Critiques and a Critical Response, by Elaine Owen

Critiques and a Critical Response, by Elaine Owen

Is there anyone in this world who does not like Jane Austen?

Jane Austen has always been a polarizing figure. Though it may be hard for some of us hard core “Janeites” to believe, there have been many criticisms of her work over the years. Some have a grain of truth while others, in my opinion, are without foundation. Today I’d like to take a look at some of those criticisms and give a response to each one.

“Jane Austen is the pinnacle to which all other authors aspire.” — J. K. Rowling

Austen’s works lack passion. Her characters are restrained and unemotional. Some critics, including the notable Charlotte Bronte, think that feeling and emotions are missing in Austen’s work. Bronte had this to say on the subject: “She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood . . . “

I disagree. Anyone who reads Captain Wentworth’s passionate letter to Anne at the end of Persusasion can feel the passion in him. It’s practically dripping off the page! The argument between Darcy and Elizabeth during his first proposal is fiery. And let’s not even get into the argument between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine later on in the story! Yes, most of Austen’s characters do not wear their feelings on their sleeve, but that’s part of their charm. When they do voice their feelings, what a moment! And what a payoff for the patient reader!

She has a narrow focus. She only writes about her own little world.

Miss Austen understood the smallness of life to perfection. She was a great artist, equal in her small sphere to Shakespeare…Alfred Tennyson

 It’s true that Austen’s novels are dialed in on the upper class English of the regency period. Admittedly it was a pretty small world. But that is the world Austen lived in. It’s what she knew best, and therefore the most likely setting for her stories. More than that, she brought it to life and made it so real that, centuries later, we can still immerse ourselves in it. This is only possible because she focuses on it to such a degree. I don’t see this as a weakness but rather as a strength.

Her stories are too sentimental. There is no mention of war, death, poverty etc. 

“Contrasted with the world of modern fiction, Jane Austen’s is at once less soft and less cruel.” C.S. Lewis 

With two brothers in the military Austen was certainly aware of the wars happening in her day. She had two sisters in law who died in childbirth and a niece who died at two years of age. Her father helped administer a school for children of the working poor. Her cousin by marriage was executed during the French Revolution. Far from being sheltered from the difficult parts of life, I think Austen deliberately wrote her stories as an escape from them. She and her family had enough trials and tribulations all on their own, and her writing gave her the chance to forget them for a while. And let’s face it: isn’t this one of the main reasons we love to read her stories?

She passively accepted the inequalities of the day. She didn’t use her writing to help the marginalized. 

Of all the criticisms of Jane Austen this is the one that strikes me as most unfair.

To begin with, Austen’s books contained some advanced ideas for their time. For example, who can forget the exchange between Anne Elliott and Captain Harville in Persuasion:

“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

Here, Jane criticizes the practice of educating men more than women, and of men being reflected more than women in literature. But she does so in a reasonable, calm way, not in a white hot flame of righteous indignation. The conversation is part of the story, not the point of the story, and we are entertained even as our consciences are pricked.

A similar situation happens with Jane Fairfax and Mrs. Elton in Emma:

“When I am quite determined as to the time, I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something — offices for the sale, not quite of human flesh, but of human intellect.”

“Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.”

“I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,” replied Jane; “governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly, as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.”

Austen is taking a veiled swipe at the institution of slavery in this passage, by comparing it to the work of a governess, which itself was considered unenviable. Interestingly, she assumes that her audience disapproves of slavery, along with other practices that contribute to the misery of other humans.

Austen also writes kindly of her heroes and heroines who demonstrate charity towards the poor. One of Darcy’s better traits is that he is a kind and generous master and landlord. Emma Woodhouse visits the poor in her neighborhood and tries, in her own clumsy way, to help them improve their lives. Colonel Brandon is a hero in Sense and Sensibility because of his care and consideration for the disgraced Eliza, who would be entirely destitute without him. By contrast Austen pokes sly fun at Lady Catherine, who loves to micromanage the lives of the poor families around her under the guise of dispensing charity.

But Austen influenced the world around her by more than just her writing. At a time when marriage was considered essential for women she had the courage to turn down a proposal and remain single. Her passion was directed to her writing, not to a husband and children. As a woman she wrote in a world dominated by men and broke new literary ground for both men and women who would follow after her. Focusing solely on what she wrote while ignoring her other contributions is, in my opinion, selling her short.

These are some of the most common criticisms of Jane Austen. I’d like to close with my favorite quote about her:

“Jane lies in Winchester—blessed be her shade! Praise the Lord for making her, and her for all she made! And while the stones of Winchester, or Milsom Street, remain, Glory, love and honor unto England’s Jane.” — Rudyard Kipling

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March 30, 2022 8:03 PM

Thanks for sharing. Unfortunately no one else in my family are fans of JA but at least none of them are critics either.

Jean Stillman
Jean Stillman
March 27, 2022 8:20 AM

Thank you for sharing this great article! Jane will always bee my favorite, but I am so happy for all of you that write variations, re-tellings, and continuations of her work for the rest of us to enjoy!

Elaine Owen
Elaine Owen
March 28, 2022 12:17 PM
Reply to  Jean Stillman

Thank you!

March 24, 2022 12:15 PM

I remember reading a reader’s review of Pride and Prejudice that said something to the effect: Nothing happens. It’s just a bunch of people going from house to house talking. It made me laugh. I guess I understand their point (but of course disagree with their rating).

J. W. Garrett.
J. W. Garrett.
March 24, 2022 12:07 PM

Excellent points. I loved the contrast in quotes regarding her writing. Thanks for sharing.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
March 24, 2022 6:45 AM

How nice of Rudyard Kipling to say! Some Authors really go deep with their reviews! Nice post!

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