I’m relatively well-versed in the early English novel, thanks to that class I took as an undergraduate where I read everything but Tom Jones (the lack of reading wasn’t due to the syllabus, but sheer laziness on my part). Let me try to explain something on the significance of Jane Austen and her little book, Pride and Prejudice.
I’ve noticed a few things in my researching Austen’s critical reception during the early years of the 19th century:
- To talk about one of her novels is to talk about all of them. Austen is a writer whose canon is what it is, but not in an interchangeable way. Critics genuinely appreciated her body of work as a whole — then again, that’s slightly easier when your ‘body of work’ is six novels and juvenilia.
- Critical writing on her works in periodicals wasn’t widespread until after her death. Things did move slower in Ye Olden Daeyes, but not reviewing Pride and Prejudice until 10 years after its initial publication? Seriously?
- The focus on gender in reviews of her work — men reviewing men could get away with polemic claims on their lack of breeding and education. In the dozen or so reviews I’ve read of her work, there came a point in each review (shortly before or after the summary of the novel which was about 80% of the review’s total text) in which the reviewer would take a moment to remark on Austen’s sweet character, gentle nature, talent with a pencil, lively disposition.
- Slightly related to the above: Everyone. Loves. Jane. Not in a polite way to be kind or (only) because she’s a lady, but adoration for her writing as well. (If you find a 19th century review or article where this isn’t the case, please let me know!)
Reviewers adored her novels for their attention to detail and her ability to turn the completely boring into the extraordinary, as seen in this extract:
You have actually met all her heroes and heroines before — not in novels, but in most unromantic and prosaic circumstances; you have talked with them, and never seen anything in them — anything, at least, worthy of three volumes, at half-a-guinea a volume. How could such folks find their way into a printed book? That is a marvel, a paradox, a practical solecism. But a greater marvel remains behind, and that is, how comes it that such folks, having got into the book, make it so interesting? (Jacox 18)
That’s from an 1852 article on Austen, part of a series on female novelists — 152 years later, I completely agree that this is why Austen’s novels appeal, except we would call “portraying prosaic characters in a dazzling manner” something like “exquisite social commentary for the win”. Austen’s characters are rather touched in the head, but more realistically and down-to-earth than, say, Charlotte Lennox’s eponymous protagonist of The Female Quixote (another terrifically funny novel from these early days of the genre).
Next week, I’ll work from the text of Pride and Prejudice, looking at the rather inventive way Austen uses time and events in her storytelling, using Erich Auerbach’s essay “Odysseus’ scar” from his book Mimesis. You may not know that I’m the one of this duo here at Withering Bites who writes the ‘now playing’ summaries — I hope next week, I’ll be able to show you how Austen and her writing are smarter and better built than most things I’ve yet to read.
I should also note that it was so very, very difficult to stop myself from simply calling our Author of the Week Jane throughout this piece. And for the slightly morbid among you — one of the articles I found in my research had printed a short account of Jane Austen’s last days, which I screencapped and uploaded here.
Jacox, Francis. “Female Novelists”. New Monthly Magazine and Humorist. 95.377 (1852). 17-23.