Saturday, April 04, 2009

Austen's Fame: Not Universally Acknowledged?

Jane's Fame
Reviewed by Philip Hensher
(Image from

In "Now universally acknowledged," a recent article published in The Spectator, the novelist and literary critic Philip Hensher has 'reviewed' Claire Harman's recent book on Jane Austen.

Hensher says little about the book under review but says it in an entertaining manner as he riffs off the book to score his own points about Austen's talent. Austen was not always universally acknowledged, and Hensher points to the rather pointed remarks of a couple of 19th-century 'critics':
Some people haven't cared for Austen -- Charlotte Bronte, who called her novels 'an accurate, daguerrotyped portrait of a commonplace face', or Mark Twain, who wonderfully and ambivalently said that 'every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone'.
Both remarks strike me as wonderfully ambivalent.

Bronte's acknowledges Austen's accuracy in portraying the subject chosen . . . though she thinks it ill-chosen:
And what did I find [in Pride and Prejudice]? . . . An accurate, daguerrotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden. (Barbara M. Benedict, "Sensibility by the Numbers: Austen's Work as Regency Popular Fiction," in Janeites: Austen's Disciples and Devotees, edited by Deidre Lynch (Princeton University Press, 2000), page 63)
Bronte's dismissive remark acknowledges not merely Austen's accuracy but also her skillful care for and cultivation of the chosen subject.

Twain's remark implies that he's read her repeatedly. Here's a more complete account:
From letter 13 September 1898, first published, lacking the third sentence, in Letters (1917), ii. 667, ed. AB Paine; sentence added in 'Mark Twain and the Art of Writing', Brander Matthews, Harper's Magazine, October 1920: 'I haven't any right to criticise books, and I don't do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read "Pride and Prejudice" I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone. (B. C. Southam, Jane Austen: 1870-1940, The Critical Heritage (Routledge, 1996), page 232)
Twain admits to a frenzied inability to compose a reasoned, critical review of Austen . . . but isn't he also confessing to having read and re-read Pride and Prejudice?

Be that as it may, Bronte's criticism is more reasoned and more resonant than Twain's, for Austen's world does strike one as limited. I always wonder, for instance, what the various servants are thinking as they go about their largely anonymous but essential tasks. For Austen to focus on that, however, would have meant writing a different sort of novel, with a different set of limitations. Austen's novels work within the limits set, but their greatness lies in how they transcend those limits, as Hensher observes:
And yet there is a kind of universal genius there, and the formula of 'three or four families in a country village' means something to almost everyone. The French anarchist Félix Fénéon discovered her while languishing in prison for possession of ten detonators and a vial of mercury, and translated her most elegantly ('Personne qui ait jamais vu Catherine Morland dans son enfance ne l'aurait supposée née pour être une héroïne'). It was noted in the early 1960s that Nigerian rural schoolchildren had no problems with the dilemmas of Pride and Prejudice, and in recent years Bollywood adaptations, and a delightful Valley Girl version of Emma, Clueless, have demonstrated a high degree of cultural transferability. There seems no reason why these novels should not go on forever.
In other words, it is a truth now universally acknowledged, that this single woman in possession of a great talent, though in want of critical acclaim among mid-19th-century critics, is one of our greatest writers.

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At 4:51 PM, Blogger John B said...

As for the limits of the subjects chosen, that was linked by several lit instructors, whose courses I've taken, as characteristic of women's literature until, well, pretty much now, because their marginalized status meant they didn't have much personal experience outside of those limited social circles.

It is discussed in Virginia Woolf's "Women and Fiction" (unfortunately, apparently not in the public domain).

"Yet PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, VILLETTE, and MIDDLEMARCH were written by women from whom was forcibly withheld all experience save that which could be met with in a middle-class drawing-room. . . . Even their emotional life was strictly regulated by law and custom."

She goes on to discuss how differences between a writer's female perspective might create very different literature and conjecture on the future of women's literature.

As for reading Austen with a wider perspective, Edward Said gives a new historicist analysis of MANSFIELD PARK in CULTURE AND IMPERIALISM that is really interesting.

(Funny, I've read a lot ABOUT Austen but I have yet to read her actual work.)

At 5:57 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John B, thanks for the quote and perspectives. I urge you to read Austen. Whether you like or dislike her work (or her), you'll profit from the experience.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:54 AM, Blogger John B said...

I've always avoided Victorian literature, but I will add it to the 'to-read' list.

At 2:27 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The Bronte sisters are also great . . . if more disturbing.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:23 AM, Anonymous erdal said...

I can't find the exact words at the moment, so I'll quote from memory instead: "The omission of Jane Austen's books alone would make a great library out of one that hasn't got a book in it." Twain, as far as I remember.

At 8:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Erdal. That is a great quote. In fact, if you click on the link to Twain's quote in the blog entry, you'll find several quotes from Twain, including the one that you've posted.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:03 PM, Blogger John B said...

I'm curious to hear if you've heard of the new book out, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. According to linked article, it features 80% of Austen's original work.

At 9:14 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John B, funny that you should mention this. Only this morning, I was mentioning it to the Milton List -- we don't talk only about Milton there.

Also, a few weeks ago, I read a review in the NYT, showed it to my daughter, and passed it on this morning to the Milton List when I mentioned the book

I'm almost persuaded to read it, for it's gotten good reviews.

Jeffery Hodges

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