What people thought and wrote about Jane Austen in the nineteenth century may both puzzle us and help expand our understanding of the novels. These earlier reactions are not like ours, but they may take us out of our narrowed habits of response by showing us alternatives. For example, consider the following passage, taken from an 1862 essay in London’s Morning Post:
“Pride and Prejudice,” which Sir Walter Scott read three times, and any ordinary mortal might read six, is a cabinet of gems. Can anything be more exquisite than the absurdity of Mrs. Bennett, the spite of Miss Bingley, the pompous, solemn folly of Mr. Collins, the equanimity of Charlotte Lucas, when she marries and manages the reverend protégé of Lady Elizabeth de Bourgh; the idle, cynical sneers of Mr. Bennett; the military fever of Kitty and Lydia; the ponderous stupidity of Mary, and the charming vivacity of Elizabeth? (“English Women”)
In that quick overview of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, what or who is missing? Most of the romantic leads, in fact, are absent: most notably, Mr. Darcy. This snapshot of an 1862 response to Jane Austen’s work shows us that she was valued not for her romantic heroes and heroines but for her comic creations.
There is a tendency these days to see Austen’s novels as being centered on the romantic protagonists, but there was a time, as this snippet shows, when it was not all about Mr. Darcy. Austen’s early readers had a more diffuse view of the characters and really did regard her books as being about “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village” (9–18 September 1814). To put it in dramatic terms, while Austen is now widely regarded as a writer of star vehicles, once upon a time, she was seen as a writer of ensemble pieces.
Our modern viewpoint is influenced, in part, by the television and film adaptations, which concentrate on a pair or quartet of characters and a main line of romantic plot because of their time constraints and different story needs than a print novel. They reshape Austen by cutting back minor characters to leave more space to develop the psychological complexities of the lead lovers. Less of Mrs. Gardiner, so we have more time to watch Elizabeth Bennet twirl on her swing. Less of Miss Julia Bertram’s jealousies, so we can watch Henry Crawford’s fireworks as he courts Fanny Price.
This concentration is not simply a matter of time constraints. A film or a television serial, even one six hours long, succeeds with an audience when it provides an intensity of emotional experience rather than a variety of it. One only has to consider the success of the star-focused Gwyneth Paltrow film of Emma versus the comparative obscurity of the more ensemble-oriented Andrew-Davies-scripted film from the same year (1996)—the one with Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong—to see what sells better in the modern age. The result, or at least the concomitant effect of the cinematic imagination, may be to encourage a view of Emma as a novel that concentrates upon Emma as much as the title does.
The end result of this modern, focused view of Austen, one that zooms in on the intense emotional experience of one or two characters, is the fetishizing of the shirt worn by Colin Firth in the 1995 miniseries, on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library in fall 2016 and the center of much press coverage both then and now. Darcy’s shirt—an icon of one adaptation’s emphasis upon the facial expressions and body language of one love-torn fictional character’s internal struggle—changed how we looked at the novel and Mr. Darcy. For many readers, Pride and Prejudice is a novel about Mr. Darcy and Lizzy thanks to the moment and the miniseries. The other characters fade in memory.
Austen’s novels certainly have the potential to be appreciated in such a fashion, that is, with a concentration upon the emotional struggles of the romantic leads. However, they have other potentials for appreciation as well. For any literary work to survive the passage of time, it has to be pre-adapted to cultural conditions that do not exist when it was written. At any one cultural moment, responses to Austen’s novels are not unified, but some views dominate, to be replaced by different dominant views in another cultural period. The interpretive potentials lurk in the texts, waiting to be tapped. It is not the same Jane Austen who comes forward through the decades and centuries but different versions of her. There was a time when Austen was not a writer admired mainly for her romantic plots and characters. There was a time when Pride and Prejudice was not a novel primarily about Mr. Darcy.
In this essay, we look at dueling views of Austen’s fictional creations. One is the view widespread today: Austen as a writer of romance, each novel focused on the lovers. The other, however, sees Austen as a satirist, and it is the latter view that dominated public discourse about Austen in the decades after her death. It is the view, in fact, that made her famous.
Austen the Writer of Satire
Searching databases of digitized newspapers and magazines for nineteenth-century reactions to Austen’s novels, we find the satiric figures among the most noticed and admired characters in Austen’s work. For example, consider “The Lady and the Novel” that appeared in the tony annual The Keepsake for MDCCCXXXV (1835). It is an ekphrastic poem, a poem about a piece of visual art, like Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
The illustration shows a woman pausing thoughtfully while reading a book, and the accompanying poem by George Howard, Viscount Morpeth (later 6th Earl of Carlisle), speculates upon her reading matter. Is she reading a play or a novel? Is she reading Scott, Radcliffe, Edgeworth, Burney, or Morgan? “Beats thy quick pulse o’er Inchbald’s thrilling leaf,” or Brunton’s, or Opie’s? Is she reading the recently published Carwell; Or, Crime and Sorrow (by Caroline Callander Sheridan) or Trevelyan (by Caroline Lucy Scott)?
Or is it thou, all-perfect Austin? Here
Let one poor wreath adorn thy early bier,
That scarce allow’d thy modest worth to claim
Its living portion of thy certain fame;
Oh! Mrs. Bennet! Mrs. Norris, too!
While memory survives, she’ll dream of you;
And Mr. Woodhouse, whose abstemious lip
Must “thin—but not too thin”—his gruel sip;
Miss Bates—our idol, though the village bore,
And Mrs. Elton, ardent to “explore”:
While the clear style flows on without pretence,
With unstain’d purity and unmatched sense. (28)
In this early, extended poetic rhapsody on Austen, the characters extracted for attention seem peculiar to modern eyes. There is no mention of Elizabeth, Emma, Fanny, or even Mr. Darcy, and it is the rare reader today who will “dream” of Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Norris. This oversight is especially notable since Howard’s cursory discussions of the other novelists do name principal romantic characters, if they name any. His poem ends on a bathetic note: he warns the lady in the picture to be careful of reading romantic novels, and “more than all—don’t set the bed on fire” (28). One can sense the influence of the satiric Austen in this closing.
Thirty years on, Julia Kavanagh’s chapter on Austen’s novels in her pioneering book English Women of Letters (1862), which devotes a chapter each to major women writers from Aphra Behn to Lady Morgan, displays the same interest as the Morning Post review of her book with which we began this essay. Kavanagh argues that Austen is not a writer of plots: those in her novels are only “moderately interesting” (251). Nor are “her heroes and heroines . . . such as to charm away our hearts” (253). Her strength lies, instead, in the depiction of “commonplace” men and women who are “invested with so much reality. She cannot be said to have created or invented; Jane Austen had an infinitely rarer gift—she saw” (253). With this thesis, Kavanagh examines each of the novels in terms of character, but those discussed are unexpected: the protagonists get short shrift and the minor characters, considerable attention. She spends more time on Mr. John Dashwood and Mrs. Jennings than on Elinor and Marianne.
Kavanagh divides up her considerations on Pride and Prejudice in the following manner: delighted responses to Mrs. Bennet’s silliness and Mr. Collins’s pomposity occupy over 90% of Kavanagh’s five-and-a-half-page analysis; only half a paragraph addresses the romantic leads and that, somewhat dismissively: “Pride assumes the shape of the handsome, haughty Mr. Darcy; and Elizabeth Bennet, the lively, spirited girl, is Prejudice” (263). A short description of their rocky romance follows, and the paragraph ends not with a comment on the two lovers but with Kavanagh’s favorite character, Mrs. Bennet, and her excited reaction to Mr. Darcy’s ten thousand a year. The comments on Mansfield Park, the other novel on which Kavanagh dwells at length, allot three sentences to Edmund Bertram and three paragraphs to the Hon. Mr. Yates. Mrs. Norris gets over a page of loving analysis.
In her examination of Emma, Kavanagh does eventually turn her attention to those we think of as main characters, or at least to the female protagonist. She expands upon Lord Macaulay’s 1843 comment that Austen’s characters are “perfectly discriminated,” that is, highly individualized:
This remarkable power Miss Austen carried even in the conception of her heroines. They are all very distinct persons. Emma Woodhouse, whose name gives its title to the last work Miss Austen published, is a very different heroine from the gentle Fanny or the spirited Elizabeth. . . . [S]he is a good, vain, and plotting girl; disinterested for herself, but unduly anxious about her friends. . . . The scrapes into which Emma’s zeal brings her, first with Mr. Elton, then with Frank Churchill, and finally with Mr. Knightley, the hero of the tale, are very entertaining; and still more so are the discourses of Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates. (269)
Kavanagh finds the character of Emma amusing but considers the satiric figures of Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates “more so.” Austen’s interest, at least in the eyes of Kavanagh, was not in the central players but in an absurd supporting cast. She sees Austen as a writer who intentionally sidesteps the romantic in her novels and “refused to build herself, or to help to build for others, any romantic idea of love, virtue or sorrow” (253). Satire was her forte.
Later in the decade, a review of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen in The Pall Mall Gazette for December 23, 1869, similarly praises Austen’s minor characters. There is admiration for the “tiresome busybody divided between the rival calls of self-importance and avarice” (Mrs. Norris) and “the kind, placid, and contented chaperone absorbed in the price of silk and forgetful of the claims of dancing” (Mrs. Allen). The main characters get almost no attention. The review mentions Elinor Dashwood once and ignores the romantic heroes.
For many nineteenth-century readers, Austen is a writer of many small comic parts, a creator of character types perceived as highly entertaining and amazingly well drawn. The 1862 article in the Morning Post that opened this essay gives equal space to Fanny Price, “the most charming of Miss Austen’s achievements” for her “beautiful delicacy, modesty, fortitude, and self-sacrifice” and to her nemesis: “Mrs. Norris . . . may dispute the palm of genuine, subtle, intense, irresistible humour with Miss Bates and her niece’s letter; Mr. Woodhouse and his gruel, ‘thin but not too thin;’ Mrs. Jennings and ‘Betty’s sister;’ John Thorpe and his maligned horse, and Mr. Collins and his inevitable letter of thanks for Mr. Bennet’s hospitalities” (“English Women”). Comic characters get the attention, as do some heroines.
The Darcys and Wentworths, however, seldom appear in newspaper or periodical reviews. Anne Thackeray (daughter of the famous novelist), writing in Cornhill Magazine in 1871, begins her article on Jane Austen by mentioning Mr. Darcy but only because she is quoting the passage about Elizabeth’s being a studier of character. Once that is out of the way, Thackeray demonstrates that Austen, not Elizabeth, is the real “studier of character”:
Dear books! bright, sparkling with wit and animation, in which the homely heroines charm, the dull hours fly, and the very bores are enchanting.
Could we but study our bores as Miss Austen must have studied hers in her country village, what a delightful world this might be!—a world of Norris’s economical great walkers, with dining-room tables to dispose of; of Lady Bertrams on sofas, with their placid “Do not act anything improper, my dears; Sir Thomas would not like it;” of Bennets, Goddards, Bates’s; of Mr. Collinses; of Rushbrooks, with two-and-forty speeches apiece—a world of Mrs. Eltons. . . . Inimitable woman! she must be alive at this very moment, if we but knew where to find her, her basket on her arm, her nods and all-importance, with Maple Grove and the Sucklings in the background. (158)
Thirteen years later, as the popular magazine The Standard awaits the publication by Lord Brabourne, Austen’s great-nephew, of Letters of Jane Austen (1884), the magazine reviewer anticipates eagerly whether the models for Austen’s characters will be revealed in the letters Jane wrote to Cassandra. But which characters? “Will these Letters display Miss Austen’s humour at work upon real character, and exhibit her in the act of filling in a Mrs. Norris or a Mr. Elton from among her own acquaintances? To judge from some of the published Letters, we should say that this is very likely” (5). The writer will be disappointed in that hope, but we can see where the interest lies—in the ensemble players, not the stars.
This interest in those we now regard as minor characters at the expense of the main ones does not occur only in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s, the eras from which we have mainly been quoting. It was present from the beginning. In Jane Austen’s own collection of reactions to Mansfield Park, when specific characters are mentioned, Fanny Price comes in for the most commentary—eleven mentions—but Mrs. Norris is hot on her heels with nine comments while Edmund trails at six (“Opinions”). Austen’s collected remarks upon Emma a year and a half later has the heroine at eight mentions and Miss Bates close behind at seven (“Opinions”).
Austen’s early professional reviewers show the same tendency to latch onto the secondary figures. The February 1812 review of Sense and Sensibility in The Critical Review focuses on Marianne and Willoughby, briefly mentions Elinor and her thwarted romance, but never gives Edward Ferrars’s name. The same journal’s review of Pride and Prejudice the next year (January 1813) initially makes one think that Mr. Bennet is the most important character in the novel. Elizabeth is not mentioned until a quarter of the way through. Even Sir Walter Scott, reviewing Emma for The Quarterly Review, devotes a fair amount of attention to the title character, but only after he has admired Mr. Woodhouse, Mr. Elton, Mrs. Bates, Miss Bates, and the Westons. Mr. Knightley gets a few lines, at best. Scott does not see Austen as a writer in his vein, a romance writer; instead, she is gifted with the ability to create comic “characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize” (67).
Austen Elevated to Classic Writer
Austen’s earliest readers, then, focused on her comic creations. Why did readers in the rest of the nineteenth century continue to read Jane Austen in such a fashion, so distinct from our own tendency to focus largely upon the romantic protagonists? The explanation may arise from the literary fashions of the time. The great novelist during the time that Austen’s fame rises is Charles Dickens. We see Austen first being compared to him in 1870 in a wide-ranging literary essay by Richard Simpson in the North British Review. Simpson notes that Mr. Collins “is rather built on the lines habitually adopted by Mr. Dickens” (149) but finds that Austen is more natural in “her power of composing characters. She does not give them a hobby-horse, like Sterne, nor a ruling passion, like Pope, nor a humour, like Ben Jonson, nor a trick, like Mr. Dickens” (136). If Dickens, with his eccentric portraits, is what the readers are in the habit of reading, Dickensian writing is what they will notice and admire in comparable writers.
But there were other reasons for popular readings of Austen as a creator of comic portraits. In 1887, John Robertson, writing in Our Corner about another novelist, digresses into a discussion of Jane Austen’s characters:
Here, in a young woman’s novels, were people, such as every reader met every day, . . . and somewhat inexplicably entertaining by virtue of one’s very perception that there was nothing irresistibly entertaining in these same people in actual life. It was the triumph of pure art: the commonplace had been made immortal by sheer felicity of reproduction . . . ; the habit of finding the truer touches of novelists mainly in their grotesques, or ostensible comedy-types, was of such long standing that readers still had a tendency to esteem Jane Austen, even as they did Fielding and Smollett, for her more emphasized studies, which were, by the conditions of her art-world, her fools; and the very perfection of her fools tended somewhat to strengthen the bias. (16–17)
As Robertson sees it, Austen’s earliest readers were predisposed to look for comic portraits in novels because they read eighteenth-century novels like Tom Jones and The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, which abounded in “grotesques” (comic caricatures) and “comedy-types.” Her current readers, as Simpson noted seventeen years earlier, were similarly shaped by reading Dickens, another master of “grotesques” and “comedy-types.” So, the centrality of comic portraits rules reactions to Austen because nineteenth-century readers, both early and late, were primed to admire such. In contrast, we nowadays tend to center on the romantic plots—Pride and Prejudice is the story of Lizzy and Darcy; Persuasion is the story of Anne and Captain Wentworth. That more single-minded view can have trouble co-existing with a decentered view of Austen’s novels as a collection of eccentric portraits presented by a distanced, ironic narrator, the dominant nineteenth-century view.
Simpson finds Austen not seriously committed to the romantic ideal: he suggests that she feels that “the most ill-assorted couples may get used to one another” (133), giving Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility as an example. He thinks that Austen’s satiric detachment intentionally undercuts the romantic plots (not that he minds):
Thus the great coil Miss Austen makes to bring the right people together is really much ado about nothing. . . . [S]he of course devotes all the machinery of the novel to bring together the true hero and heroine. Now, what is this other than taking a humourist’s view of that which as a novelist she was treating as the summum bonum of human existence? That predestination of love, that preordained fitness, which decreed that one and one only should be the complement and fulfilment of another’s being—that except in union with each other each must live miserably, and that no other solace could be found for either than the other’s society—she treated as mere moonshine, while she at the same time founded her novels on the assumption of it as a hypothesis. (133–34)
Simpson’s Austen may be too cold for us these days. We doubt that many picture Austen as Simpson does: “She sat apart on her rocky tower, and watched the poor souls struggling in the waves beneath. And her sympathies were not too painfully engaged” (134). A picture of the author icily detached from her literary creations is not enticing to modern readers who want more than satire in their reading. Such a view, though, was not uncommon in the last century.
Austen as Writer of Romance
But Austen was not entirely an author of distancing satire and humour comedy. Another strain of reading Austen did exist in the nineteenth century, one that invested emotionally in the central love affairs and manifested itself particularly in literary and intellectual circles. In this strain are even the first signs of Darcy worship.
Bluestocking Annabella Milbanke writes a letter to a friend in 1813 about Pride and Prejudice, which she has just finished reading: it “is not a crying book, but the interest is very strong, especially for Mr. Darcy” (qtd. in Southam 8). Her fondness for Darcy might be shaped by her own romantic tastes: a few months before, she had turned down an offer of marriage from Lord Byron, of whose behavior she did not approve; a year or so after reading Pride and Prejudice, she married him and became Lady Byron. Unfortunately, her life imitated Austen’s art only so far: the marriage did not prosper.1
Mary Russell Mitford, dramatist and future author of Our Village, liked the novel but complained in a 20 December 1814 letter about Austen’s “want of elegance”:
it is impossible not to feel in every line of Pride and Prejudice, in every word of “Elizabeth,” the entire want of taste which could produce so pert, so worldly a heroine as the beloved of such a man as Darcy. Wickham is equally bad. Oh! They were just fit for each other, and I cannot forgive that delightful Darcy for parting them. Darcy should have married Jane. (qtd. in Southam 54)
Why this remarkable response? Because Darcy “is of all the admirable characters the best designed and best sustained.” In other words, in Mitford’s eyes, sassy Lizzy is not good enough for Darcy.
Finally, we offer an example from one of Austen’s competitors, the novelist Maria Edgeworth. Edgeworth was well aware of Austen’s ability to generate empathy with a protagonist, at least in Persuasion. She did not think much of Emma, which Austen had sent her, nor of Northanger Abbey, but Persuasion, the least satirical of the novels, she liked. In a letter to her aunt, Mrs. Ruxton, dated 21 February 1818, she writes:
Persuasion—excepting the tangled, useless histories of the family in the first fifty pages—appears to me, especially in all that relates to poor Anne and her lover, to be exceedingly interesting and natural. The love and the lover admirably well drawn: don’t you see Captain Wentworth, or rather don’t you in her place feel him taking the boisterous child off her back as she kneels by the sick boy on the sofa? (260)
Edgeworth has no use for Austen’s satire of Sir Walter, but she is deeply struck by Austen when she aims to touch the heart. In fact, she empathizes with Anne, imagining herself as the one having the boisterous child removed from her back by a spurned lover. That is not how one reacts to comic caricatures like Mr. Bennet or Mr. Elton. It is a very personal reaction to Austen’s novels.
These commentators, however, are writing their opinions in private letters to personal friends, not in public newspapers and periodicals. In the press, Austen is a satirist, not the proponent of strong, feminine emotions. It is, of course, one way of differentiating her from the popular “lady novelists” of the time. Early critics compared her to contemporary women writers, not always to her advantage: Maria Edgeworth (by Mitford in 1814), Susan Ferrier (by Scott in 1826), Mary Brunton (by Macready in 1834), Harriet Martineau (by Robinson in 1839).2 But as her fame rose throughout the century, she moved into different company. If Austen is to be positioned as a British classic, she must be compared to the classic writers, who happen to be male. The celebrated statesman and historian Thomas Babington Macaulay compares her to William Shakespeare (1843), a notion that will be repeated often. Francis Jacox, in an unsigned article on “Female Novelists” from 1852, classes her with many female novelists but also compares her satiric touch to that of William Makepeace Thackeray.3 As noted above, Simpson makes the connection in 1870 to Dickens, and by the end of the century, her position alongside male novelists is sure. When Henry James’s star rises in the next century, she will be allied to him, too, most comically in Kipling’s “The Janeites.”4
We have come a long way in reading Austen since the nineteenth century. Austen has far outstripped Dickens and Thackeray in fame but has also been reunited with her fellow women writers. Her readers have changed, largely thanks to the emotional intensity of the films and serials of the past twenty-five years, one of which made Mr. Darcy the most important and admired character in Austen’s oeuvre.5 We are no longer shy about admitting that we identify with the main characters; in fact, we want to engage our sympathies with those struggling in the water and not look down at them from a tower.
The besotted response of Helen Fielding’s fictional Bridget Jones (“Fawaw, that Mr. Darcy” ) typifies, in a less refined way, a private response to Austen’s main characters like those found in the nineteenth-century letters of Milbanke, Mitford, and Edgeworth. Indeed, Bridget Jones in 1995 balances us between private and public in a very modern way—ostensibly writing a personal diary, but one that metamorphoses weekly into Fielding’s newspaper column in The Independent, like an early blog.6 In the nineteenth century, one wrote about one’s reading to a small community of correspondents; today, thanks to the World Wide Web, one shares first responses with the entire world. The private reaction has merged with the public one through blogs, websites, bulletin boards, and fan-fiction sites. In this world, Mr. Darcy and the romantic responses to him rule: authors publish original novels starring Austen’s protagonist,7 and the famous shirt goes on tour.
Mr. Darcy’s post-Colin-Firth star power may have displaced the nineteenth-century sense of Austen as a writer of satiric ensemble pieces, but there is a revival under way. The vlog The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was a success, and similar situation-comedy-style appropriations that feature strong secondary characters are proliferating (see, for example, Emma Approved). Whit Stillman’s 2016 film of Lady Susan, retitled Love and Friendship, was a splendidly sharp-edged film with many strong actors in small but hilarious roles that captured a satiric Austen, an Austen the nineteenth century would have recognized. Admittedly, the audience for snarky Austen is still smaller than that for romantic Austen,8 but the tendency for some of the popular media today to acknowledge her complexity—as romantic but also as satiric—recuperates aspects of the nineteenth-century response and holds them in a conjunction that the Victorian era could seldom achieve.
4“Pa-hardon me, gents,” Macklin says, “but this is a matter on which I do ’appen to be moderately well-informed. She did leave lawful issue in the shape o’ one son; an’ ’is name was ’Enery James” (124).
5Devoney Looser has demonstrated that Mr. Darcy as the “visual and emotional center” (112) of Pride and Prejudice adaptations is relatively recent, deriving from Jerome Keith-Johnston’s performance of the role in Helen Jerome’s stage adaptation in the 1930s.