The Atlantic's 1863 Case for Why Jane Austen Is Great

Reading rave reviews from our archives, for Pride and Prejudice's 200th anniversary

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Today is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, a book that over the years seems to have drawn as many interpretations and critical approaches as it has drawn readers.

There are those who simply enjoy the plot, those who praise the character studies, those who see an earnest depiction of romance, and those who see the characters so mercilessly drawn as to be not so much earnest as satirical. There are those who see a democratic message in the cross-class match between protagonist Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. There are those who, on the contrary, see the courtship as being, as much as anything, about these two individuals' sense of superiority to everyone around them. That's before you even get to Edward Said.

An email this afternoon from Atlantic contributing editor Sage Stossel pointed out that The Atlantic was already joining in on the debate about Austen in February of 1863.

What makes Austen great? The first answer the author Mrs. R.C. Waterson offers from 1863 is simple: her timelessness—the undying relevance of her observations of human interaction. Pride and Prejudice, Waterson points out, displays Austen's talent for pulling profundity out of what in the hands of other authors might be merely quotidian:

Those were days of post-chaises and sedan-chairs, when the rush of the locomotive was unknown. Steam, genie of the vapor, was yet a little household elf, singing pleasant tunes by the evening fire, at quiet hearthstones; it has since expanded into a mighty giant, whose influences are no longer domestic. The circles of fashion are changed also. Those were the days of country-dances and Indian muslins; the beaux and belles of "the upper rooms" at Bath knew not the whirl of the waltz, nor the ceaseless involvements of "the German." Yet the measures of love and jealousy, of hope and fear, to which their hearts beat time, would be recognized to-night in every ballroom. Infinite sameness, infinite variety, are not more apparent in the outward than in the inward world, and the work of that writer will alone be lasting who recognizes and embodies this eternal law of the great Author.

Jane Austen possessed in a remarkable degree this rare intuition. The following passage is found in Sir Walter Scott's journal, under date of the fourteenth of March, 1826: "Read again, and 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 commonplace things and characters interesting from truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me."

You won't find these fans designating Pride and Prejudice as "chick lit," even had that label been available to them:

"Pride and Prejudice" is piquant in style and masterly in portraiture. We make perhaps too many disagreeable acquaintances to enjoy ourselves entirely; yet who would forego Mr. Collins, or forget Lady Catherine de Bourgh, though each in their way is more stupid and odious than any one but Miss Austen could induce us to endure. Mr. Darcy's character is ably given; a very difficult one to sustain under all the circumstances in which he is placed. It is no small tribute to the power of the author to concede that she has so managed the workings of his real nature as to make it possible, and even probable, that a high-born, high-bred Englishman of Mr. Darcy's stamp could become the son-in-law of Mrs. Bennet. The scene of Darcy's declaration of love to Elizabeth, at the Hunsford Parsonage, is one of the most remarkable passages in Miss Austen's writings, and, indeed, we remember nothing equal to it among the many writers of fiction who have endeavored to describe that culminating point of human destiny.

For those outraged by V.S. Naipaul's incendiary and dismissive comments in 2011 about Austen and other women writers, it may be interesting to note not just Walter Scott's admiration for the novelist, but also the famous prose stylist Thomas Babington Macaulay's praise. Mrs. R.C. Waterson tracks down a passage in a broader article Macaulay wrote for the Edinburgh Review in January, 1843:

"Shakespeare has neither equal nor second; but among writers who, in the point we have noticed, have approached nearest the manner of the great master, we have no hesitation in placing Jane Austen, as a woman of whom England is justly proud. She has given us a multitude of characters, all, in a certain sense, commonplace, all such as we meet every day. Yet they are all as perfectly discriminated from each other as if they were the most eccentric of human beings."

It's however also entertaining to see that the sharp division between Austen-lovers and those who just don't get what all the fuss is about extends almost as far back as the novels themselves. I remember being frustrated nearly to the point of rage to hear my best friend in high school describe Pride and Prejudice as a whole lot of drawing-room small talk. It seems likely I would cringe today if someone played back a recording of my reply (in my defense, this friend did change her mind several years later upon a second reading). But I doubt I put it quite as bluntly as the author of this article when reviewing G.H. Lewes letters to Charlotte Brontë, urging her in vain to read and appreciate Austen: It is clear from the letters, Waterson writes, that "Mr. Lewes is disappointed, and felt, doubtless, what all true lovers of Jane Austen have experience, a surprise to find how obtuse otherwise clever people sometimes are."

Yet Waterson, toward the end of her piece, seems to accept that the division among Austen's readers is as timeless as Austen's characters:

Very much has been said in her praise, and we, in this brief article, have summoned together witnesses to the extent of her powers, which are fit and not few. Yet we are aware that to a class of readers Miss Austen's novels must ever remain sealed books. So be it. While the English language is read, the world will always be provided with souls who can enjoy the rare excellence of that rich legacy left to them by her genius.