"Without Brilliancy of Any Kind"
What Some Women Should Not
Have Said About Jane Austen
A Male Voices Web Page

Jane Austen is a great favorite with women and always has been. However, it simply isn't true that she is a women's novelist only. That never was the case; Jane Austen was recognized and acknowledged from the earliest times by men of her own generation. It is only recently that some confusion has developed over this matter. It is not my purpose to understand the source of that confusion; rather, my goal is to clear the air by supplying clear evidence of male voices in praise of Jane Austen. I have done that, for example, with the quotes of Walter Scott, Richard Whateley, Thomas Macaulay, E. M. Forster, C. S. Lewis, and so many others.

On the other hand, there were men, such as Mark Twain and D. H. Lawrence, who "didn't get it" and that fact might be used to undermine my main contention. For that reason, I will use this space to show that a number of women didn't get it either and so, in that kind of perverse way, I reaffirm the great Jane's gender neutrality.

One word of warning - this posting causes pain and creates anger. In one particular case, there is a great deal of pain for all of us. Also, you might be a bit anguished by another quote which only gives me a good giggle (her initials are "Charlotte" and "Brontë"). I will interject some much-needed respite for you at times. I start that right here by declaring that some fine, intelligent things were said about our Lady by Virginia Woolf [South-87, #26, #31], and there are many other examples. However, those quotes are not to the point so I will not bother you with them in this posting.

Miss Augusta Bramston

I will start you off with something easy, a quote from one of Jane Austen's neighbors. We have this from Jane Austen herself who was amused to write down the remarks that close acquaintance and family made about her novels. For example, she recorded the opinion of Miss Augusta Bramston of Oaklay Hall who

"owned that she thought S&S and P&P downright nonsense, but expected to find MP better, & having finished the 1st vol.—flattered herself she had got through the worst."

[LeFaye-89, Chapter 15]

Perhaps as a honorarium for this review of Mansfield Park, Miss Bramston was rewarded when Jane Austen made Mrs. Elton (the former Miss Augusta Hawkins) the reviewer's namesake.

Maria Edgeworth

Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) was an Anglo-Irish novelist much admired by Jane Austen. Miss Edgeworth did not return the compliment and had this to say about Emma.

"There is no story in it, except that Miss Emma found that the man whom she designed for Harriet's lover was an admirer of her own—& he was affronted at being refused by Emma & Harriet wore the willow—and smooth, thin water-gruel is according to Emma's father's opinion a very good thing & it is very difficult to make a cook understand what you mean by smooth, thin water-gruel."

[LeFaye-98, page 90]

Read what Jane Austen's brother, Henry, said about his sister's admiration of Edgeworth. The irony is that Henry was trying to exalt his sister by suggesting that she might even have been as good as Fanny Burney or Maria Edgeworth!—I mean everyone today knows of Jane Austen but most will wonder who the other two women are. My own opinion of Maria Edgeworth is that the woman could write a beautiful page but never put together an even passable novel. I am almost pleased that she was clueless on the matter of Jane Austen.

Madame de Staël

Madame Anne Louisa Germaine de Staël (1766-1817) was the daughter of two French intellectuals and acquired her aristocratic title through her marriage to the Swedish ambassador in Paris. Her father was Jacques Necker, an important liberal political figure during the Revolution. Madame de Staël was a novelist but was at her best when writing about political philosophy or in the sphere of literary criticism. For example, she wrote one tome that introduced to the French the great literary movement then taking place in Germany. This was famous with everyone except Napoleon who ordered the first printing destroyed and the authoress banished. - Talk about your tough audience! That landed her in England in about 1810, which is just before Jane Austen's novels began to appear. (It was said of some French women of the day that, on occasion, they concealed a contraceptive sponge in the sash about the waist - you know, like in Brave New World. - The hints are that Madame encountered many occasions when this would have been a good idea.)

Madame Germaine de Staël by Madame Vigée le Brun Campy Portrait of
Madame Germaine de Staël
by Mme Vigée le Brun
De Staël hated this portrait of herself because it made her appear a bit bulky.

A good friend of Germaine de Staël's was Sir John Mackintosh (1765-1832) who wrote on philosophical and historical matters. He was also an early admirer of the Austen novels: "There was a genius in the sketching out that new kind of novel". He recommended the novels to his French friend by pointing to "the traits of character which are so delicately touched in Miss Austen's novels". Madame responded by reading one of the novels, probably Pride and Prejudice, and passed down this one word review:

    "vulgaire"

Claire Tomalin expands a bit:

    "Later de Staël expressed her view that Austen's novels were vulgaire, too close to the English provincial life she detested for its narrowness and dullness, its emphasis on duty and stifling of wit and brilliance. Brilliant as she herself was, she could not find interest in the small scale; and her English was simply not good enough to allow her to enjoy brilliance of a different kind."

    Claire Tomalin [Tomalin-JA, Chapter 22]

Mackintosh had his own response to "vulgaire": "there is no book which that word would suit so little... Every village could furnish matter for a novel to Jane Austen. She did not need the common materials for a novel—strong passion, or strong incident." [South-68, #22]

The story doesn't end there - not quite. There is an anecdote that one can read in all the biographies and I will repeat that for you. Jane Austen was in London to visit her blabbermouth and favorite brother Henry who was so very apt to tell people the secret name of the mysterious authoress. It was at that time that

    "a nobleman, personally unknown to her ... was desirous of her joining a literary circle at his house. He communicated his wish in the politest manner, through a mutual friend [i.e. Henry] adding, what his Lordship thought would be an irresistible inducement, that the celebrated Madame de Staël would be of the party. To her truly delicate mind such a display would have given pain instead of pleasure."

    Henry Thomas Austen Memoir of Miss Austen [LeFaye-89, Chapter 14]

Jane insisted that Henry decline the invitation at once and, in this way, scampered away like a frightened rabbit. I wonder if she would have done that if she had understood what a delicious evening might be in store for her.

Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) was one-year old when Jane Austen died. Charlotte Brontë is such a great favorite to so many that I simply had to include her thoughts on Jane Austen. The literary critic G.H. Lewes (1817-1878) admired Jane Eyre and said so in print, but he may have admired Jane Austen's novels even more because he compared her to Goethe, Fielding, and Cervantes and then with Shakespeare and Molière. Charlotte wrote to express her gratitude for his kindness to herself, but couldn't let it stand there and began to express her views on Jane Austen of whom she had never before heard.

    "Why do you like Jane Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. ... I had not seen Pride and Prejudice till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? ...a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. ... These observations will probably irritate you, but I shall run the risk."

    "Now I can understand admiration of George Sand ... she had a grasp of mind which, if I cannot fully comprehend, I can very deeply respect: she is sagacious and profound; Miss Austen is only shrewd and observant."

    Charlotte Brontë, January 12, 1848 [South-68, #27]

I see that Charlotte Brontë could not fully comprehend what was sagacious and profound. That is what she said, is it not? Charlotte invited a reply and received it; unhappily, it no longer exists and so we can only infer Lewes's thoughts from what Charlotte said in her next letter.

    "What a strange lecture comes in your letter! You say I must familiarize my mind with the fact that that 'Miss Austen is not a poetess, has no "sentiment" ... no eloquence, none of the ravishing enthusiasm of poetry'; and then you add, I must 'learn to acknowledge her as one of the great artists, of the greatest painters of human character, and one of the writers with the nicest sense of means to an end that ever lived.' "

    "That last point only will I ever acknowledge."

    "Can there be a great artist without poetry? ... But by 'poetry', I am sure you understand something different to what I do, as you do by 'sentiment'. ... I submit to your anger, which I have now excited (for have I not questioned the perfection of your darling?); the storm may pass over me. ..."

    Charlotte Brontë, January 18, 1848 [South-68, #27]

Not if I can help it.

The next excerpt is from a letter to W.S. Williams, the publisher's reader who was so instrumental in the publication of Jane Eyre. Unhappily, Charlotte found another Austen-lover in her correspondence and felt she had to deal with that.

    "I have likewise read one of Miss Austen's works Emma—read it with interest and with just the right degree of admiration which the Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable—anything like warmth or enthusiasm; anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstration the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outre and extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress. ... Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible (not senseless) woman, if this is heresy—I cannot help it. If I said it to some people (Lewes for example) they would accuse me of advocating exaggerated heroics, but I am not afraid of your falling into any such vulgar error."

    Charlotte Brontë, April 12, 1850 [South-68, #27]

Blast!—I have fallen into that "vulgar" category again.

George Eliot (?)

This next bit is not quite so funny because these final quotes are from George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans, later Cross) (1819-1880), so they have to be taken seriously. Our only chance here is the simple fact that they may not be the words of George Eliot because they are taken from an unsigned, published article that scholars only attribute to George Eliot—Remember, always carry with you the examples of the "Piltdown Man" and the "Hitler Diaries".

    "... The high reputation which Miss Austen's novels gained, and still retain, is a proof of the ready appreciation which is always felt when an author dares to be natural. Without brilliancy of any kind—without imagination, depth of thought, or wide experience, Miss Austen, by simply describing what she knew and had seen, and making accurate portraits of very tiresome and uninteresting people, is recognized as a true artist, and will continue to be admired, when many authors more ambitious, and believing themselves filled with a much higher inspiration, will be neglected and forgotten. ... People will persist in admiring what they can appreciate and understand ... But Miss Austen's accurate scenes from dull life, and Miss Burney's long histories of amiable and persecuted heroines, though belonging to the modern and reformed school of novels, must be classed in the lower division. ... They show us too much of the littlenesses and trivialities of life, and limit themselves so scrupulously to the sayings and doings of dull, ignorant, and disagreeable people, that their very truthfulness makes us yawn. They fall short of fulfilling the objects, and satisfying the necessities of Fiction in its highest aspect—as the art whose office it is 'to interest, to please, and sportively to elevate—to take man from the low passions and miserable troubles of life into a higher region, to beguile weary and selfish pain, to excite a generous sorrow at vicissitudes not his own, to raise the passions into sympathy with heroic troubles, and to admit the soul into that serener atmosphere from which it rarely returns to ordinary existence without some memory or association which ought to enlarge the domain of thought, and exalt the motives of action.'"

    Anonymous (George Eliot?) The Progress
    of Fiction as an Art
    , 1853 [South-68, #34]

Pooh-pooh-pee-do. Still, I think I get it, Mary Ann; Jane Austen should have written about those wild and crazy guys in Middlemarch.

George Henry Lewes (1817-1878) was born the year that Jane Austen died. He is mentioned above in the treatment of Charlotte Bronte's views because he was one of her chief antagonistic correspondents on all matters pertaining to Jane Austen. However, Lewes figures even more prominently in the discussion of George Eliot's views because he became Mary Ann's lover in 1854 and they remained together until his death twenty-four years later. George Eliot's best-known novels began to appear shortly after their affair was consummated. I have seen him described, variously, as an accomplished philosopher and as "an accomplished and scholarly journalist with a great interest in literature". He must have been very bright because he championed Jane Austen's novels.

"What we most hardily enjoy and applaud, is truth in the delineation of life and character: incidents however wonderful, adventures however perilous, are almost as naught when compared with the deep and lasting interest excited by any thing like a correct representation of life. That indeed seems to us to be Art, and the only Art we care to applaud. To make our meaning precise, we should say that Fielding and Miss Austen are the greatest novelists in our language. ... Now Miss Austen has been called a prose Shakespeare; and, among others by Macaulay. ... we confess the greatness of Miss Austen, her marvelous dramatic power, seems more than any thing in Scott akin to the greatest quality in Shakespeare. ..."

G. H. Lewes Recent Novels: French and English, 1847

Actually, this was the first time in print that Jane Austen had been called the "prose Shakespeare"; everyone today is convinced that the term was Lewes's invention although he would continue to attribute it to Macaulay.

"First and foremost let Jane Austen be named, the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end. There are heights and depths in human nature Miss Austen has never scaled nor fathomed, there are worlds of passionate existence into which she has never set foot; but although this is obvious to every reader, it is equally obvious that she risked no failures by attempting to delineate that which she had not seen. Her circle may be restricted, but it is complete. Her world is a perfect orb, and vital. ... To read one of her books is like an actual experience of life: you know the people as if you had lived with them, and you feel something of personal affection towards them. ... We do not find such profound psychological insight as may be found in George Sand (not to mention male writers), but taking the type to which the characters belong, we see the most intimate and accurate knowledge in all Miss Austen's creations. ... Strong lights are unnecessary, true lights being at command. ..."

"Of greater genius, and incomparably deeper experience, George Sand represents woman's literature more illustriously and more obviously. In her, quite apart from the magnificent gifts of Nature, we see the influence of Sorrow, as a determining impulse to write, and the abiding consciousness of the womanly point of view as the subject matter of her writings."

G. H. Lewes The Lady Novelists, 1852

My reference here has been B. C. Southam [South-68]. You will find much, much more about Lewes in that collection—I highly recommend it.

Poor Mary Ann, it almost seems that she was getting it from all directions. She was getting it from her live-in lover and, so it is reported, she was getting it from acquaintance. It is said that Alfred Lord Tennyson once told her that "he greatly admired her insight into character, but did not think her so true to nature as Shakespeare or Miss Austen".

Alice Meynell

I conclude with the most recent sour note. Actually, I am giving this second hand - I am quoting from my favorite biography, Elizabeth Jenkins's Jane Austen. Miss Jenkins quotes Alice Meynell who spoke of

"The essential meanness of Jane Austen's art ... [her style] was a mouthful of thick words"

Upon which the biographer observed,

"As Jane Austen said of a malapropos remark of Mrs. Digweed's: 'What she meant, poor woman, who can say?' "

Related Material

Don't think that Charlotte Brontë reserved her invective for only Jane Austen. Read what Charlotte said about Henry Fielding and what she said about her own sisters. Also, see our comparison of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre with Jane Austen's Fanny Price.


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