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Friday, January 22, 2016

When Jane Austen Checks her Amazon Rating

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?


  1. Thank you for joining us during release week. I'd love to hear from readers of Austen. If you've read them all, do you have a non-favorite? One that is difficult to read through?

  2. Deb, I really enjoyed this post. I especially like the review by Sir Walter Scott.

    When you ask how I would review Jane's work, do you mean at the time she wrote it? Or today? It's a big difference, because I believe if I read them back then, I wouldn't have a problem understanding her 'voice' like I do today.

    At least, I'm assuming that most people spoke the same in the regency period.

    What do you think?

    1. I was open to comments and I appreciate yours. I enjoy her work and its interpretations, but I find it's easier to listen to than to read in some cases. The audience at the time had much more focus on reading. I feel too rushed in my reading these days to keep track of all new characters, and when I read Mansfield Park the first time I was lost about 10% of the way in! Certainly 19th century fiction had much more setting detail...narrative and back story.

  3. I like them all, though I have to say P&P is my favorite. But I love Colonel Brandon and lots of other bits and pieces. I couldn't do without any of them.

    1. I can't imagine my reading or viewing enjoyment without them, either. That Regency era was short compared to the Georgian (multiple!) and Victorian era, but Austen's work makes is seem such an impactful time.

  4. Fun post, and the Austenland photo was a nice perk on a day when I'm down with the flu.

    You know who didn't like Austen was Samuel Clemens. I don't remember why. I love him but pooh on him in this instance!

  5. Yes, but his style was so different, and...he was a man. ;)

  6. Great post, Deb. I love the photos. Susie, I hope you're feeling better!

    1. Thanks, Suzie. It was pretty interesting to work on. I imagine that authors either ignored the newspapers or quarterlies, or rushed to get them from the paperboy!

  7. Great post, Deb. I love the photos. Susie, I hope you're feeling better!