READER RESPONSE TO AUSTEN'S NOVELS
Jane Austen is generally acknowledged to be one of the great English novelists, so it is no surprise that her novels have remained continuously in print from her day to the present. Contemporary reviewers found much to praise in them. Reviewing Emma for the Quarterly Review (1816), Sir Walter Scott characterized its strengths and weaknesses: The author's knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting. The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader.... Her merits consist much in the force of a narrative conducted with much neatness and point, and a quiet yet comic dialogue, in which the characters of the speakers evolve themselves with dramatic effect. The faults arise from the minute detail which the author's plan comprephends. Characters of folly or simplicity, such as those of old Woodhouse and Miss Bates, are ridiculous when first presented, but if too often brought forward or too long dwelt upon, their prosing is apt to become as tiresome in fiction as in real society. George Henry Lewes, writing in 1852, accorded her the status and identified issues that critics would be repeating and arguing about for the next century and a half: First and foremost let 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 has risked no failures by attempting to delineate that which she has not seen. Her circle may be restricted, but it is complete. Her world is a perfect orb, and vital. Life, as it presents itself to an English gentlewoman peacefully yet actively engaged in her quiet village, is mirrored in her works with a purity and fidelity that must endow them with interest for all time. Appreciation of her greatness snowballed with the publication of James Edward Austen-Leigh's Memoir and Richard Simpson's perceptive critical essay, both in 1870. Macaulay, for instance, called her a prose Shakespeare because of "the marvellous and subtle distinctive traits" of her characaterizations. Austen's novels have aroused intense emotional attachments among readers. E.M. Forster admitted to reading and re-reading her with "the mouth open and the mind closed." Some readers carry admiration to the point of sentimental adoration; for them, her characters are beloved friends and Austen is dear Aunt Jane, a proper, sedate, kindly Victorian old maid. Such readers are often called Janeites, after a short story called The Janeites which Rudyard Kipling wrote in 1924. Not every reader has responded positively to Austen, however. Perplexed, Joseph Conrad wrote H.G. Wells asking, "What is all this about Jane Austen? What is there in her? What is it all about?" Probably the most famous rejection of Austen was penned by Charlotte Bronte: Anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré or 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 with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood ... What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study: but what...
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