Jane Austen –Critical Responses


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.”