"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
"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
"... The influence of her genius is extensively recognized in the American Republic, even by the highest judicial authorities. The late Mr. Chief Justice Marshall, of the Supreme Court of the United States, and his associate Mr. Justice Story, highly estimated and admired Miss Austen, and to them we owe our introduction to her society...""
Letter to Jane's sailor brother, Admiral Sir Francis
from the Quincy family of Boston, Massachusetts (Jan. 1852)
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.
"Her flights are not lofty, she does not soar on an eagle's wings, but she is pleasing, interesting, equable, yet amusing"
John Marshall; (Nov. 26, 1826) in Life of John Marshall, A.J. Beveridge
"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.
"Jane lies in Winchester -- blessed be her
"JANE went to Paradise:
Then the Three Archangels
Instantly the under-
In a private limbo
He heard the question
"... 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.
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.
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)
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,
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
Rev. James Austen, (1817)
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
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.
"... Her works, slow in their progress towards popularity, have achieved it with the greater certainty, and have made an impression the more permanent from its gradual advance. The popularity continues, although the customs and manners which Jane Austen describes have changed and varied so much as to belong in a great measure to another age. But the reason of its continuance is not far to seek. Human nature is the same in all ages of the world, and "the inimitable Jane" (as an old friend of mine used always to call her) is true to Nature from first to last. She does not attract our imagination by sensational descriptions or marvelous plots; but, with so little "plot" at all as to offend those who read only for excitement, she describes men and women exactly as men and women really are, and tells her tale of ordinary, everyday life with such truthful delineation, such bewitching simplicity, and, moreover, with such purity of style and language, as have rarely been equaled, and perhaps never surpassed. ..."
Lord Brabourne, (1884)
(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.
" ... the Admiral always cherished the most affectionate remembrance of the sister who had so soon passed away, leaving those six precious volumes to be a storehouse of household words among the family. How often do I call to mind some question or answer expressed quite naturally in terms of the novels; sometimes even a conversation would be carried on entirely appropriate to the matter under discussion, but the actual phrases were 'Aunt Jane's'. So well, too, do I recall the sad news of the death of Admiral Charles Austen, after the capture, under his command, of Martaban and Rangoon, and while he was leading his squadron to further successes, fifty-six years having elapsed since his first sea-fight. ..."
J.H. Hubback, Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers (1906)
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.
" ...And when the public, which has not been insensible to the merits of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma, shall be informed that the hand that guided the pen is now mouldering in the grave, perhaps a brief account of Jane Austen will be read with a kindlier sentiment than simple curiosity. ... she sent into the world those novels, which by many have been placed on the same shelf as the works of a D'Arblay [Fanny Burney] and an Edgeworth. ... though in composition she was rapid and correct, yet an invincible distrust of her own judgement induced her to withhold her works from the public, till time and many perusals had satisfied her that the charm of recent composition was dissolved. The natural constitution, the regular habits, the quiet and happy occupations of our authoress promise a long succession of amusement to the public, and a gradual increase of reputation to herself. ... Neither her love of God, nor of her fellow creatures flagged for a moment. She made a point of receiving the sacrament before excessive bodily weakness rendered her perception unequal to her wishes. She wrote whilst she could hold a pen, and with a pencil when a pen was become too laborious. The day preceding her death she composed some stanzas replete with fancy and vigour. ... She expired shortly after on Friday the 18th of July, 1817, in the arms of her sister, who, as the relator of these events, feels too surely that they will never see her like again. ... Of personal attractions she possessed a considerable share. Her stature was that of true elegance. ... Her carriage and deportment were quiet, yet graceful. Her features were separately good. Their assemblage produced an unrivalled expression of that cheerfulness, sensibility, and benevolence, which were her real characteristics. Her complexion was of the finest texture. It might with truth be said, that her eloquent blood spoke through her modest cheek. Her voice was extremely sweet. She delivered herself with fluency and precision ... excelling in conversation as much as in composition. ... Her own musical attainments she held very cheap. Twenty years ago they would have been more thought of, and twenty years hence many parents will expect their daughters to be applauded for meaner performances. She was fond of dancing, and excelled in it. ... If there be an opinion current in the world, that perfect placidity of temper is not reconcileable to the most lively imagination, and the keenest relish for wit, such an opinion will be rejected forever by those who have had the happiness of knowing [my sister] ... Faultless herself, as nearly as human nature can be, she always sought, in the faults of others, something to excuse, to forgive or forget. Where extenuation was impossible, she had a sure refuge in silence. She never uttered a hasty, a silly, or a severe expression. In short, her temper was as polished as her wit. Nor were her manners inferior to her temper. No one could be often in her company without feeling a strong desire of obtaining her friendship, and cherishing a hope of having obtained it. She became an authoress entirely from taste and inclination. Neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed with her early motives. ... It was with extreme difficulty that her friends, whose partiality she suspected whilst she honored their judgement, could prevail upon her to publish her first work. ... The works of our authoress, however, may live as long as those which have burst upon the world with more eclat. ... no accumulation of fame could have induced her, had she lived, to affix her name to any productions of her pen. ... in public she turned away from any allusion to the character of an authoress. ... Her own works, probably, were never heard to so much advantage as from her own mouth; for she partook largely in all the best gifts of the comic muse. ... Her reading was very extensive in history and belles lettres; and her memory extremely tenacious. Her favorite moral writers were Johnson in prose, and Cowper in verse. It is difficult to say at what age [my sister] was not intimately acquainted with the merits and defects of the best essays and novels in the English language. Richardson's power of creating, and preserving the consistency of his characters, as particularly exemplified in Sir Charles Grandison, gratified the natural discrimination of her mind, whilst her taste secured her from the errors of his prolix style and tedious narrative. She did not rank any work of Fielding quite so high. Without the slightest affectation, she recoiled from every thing gross. Neither nature, wit, nor humour, could make her amends for so low a scale of morals. ... One trait only remains to be touched on. ... She was thoroughly religious and devout; fearful of giving offence to God, and incapable of feeling it towards any fellow creature. ..."
Henry Austen, Biographical Notice (1818)
Thank you Henry Thomas Austen - for everything.
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 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.
Other Male Voices
A context for Mark Twain's remarks
If you are upset with Mark Twain and
Jane Austen's Time