Such is the modern state of affairs that if you successfully argue that they should put Jane Austen’s face on a British ten-pound note, you will find yourself subject to rape, bomb, and death threats on the Internet. That’s what happened in the last little while to a British feminist who took up the cause, and everyone who swiftly came to her defense. And now, as a result, we are looking at the inauguration of a Twitter “report abuse” button which pretty much everyone points out is going to be a mess to administer. It’s all very baffling.
Particularly baffling to some is how this whole affair began with Jane Austen. Per Rebecca Mead at The New Yorker, “Austen today has a status among the English rather like that of a cup of tea: cozy, restorative, unthreatening, and omnipresent. Who could object to the honoring of genteel, beloved Jane?” And as to modern folk, I think she has a point. Throw a stone and you’re more likely to hit a super-fan than someone indifferent to her work.
Yet, in spite of our modern Mr.-Darcy-haze, over time Austen has had some pretty big and famous detractors. All of them were offended by just the “safeness” of her image, which moved a couple to express sentiments not unlike today’s modern “Kill Yourself.” Here are a few of the most famous Austen-haters and their put-downs. (And, well, in the case of Tennyson and Woolf: two underminers.)
Charlotte Brontë. Brontë seems to have greatly resented Austen’s lack of sentiment. To her friend George Lewes (who happened to be George Eliot’s lover), who had told her to try writing more like Austen, she once sniped, “I had not seen Pride and Prejudice till I had read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? An accurate daguerrotyped [photographed] portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck [stream]. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.”
This opinion Brontë apparently continued to hold for some time. To another friend, years later, she added, “I have likewise read one of Miss Austen’s works, Emma — read it with interest and with just the degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable — anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, or 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 and 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 by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress.”
Mark Twain. “Everytime I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone,” he wrote in one letter to a friend, in a not-so-faint echo of the excesses of today’s Twitter users. He said a good library was one without a single Jane Austen book in it. And, comparing her to Edgar Allen Poe, whom he also disliked, he wrote: “I could read [Poe’s] prose on salary, but not Jane’s. Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.”
Yikes. Scholars chalk this up to Austen’s love of convention offending the “American spirit,” but the Poe comment suggests a much deeper antipathy, doesn’t it?
Ralph Waldo Emerson. Another writer with “American” objections to Austen. “I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. … All that interests in any character [is this]: has he (or she) the money to marry with? … Suicide is more respectable.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “There is more poetry, more of the inner life, more of the ideal aspiration more of a Godward tendency in the book than we need seek for or than even you my beloved friend, can, I think, imagine in any book or books of Miss Austen considered in a moment of your most enthusiastic estimation.”
Virginia Woolf. Woolf did admire Austen in some respects, but not in others. In a lecture, she explained her reservations thusly: “The chief reason why she does not appeal to us as some inferior writers do is that she has too little of the rebel in her composition, too little discontent, and of the vision with is the cause and the reward of discontent. She seems at times to have accepted life too calmly as she found it, and to anyone who reads her biographer or letters it is plain that life showed her a great deal that was smug, commonplace, and, in a bad sense of the word, artificial…. It happens very seldom, but still it does happen, that we feel that the play of her spirit has been hampered by such obstacles; that she believes in them as well as laughs at them, and that she is debarred from the most profound insight into human nature by the respect which she pays to some unnatural convention.”
Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In a letter to a friend Tennyson offered this double-edged compliment: “The realism and life-likeness of Miss Austen’s Dramatis Personae come nearest to those of Shakespeare. Shakespeare however is a sun to which Jane Austen, tho’ a bright and true little world, is but an asteroid.”