"...an artist cannot do anything slovenly."
-- Jane Austen, letter of November 17, 1798
[On being told that Fanny Knight was reading her letters to Cassandra:]
"I am gratified by her having pleasure in what I write -- but I wish the knowledge of my being exposed to her discerning Criticism may not hurt my stile, by inducing too great a solicitude. I begin already to weigh my words and sentences more than I did, and am looking about for a sentiment, an illustration, or a metaphor in every corner of the room. Could my Ideas flow as fast as the rain in the store-closet it would be charming."
-- letter of January 24, 1809
This is pretty much a disorganized collection of comments by Jane Austen and others (mainly 19th century); there is no High LitCrit ("yes; I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible" -- Northanger Abbey, chapter 16). See also Poems on Jane Austen.
"I flatter myself, however, that you can understand very little of it from this description. -- Heaven forbid that I should ever offer such encouragement to Explanations as to give a clear one on any occasion myself!"
Jane Austen never wrote down a serious self-conscious analysis or manifesto of her artistic powers and goals, so that all we have are incidental statements in some of her letters. These are frequently facetious, or part of informal letters to family members (in Mr. Clarke's case she was tactfully trying to get rid of a bore), and should not necessarily be taken as solemn statements of deeply-held views.
James Stanier Clarke was the Prince Regent's librarian, and transmitted to her the Prince's request that she dedicate her next work (Emma) to him, an honour that Jane Austen would probably rather have done without (see her letter on the infidelities of the Prince and his wife). Some of Mr. Clarke's "helpful" suggestions showed up in the Plan for a Novel. [More complete versions of these letters, as printed in Austen-Leigh's Memoir, are also available on-line.]
Anna was working on a novel of her own at the time, and showed manuscripts to Jane Austen and Cassandra. These comments reveal some of the principles that Jane Austen followed in her own writings (see "Limitations"). [The complete text of these letters is also available on-line.]
This comment to her nephew has been famous (or infamous) since its publication in her brother Henry's "Biographical Notice" in 1817, even though it is probably one of the most facetious of all her proclamations, in its way:
"What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety and Glow? -- How could I join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?"
In Jane Austen's era, novels were often depreciated as trash; Coleridge's opinion was that "where the reading of novels prevails as a habit, it occasions in time the entire destruction of the powers of the mind". But Jane Austen once wrote in a letter that she and her family were "great Novel-readers, & not ashamed of being so", and in her novel Northanger Abbey she gives her "Defense of the Novel" (even though she is also making fun of the falseness to real life of many novels of the era throughout Northanger Abbey).
It has been pointed out that most novel-writers and the majority of novel readers were women (thus in another passage Jane Austen calls Fanny Burney a "sister author"), while the "Reviewers", the "nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England", and the anthologist of "some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior" would all have been men. So in Jane Austen's day, novels actually had something of the same reputation that mass-market romances do today.
``The progress of the friendship between Catherine [Morland] and Isabella was quick as its beginning had been warm... and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novels; -- for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding -- joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens, -- there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. "I am no novel-reader -- I seldom look into novels -- Do not imagine that I often read novels -- It is really very well for a novel." -- Such is the common cant. -- "And what are you reading, Miss --?" "Oh! it is only a novel!" replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. "It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda"; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.''
"Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore every body, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort."
"I have read [Byron's] The Corsair, mended my petticoat, and have nothing else to do."
Jane Austen limited her subject-matter in a number of ways in her six novels (though her early Juvenilia and her letters often did not conform to these limitations; that she knew about a number of things she did not choose to treat in her novels can also be seen from her glancing allusions to such topics as slavery). Many of these limitations are due to her artistic integrity in not describing what she herself was not personally familiar with (or in avoiding clichéd plot devices common in the literature of her day).
Search the text of Jane Austen's six novels
One minor but interesting point is that, though Jane Austen never used a Jewish character, or discussed Judaism in any way in her writings, she manages to strike a blow against anti-Semitism anyway -- her sole mention of Jews is the phrase "as rich as a Jew", used repetitively in Northanger Abbey by John Thorpe (one of the most obnoxious and ridiculous characters in all her novels); significantly, the heroine Catherine Morland does not at first understand what he means.
Though she always had her admirers, Jane Austen was not the most popular or most highly-praised novelist of her era (none of her novels were reprinted in English between 1818 and 1831), and she was not generally considered a great novelist until the late nineteenth century (see Southam). During her lifetime, Sir Walter Scott boosted Jane Austen through his review of Emma, but nowadays it is Jane Austen who is used to boost Sir Walter Scott -- Jane Austen's comments (in a personal letter of September 28th, 1814) on Scott's Waverley have been used as a back cover blurb for recent reprintings of Scott's novel.
Go to 1910 Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on Jane Austen.
One thing that many contemporary readers felt to be lacking in Jane Austen's novels was their failure to be `instructive' (i.e. to teach a moral), or `inspirational' (that is "to elevate mankind by their depiction of ideal persons, even in defiance of the known realities of ordinary life" -- Southam, p.14). Jane Austen makes fun of such didactic tendencies in her ending to Northanger Abbey: "I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny or reward filial disobedience." In her last work (Sanditon), she has a very foolish character (Sir Edward Denham) criticize novels like those she herself writes as "vapid tissues of Ordinary occurrences from which no useful Deductions can be drawn". Jane Austen also once said (in a letter of March 23 1816) that "pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked", and she satirized the frequent lack of realism in the literature of the day in her Plan of a Novel: "there will be no mixture... the Good will be unexceptionable in every respect -- and there will be no foibles or weaknesses but with the Wicked, who will be completely depraved and infamous, hardly a resemblance of Humanity left in them". (See also quotes from Jane Austen on the "heroic" (i.e. falsely idealized) vs. the "natural".)
What many other contemporary readers did admire in Jane Austen's novels was their plausibility and depiction of real life -- as opposed to the sensationalism, unlikely meetings between long-lost relatives, villainous aristocratic would-be ravishers, etc. that were the stock in trade of much of the literature of the period.
Thus one Anne Romilly wrote in 1814 that
"Mansfield park...has been pretty generally admired here, and I think all novels must be that are true to life which this is... It has not however that elevation of virtue, something beyond nature, that gives the greatest charm to a novel."
In the Opinions of Mansfield Park, Jane Austen recorded the comments of one Lady Gordon:
"In most novels you are amused for the time with a set of Ideal People whom you never think of afterwards or whom you the least expect to meet in common life, whereas in Miss A----'s works, & especially in M[ansfield] P[ark] you actually live with them, you fancy yourself one of the family; & the scenes are so exactly descriptive, so perfectly natural, that there is scarcely an Incident, or conversation, or a person, that you are not inclined to imagine you have at one time or other in your Life been a witness to, borne a part in, & been acquainted with."
In a letter of May 1813, soon after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Annabella Milbanke (later Lady Byron) wrote in a letter that
"I have finished the Novel called Pride and Prejudice, which I think a very superior work. It depends not on any of the common resources of novel writers, no drownings, no conflagrations, nor runaway horses, nor lap-dogs and parrots, nor chambermaids and milliners, nor rencontres [duels] and disguises. I really think it is the most probable I have ever read. It is not a crying book, but the interest is very strong, especially for Mr. Darcy. The characters which are not amiable are diverting, and all of them are consistently supported."
In 1815 one William Gifford wrote
"I have for the first time looked into P. and P.; and it is really a very pretty thing. No dark passages; no secret chambers; no wind-howlings in long galleries; no drops of blood upon a rusty dagger -- things that should now be left to ladies' maids and sentimental washerwomen." (See also Henry Tilney's gothic parody from Northanger Abbey.)
In 1816 Sir Walter Scott reviewed Emma, as being one of "a class of fictions which has arisen almost in our own times, and which draws the characters and incidents introduced more immediately from the current of ordinary life than was permitted by the former rules of the novel", and "copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him".
Sir Walter Scott journal entry, March 14th 1826
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 big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going, but 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 following is part of a lecture the novelist Anthony Trollope gave in 1870 (in which he also expresses the Victorian sentiment that "Throughout all [Jane Austen's] works, a sweet lesson of homely household womanly virtue is ever being taught.").
"Miss Austen was surely a great novelist. What she did, she did perfectly. Her work, as far as it goes, is faultless. She wrote of the times in which she lived, of the class of people with which she associated, and in the language which was usual to her as an educated lady. Of romance, -- what we generally mean when we speak of romance -- she had no tinge. Heroes and heroines with wonderful adventures there are none in her novels. Of great criminals and hidden crimes she tells us nothing. But she places us in a circle of gentlemen and ladies, and charms us while she tells us with an unconscious accuracy how men should act to women, and women act to men. It is not that her people are all good; -- and, certainly, they are not all wise. The faults of some are the anvils on which the virtues of others are hammered till they are bright as steel. In the comedy of folly I know no novelist who has beaten her. The letters of Mr. Collins, a clergyman in Pride and Prejudice, would move laughter in a low-church archbishop."
Her letter of January 12th 1848 to George Lewes (in response to his advice to her, after the publication of her novel Jane Eyre to write less melodramatically, like Jane Austen):
Letter of January 18th 1848 to George Lewes (in response to his reply to the preceding):
Newsflash: Research by P. H. Wheat recently (1992) turned up the following lost paragraph to this letter, in which Charlotte Brontë expresses her preference for Jane Austen over one Eliza Lynn Lynton:
``With infinitely more relish can I sympathise with Miss Austen's clear common sense and subtle shrewdness. If you find no inspiration in Miss Austen's page, neither do you find mere windy wordiness; to use your words over again, she exquisitely adapts her means to her end; both are very subdued, a little contracted, but never absurd.''
Letter of April 12th 1850 to W.S. Williams:
"I have likewise read one of Miss Austen's works, Emma -- read it with interest and with just the degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable -- anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, or heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré and extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress."
Go to another Charlotte Brontë quote on Austen.
"I... do not think the worse of him for having a brain so very different from mine. ... And he deserves better treatment than to be obliged to read any more of my works."
Here are some deprecatory quotes on Austen: