Jane Austen –Critical Responses




Mazzeno (2011)


“Critiques [in the 1990s] that faulted her for a tendency to succumb to the norms of the patriarchal society in which she lived were routinely balanced by those that found a strong revolutionary strain in her work.”


“…a more balanced view would be articulated by many of the feminists who published work on Austen [since 1991] …although several would continue to claim her as a revolutionary or dismiss her as a conservative.”


“Austen learned to make accommodations in her style to disguise her efforts to express resistance to the dominant patriarchal ideology.”


Mukherjee (1991)


“a recurrent theme [of Austen’s novels is] the heroine’s resistance to the efforts of the patriarchal community to force her into a social role at the cost of her own identity.”


“[Austen] was not a consistent critic of [the] close-knit society with its chain of obligations, duties and shared values.”


“Even while mocking some aspects of the dominant ideology of her time… [Austen] did seem to subscribe to others.”


Ross (1991)


Austen is particularly noteworthy because she manages to describe women’s daily struggle “in plentiful believable detail” giving her works a cast of hard realism while still “enveloping women’s lives in romantic comedy.”


Austen was important in the history of the form because she was successful in “moving the novel beyond narrow conduct-book didacticism” – a role assigned to it by men like Samuel Johnson – toward “a more subtle and searching, and thus more deeply moral, criticism of life.”


Laurence (1991)


Austen… values “the inner life”, a condition originally prompted by their position in a patriarchal society but “transformed through the living of their lives” into a quality that gives them authority as moral figures.


Todd (1991)


Too many feminist readings are “largely ahistorical and ungeneric” often “removing Austen from her contemporary context and from other women writers who receded and surrounded her”.


These ahistorical interpretations “made her sisterhood across time but not within it.”


Arguing for a middle way in feminist studies of Austen, rejecting both the “cult of sentimentality that characterizes conservative, patriarchal readings”, and those that are overly sceptical of the “pities of home and hearth”.


Kaplan (1992)


“Austen’s six novels express and obscure aspects of the women’s culture, [but at the same time] they unequivocally endorse patriarchal ideology. [The novels are filled with] inconsistencies of perspective [and feminists] need to acknowledge these inconsistencies …relinquish some of your intimacy with her work.”


Hudson (1992)

Austen “employs sibling relationships to negotiate within and to critique the complex ideology presented in her fiction… A “herald of Victorian values” in her portrait of the family circle “as an innovative social and moral power-base”.


Perkins (1998)


In Sense & Sensibility Austen “most aggressively undertakes to reconstruct dominant concepts of gender.”


Castellanos (1994)


Austen was primarily an ironist and her “ironic laughter is animated by a peculiar type of opposition to traditional views of women’s situation and abilities.”


Tauchert (2005) – escapist fantasies”


…that Austen adopts the fromof romance, a genre that “structures femininity in a way that demands attention”, but centres on “the basest of feminist fantasies” – the rescue fantasy, in which the heroine, saved by a worthy hero, lives happily ever after. As Tauchert’s close reading of Austen’s novels demonstrate, however, the heroine does much to civilize her saviour; these are real love stories, not simply escapist fantasies.


Fergus (1991)


Austen adopted many of the conventions of novel-writing as it was being practiced in her day to assure herself an audience for her novels. Her “political sympathies may be fundamentally conservative, but her mind is critical and her vision ironic”. Throughout her career, Austen offered in her fiction a “critique of conventional notions of women” and society’s expectations of them.


…finds in Austen’s social comedies a strong critique of “the complex power relationships between women and a social world that reduces their options and makes them marginal.”


While Austen often entertains her readers with “the highly comic mixture of sexual and economic motives that prompt courtship and marriage” she is equally concerned with “the much less comic operations of power – of dominance and submission – that occur within and around both institutions”.


Lanser (1992)


Austen’s novels as “texts that engage questions of authority specifically though their production of narrative voice”… concentrating on conflicts that arise when women presume to speak with authority.


Mellor (1993)


“Austen wants us to see the myriad ways in which patriarchal power – especially the possession of money – can corrupt both men and women.”


Barreca (1994)


In comedies written by women – including Austen – “the straightjacket of conventional femininity is challenged, confronted, and, finally, thrown off.”


Bilger (1998)


“A significant aspect” of Austen’s humour derives from her belief in “an equality between men and women based on rationality and a perception of the incongruity of women’s lot.

…launches “her own subtle humourous assaults upon the patriarchal construction of nineteenth-century femininity.”


Greenfield (2002)


…the success Austen enjoys in “concealing socioeconomic and political problems behind the illusion of ‘private’ experience.”


Of Emma… “the first English novel in which the existence of the unconscious seems indubitable – the first  in which the heroine’s misunderstanding of her own mind is the subject of the story.”



Copeland (1997)


“Money… is the love tipped arrow aimed at the hearts of Austen’s heroines”

– both the author and characters are only interested in income for marriage

– love is the result of money and happiness the result of fortune


“The heartbeat of romance lies in a good income”

– women based a man’s suitability on his income

– Austen is using money to demonstrate love


“decisions of domestic economy define the heroine”

– the theory and practice of household management

– only purpose is to worry about household affairs


“complex relationships between income and romance held in centre focus”

– Austen is only concerned with income in her novels

– romance between characters is clouded by money


“the usual cast of economic scavengers”

the most significant problem is their lack of fortune

shallow/ self-indulging female characters


“Austen is a shrewd observer of the economic terrain of her class”

“economic ideology” is expressed in Austen’s work – a perspective on the way an economy should run and to what end

writes from “pseudo-gentry” class – approaching the subject of money from different perspectives





Clery (1997)


“Marianne Dashwood’s ‘masturbatory’ absorption in her own pleasures”

  • Self-indulgence is usually seen as a female thing, but this seems to suggest that it is male
  • Is selfishness a male thing?
  • Either way, Marianne is going against society’s expectations by doing what she wants to do

“Austen’s distaste for a still-current idea of female identity is apparent”

  • Context – what the role of women was at the time
  • It is questionable how much Austen actually challenges this expectation
  • Does Woolf question this idea of female identity?

“Austen’s microscopic interest in the performative nature of social roles”

  • Austen raises questions about the falseness of people within the society – even the characters we like are seen to play up to society’s expectations
  • Links to Woolf’s celebration of the individual and the freedom they have only when they are alone

“Homosocial intimacy was arguably more important than heterosexual romance in Austen’s life and art”

  • Austen seems to advocate being a decent human, rather than arbitrary distinctions of class or gender
  • She also doesn’t place all the emphasis on romantic love, similarly to Woolf who prioritises the individual

“The militantly anti-romantic deliverance of Marianne to Colonel Brandon”

  • Idea that the patriarchy has reductive ‘solutions’ which don’t actually take into account the feelings of those involved

“The hero’s motives and feelings are opaque for the heroine, and yet her fate depends on the resolution of the hero’s plot”

  • We never get the male perspective in Austen, unlike Woolf’s use of free indirect discourse
  • This separates male and female, suggesting that they can’t understand one another effectively



GRUNDY (1997)


‘Austen inherited no obvious, no precisely defined tradition’, ‘she is chary of influence’

  • Like Woolf/modernism which made a deliberate break from inherited convention


‘a novelist of ideas’, ‘take her seriously as a thinker’

‘the most thorough knowledge of human nature’ (what novels show according to Austen’s defence of them in Northanger Abbey)

  • Austen was concerned with tackling the real issues of her time
  • Women’s novels are valuable not frivolous


‘she allows Marianne, or Willoughby, to be demeaned … through their eagerness to exact conformity of taste’

  • What is Austen’s attitude to conformity more generally, and exacting of it?


‘Elinor’s Johnsonian attempts to combat grief and depression through mental activity, and Marianne’s Cowperesque savouring of melancholy’

‘she avoids … models of unmixed virtue … and heavy-handed poetic justice’

  • Neither Elinor nor Marianne is wholly perfect
  • Austen rejects conventions which give unrealistic pictures of women


‘Elinor’s pity for Lucy Steele’s lack of education … is genuinely felt’

  • Does Elinor really pity Lucy Steele? Does Austen?
  • Does Elinor’s pity have a hint of smug superiority?


‘meditation and self-examining, are to play some part in [Marianne’s] redemption’

  • Is Marianne ‘saved’ by herself, or by Brandon?
  • Is internal reflection more important than external circumstance for Austen?


Selwyn (1997)


“The way in which wealthy men manage their property is designed to reveal aspects of their characters.”

  • John Middleton – He is very caring and loves company, almost to the point of being intrusive; he looks after them and makes sure that they are comfortable at Barton.
  • Fanny Dashwood/John Dashwood – Have very little regard for the Dashwood women. Force them off their estate almost immediately etc.


“Jane Austen sometimes makes use of a servant to bring out the essential meanness of spirit in one of her characters.”

  • Fanny Dashwood – discussion of annuities to servants
    • “My mother was clogged with the payment to three old superannuated servants… it’s amazing how disagreeable she found it.

“Good people valued their servants.”

  • Mrs Jennings – Looks out for her servants. “She is excellent housemaid, and works very well with a needle.”


“Jane Austen clearly decided on giving a motive for wishing to marry a woman with money.”

  • Willoughby’s marriage to Miss Grey purely for money and to get him out of a bad situation.
  • Mrs Farrars looks down upon Lucy Steel because she has little in the way of a dowry and cannot further her son’s social and economic status


“Her father was a clergyman; there clergymen in each of her books, and three of them marry the heroine.”

  • “All his [Edward] wishes centred in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life.”
  • Colonel Brandon offers Edward a control of rectory. “Simple” life yet respectable to many not including Mrs Ferrars and Fanny!


“A woman who tries to make her own way in the world would find it… very hard.”

  • Eliza – She was seduced by a series of men, and fallen into a disreputable life. Eliza didn’t have enough money left to keep her in good health.
  • Eliza junior – Eliza’s disappearance was Willoughby’s fault – he’d seduced her, left her, promised to return, then never did. He got her pregnant and fled the scene.

“Jane Austen exposes an unmistakeable social unease.”

  • All the single women strive to get married and most want to ‘better’ their social status for security.
  • Edward would have been in trouble when he was disinherited if it wasn’t for Brandon


McMaster (1997)


  • ‘Class difference was of course a fact of life for Austen’
  • Class difference was part of life in 19th century England – everything was constrained by it
  • The way Austen wrote about class was influenced by her experience – she was also well placed to make judgements as an unmarried woman, as she fell outside of class boundaries


  • ‘Austen insists that with privileges go extensive responsibilities’
  • In the novel, this manifests in John Dashwood’s responsibility for the Dashwood sisters’ financial security, because of the principle of primogeniture
  • Link to Mrs Dalloway – this responsibility comes with the employment of Doris Kilman as Elizabeth’s tutor, which is shown to be a charitable act


  • ‘The novel’s heroine makes prompt though often inaccurate judgements about the social station of people around her’
  • In the novel, the best example of these inaccurate judgements is Elinor Dashwood, who is quick to condemn Lucy Steele as ‘illiterate, artful, and selfish’
  • We trust the omniscient 3rd person narrator more in their judgement, which is often satirical of the social situation/class system of the time


  • ‘Austen highlights the injustices of this system of inheritance’ (primogeniture)
  • Primogeniture – the system by which property is accumulated in the hands of one (male) family member, so as to preserve the family name and estate
  • Mr Dashwood – deprives his wife and daughters of an inheritance, and bestows it upon his son instead, which is inherently unjust


  • [Austen] ‘writes no explicit analysis, but […] fills in the large social picture and provides indirect commentary’
  • One of the main criticisms of Austen is that she fails to tackle the problems of the domestic and foreign scene at the time, eg. poverty, the slave trade, and the Napoleonic wars
  • The omniscient narrator – condemns the class system with subtlety and satire


  • ‘Many of Austen’s most contemptible characters are those who place undue emphasis on social station’
  • This is true regardless of whether they are upper class or lower class, for example both Lucy Steele and Mr and Mrs John Dashwood are presented in a negative light


Russel (1997)


  • “Eighteenth-century sociability was fundamentally a product of the provincial town.”
  • “The Dashwood girls endure as defeated victims of the imperious code of politeness.”
  • “The adventure of eighteenth-century sociability- … the prospect of losing or finding oneself in the company of others- is here rendered as a hollow ritual.”
  • “men and women can saunter together in blissful ignorance of each other’s demands, needs or precedence.”
  • “such sociability involved people outside the immediate family circle… to sustain and advance its ‘place’ in wider society.”
  • “Her fiction is enduring testimony to our own investments in the companionability of culture.”


Early Critical Responses to Jane Austen – Mary Waldron

Initially reviewers treated Austen’s work, like the majority of novels of the time with a degree of contempt

…there was still a necessity for fiction to be didactic: to preach an obvious moral lesson, lest it be damned as “trivial escapism” or condemned as “moral depravity”.

Samuel Johnson, The Rambler No. 4 1750

“The works of fiction, with which the present generation seems more particularly delighted, are such as exhibit life in its true state, diversified only by accidents that daily happen in the world, and influenced by passions and qualities which are really to be found in conversing with mankind.

This kind of writing may be termed not improperly the comedy of romance, and is to be conducted nearly by the rules of comic poetry. Its province is to bring about natural events by easy means, and to keep up curiosity without the help of wonder: it is therefore precluded from the machines and expedients of the heroic romance, and can neither employ giants to snatch away a lady from the nuptial rites, nor knights to bring her back from captivity; it can neither bewilder its personages in desarts, nor lodge them in imaginary castles.

…almost all the fictions of the last age will vanish, if you deprive them of a hermit and a wood, a battle and a shipwreck.

Why this wild strain of imagination found reception so long, in polite and learned ages, it is not easy to conceive; but we cannot wonder that, while readers could be procured, the authors were willing to continue it: for when a man had by practice some fluency of language, he had no further care than to retire to his closet, let loose his invention, and heat his mind with incredibilities; a book was thus produced without fear of criticism, without the toil of study, without knowledge of nature, or acquaintance with life.

The task of our present writers is very different; it requires, together with that learning which is to be gained from books, that experience which can never be attained by solitary diligence, but must arise from general converse, and accurate observation of the living world.

…They are engaged in portraits of which every one knows the original, and can detect any deviation from exactness of resemblance. Other writings are safe, except from the malice of learning, but these are in danger from every common reader; as the slipper ill executed was censured by a shoemaker who happened to stop in his way at the Venus of Apelles.

But the fear of not being approved as just copyers of human manners, is not the most important concern that an author of this sort ought to have before him. These books are written chiefly to the young, the ignorant, and the idle, to whom they serve as lectures of conduct, and introductions into life. They are the entertainment of minds unfurnished with ideas, and therefore easily susceptible of impressions; not fixed by principles, and therefore easily following the current of fancy; not informed by experience, and consequently open to every false suggestion and partial account.

That the highest degree of reverence should be paid to youth, and that nothing indecent should be suffered to approach their eyes or ears; are precepts extorted by sense and virtue from an ancient writer, by no means eminent for chastity of thought. The same kind, tho’ not the same degree of caution, is required in every thing which is laid before them, to secure them from unjust prejudices, perverse opinions, and incongruous combinations of images.

In the romances formerly written, every transaction and sentiment was so remote from all that passes among men, that the reader was in very little danger of making any application to himself; the virtues and crimes were equally beyond his sphere of activity; and he amused himself with heroes and with traitors, deliverers and persecutors, as with beings of another species, whose actions were regulated upon motives of their own, and who had neither faults nor excellences in common with himself.

But when an adventurer is levelled with the rest of the world, and acts in such scenes of the universal drama, as may be the lot of any other man; young spectators fix their eyes upon him with closer attention, and hope by observing his behaviour and success to regulate their own practices, when they shall be engaged in the like part.

For this reason these familiar histories may perhaps be made of greater use than the solemnities of professed morality, and convey the knowledge of vice and virtue with more efficacy than axioms and definitions. But if the power of example is so great, as to take possession of the memory by a kind of violence, and produce effects almost without the intervention of the will, care ought to be taken that, when the choice is unrestrained, the best examples only should be exhibited; and that which is likely to operate so strongly, should not be mischievous or uncertain in its effects.

The chief advantage which these fictions have over real life is, that their authors are at liberty, tho’ not to invent, yet to select objects, and to cull from the mass of mankind, those individuals upon which the attention ought most to be employ’d; as a diamond, though it cannot be made, may be polished by art, and placed in such a situation, as to display that lustre which before was buried among common stones.

It is justly considered as the greatest excellency of art, to imitate nature; but it is necessary to distinguish those parts of nature, which are most proper for imitation: greater care is still required in representing life, which is so often discoloured by passion, or deformed by wickedness. If the world be promiscuously described, I cannot see of what use it can be to read the account; or why it may not be as safe to turn the eye immediately upon mankind, as upon a mirror which shows all that presents itself without discrimination.

It is therefore not a sufficient vindication of a character, that it is drawn as it appears, for many characters ought never to be drawn; nor of a narrative, that the train of events is agreeable to observation and experience, for that observation which is called knowledge of the world, will be found much more frequently to make men cunning than good. The purpose of these writings is surely not only to show mankind, but to provide that they may be seen hereafter with less hazard; to teach the means of avoiding the snares which are laid by Treachery for Innocence, without infusing any wish for that superiority with which the betrayer flatters his vanity; to give the power of counteracting fraud, without the temptation to practise it; to initiate the youth by mock encounters in the art of necessary defense, and to increase prudence without impairing virtue.”

…so there was still a necessity for fiction to be didactic: to preach an obvious moral lesson, lest it be damned as “trivial escapism” or condemned as “moral depravity”.


1812 Reviews of Sense & Sensibility: “reflects continuing doubts about the value of fiction in general… a trifling story”


“…the character of Marianne and Elinor are flattened into lifeless representatives of the opposing virtue and vice apparently inherent in the title… and towards the end comes the inevitable assurance of the moral usefulness of ‘these volumes’ to ‘our female friends’: ‘they may learn from them, if they please, many sober and salutary maxims for the conduct of life.’”


Then there was the usual “statutory reassurance to anxious parents concerned about the trumpeted dangers of novel reading, especially for young girls.”


Scott 1815

“…a new kind of novel had ‘within the last fifteen or twenty years’ been coming into fashion, ‘presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of the imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him’. But he doubted whether they had succeeded.

“…though such novelists as West, Hamilton, Edgeworth and others strove to foreground ordinary family life, they on the whole seemed unable to resist heightening the excitement by the inclusion of well-worn stereotypes. Scott perceived that Austen had contrived, exceptionally, to rid herself of these.”

“She had, he asserts ‘produced sketches of such spirit and originality, that we never miss the excitation which depends on a narrative of uncommon events.’”

“‘The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader.’”

…Scott finally falls back on the moral issue: ‘the youthful wanderer may return from his promenade to the ordinary business of life, without any chance of having his head turned by the recollection of the scene through which he has been wandering’ – as much as to say that the novels are harmless, but nothing much more.”


Anonymous Reviewer in Augustan Review 1816


‘…we cannot but think that a greater variety of incidents would, in such hands as hers, well supply the place of some of the colloquial familiarity and minuteness to which she has hitherto too much confined herself.’

‘The fair reader may also glean by way of some useful hints against forming romantic schemes.’

“…the reviewers fall back on instruction as its most valuable object.”


Posthumous Reviews – Richard Whatley 1821


“…imaginative literature, especially narrative, is more valuable than history and biography, in that it deals with what is probable, rather than actual events, which have no general application. Readers of novels he says, are being presented ‘with a kind of artificial experience’ which is capable of affording them deep insights into human nature. Two things, however, are necessary for success; the probability of the narrative must be absolute – no coincidence or deus ex machina can be allowed; and any moral instruction must come obliquely to the reader’s consciousness to be effective.”


“Unlike [contemporary novelists such as Hannah More and Maria Edgeworth], Austen appears to stand aside and allow readers to ‘collect’ any moral lesson for themselves, never deviating from the strict probabilities of everyday experience; nor does she set up models: “Miss Austen does not deal in fiends of angels.’”

… “the conclusions of the novels deliberately leaves moral questions unanswered, as they so often are in real life.”

“The novel must henceforth be taken seriously; Jane Austen’s devotion to the ordinary, recognisable, often chaotic doings of everyday life had shown, perhaps for the first time, how fiction could not only enthral without seeking to astonish, but also enlighten without the need to preach.”

Critical Responses 1830-1970 – Nicola Trott

There arose a resistance to the Janeite School of critics who regarded Austen as a writer of comedies of social manners… “demands that Austen be regarded, not as a social comedian, but as a morally significant author…

“…no longer the exquisite watercolourist of society, but beginning to have a critical purchase on it… her intense moral preoccupation… with the problems that life compel s on her… that make her a great novelist.

“These changes in attitude seem to be marked by a turn from Life to Work, and form woman to writer.”


Gilbert Ryle’s 1966 “Jane Austen and the Moralists” – “attributes to the novelist a ‘moral system’.”


Alistair M Duckworth: “Austen’s ‘Burkean concern over the… continuity of the social structure’… ‘the estate as… a metonym for other inherited structures – society as a whole, a code of morality, a body of manners, a system of language.’”


F R Leavis – 1935: “‘the inaugurator of the greatest tradition of the English novel’, which is distinguished from its French or aesthetic equivalent by the ‘moral intensity’ with which it arbitrates between life and art.”

The Three Dilemmas:

  1. Was Austen poetic as well as prosaic
  2. Was Austen artistic as well as imitative
  3. Was Austen universal as well as parochial


Virginia Woolf


“Whatever she writes is… set in its relations not to the parsonage but to the universe.”

“The contrary view, that she is the sexless spinster of the ‘parlour’ or the parish has been taken by all Austenphobes, from Charlotte Bronte to Edward Fitzgerald to Mark Twain.”

Austen’s own famous self-representation: “painting on little bits of ivory”

“If modern criticism sees the back of the complaisant (or complacent) humourist of Victorian England, then modern criticism brings to the fore the moral and critical writer of didactic fiction. For Simpson, ‘Criticism, humour, irony, judgement not of one that gives sentence but of the mimic who quizzes while he mocks, are her characteristics… [She] began as Shakespeare began, with being an ironical censurer of her [literary] contemporaries’; yet ‘manifested her judgement of them not by direct censure, but by the indirect method of imitating and exaggerating the faults of her models.’”


Critical Responses Recent – Rajeswari Sunder Rajan


“In positing a tradition of ‘woman’s writing’ there is a danger of homogenising very different writings within an exclusively gendered concept. This is the case in the thesis of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s hugely influential book ‘The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979), which draws an invariant contrast between the ‘decorous surfaces’ and the ‘explosive anger’ beneath them in the works of a number of nineteenth-century woman writers in England and America, as a result of their authors need to resort to covert strategies of subversion and opposition.”


“Brown (1979) attributed to Austen a ‘feminine consciousness’ which allowed her to show how ‘women find ways to develop and assert their womanhood despite the restrictions placed on them.’”


“Kirkham (1983) identified the parallels between Austen’s position on women’s rights and Mary Wollstonecraft’s, finding in them an identifiably ‘Enlightenment’ feminism.”


In her book on Austen Johnson (1988) argued, first for the existence of a tradition of women’s political novels in the eighteenth-century, and, second, for the play in their work of ‘flexible’ rather than ‘partisan’ sympathies on various issues including gender distinctions, aligning Austen with these positions.”

“Johnson is also interested in the ‘act of female authorship’ and the strategies of ‘indirection’ that this demanded at the time.”

“…from the very first her readers could not have failed to see that Austen’s anti-romantic, pragmatic, frequently satirical representations of romantic love comes from the recognition of the middle-class woman’s lack of alternatives to marriage. Her privileging of ‘good’ marriages as narrative resolution (and even as mortal imperative) is therefore explicitly edged with a critique of patriarchal social norms. Most contemporary feminist critics foreground this aspect of Austen’s critique, over the view of her as a conservative in the representation of the social orders of marriage and family.”