JANE AUSTEN’S ANSWER TO CRITICS OF THE NOVEL

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Jane AustenOf course it comes as no surprise to anyone even remotely acquainted with me or my scribbling to know that Jane Austen is my all-time favorite writer. I reread her works at regular intervals. In Jane Austen’s day the novel was a relatively new art form—and one not universally held in high regard, for they were seen as appealing primarily to women.

In 1793 (Jane was 18 and already perfecting her command of the new literary form), the Evangelical Magazine described novels as “instruments of abomination. A fond attachment to them is an irrefragable [irrefutable] evidence of a mind contaminated, and totally unfitted for the serious pursuits of study or the delightful exercises and enjoyments of religion.”

Jane’s response to such thinking, appropriately enough appears in the pages of one of her novels, Northanger Abbey. Yes, the language is so-o-o Jane Austen. After all, it was written 200 years ago, but what she says of novels in general—and the contempt with which they were held then—applies, I think, to the attitude in many quarters toward romance novels of our day.

The narrator of Northanger Abbey has just described two young women who “shut themselves up, to read novels together.” I hope you find this excerpt as amusing and thoughtful as I did:

Yes, novels;—for I will not adopt the ungenerous and impolite custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they themselves are adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel not be patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in the threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Stern, are eulogized by a thousand pens;—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labor of the novelist, and slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. ‘I am no novel reader—I seldom look into novels—Do not imagine that I often read novels—It is really very well for a novel.’ Such is the common cant—‘And what are you reading Miss—-?’ ‘Oh! it is only a novel!’ replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame.—‘It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;’ or, in short only some work in which the thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language. . . .’

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