"Brass, Winter Thunder, and a Polar Bear"
A Posting of What Men Have
Said About Jane Austen

December 16, 1997

I want to share with you some of the things I have collected over the years. Some of the things that other men have said about Jane Austen or her vision. I intend for these to serve as a stimulus to you, a stimulus to expand this posting by donating your own collections.

Sir Walter Scott

 

Sir Walter Scott

    "Read again, for the third time at least, Miss Austen's finely written novel of 'Pride And Prejudice'. That young Lady had a talent for describing the involvements 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 common-place 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 Diary of Sir Walter Scott
(March 14, 1826)

 

*

American Admirers

*

If you are not an American, you might be interested to learn that, while George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were the most famous Americans of Jane Austen's generation, the three most important were James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Chief Justice John Marshall (1755-1835). We have this next bit in the Chief Justice's own words; he was writing to John Story, who had just delivered a lecture on women writers that did not include Jane Austen. Marshall recommended her with these words.

Anthony Trollope

"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."

Anthony Trollope, (1870)

I must interject that I don't completely agree with Trollope. Jane Austen's work is not restricted to a particular age, it is universal. Also, I find much that is romantic "- what we generally mean when we speak of romance -" in her novels. I certainly do not agree that she wrote comedies - of any sort.

 

Rudyard Kipling

 

"Jane lies in Winchester -- blessed be her shade!
Praise the Lord for making her, and her for all she made!
And while the stones of Winchester, or Milsom Street, remain,
Glory, love, and honor unto England's Jane!
"

Rudyard Kipling
Epigraph to "The Janeites"

"JANE went to Paradise:
That was only fair.
Good Sir Walter met her first,
And led her up the stair.
Henry and Tobias,
And Miguel of Spain,
Stood with Shakespeare at the top
To welcome Jane --

Then the Three Archangels
Offered out of hand,
Anything in Heaven's gift
That she might command.
Azrael's eyes upon her,
Raphael's wings above,
Michael's sword against her heart,
Jane said: "Love."

Instantly the under-
standing Seraphim
Laid their fingers on their lips
And went to look for him.
Stole across the Zodiac,
Harnessed Charles's Wain,
And whispered round the Nebulae
"Who loved Jane?"

In a private limbo
Where none had thought to look,
Sat a Hampshire gentleman
Reading of a book.
It was called Persuasion,
And it told the plain
Story of the love between
Him and Jane.

He heard the question
Circle Heaven through --
Closed the book and answered:
"I did -- and do!"
Quietly but speedily
(As Captain Wentworth moved)
Entered into Paradise
The man Jane loved! "

Rudyard Kipling
Jane's Marriage

 

G.K. Chesterton

"... I fancy that Jane Austen was stronger, sharper and shrewder than Charlotte Bronte; I am quite sure that she was stronger, sharper and shrewder than George Eliot. She could do one thing neither of them could do: she could coolly and sensibly describe a man. ..."

G.K. Chesterton What's Wrong
With The World (1910)

Great quote! Except, I not sure that his judgment of George Eliot is accurate. (An acknowledgement to Elizabeth M.)

He elaborated on this subject a few years later

"The Novel of the nineteenth century was female; as fully as the novel of the eighteenth century was male. ... The strength and subtlety of woman had certainly sunk deep into English letters when George Eliot began to write.

Her originals and even her contemporaries had shown the feminine power in fiction as well or better than she. Charlotte Bronte, understood along her own instincts, was as great; Jane Austen was greater. The latter comes into our present consideration only as that most exasperating thing, an ideal unachieved. It is like leaving an unconquered fortress in the rear. No woman later has captured the complete common sense of Jane Austen. She could keep her head, while all the after women went looking for their brains. She could describe a man cooly; which neither George Eliot nor Charlotte Bronte could do. She knew what she knew, like a sound dogmatist: she did not know what she did not know--like a sound agnostic. But she belongs to a vanished world before the great progressive age of which I write. ...

Jane Austen was born before those bonds which (we are told) protected women from truth, were burst by the Brontes or elaborately untied by George Eliot. Yet the fact remains That Jane Austen knew more about men than either of them. ... When Darcy, in finally confessing his faults, says 'I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice though not in theory,' he gets nearer to a complete confession of the intelligent male than ever was even hinted by the Byronic lapses of the Brontes' heroes or the elaborate exculpations of George Eliot's. Jane Austen, of course, covered an infinitely smaller field than any of her later rivals; but I have always believed in the victory of small nationalities."

G.K. Chesterton The Victorian Age in Literature (1913)

Incidentally, here are two links to things that some women should not have said about Jane Austen: first Charlotte Bronte and then George Eliot.

Chesterton wrote the preface to a publication of Jane Austen's Love and Freindship and Other Early Works in 1922. (Notice the young Jane Austen's rule for "i" before "e" - never.) There, he observed.

"... These pages betray [Jane Austen's] secret; which is that she was naturally exuberant. And her power came, as all power comes, from the control and direction of exuberance. But there is the presence and pressure of that vitality behind her thousand trivialities; she could have been extravagant if she liked. She was the very reverse of a starched or a starved spinster; ... this is what gives an infallible force to her irony. This is what gives a stunning weight to her understatements."

Wonderful! A fine insight that one sees almost nowhere else. Although, of course, he goes terribly wrong where he suggests that there were any trivialities in our Lady's novels.

W.H. Auden

    A Letter To Lord Byron, W. H. Auden
"...
There is one other author in my pack
For some time I debated which to write to.
Which would least likely send my letter back?
But I decided I'd give a fright to
Jane Austen if I wrote when I'd no right to,
And share in her contempt the dreadful fates
Of Crawford, Musgrove, and of Mr. Yates.
 
Then she's a novelist. I don't know whether
You will agree, but novel writing is
A higher art than poetry altogether
In my opinion, and success implies
Both finer character and faculties
Perhaps that's why real novels are as rare
As winter thunder or a polar bear.
...
I must remember, though, that you were dead
Before the four great Russians lived, who brought
The art of novel writing to a head;
The help of Boots had not been sought.
But now the art for which Jane Austen fought,
Under the right persuasion bravely warms
And is the most prodigious of the forms.
 
She was not an unshockable blue-stocking;
If shades remain the characters they were,
No doubt she still considers you as shocking.
But tell Jane Austen, that is if you dare,
How much her novels are beloved down here.
She wrote them for posterity, she said;
'Twas rash, but by posterity she's read.
 
You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle-class
Describe the amorous effects of 'brass',
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.
..."

This is a short excerpt from a much longer poem. If you pick it up, you will discover that Auden expresses an attitude about Byron that is not inconsistent with my own.

 

C.S. Lewis

 

Everything I believe about Jane Austen novels is best expressed by C.S. Lewis. He begins by describing the epiphany experienced by four of the Austen heroines, a type of experience the great Lady describes very well. (An example is the new self-awareness forced upon Elizabeth Bennet during the reading of Darcy's letter.) Lewis also calls the experience an "undeception"

"... It is perhaps worth emphasizing what may be called the hardness - at least the firmness - of Jane Austen's thought exhibited in all these undeceptions. The great abstract nouns of the classical English Moralists are unblushingly and uncompromisingly used; good sense, courage, contentment, fortitude, 'some duty neglected, some failing indulged', impropriety, indelicacy, generous candor, blamable trust, just humiliation, vanity, folly, ignorance, reason. These are the concepts by which Jane Austen grasps the world. ... All is hard, clear, definable; by some modern standards, even naively so. The hardness is, of course, for oneself, not for one's neighbors. ... Contrasted with the world of modern fiction, Jane Austen's is at once less soft and less cruel. ... It remains to defend what I have been saying against a possible charge. Have I been treating the novels as though I had forgotten that they are, after all, comedies? I trust not. The hard core of morality and even of religion seems to me to be just what makes good comedy possible. 'Principles' or 'seriousness' are essential to Jane Austen's art. Where there is no norm, nothing can be ridiculous, except for a brief moment of unbalanced provincialism in which we may laugh at the merely unfamiliar. Unless there is something about which the author is never ironical, there can be no true irony in the work. 'Total irony' - irony about everything - frustrates itself and becomes insipid. ... If charity is the poetry of conduct and honor the rhetoric of conduct, then Jane Austen's 'principles' might be described as the grammar of conduct. Now grammar is something that anyone can learn; it is also something that everyone must learn. ... She is described by someone in Kipling's worst story as the mother of Henry James. I feel much more sure that she is the daughter of Dr. Johnson: she inherits his common sense, his morality, even much of his style. ..."

C.S. Lewis A Note On Jane Austen
In Essays in Criticism (Oct. 1954)

 

Austen Men

And what of the men who lived with and loved her? What did the men in Jane Austen's family have to say about their baby sister, their aunt?

Jane Austen's oldest sibling was James who, like the others, was well educated and a high achiever. He wrote this to Jane after publication of her first novel [LeFaye-89, Chapter 13]. In keeping with her choice for anonymity, it was teasingly unsigned.

"On such subjects no wonder that she shou'd write well,
In whom so united those Qualities dwell;
Where 'dear Sensibility', Sterne's darling Maid,
With Sense so attemper'd is finely portray'd
Fair Elinor's self in that Mind is exprest,
And the Feelings of Marianne live in that Breast,
Oh then, gentle Lady! continue to write,
And the sense of your Readers t'amuse & delight.
"

A Friend


I want to tell you of one other time that James wrote in verse, a completely different sort of time. He was in his final decline and within a year or two of his own death, when word reached him that his beloved sister was no more. He wrote to sooth his pain and to break our hearts.

"Ne'er did this venerable Fane
More beauty, sense & worth contain
Than when upon a Sister's bier
Her Brothers dropt the bitter tear.
...
In her were combined
A fair form & a fairer mind;
Hers, Fancy quick and clear good sense
And wit that never gave offense;
A heart as warm as ever beat,
A Temper, even, calm, & sweet
...
Yet not a word she ever penn'd
Which hurt the feelings of a friend,
And not one line she ever wrote
Which dying she would wish to blot;
But to her family alone
Her real, genuine worth was known.
Yes, they whose lot it was to prove
Her Sisterly, her filial love,
They saw her ready still to share
The labors of domestic care,
...
To have thee with us it was given,
A special behest of heaven
...
When by the Body unconfined
All Sense, Intelligence & Mind
By Seraphs borne through realms of light
(While Angels gladden at the sight)
The Aetherial Spirit wings its way
To regions of Eternal day.
"

Rev. James Austen, (1817)
[LeFaye-89, Chapter 17]


James's son, James Edward Austen, was much admired by his Aunt Jane, both as a child and then as a young man. She did not know that the baby in her arms would be her first biographer - or even that she would ever need such a thing. When he was fifteen, "Edward" - for that is what she called him - happened to read Jane's first two novels and it was only then that he was allowed in on the secret of the authorship. Like his father and his father's mother, he would often express himself in verse. He wrote this to Auntie [LeFaye-89, Chapter 14]. (At first I found the reference to the "pig" a bit jarring, but then I realized that it was intended to make his Aunt laugh - I am uncertain of his success.)

"No words can express, my dear Aunt, my surprise
Or make you conceive how I opened my eyes,
Like a pig Butcher Pile has just struck with his knife,
When I heard for the very first time in my life
That I had the honor to have a relation
Whose works were dispersed
Through the whole of the nation.
...
Your works to Sir William pray send in a trice,
If he'll undertake to some grandees to show it,
By whose means at last the Prince Regent might know it,
For I am sure if he did, in reward for your tale,
He'd make you a countess at least, without fail,
And Indeed, if the Princess should lose her dear life
You might have a good chance of becoming his wife.
"

The reference is to Sir William Lucas of P&P. Sir William did not do his duty and call the Prince's attention to Jane Austen - no! that task was left to Jane Austen's blabbermouth brother Henry. Young Edward must have known that, like most woman of her day, Aunt Jane was no admirer of the Prince and that makes the verse doubly funny.


Jane Austen became a kind of family industry; many of her brothers' descendents published memoirs or collections of some kind or other. For example, brother Edward's grandson inherited a portion of Jane's private letters (about two thirds of those known today) which he annotated and published in 1884. He said this about his grand-aunt in his introduction.

(Here, we see maintained the family's traditional use and meaning of the word "Nature".)


John Hubback was the grandson of Admiral Sir Francis Austen, the brother only one year older than the inimitable Jane. Hubback joined with his own daughter to produce a memoir of the "sailor" brothers. In his introduction, he reminisces about his childhood spent mostly in his grandfather's home.


I have saved the best for the last. Brother Henry was the father's favorite and Jane's too I think. She certainly was adored by this brother. Any fool can fail in a career; though, it may take courage and genius to fail sequentially in four or five quite different careers. Henry certainly had those qualities--and that history. Had he ever succeeded, you and I might never have heard the name "Jane Austen" because it was this brother who was so instrumental in the publication of baby sister's novels. Thank your god, he had time on his hands.

I don't know why Jane Austen published anonymously; I have seen unconvincing speculations about that and even those are few in number. Walter Scott published anonymously (most women did not), so maybe Jane Austen took her cue from that quarter - I simply don't know. She published under the title "by a Lady". That was always curious to me because I thought that the word "Lady" meant a little something different then. I think I am right about that because if you read about the guesses her contemporaries made about the authorship of the novels, you will find that the speculations most often centered upon women of the aristocracy. Her family members were good about keeping her secret - well, except for Henry Austen. Wherever he heard the novels being praised, he would proudly proclaim "Jane Austen" to be the authoress. There exist letters of Jane Austen in which she complains of this habit of Henry. Ummm - if you take those complaints at face value, then I have this really cool car I would like to sell to you.

At the time of Jane's death, Henry was an ordained minister (about his third or fourth manifestation). I think it was he, along with brother James, who served Jane Austen during her last rites. At her death, she had two unpublished, completed novels on her desk. Those were the novels that you and I know as Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. As was typical of Henry, he set about to find a publisher and actually had the novels before the public within a year. He then appended a "biographical notice" to the novels in which he proudly announced her name to the world (how very appropriate!); however, his purpose was to supply some quotes for this posting. By the bye, Henry didn't write very well (prepare yourself for a jarring initial sentence), but, as you will see, he was able to express his love and admiration on this occasion.

Thank you Henry Thomas Austen - for everything.

Mark Twain

And then, of course, there is Mark Twain! He once wrote a waggish review of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper and was asked to explain himself in a letter; this is his reply.

"To me his prose is unreadable - like Jane Austin's [sic]. No there is a difference. I could read his prose on salary, but not Jane's. Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death."

Mark Twain Letter to W. D. Howells, 1/18/1909

Such delicacy! Still another opinion is

"Jane Austen's books, too, are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn't a book in it."

Mark Twain Following the Equator

Things get worse, here is another quote

"I haven't any right to criticize books, and I don't do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize 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 beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone."

Mark Twain Letter to Joseph Twichell, 9/13/1898

Jane Austen herself unwittingly composed the perfect reply to Twain when she wrote these words for Fitzwilliam Darcy in Chapter XI of Pride and Prejudice.

"The wisest and best of [wo]men, nay, the wisest and best of their actions, may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke."

Howell himself explained "His prime abhorrence was my dear and honored prime favorite, Jane Austen. He once said to me...'You seem to think that woman could write,' and he forbore withering me with his scorn, apparently because we had been friends so long, and he pitied more than hated me for my bad taste." [South-87,#23]

Here is Mark Twain quoted by A. B. Paine.

'When I take up one of Jane Austen's books,' he said, 'such as Pride and Prejudice, I feel like a barkeeper entering the kingdom of heaven. I know what his sensations would be and his private comments. He would not find the place to his taste, and he would probably say so.' (1909, on a train ride from Baltimore to Redding)

I don't know - that seems to me slightly different in tone. Southam may have said it best. "[Mark Twain] enjoyed himself in the character of the arch anti-Austenite, the rough-neck American democrat in collision with the genteel English spinster."

There is a context for everything, even Mark Twain's mind cramp. Here is a link to the context for Twain's remarks in Following the Equator.

E.M. Forster

 

E. M. Forster commented on the 1924 editions of Jane Austen's novels by R. W. Chapman. He points out that Chapman's extremely intelligent editing clears up some problems that had existed for years. I strongly recommend the full text - you will be most intrigued. But then the question is why hadn't these things been noticed before? Why don't we all notice those typographical gaffs? He explains.

"I am a Jane Austenite, and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen. My fatuous expression, and airs of personal immunity--how ill they sit on the face, say, of a Stevensonian! But Jane Austen is so different. She is my favourite author! I read and reread, the mouth open and the mind closed. Shut up in measureless content, I greet her by the name of most kind hostess, while criticism slumbers. The Jane Austenite possesses little of the brightness he ascribes so freely to his idol. Like all regular churchgoers, he scarcely notices what is being said. ..." [South-87,#30]

E.M. Forster Waking the Jane Austenite up (1924)

Ain't that the truth--present company excepted. Here is a little something else.

"... Why do the characters in Jane Austen give us a slightly new pleasure each time they come in, as opposed to the merely repetitive pleasure that is caused by a character in Dickens? ... The answer to this question can be put in several ways; that, unlike Dickens, she was a real artist, that she never stooped to caricature, etc. But the best reply is that her characters, though smaller than his, are more highly organized. They function all round, and even if her plot made greater demands on them than it does they would still be adequate. ... All the Jane Austen characters are ready for an extended life which the scheme of her books seldom requires them to lead, and that is why they lead their actual lives so satisfactorily. ... How Jane Austen can write! "

E.M. Forster Aspects of the Novel (1927)

Acknowledgement to Elizabeth M.


Links

Other Male Voices
In Praise of Jane Austen

Sir Francis Austen
Patrick O'Brian
Winston Churchill
Frank O'Connor
Sir Francis Darwin
Henry James
Paul Jennings
D.H. Lawrence
George Henry Lewes
Lord Morpeth
Alfred Lord Tennyson
Whately and Macaulay
Thornton Wilder


A context for Mark Twain's remarks

Local Links


If you are upset with Mark Twain and
D. H. Lawrence, you will really be angry about
What Some Women Should Not
Have Said About Jane Austen
.


Jane Austen's Time