Pride and (Some) Prejudice: Austen Haters to the Left

At the JASNA-NJ holiday party, there is an annual book exchange. Members bring in a wrapped book and all draw a number to select one at random, in order. One the books this year put into the mix was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and the giver hesitantly said she wasn’t sure if it was acceptable to offer a Mark Twain book at a Jane Austen function. After all, this is how many of us think of Jane Austen’s works and our desire to protect our favorites from criticism:

She was referring, of course, to the famous quote by Twain:

“Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin bone!”

Some people claim that Twain wasn’t really a hater because he had read P&P more than once; however, given that Austen was by Twain’s time a widely read classic author, and he also said he’d rather have a library with no books than one made up of Austen’s, I guess I’ll take him at his word and Austen was just one of those esteemed authors he couldn’t stand. Like many people, in my personal opinion, Twain one of those individuals who can’t get beyond the surface details of Austen. Her books focus on English people of at least some means, while Twain was attempting to redefine American literature outside of the British and European tradition. Similarly, Ralph Waldo Emerson (who was trying to do a similar thing in his own Transcendentalist essays) wrote, “I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seems to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and so narrow … Suicide is more respectable.”

Austen didn’t always fare well with her own countrymen and women, though. Charlotte Brontë famously wrote back to Henry Lewis (George Eliot’s live-in boyfriend), after being urged to try Emma: “I got the book and studied it. And what did I find? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a common-place 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. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses. These observations will probably irritate you, but I shall run the risk.”

But given that one could argue that Emma could be read as the middle section of Jane Eyre as told from the perspective of Blanche Ingram (I mean, it’s got a governess named Jane who is tormented and teased by an upper-class man who is smitten with her, and said questionable guy uses another aristocratic woman as a social cover), maybe that’s not much of a surprise, and I respect Brontë’s honesty and candor in challenging Lewis.

Virginia Woolf said, “I’d give all she ever wrote for half what the Brontës wrote—if my reason did not compel me to see that she is a magnificent artist,” and D.H. Lawrence moaned, “Already this old maid typifies ‘personality’ instead of character.”

If the old chestnut of taking potshots at Austen for her unmarried status isn’t bad enough, perhaps the worst (and to my mind, unforgiveable) hater of Austen of all is Vladimir Nabokov: “I dislike Jane, and am prejudiced, in fact, against all women writers. They are in another class.” Nabokov essentially pitched a fit when urged by Janeite Edmund Wilson to teach Jane Austen rather than Robert Louis Stevenson, the latter of whom Nabokov considered the more important writer. Eventually, Nabokov did concede and deliver a treatise on Mansfield Park to his students, which can be found in his Lectures on Literature. However, he notes both before and after the lecture how much better he thinks Dickens’s Bleak House is, versus Austen. “With Dickens we expand. It seems to me that Jane Austen’s fiction has been a charming rearrangement of old-fashioned values.”

So maybe you’re safe giving a Twain, but certainly not Lolita at an Austen book exchange!

Here’s an image of a library, because you really don’t want to see some of the free stock images that popped up when I plugged in “Lolita.”

Austen critics

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