By Jennifer Abella
Plenty of historical figures have praised Jane Austen. And lots of others have … not. Here are just a few on both sides of the line.
John Marshall (letter to colleague)
In a letter to a colleague, Marshall wrote: “I was a little mortified, however, to find that you had not admitted the name of Miss Austen into your list of favorites. I had just finished reading her novels when I received your discourse [on important female writers], and was so much pleased with them that I looked in it for her name, and was rather disappointed at not finding it. Her flights are not lofty, she does not soar on eagle’s wings, but she is pleasing, interesting, equable, and yet amusing. I count on your making some apology for this omission.”
“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 involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with.”
From his librarian: “Your late works, Madam, and in particular ‘Mansfield Park,’ reflect the highest honour on your genius and your principles. In every new work your mind seems to increase its energy and power of discrimination. The Regent has read and admired all your publications.”
“At first sight, Jane Austen’s manner and matter may seem to be old-fashioned, stilted, unreal. But this is a delusion to which the bad reader succumbs.”
Austen … not so much
“Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
“Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say that you would rather have written ‘Pride and Prejudice’…than any of the Waverly novels? I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.”
In a lecture, she said: “The chief reason why [Austen] does not appeal to us as some inferior writers do is that she has too little of the rebel in her composition, too little discontent, and of the vision with is the cause and the reward of discontent. She seems at times to have accepted life too calmly as she found it, and to anyone who reads her biographer or letters it is plain that life showed her a great deal that was smug, commonplace, and, in a bad sense of the word, artificial…. It happens very seldom, but still it does happen, that we feel that the play of her spirit has been hampered by such obstacles; that she believes in them as well as laughs at them, and that she is debarred from the most profound insight into human nature by the respect which she pays to some unnatural convention.”
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 so narrow. … Suicide is more respectable.”
Jennifer Abella is a TV/movie/pop culture/knitting/sewing/Jane Austen geek. Oh, and a total Anglophile. Follow@nextjen on Twitter.