By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
Jane Austen’s reputation for literary greatness significantly unfolded in the years after her death. But it wasn’t only the full-length novels themselves that made Austen a literary star. Austen had a growing fan following throughout the 19th century, inviting appreciation and criticism alike from other authors.
Based on her work in excerpts and in adaption in newspapers and magazines, it can be deduced that Austen enjoyed great literary fame posthumously.
It’s important to emphasize how many readers admired her fiction from its earliest years. She’d achieved moderate success during her lifetime, in the 1810s. But in the decades after her death, she began a gradual ascent to literary superstardom.
By the 1820s, “Miss Austen” began to be mentioned in newspaper and magazine lists of the great women novelists of the era, alongside other notables, such as Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane and Anna Maria Porter. Austen also started to be mentioned alongside the great male novelists of the day, including Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and especially Sir Walter Scott.
Walter Scott on Jane Austen
Scott, who outlived Austen by 15 years, had anonymously declared himself an appreciator of her fiction. He also recorded in his private journal in 1826 that he’d read Pride and Prejudice for the third time and found it “very finely written”.
He begrudgingly admitted the extent of Austen’s talents, declaring her “involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with”.
Scott contrasts his own literary powers with hers: “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 the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.”
In other words, Scott sees Austen outdoing him in exquisiteness and authenticity. He concludes, “What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!”
We can surmise from Scott’s commentary that he knew not only Austen’s novels but her life story, probably from Henry Austen’s 1818 biographical notice.
His use of “creature” to refer to her suggests that his praise was coupled with some level of belittling, too. Austen was 41 when she died—certainly no longer appropriate to describe with a term often used for childlike pets.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Austen Juxtaposed with Scott
As the century wore on, Scott and Austen’s names were more and more often coupled, especially after his death in 1832. By the mid-19th century, a common literary debate involved arguing about who most deserved the label of the “Shakespeare” of the novel. Scott’s name was frequently put forward. But so, too, was Austen’s.
Today, there’s no question as to who emerged victorious in this competition. Sir Walter Scott may have the largest monument to an author in all of Britain, with his 200-foot spire memorial in Edinburgh. But in nearly every other sense, Austen has come to tower over Scott in literary history.
Applause from Other Writers
As letters and journals of the famous were published, the public also learned the extent to which other authors held Austen in high regard. Novelist Mary Russell Mitford admired Austen’s fiction. It’s entirely possible that she wrote a piece of fan fiction in the 1823 edition of The Lady’s Magazine, purporting to be by Jane Fisher.
Novelist Maria Edgeworth had some laudatory things to say about Austen’s Persuasion, although she didn’t like its first 50 pages. She called them tangled and useless. The rest of the novel she found exceedingly interesting, natural, and admirably well done.
There were many others who revered her. Historian and essayist Thomas Babington Macaulay was an enormous fan. He writes in his journal about Austen’s Northanger Abbey being the “work of a girl…not more than 26” and declares her a “wonderful creature”.
He says she’s worth more than all of Dickens and Pliny together. Macaulay also suggested in the 1850s his wish for a biography and a monument erected to Austen’s memory.
Criticism against Austen
Austen had famous detractors, too, including Charlotte Brontë and Mark Twain. Brontë faulted Austen’s novels for a lack of passion, accusing her of “ignoring” what “throbs fast and full, though hidden”.
Mark Twain’s insults include a gruesome line about wanting to dig up Austen’s corpse and beat her over the skull with her own shin bone. He may have exaggerated his hatred in order to needle his literary friend, William Dean Howells, who revered Austen.
Bouquets and Brickbats
What we see in all of these conflicting and colorful parts of her posthumous legacy is that Austen began to serve, almost immediately after her death, as an admired and controversial figure. It remains a challenge to settle these longstanding arguments about who she really was or what her works ought to mean.
But one thing these continuing disagreements and investigations do prove definitively is that her afterlife has become as complex and compelling as her novels. Austen’s fame, for the moment at least, continues to be both robust and deserved.
Common Questions about Criticism and Appreciation of Jane Austen
By the 1820s, “Miss Austen” began to be mentioned in newspaper and magazine lists of the great women novelists of the era, alongside other notables, such as Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane and Anna Maria Porter. Austen also started to be mentioned alongside the great male novelists of the day, too, including Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and especially Sir Walter Scott.
Walter Scott had anonymously declared himself an appreciator of Jane Austen’s fiction. He also recorded in his private journal in 1826 that he’d read Pride and Prejudice for the third time and found it “very finely written”. Scott saw Austen outdoing him in exquisiteness and authenticity.
Some famous detractors of Jane Austen, including Charlotte Brontë and Mark Twain.