . little master-strokes of imagination.
1913—Virginia Woolf 21
Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote, I thought… and when people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare, and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word that she wrote, and so does Shakespeare.
1913—G. K. Chesterton
Jane Austen was born before those bonds which (we are told) protected women from truth, were burst by the Brontes or elaborately untied by George Eliot. Yet the fact remains that Jane Austen knew more about men than either of them. Jane Austen may have been protected from truth: but it was precious little of truth that was protected from her.
Jane Austen, of course, wise in her neatness, trim in her sedateness; she never fails, but there are few or none like her.
Jane Austen’s novels appear to be compact of abject truth. Their events are excruciatingly unimportant; and yet, with Robinson Crusoe, they will probably outlast all Fielding, Scott, George Eliot, Thackeray, and Dickens. The art is so consummate that the secret is hidden; peer at them as hard as one may; shake them; take them apart; one cannot see how it is done.
There have been several revolutions of taste during the last century and a quarter of English literature, and through them all perhaps only two reputations have never been affected by the shifts of fashion: Shakespeare’s and Jane Austen’s. . . . She has compelled the amazed admiration of writers of the most diverse kinds, and I should say that Jane Austen and Dickens rather queerly present themselves today as the only two En glish novelists. . . who belong in the very top rank with the great fiction-writers of Russia and France. . . . That this spirit should have embodied itself. . . in the mind of a well-bred spinster, the daughter of a country clergyman, who never saw more of the world than was made possible by short visits to London and a residence of a few years in Bath and who found her subjects mainly in the problems of young provincial girls looking for husbands, seems one of the most freakish of the many anomalies of English literary history.
There are some writers who wrote too much. There are others who wrote enough. There are yet others who wrote nothing like enough to satisfy their admirers, and Jane Austen is certainly one of these. There would be more genuine rejoicing at the discovery of a complete new novel by Jane Austen than any other literary discovery, short of a new major play by Shakespeare, that one can imagine.
Austen’s heroines are compelling because in a social and economic system that conspires to place them at a disadvantage, they exercise real power. . . . We look at Jane Austen’s novels. . . and see that her women not only know what they want, they have evolved a pointed strategy for how to go about getting it.
2001 - Germaine Greer - The Getting of Wisdom
“What makes Austen great is her awareness of the minefield that is ordinary life. At any point the Austen heroine can be brought low. Even as we applaud the achievement of the sexual relationship at the end of any Austen novel, we should be aware not only that the heroine has had a tough time but that she could be facing an even tougher one. If to be a spinster in Austen’s world is to be exploited by one’s family whenever the need arises and otherwise completely overlooked and ignored, the role of wife-and-mother is so difficult that most of Austen’s wives-and- mothers are hopeless at it. The best mothers are the dead ones, like Emma’s mother or Anne Elliot’s mother.”
1815—Sir Walter Scott, review of Emma
Upon the whole, the turn of this author’s novels bears the same relation to sentimental and romantic cast, that corn fields and cottages and meadows bear to the highly adorned grounds of a show mansion, or the rugged sublimities of a mountain landscape. It is neither so captivating as the one, nor so grand as the other, but it affords to those who frequent it a pleasure nearly allied with the experience of their own social habits; and what is of some importance, the youthful wanderer may return from his promenade to the ordinary business of life, without any chance of having his head turned by the recollection of the scene through which he has been wandering.
Every time I read “Pride and Prejudice” I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.
Jane Austen’s books, too, are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.
She makes me detest all her people, without reserve. Is that her intention? It is not believable. Then is it her purpose to make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters? That could be. That would be high art. It would be worth while, too.
Some day I will examine the other end of her books and see.
RALPH WALDO EMERSON
I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, with out genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. . . . All that interests in any character; has he (or she) the money to marry with?. . . Suicide is more respectable.
She is a mistress of derision rather than of wit or humour…. Her irony is now and then exquisitely bitter. . . . The lack of tenderness and of spirit is manifest in Miss Austen’s indifference to children. They hardly appear in her stories except to illustrate the folly of their mothers. They are not her subjects as children; they are her subjects as spoilt children, and as children through whom a mother may receive flattery from her designing acquaintance, and may inflict annoyance on her sensible friends. . . . In this coldness or dislike Miss Austen resembles Charlotte Brontë.
1901—Joseph Conrad to H. G. Wells’
What is all this about Jane Austen? What is there in her?
What is it all about?
1917—Frederic Harrison, letter to Thomas Hardy
Austen was a rather heartless little cynic.. . penning satires about her neighbours whilst the Dynasts were tearing the world to pieces and consigning millions to their graves.
Not a breath from the whirlwind around her ever touched her Chippendale chiffonier or escritoire.
I924—E. M. Forster
I am a Jane Austenite, and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen. My fatuous expression, and airs of personal immunity—how ill they sit on the face, say, of a Stevensonian! But Jane Austen is so different. She is my favourite author! I read and re-read, the mouth open and the mind closed.
The Jane Austenite possesses little of the brightness he as ascribes so freely to his idol. Like all regular churchgoers, he scarcely notices what is being said.
Jane Austen? I feel that I am approaching dangerous ground. The reputation of Jane Austen is surrounded by cohorts of defenders who are ready to do murder for their sacred cause. They are nearly all fanatics. They will not listen. If anybody “went for Jane,” anything might happen to him. He would as suredly be called on to resign from his clubs. I do not want to resign from my clubs.
She is marvellous, intoxicating. . . [ she did not know enough of the world to be a great novelist. She had not the ambition to be a great novelist. She knew her place; her present “fans” do not know her place, and their antics would without doubt have excited Jane’s lethal irony.
Really, it is time this comic patronage of Jane Austen ceased. To believe her limited in range because she was harmonious in method is as sensible as to imagine that when the Atlantic Ocean is as smooth as a mill-pond it shrinks to the size of a mill-pond. There are those who are deluded by the decorousness of her manner, by the fact that her virgins are so virginal that they are unaware of their virginity, into thinking that she is ignorant of passion. But look through the lattice-work of her neat sentences, joined together with the bright nails of craftsmanship, painted with the gay varnish of wit, and you will see women haggard with desire or triumphant with love, whose delicate reactions to men make the heroines of all our later novelists seem merely to turn signs, “Stop” or “Go” toward the advancing male.
1931—D. H. Lawrence
This, again, is the tragedy of social life today. In the old England, the curious blood-connection held the classes together. The squires might be arrogant, violent, bullying and unjust, yet in some ways they were at one with the people, part of the same blood-stream. We feel it in Defoe or Fielding. And then, in the mean Jane Austen, it is gone. Already this old maid typifies “personality” instead of character, the sharp knowing in apartness instead of knowing in togetherness, and she is, to my feeling, thoroughly unpleasant, English in the bad, mean, snobbish sense of the word, just as Fielding is English in the good generous sense.
1937—W. H. Auden
You could not shock her more than she shocks me; Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass. It makes me most uncomfortable to see An English spinster of the middle class Describe the amorous effects of “brass,” Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety The economic basis of society.
1938—H. G. Wells, A dialogue from a character in a novel, perhaps expressing Wells’s own opinion, perhaps not “The English Jane Austen is quite typical. Quintessential I should call her. A certain ineluctable faded charm. Like some of the loveliest butterflies—with no guts at all.”
1940—D. W. Harding
I gathered, she was a delicate satirist revealing with inimitable lightness of touch the comic foibles and amiable weaknesses of the people whom she lived amongst and liked. . . . This was enough to make me quite certain I didn’t want to read her. And it is, I believe, a seriously misleading impression..
In order to enjoy her books without disturbance, those who retain the conventional notion of her work must always have had slightly to misread what she wrote. 1989—Katha Pollitt, from her poem “Rereading Jane Austen’s Novels”
This time round, they didn’t seem so comic. Mama is foolish, dim or dead. Papa’s a sort of genial, pampered lunatic. No one thinks of anything but class.
1995—Article about an essay by Terry Castle
Was Jane Austen gay? This question, posed by the normally staid London Review of BooI was the headline for an essay by Stanford professor Terry Castle that subtly explored the “un conscious homoerotic dimension” of Austen’s letters to her sis ter Cassandra. The implication has caused quite a kerfuffle among Austenites.
I have never read anything Austen wrote. I just never got at reading Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. They seemed to be the Bobbsey Twins for grown-ups.
Nudity, sexual abuse, lesbianism, a dash of incest—will we never tire of Jane Austen?