Debra E. Marvin
In today’s publishing world, readers and reviewers might not be kind to Miss Austen. Literature wants a grittier underbelly. Popular fiction wants sweaty passion, blood and corruption. Romance needs a cute meet by page three. After a couple of decades of writing and finding her style, Jane Austen’s family helped her find a publisher. Books were uncommonly expensive at the time, and although she wrote under a pseudonym, “By a Lady”, some readers in the upper crust of society knew of her name. Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, Pride and Prejudice in 1813, Mansfield Park 1814, and Emma in 1815.
|First issue of the Quarterly Review|
|Austen by her sister Cassandra (wikipedia)|
During that time, a novel might merit no more than a mention--title and date of publishing—in a newspaper. Jane Austen’s writing did manage to get a few reviews, most focusing on ‘the moral lessons’ (according to Wikipedia). I’ve been unable to find them myself. Emma, being the later one, received the most interest and was reviewed in 1816 in The Quarterly Review by Sir Walter Scott. He included her ability to “give a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him.” Later in his private journal he wrote, “What a pity such a gifted creature died so early.”
Jane Austen put her final touch on two more novels for publication, Northanger Abbey 1817 and Persuasion 1817 before her death (published posthumously). Afterward, the Quarterly Review’s Richard Whately penned a glowing review of all her work. It was around this time that her family wrote a biography, and by the 1830s, her fame had grown along with a new appetite for her fiction. From that time on, her books have never been out of print. Despite her nephew’s (new) biography of her in 1870, Victorians went crazy for Dickens, Gaskell and their compatriots. Some criticized Austen’s work as lacking what I might call ‘tooth’. Popular fiction at the time showed all the warts of society—Dickens being the chief purveyor of it. Austen, they claimed, played down the dark side as if unable or uninterested. Consider my much loved Bronte sisters!
|Chawton House (wikipedia)|
Of course that criticism too fell away. By the late 19th century Jane Austen was again looked on as a champion, even a feminist, for her focus on the limited choices of women tied only to the fortune of a caretaker or husband. Novelist Margaret Oliphant called her “full of subtle power, keenness, finesse, and self-restraint.” Austen became a window into women’s minds that had been left shadowed by male authors. By the 20th century, Austen readers considered themselves a class above the readers of cheap fiction, and universities around the world began Austen studies. Adding to the discussion, popular novelist Mark Twain held her work in disdain, claiming a private library could be made better simply by excluding her books!
In 1913, Austen descendants again published a thorough family biography including as many letters and articles as could be found. Her books always sold, plays were created and by 1940 the first solid production of her work came about in the visual medium. As I mentioned in my visit to the Seekerville blog, The Timelessness of Jane Austen, we now have over a thousand fan fiction books and over sixty television and theater presentations.
|Just Because I wanted to Put This Here|
So, as the Volume 1 authors of Austen in Austin awaited their first reviews, I wanted to take some time to reflect on Miss Jane’s release dates and reviews. If only she knew what she started!
If you were reviewing Austen's work, what would be your chief criticism? Do you have one you least enjoy?