Writers on Jane Austen

Since I seem to have caused a bit of a controversy by my intemperate comments below (see the comment section of the post directly below), perhaps I should return to safer ground and cover a literary topic. I was looking through a book I never fail to find fascinating, Fighting Words: Writers Lambast Other Writers, and I was amazed at the vitriol aimed at Jane Austen. Here for example is Ralph Waldo Emerson:

I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seems to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. The one problem in the mind of the writer is . . . marriageableness . . . Suicide is more respectable.

Ouch! That is a rather scathing critique. Not to be outdone, Mark Twain also weighs in:

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.

Now we see where Twain’s reputation come from! But Nabokov sees Twain’s insult and raises him by insulting the whole gender:

I dislike Jane, and I am prejudiced, in fact, against all women writers. They are in another class. Could never see anything in Pride and Prejudice.

Well. So, who should come to the rescue? Edmund Wilson, writing in response to Nabokov’s letter quoted above, defends Miss Austen but in a unique way:

You are mistaken about Jane Austin. I think you ought to read Mansfield Park. Her greatness is due precisely to the fact that her attitude toward her work is like that of a man, that is, of an artist, and quite unlike that of the typical women novelist, who exploits her feminine day dreams . . . She is, in my opinion, one of the half dozen greatest English writers.

So, any theories as to the dislike of Jane Austen? Sexism, ego, style differences?

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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4 Comments

  • One, Austin’s books are romantic comedies in domestic settings.

    Two, the stories are moral fables on the Right in human life. What is Right? That people behave maturely and act as grown ups who are creating the next generation by upholding Christian values. Goodness matters more than anything else. God, like the narrator, is watching and has a sense of humor, tolerance, and sympathy for the inmost desires of men and women – to love and be loved.

    Three, Austin is witty.

    I read little Twain, have never read Nabokov, and Emerson has nothing to say to me anymore.

    Twain became a humorous cynic and then a political booby. Wrote one good book. Everything Austin wrote is pure gold.

  • Just for the record: It’s Austen. Austin is a city, not a novelist.

    That said: I am unsurprised by Emerson and Nabokov’s critiques, because both of them are fundamentally anti-humorous writers. I would add in Charlotte Bronte’s famous critique of Austen, which is substantially similar to Emerson’s and which Tony Tanner has pointed out in his critical work is essentially a conflict between Romanticism and Enlightenment visions of the world. (Regarding the previous comment: Bronte was a FAR more overtly Christian writer than Austen — see the ending of Jane Eyre — and her books are slathered in romance. Emerson too was far more concerned with the human soul than Austen.) Any novelist with pretensions to “seriousness” would slay Austen at a glance for Northanger Abbey alone (in spite of its generous hearted defense of fellow — mostly female — novelists).

    That leaves Twain: for my money, Twain is one of the great American writers, and he’s unquestionably very funny. But the problem with sarcasm is that people sometimes think that you’re serious. Either Twain mistook Austen or (also possible) his comments on Austen were misunderstood. What’s the context of his Austen dis? Was he gagging on what modern Austen scholars refer to as the “Janeites” – all the people who think of Austen as sweet and domestic and kindly. That would be enough to rouse his vitriol, and, because even geniuses are human, I’d bet on his being a bit jealous of her work as well. Notice that his laughing “critique” has none of Nabokov’s echoes of William Gilbert (“that singular anomaly the lady novelist”), or Charlotte Bronte’s superior sniffs about her lack of “bonny becks” and other picturesque attire. This is, after all, the man who wrote that “persons attempting to find a moral” in Huckleberry Finn would be shot. What evidence do we have that he is being serious about Austen?

    As to “goodness and Right being more important than anything else” in Austen’s books….are you kidding? What about her portraits of Walter Elliot, Mr. Collins, Lucy Steele, and John Willoughby? Retribution does not come swiftly on the heels of the wrongdoer. Money is important, and family is important. Morality is definitely secondary.

  • I actually am not a huge fan of Austen myself and am quite surprised by the number of friends of mine that go gaga over her books. Emerson, Twain and Nabokov all incidentally happen to be favorite writers of mine so you'd think I'd be prejudiced in accepting their views as doctrine over Austen. But I think I also half disagree with Nabokov when it comes to woman writers in general. I think there are just as many talented female writers as there are male writers (call me a delusional leftist if you will). As far as the 19th century English scene goes, Austen may not make the cut but George Eliot sure does. Probably my favorite Victorian novelist of all.