This week at The Atlantic we’re marking the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death with a celebration of her life and legacy. Our cofounder Ralph Waldo Emerson might have been less than enthused about these digital festivities; as Lee Siegel reported in our January 1998 issue:
Austen irritated Emerson: he found her novels “vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society.” All that her characters cared about was “marriageableness.” “Suicide,” the great Transcendentalist proposed, "is more respectable.”
Emerson wasn’t alone in his distaste for Austen. Readers—whether they be other well-known writers, academics, or everyday consumers of literature—have long been divided in their opinions of the author. Some love her. Some hate her. Some hold her up as a literary icon, while others dismiss her as a chick-lit writer who concerned herself too much with marriage and not enough with pressing world affairs. Some admire the gentility and romance of the late-18th-century British society she portrayed, even as others praise her for satirizing and subverting the values of the same society.
Discussing what makes the author feel relevant even now, 200 years after her death, Nicholas Dames writes in our upcoming September 2017 issue:
As Austen’s own Emma Woodhouse put it to her querulous father, “one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.” … in the case of Austen, that misunderstanding seems to have an urgency that isn’t attached to any other canonized, pre-20th-century literary figure.
Put simply, as Siegel observed, “No one, it seems, has ever been neutral or aloof about Jane Austen.”
In our own pages, contributors have expressed a consistently positive opinion of Austen over the past 154 years. Mrs. R.C. Waterston complimented her in our February 1863 issue on her “rare intuition” and “peculiar genius,” while Ferris Greenslet, writing nearly 40 years later, called her “after Sappho the most unquestioned genius of her sex” and praised her wit, her sensibility, and her “chief literary virtue, her unique and never adequately to be praised power of imaginative realization.”
In 1998, Siegel had similarly laudatory words. “No other author,” he wrote,
goes with such casual intimacy as she, for all her delicate soundings of formal social relations, into the vulnerable spot where society touches the root of self. And few authors are at the same time so quietly fearsome and so intensely consoling. …
Austen’s style is one of English literature’s marvels. Her repartee is sometimes as dazzling as anything in Sheridan, and is one reason that her perpetual hope of seeing exciting theater was disappointed whenever she went. …
She had a flawless ear for moral counterpoint, for the hidden chords of how things ought to be and really were. She pitched her delicately endangered sentences, her psychology, her dialogue and drama, to some invisible key way at the back of her language, just as Mozart pitched his compositions to a frequency beyond human range, way at the back of his music.
And Dames is just as complimentary of her style, writing:
Her sentences can leave readers in a swoon, with their controlled wit, their many-edged irony, their evident pleasure in their own mastery—and in the masterful way they negotiate or transform less graceful realities.
“Austen,” he asserts, “has firmly joined Shakespeare not just as a canonical figure but as a symbol of Literature itself, the hazel-eyed woman in the mobcap as iconic now as the balding man in the doublet.”
But the debate over Austen’s literary prowess has nevertheless cropped up beside this stream of praise in the archives, as our admiring contributors have collected the opinions of other readers, some of whom were recognizable literary figures themselves.
For instance, as Waterston noted, Sir Walter Scott loved Austen. In a journal entry from 1826, he wrote:
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.
But, according to Waterston, Charlotte Brontë was not such a fan, as she
could not harmonize with Jane Austen. The luminous and familiar star which comes forth into the quiet evening sky when the sun sets amid the amber light of an autumn evening, and the comet which started into sight, unheralded and unnamed, and flamed across the midnight sky, have no affinity, except in the Divine Mind, whence both originate.
Presumably Austen is the familiar star and Brontë the flaming comet, aesthetically opposed in their cosmic—as in their literary—roles. Siegel notes a similar stylistic difference between Austen and Virginia Woolf:
Woolf once declared ... it’s hard to catch Jane Austen in the act of greatness. But Woolf was too much the aesthete, too much the gifted borderline solipsist, to do so.
What’s more, according to Siegel, Woolf was intimidated by “the very thought of finding herself alone with Austen.” As evidence, he presents Woolf’s description of a hypothetical meeting between the two writers, involving
a sense of meaning withheld, a smile at something unseen, an atmosphere of perfect control and courtesy mixed with something finely satirical, which, were it not directed against things in general rather than against individuals, would, so I feel, make it alarming to find her at home.
As for Henry James, Siegel writes, he
could be condescending about one of his strongest influences, though he acknowledged her genius. Austen’s heroines had “small and second-rate minds and were perfect little she-Philistines,” he thought. “But I think that is partly what makes them interesting today.”
Most of James’s contemporaries displayed no such hesitation, Greenslet wrote in 1902:
It is hard nowadays to find any professional critic or amateur of letters who can be easy until he has publicly listed his suffrage for “Aunt Jane.”... so copiously and eloquently have her praises been sounded that many of her most devoted admirers have hesitated to attempt the difficult task of saying anything new and true in her honor.
In striking contrast to this critical consensus, Dames observes that Austen readers of the same period clashed over the perceived political significance of her work:
She is brandished as an icon on suffragette banners in 1908, and used at the same time as a badge of affiliation by male club members anxious to preserve gendered social barriers.
The passion of some Austen lovers made Woolf—and another well-known British writer, E. M. Forster—hesitant to express their own appreciation for the author, as Dames reports:
Both E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, when they reviewed the famous 1923 R. W. Chapman edition of her novels, were able to admit to their admiration only after taking swipes at a different kind of fan. “Like all regular churchgoers,” Forster said of the usual Austen reader, “he scarcely notices what is being said.” For her part, Woolf smirked at the notion of “25 elderly gentlemen living in the neighborhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult offered to the chastity of their aunts.”
Siegel details the history of a group of Austen aficionados that persists to the present day, and a group that rose up in their opposition:
By 1896 the word “Janeite” had come into the language as a term signifying literary fervor and adoration. To read some Janeite expressions of enthusiasm, one would think that Mansfield Park was the name of a local soccer team. Anti-Janeites accused their opponents of a lack of virility. (They especially disliked what they thought were Austen’s portrayals of men as gossips without vocation.) Later, in the 1940s and 1950s, some critics tried to save Austen from her Janeite admirers, claiming that Austen’s sense of decorum, of the forms of politeness and tact, were what the Janeites most prized but what Austen, with lethal irony, most wanted to subvert. She composed with a “regulated hatred,” as one of these writers put it—a steady, subtle corrosiveness toward smothering conventionality. She was not, as Henry James had once mocked the Janeites’ benign conception of her, “our dear, everybody’s dear, Jane.”
In the midst of these fierce and long-running debates, however, Austen’s work acted as a stabilizing influence for some readers. As Siegel describes,
After the First World War, shell-shocked veterans were advised to read Austen's novels for therapy, perhaps to restore their faith in a world that had been blown apart while at the same time respecting their sense of the world’s fragility.
And in the then-present day of 1998, he posited,
Americans who are intelligent and skeptical, but who are frazzled by pundit-unmaskers, by academic see-throughers, by Hollywood exploders of social forms, may be drawn to Jane Austen for a similar reason.
Whatever the reason—her writing style, her subject matter, her cultural and literary status—both Austen’s popularity and her unpopularity remain fervent in the present day, centuries after the publication of her novels. “The disagreement has been amplified as her fame has grown,” Dames writes, “and her fame may never have been greater.”
Waterston perhaps best summed up the ongoing debate in 1863, writing:
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.