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Reception history of Jane Austen

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Jane Austen

A watercolour and pencil sketch of Austen, believed to have been

drawn from life by her sister Cassandra (c. 1810)

Born 16 December 1775

Steventon Rectory, Hampshire

Died 18 July 1817 (aged 41)

Winchester, Hampshire

Resting place Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire

Nationality English

Period 1787 to 1809–1811

Genres Comedy of Manners, Romance


The reception history of Jane Austen follows a path from modest fame to wild popularity. Jane
Austen (1775–1817), the author of such works as Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Emma (1815), has
become one of the best-known and most widely read novelists in the English language.[1] Her novels
are the subject of intense scholarly study and the centre of a diverse fan culture.
During her lifetime, Austen's novels brought her little personal fame. Like many women writers, she
chose to publish anonymously, but her authorship was an open secret. At the time they were
published, Austen's works were considered fashionable but received only a few reviews, albeit
positive. By the mid-19th century, her novels were admired by members of the literary elite who
viewed their appreciation of her works as a mark of cultivation, but they were also being
recommended in the popular education movement and on school reading lists as early as
1838.[2] The first illustrated edition of her works appeared in 1833, in Richard Bentley's Standard
Novels series, which put her titles before thousands of readers across the Victorian period.[3]
The publication in 1870 of her nephew's Memoir of Jane Austen introduced her to a wider public as
an appealing personality—dear aunt Jane—and her works were republished in popular editions. By
the start of the 20th century, competing groups had sprung up—some to worship her and some to
defend her from the "teeming masses"—but all claiming to be the true Janeites, or those who
properly appreciated Austen. The "teeming masses", meanwhile, were creating their own ways of
honouring Austen, including in amateur theatricals in drawing rooms, schools, and community
In 1923, the publisher and scholar R. W. Chapman prepared a carefully edited collection of her
works, which some have claimed is the first serious scholarly treatment given to any British novelist.
By mid-century, Austen was widely accepted within academia as a great English novelist. The
second half of the 20th century saw a proliferation of Austen scholarship, which explored numerous
aspects of her works: artistic, ideological, and historical.
With the growing professionalisation of university English departments in the second half of the 20th
century, criticism of Austen became more theoretical and specialized, as did literary studies in
general. As a result, commentary on Austen sometimes seemed to imagine itself as divided into high
culture and popular culture branches. In the mid- to late 20th century, fans founded Jane Austen
societies and clubs to celebrate the author, her time, and her works.
As of the early 21st century, Austen fandom supports an industry of printed sequels and prequels as
well as television and film adaptations, which started with the 1940 Pride and Prejudice and evolved
to include productions such as the 2004 Bollywood-style production Bride and Prejudice.


 1Background
 21812–1821: Individual reactions and contemporary reviews
 31821–1870: Cultured few
 419th-century European translations
 51870–1930: Explosion in popularity
o 5.1Family biographies
o 5.2Criticism
o 5.3Janeites
 61930–2000: Modern scholarship
 7Modern popular culture
o 7.1Modern Janeites
o 7.2Adaptations
 8See also
 9Notes
 10Bibliography
 11External links

Main article: Jane Austen

Austen signed her first published novel "By a Lady".

Jane Austen lived her entire life as part of a large and close-knit family on the lower fringes of the
English gentry.[5] Her family's steadfast support was critical to Austen's development as a
professional writer.[6] Austen read draft versions of all of her novels to her family, receiving feedback
and encouragement,[7] and it was her father who sent out her first publication bid.[8] Austen's artistic
apprenticeship lasted from her teenage years until she was about thirty-five. During this period, she
experimented with various literary forms, including the epistolary novel which she tried and then
abandoned, and wrote and extensively revised three major novels and began a fourth. With the
release of Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814)
and Emma (1815), she achieved success as a published writer.
Novel-writing was a suspect occupation for women in the early 19th century, because it imperiled
their social reputation by bringing them publicity, viewed as unfeminine. Therefore, like many other
female writers, Austen published anonymously.[9] Eventually, though, her novels' authorship became
an open secret among the aristocracy.[10] During one of her visits to London, the Prince
Regent invited her, through his librarian, James Stanier Clarke, to view his library at Carlton House;
his librarian mentioned that the Regent admired her novels and that "if Miss Austen had any other
Novel forthcoming, she was quite at liberty to dedicate it to the Prince".[11] Austen, who disapproved
of the prince's extravagant lifestyle, did not want to follow this suggestion, but her friends convinced
her otherwise: in short order, Emma was dedicated to him. Austen turned down the librarian's further
hint to write a historical romance in honour of the prince's daughter's marriage.[12]

A watercolour sketch of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra (c. 1804)

In the last year of her life, Austen revised Northanger Abbey (1817), wrote Persuasion (1817), and
began another novel, eventually titled Sanditon, which was left unfinished at her death. Austen did
not have time to see Northanger Abbey or Persuasion through the press, but her family published
them as one volume after her death and her brother Henry included a "Biographical Notice of the
Author".[13] This short biography sowed the seeds for the myth of Austen as a quiet, retiring aunt who
wrote during her spare time: "Neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed with her early motives ... [S]o
much did she shrink from notoriety, that no accumulation of fame would have induced her, had she
lived, to affix her name to any productions of her pen ... in public she turned away from any allusion
to the character of an authoress."[14] However, this description is in direct contrast to the excitement
Austen shows in her letters regarding publication and profit: Austen was a professional writer.[15]
Austen's works are noted for their realism, biting social commentary, and masterful use of free
indirect discourse, burlesque and irony.[16] They critique the novels of sensibility of the second half of
the 18th century and are part of the transition to 19th-century realism.[17] As Susan
Gubar and Sandra Gilbert explain, Austen makes fun of "such novelistic clichés as love at first sight,
the primacy of passion over all other emotions and/or duties, the chivalric exploits of the hero, the
vulnerable sensitivity of the heroine, the lovers' proclaimed indifference to financial considerations,
and the cruel crudity of parents".[18] Austen's plots, though comic,[19] highlight the way women of the
gentry depended on marriage to secure social standing and economic security.[20] Like the writings
of Samuel Johnson, a strong influence on her, her works are fundamentally concerned with moral

1812–1821: Individual reactions and contemporary reviews[edit]

In 1816 the editors of The New Monthly Magazinenoted Emma's publication but did not see it as important
enough to review.
Austen's novels quickly became fashionable among opinion-makers, namely, those aristocrats who
often dictated fashion and taste. Lady Bessborough, sister to the notorious Georgiana, Duchess of
Devonshire, commented on Sense and Sensibility in a letter to a friend: "it is a clever novel. ... tho' it
ends stupidly, I was much amused by it."[22] The fifteen-year-old daughter of the Prince
Regent, Princess Charlotte Augusta, compared herself to one of the book's heroines: "I think
Marianne & me are very like in disposition, that certainly I am not so good, the same imprudence,
After reading Pride and Prejudice, playwright Richard Sheridan advised a friend to "[b]uy it
immediately" for it "was one of the cleverest things" he had ever read.[24] Anne Milbanke, future wife
of the Romantic poet Lord Byron, wrote: "I have finished the Novel called Pride and Prejudice, which
I think a very superior work." She commented that the novel "is the most probable fiction I have ever
read" and had become "at present the fashionable novel".[25] The Dowager Lady Vernon told a friend
that Mansfield Park was "[n]ot much of a novel, more the history of a family party in the country, very
natural"—as if, comments one Austen scholar, "Lady Vernon's parties mostly featured
adultery."[26] Lady Anne Romilly told her friend, the novelist Maria Edgeworth, that "[Mansfield Park]
has been pretty generally admired here" and Edgeworth commented later that "we have been much
entertained with Mansfield Park".[26]
Despite these positive reactions from the elite, Austen's novels received relatively few reviews during
her lifetime:[27] two for Sense and Sensibility, three for Pride and Prejudice, none for Mansfield Park,
and seven for Emma. Most of the reviews were short and on balance favourable, although
superficial and cautious.[28] They most often focused on the moral lessons of the novels.[29] Moreover,
as Brian Southam, who has edited the definitive volumes on Austen's reception, writes in his
description of these reviewers, "their job was merely to provide brief notices, extended with
quotations, for the benefit of women readers compiling their library lists and interested only in
knowing whether they would like a book for its story, its characters and moral".[30] This was not
atypical critical treatment for novels in Austen's day.
Asked by publisher John Murray to review Emma, famed historical novelist Walter Scott wrote the
longest and most thoughtful of these reviews, which was published anonymously in the March 1816
issue of the Quarterly Review. Using the review as a platform from which to defend the then
disreputable genre of the novel, Scott praised Austen's works, celebrating her ability to copy "from
nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader ... a correct and
striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him".[31] Modern Austen scholar
William Galperin has noted that "unlike some of Austen's lay readers, who recognized her
divergence from realistic practice as it had been prescribed and defined at the time, Walter Scott
may well have been the first to install Austen as the realist par excellence".[32] Scott wrote in his
private journal in 1826, in what later became a widely quoted comparison:
Also read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen's very finely written novel of Pride and
Prejudice. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters
of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do
myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and
characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me. What a
pity such a gifted creature died so early! [33]
Novelist Walter Scott praised Austen's "exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things ...

Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published together posthumously in December 1817, were
reviewed in the British Critic in March 1818 and in the Edinburgh Review and Literary Miscellany in
May 1818. The reviewer for the British Critic felt that Austen's exclusive dependence on realism was
evidence of a deficient imagination. The reviewer for the Edinburgh Review disagreed, praising
Austen for her "exhaustless invention" and the combination of the familiar and the surprising in her
plots.[34] Overall, Austen scholars have pointed out that these early reviewers did not know what to
make of her novels—for example, they misunderstood her use of irony. Reviewers reduced Sense
and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice to didactic tales of virtue prevailing over vice.[35]
In the Quarterly Review in 1821, the English writer and theologian Richard Whately published the
most serious and enthusiastic early posthumous review of Austen's work. Whately drew favourable
comparisons between Austen and such acknowledged greats as Homer and Shakespeare, praising
the dramatic qualities of her narrative. He also affirmed the respectability and legitimacy of the novel
as a genre, arguing that imaginative literature, especially narrative, was more valuable than history
or biography. When it was properly done, as in Austen, Whately said, imaginative literature
concerned itself with generalised human experience from which the reader could gain important
insights into human nature; in other words, it was moral.[36] Whately also addressed Austen's position
as a female writer, writing: "we suspect one of Miss Austin's [sic] great merits in our eyes to be, the
insight she gives us into the peculiarities of female characters. ... Her heroines are what one knows
women must be, though one never can get them to acknowledge it."[37] No more significant, original
Austen criticism was published until the late 19th century: Whately and Scott had set the tone for
the Victorian era's view of Austen.[36]

1821–1870: Cultured few[edit]

George Henry Lewes, partner of George Eliot, compared Austen to Shakespeare.

Austen had many admiring readers during the 19th century, who, according to critic Ian Watt,
appreciated her "scrupulous ... fidelity to ordinary social experience".[38] However, Austen's novels did
not conform to certain strong Romantic and Victorian British preferences, which required that
"powerful emotion [be] authenticated by an egregious display of sound and colour in the
writing".[39] Victorian critics and audiences were drawn to the work of authors such as Charles
Dickens and George Eliot; by comparison, Austen's novels seemed provincial and quiet.[40]Although
Austen's works were republished beginning in late 1832 or early 1833 by Richard Bentley in
the Standard Novels series, and remained in print continuously thereafter, they were not best-
sellers.[41] Southam describes her "reading public between 1821 and 1870" as "minute beside the
known audience for Dickens and his contemporaries".[42]
Those who did read Austen saw themselves as discriminating readers—they were a cultured few.
This became a common theme of Austen criticism during the 19th and early 20th
centuries.[43] Philosopher and literary critic George Henry Lewes articulated this theme in a series of
enthusiastic articles in the 1840s and 1850s. In "The Novels of Jane Austen", published
anonymously in Blackwood's Magazine in 1859, Lewes praised Austen's novels for "the economy
of art ... the easy adaptation of means to ends, with no aid from superfluous elements" and
compared her to Shakespeare.[44] Arguing that Austen lacked the ability to construct a plot, he still
celebrated her dramatisations: "The reader's pulse never throbs, his curiosity is never intense; but
his interest never wanes for a moment. The action begins; the people speak, feel, and act;
everything that is said, felt, or done tends towards the entanglement or disentanglement of the plot;
and we are almost made actors as well as spectators of the little drama."[45]
Reacting against Lewes's essays and his personal communications with her, novelist Charlotte
Brontë admired Austen's fidelity to everyday life but described her as "only shrewd and observant"
and criticised the absence of visible passion in her work.[46] To Brontë, Austen's work appeared
formal and constrained, "a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate
flowers; but no glance of bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no
bonny beck".[47]

19th-century European translations[edit]

Austen's novels appeared in some European countries soon after their publication in Britain,
beginning in 1813 with a French translation of Pride and Prejudice in the journal Bibliothèque
Britannique, quickly followed by German, Danish, and Swedish editions. Their availability in Europe
was not universal. Austen was not well known in Russia and the first Russian translation of an
Austen novel did not appear until 1967.[48] Despite the fact that Austen's novels were translated into
many European languages, Europeans did not recognise her works as part of the English
novel tradition. This perception was reinforced by the changes made by translators who
injected sentimentalism into Austen's novels and eliminated their humour and irony. European
readers therefore more readily associated Walter Scott's style with the English novel.[49]
Because of the significant changes made by her translators, Austen was received as a different kind
of novelist in continental Europe than in Britain.[50] In Bibliothèque Britannique's Pride and Prejudice,
for example, vivacious conversations between Elizabeth and Darcy were replaced by decorous
ones.[51] Elizabeth's claim that she has "always seen a great similarity in the turn of [their] minds" (her
and Darcy's) because they are "unwilling to speak, unless [they] expect to say something that will
amaze the whole room" becomes "Moi, je garde le silence, parce que je ne sais que dire, et vous,
parce que vous aiguisez vos traits pour parler avec effet." ("Me, I keep silent, because I don't know
what to say, and you, because you excite your features for effect when speaking.") As Cossy and
Saglia explain in their essay on Austen translations, "the equality of mind which Elizabeth takes for
granted is denied and gender distinction introduced".[51] Because Austen's works were seen in
France as part of a sentimental tradition, they were overshadowed by the works of French realists
such as Stendhal, Balzac, and Flaubert.[52] German translations and reviews of those translations
also placed Austen in a line of sentimental writers, particularly late Romantic women writers.[53]

Isabelle de Montolieu translated Austen's works into French.

A study of other important dimensions of some French translations, such as free indirect discourse,
do much to nuance our understanding of Austen's initial "aesthetic" reception with her first French
readership.[54] Austen uses the narrative technique of free indirect discourse to represent Anne
Elliot's consciousness in Persuasion. Indeed, the portrayal of the heroine's subjective experience is
central to its narration.[55] The frequent use of the technique imbues Perusasion's narrative discourse
with a high degree of subtlety, placing a huge burden of interpretation on Austen's first translators.
Recent studies demonstrate that free indirect discourse from Persuasion was translated extensively
in Isabelle de Montolieu's La Famille Elliot.[56] Indeed, the translator, herself a novelist, was aware of
the propensity of Austen's narrator to delve into the heroine's psychology in Persuasion as she
comments on this in the preface to La Famille Elliot. She characterises it as "almost imperceptible,
delicate nuances that come from the heart": des nuances délicates presque imperceptibles qui
partent du fond du cœur, et dont miss JANE AUSTEN avait le secret plus qu'aucun autre
romancier.[57] Montolieu's extensive translations of Austen's technique concerning discourse
demonstrate that she was in fact one of Austen's first critical readers, whose own finely nuanced
reading of Austen's narrative technique meant that her first French readers could also share in Anne
Elliot's psychological drama in much the same way that her English readership could.[58]

1870–1930: Explosion in popularity[edit]

Family biographies[edit]

An idealised portrait of Austen engraved by Richard Bentley (1870) appears as the frontispiece of Memoir.

For decades, Scott's and Whately's opinions dominated the reception of Austen's works and few
people read her novels. In 1869, this changed with the publication of the first significant Austen
biography, A Memoir of Jane Austen, which was written by Jane Austen's nephew, James Edward
Austen-Leigh.[59] With its release, Austen's popularity and critical standing increased
dramatically.[60] Readers of the Memoir were presented with the myth of the amateur novelist who
wrote masterpieces: the Memoir fixed in the public mind a sentimental picture of Austen as a quiet,
middle-aged maiden aunt and reassured them that her work was suitable for a
respectable Victorian family. James Edward Austen-Leigh had a portrait of Jane Austen painted,
based on the earlier watercolour, softening her image and making her presentable to
the Victorian public.[61] The engraving by Bentley which formed the frontispiece of Memoir is based
on the idealised image.
The publication of the Memoir spurred a major reissue of Austen's novels. The first popular editions
were released in 1883—a cheap sixpenny series published by Routledge. This was followed by a
proliferation of elaborate illustrated editions, collectors' sets, and scholarly editions.[62] However,
contemporary critics continued to assert that her works were sophisticated and only appropriate for
those who could truly plumb their depths.[63] Yet, after the publication of the Memoir, more criticism
was published on Austen's novels in two years than had appeared in the previous fifty.[64]
In 1913, William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh, descendants of the Austen family,
published the definitive family biography, Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters—A Family Record.
Based primarily on family papers and letters, it is described by Austen biographer Park Honan as
"accurate, staid, reliable, and at times vivid and suggestive".[65] Although the authors moved away
from the sentimental tone of the Memoir, they made little effort to go beyond the family records and
traditions immediately available to them. Their book therefore offers bare facts and little in the way of

Mark Twain was one of Austen's most vocal American critics (c. 1907).

During the last quarter of the 19th century, the first books of critical analysis regarding Austen's
works were published. In 1890 Godwin Smith published the Life of Jane Austen, initiating a "fresh
phase in the critical heritage", in which Austen reviewers became critics. This launched the
beginning of "formal criticism", that is, a focus on Austen as a writer and an analysis of the
techniques that made her writing unique.[67] According to Southam, while Austen criticism increased
in amount and, to some degree, in quality after 1870, "a certain uniformity" pervaded it:
We see the novels praised for their elegance of form and their surface 'finish'; for the realism of their
fictional world, the variety and vitality of their characters; for their pervasive humour; and for their
gentle and undogmatic morality and its unsermonising delivery. The novels are prized for their
'perfection'. Yet it is seen to be a narrow perfection, achieved within the bounds of domestic
Among the most astute of these critics were Richard Simpson, Margaret Oliphant, and Leslie
Stephen. In a review of the Memoir, Simpson described Austen as a serious yet ironic critic of
English society. He introduced two interpretative themes which later became the basis for modern
literary criticism of Austen's works: humour as social critique and irony as a means of moral
evaluation. Continuing Lewes's comparison to Shakespeare, Simpson wrote that Austen:
began by being an ironical critic; she manifested her judgment ... not by direct censure, but by the
indirect method of imitating and exaggerating the faults of her models. ... Criticism, humour, irony,
the judgment not of one that gives sentence but of the mimic who quizzes while he mocks, are her
Simpson's essay was not well known and did not become influential until Lionel Trilling quoted it in
1957.[70] Another prominent writer whose Austen criticism was ignored, novelist Margaret Oliphant,
described Austen in almost proto-feminist terms, as "armed with a 'fine vein of feminine cynicism,'
'full of subtle power, keenness, finesse, and self-restraint,' blessed with an 'exquisite sense' of the
'ridiculous,' 'a fine stinging yet soft-voiced contempt,' whose novels are 'so calm and cold and
keen'".[71] This line of criticism would not be fully explored until the 1970s with the rise of feminist
literary criticism.
Although Austen's novels had been published in the United States since 1832, albeit
in bowdlerised editions, it was not until after 1870 that there was a distinctive American response to
Austen.[72] As Southam explains, "for American literary nationalists Jane Austen's cultivated scene
was too pallid, too constrained, too refined, too downright unheroic".[73] Austen was not democratic
enough for American tastes and her canvas did not extend to the frontier themes that had come to
define American literature.[73] By the start of the 20th century, the American response was
represented by the debate between the American novelist and critic William Dean Howells and the
writer and humourist Mark Twain. In a series of essays, Howells helped make Austen into a
canonical figure for the populace whereas Twain used Austen to argue against
the Anglophile tradition in America. That is, Twain argued for the distinctiveness of American
literature by attacking English literature.[74] In his book Following the Equator, Twain described the
library on his ship: "Jane Austen's books ... are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone
would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn't a book in it."[75]
Might we not ... borrow from Miss Austen's biographer the title which the affection of a nephew bestows
upon her, and recognise her officially as 'dear aunt Jane'?
– Richard Simpson[76]
The Encyclopædia Britannica's changing entries on Austen illustrate her increasing popularity and
status. The eighth edition (1854) described her as "an elegant novelist" while the ninth edition (1875)
lauded her as "one of the most distinguished modern British novelists".[77] Around the start of the 20th
century, Austen novels began to be studied at universities and appear in histories of the English
novel.[78] The image of her that dominated the popular imagination was still that first presented in
the Memoir and made famous by Howells in his series of essays in Harper's Magazine, that of "dear
aunt Jane".[79] Author and critic Leslie Stephendescribed a mania that started to develop for Austen in
the 1880s as "Austenolatry"[80]—it was only after the publication of the Memoir that readers
developed a personal connection with Austen.[81] However, around 1900, members of the literary
elite, who had claimed an appreciation of Austen as a mark of culture, reacted against this
popularisation of her work. They referred to themselves as Janeites to distinguish themselves from
the masses who, in their view, did not properly understand Austen.[82]
American novelist Henry James, one member of this literary elite, referred to Austen several times
with approval and on one occasion ranked her with Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Henry Fielding as
among "the fine painters of life".[83] But, James thought Austen an "unconscious" artist whom he
described as "instinctive and charming".[84] In 1905, James responded frustratingly to what he
described as "a beguiled infatuation" with Austen, a rising tide of public interest that exceeded
Austen's "intrinsic merit and interest". James attributed this rise principally to "the stiff breeze of
the commercial, ... the special bookselling spirits. ... the body of publishers, editors, illustrators,
producers of the pleasant twaddle of magazines; who have found their 'dear', our dear, everybody's
dear, Jane so infinitely to their material purpose, so amenable to pretty reproduction in every variety
of what is called tasteful, and in what seemingly proves to be salable, form."[85]
In an effort to avoid the sentimental image of the "Aunt Jane" tradition and approach Austen's fiction
from a fresh perspective, in 1917 British intellectual and travel writer Reginald Farrer published a
lengthy essay in the Quarterly Review which Austen scholar A. Walton Litz calls the best single
introduction to her fiction.[86] Southam describes it as a "Janeite" piece without the worship.[87] Farrer
denied that Austen's artistry was unconscious (contradicting James) and described her as a writer of
intense concentration and a severe critic of her society, "radiant and remorseless", "dispassionate
yet pitiless", with "the steely quality, the incurable rigor of her judgment".[88] Farrer was one of the first
critics who viewed Austen as a subversive writer.[89]

1930–2000: Modern scholarship[edit]

Austen was the first English novelist whose works were published in a scholarly edition. [90]

Several important early works—glimmers of brilliant Austen scholarship—paved the way for Austen
to become solidly entrenched within the academy. The first was Oxford Shakespearean scholar A.
C. Bradley's 1911 essay, "generally regarded as the starting-point for the serious academic
approach to Jane Austen".[91] Bradley emphasised Austen's ties to 18th-century critic and
writer Samuel Johnson, arguing that she was a moralist as well as humourist; in this he was "totally
original", according to Southam.[92] Bradley divided Austen's works into "early" and "late" novels,
categories still used by scholars.[93] The second path-breaking early-20th-century critic of Austen
was R. W. Chapman, whose magisterial edition of Austen's collected works was the first scholarly
edition of the works of any English novelist. The Chapman texts have remained the basis for all
subsequent editions of Austen's works.[94]
In the wake of Bradley and Chapman's contributions, the 1920s saw a boom in Austen scholarship,
and the novelist E. M. Forster primarily illustrated his concept of the "round" character by citing
Austen's works. It was with the 1939 publication of Mary Lascelles' Jane Austen and Her Art—"the
first full-scale historical and scholarly study" of Austen—that the academic study of her works
matured.[95] Lascelles included a short biographical essay; an innovative analysis of the books
Austen read and their effect on her writing; and an extended analysis of Austen's style and her
"narrative art". Lascelles felt that prior critics had all worked on a scale "so small that the reader does
not see how they have reached their conclusions until he has patiently found his own way to
them".[96] She wished to examine all Austen's works together and to subject her style and techniques
to methodical analysis. Lascelles praised Austen for her "shallow modelling" of her characters, giving
them distinctive voices yet making certain it was clear they all belonged to the same
class.[97] Subsequent critics agree that she succeeded. Like Bradley earlier, she emphasised
Austen's connection to Samuel Johnson and her desire to discuss morality through fiction. However,
at the time some fans of Austen worried that academics were taking over Austen criticism and that it
was becoming increasingly esoteric—a debate that continued into the 21st century.[98]
Modern scholars emphasised Austen's intellectual and artistic ties to important 18th-century figures such
as Samuel Johnson.

In an outpouring of mid-century revisionist views, scholars approached Austen more sceptically. D.

W. Harding, following and expanding upon Farrer, argued in his essay "Regulated Hatred: An Aspect
of the Work of Jane Austen" that Austen's novels did not support the status quo but rather subverted
it. Her irony was not humorous but caustic and intended to undermine the assumptions of the society
she portrayed. Through her use of irony, Austen attempted to protect her integrity as an artist and a
person in the face of attitudes and practices she rejected.[99] In his 1940 essay, Harding argued that
Austen had to be rescued from the Janites, charging "her books are, as she meant them to be, read
and enjoyed by precisely the sort of people she disliked".[100] Harding argued the Janites regarded
Regency England as "expressing the gentler virtue of a civilised social order" that was an escape
from the waking nightmare of a world at war, but he argued that in its own sort of way that the world
of Austen's novels was nightmarish, where the government maintained a system of spies to crush
any sympathy with the French Revolution, where friends take delight in causing others pain, where
the polite language is usually a facade, and where intelligence in single woman is seen as a
problem.[101] Harding maintained that the problem with the Janites was that they could not grasp
these aspects of Austen's works.[101] Almost simultaneously, influential critic Q. D. Leavis argued in
"Critical Theory of Jane Austen's Writing", published in Scrutiny in the early 1940s, that Austen was
a professional, not an amateur, writer.[102] Harding's and Leavis's articles were followed by another
revisionist treatment by Marvin Mudrick in Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery (1952).
Mudrick portrayed Austen as isolated, defensive, and critical of her society, and described in detail
the relationship he saw between Austen's attitude toward contemporary literature and her use of
irony as a technique to contrast the realities of her society with what she felt they should be.[99] These
revisionist views, together with prominent critic F. R. Leavis's pronouncement in The Great
Tradition (1948) that Austen was one of the great writers of English fiction, a view shared by Ian
Watt, who helped shape the scholarly debate regarding the genre of the novel, did much to cement
Austen's reputation amongst academics.[103] They agreed that she "combined [Henry Fielding's
and Samuel Richardson's] qualities of interiority and irony, realism and satire to form an author
superior to both".[104]
The period after the Second World War saw a flowering of scholarship on Austen as well as a
diversity of critical approaches. One school that emerged in the United States was the New
Criticism, which saw literary texts in only aesthetic terms, an object of beauty to be appreciated in
and of itself without any study of the individual that had produced it or the society that she lived
in.[97] The New Critics tended to praise Austen for her literacy skills at combining irony and paradox,
but other critics argued that the New Criticism by only focusing on the aesthetic qualities of the
books ignored the message of the books and Austen herself, who was reduced down to merely
being the scribe who produced these books that they admired so much.[105] More typical of the post-
1945 scholarship is Marvin Mudrick's 1952 book Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery,
where he argued that Austen used irony as a way of deflating conventions and to gently challenge
the reader's beliefs.[106]
In 1951, Arnold Kettle in his Introduction to the English Novel praised Austen for her "fineness of
feeling", but complained about the "relevance" of her work to the 20th century, charging that the
values of Austen's novels were too much those of Regency England to be acceptable for the 20th
century, writing that a modern audience could not accept the rigidly hierarchical society of her time
where the vast majority of people were denied the right to vote.[107] About the question of the
"relevance" of Austen to the modern world, the American critic Lionel Trilling in his 1955 essay
on Mansfield Park wrote about the problem of existing in the modern world, of "the terrible strain it
imposes on us...the exhausting effort which the concept of personality requires us to make", and
praised Austen for her refusal to dignify the "uncertainty and difficulty" of modern life, praising her
irony as the "engaging manner by which she masks society's crude coercive power", and uses irony
in a "generosity of spirit".[108] In his 1957 essay "Emma and the Legend of Jane Austen", Trilling
argued that Austen was the first novelist to handle the very modern problem of the "deep
psychological change which accompanied the establishment of democratic society" which imposed a
"psychological burden" on an individual which the "new necessity of conscious self-definition and
self-criticism", as "there is no reality about which the modern person is more uncertain and more
anxious than the reality of himself".[109] Trilling argued that in modern society, where people existed
only as "atoms" uncertain about how they really were, Austen offers us a "rare hope" of a world
where people could define themselves on their own terms.[110]
Ian Watt in his 1957 book The Rise of the Novel argued that 18th century British literature was
characterized by a dichotomy between either novels that were told from the first person and novels
from the third person; the significance of Austen rested according to Watt in her ability to combine
both subjective and objective tendencies in her books though her use of free indirect
discourse.[111] Another influential work was Wayne Booth's 1961 book The Rhetoric of Fiction, in
which he offered a detailed study of Emma, which he argued was told from three points of view;
Emma's, Mr. Knightley's and the unnamed narrator.[112] Booth argued that Austen adopted this three-
fold narration because Emma is in many ways an unlikable character, a spoiled and immature
busybody, and Austen had to find a way to make her likable and engaging to the reader.[113] Booth's
book was widely praised for the way in which he highlighted how a moral problem (Emma's
character) was turned into an aesthetic problem (how to tell the story while keeping its protagonist
likable enough to engage the reader's sympathy), and has been the basis of much Austen
scholarship since.[112] Critics like Graham Hough have pointed out that the morality of the characters
in Emma is related to the diction of the characters, with those closest to the narrator having the best
character, and in this reading Mr. Knightley has the best character.[114] A. Walton Ktiz argued that the
aspect of the novel of "Knightley as the standard" prevents the irony of Emma from becoming a
cynical celebration of feminine manipulation, writing that Austen's use of free indirect discourse
allowed the reader to understand Emma mind without becoming limited by it.[115]
Another major theme of Austen scholarship has concerned the question of the Bildungsroman (novel
of education).[116] D. D. Devlin in Jane Austen and Education (1975) argued that Austen's novels
were all in varying ways Bildungsroman, where Austen put into practice Enlightenment theories
about how the character of young people can develop and change.[116] The Italian literary critic
Franco Moretti in his 1987 book The Way of the World called Pride and Prejudice a
"classic" Bildungsroman, where Elizabeth Bennet's "prejudice" against Mr. Darcy is really "distrust"
and that "she does not err due to a lack of criticism, but due to an excess, as Bennet rejects anything
that she is told to trust a priori.[117] Moretti argued that a typical Bildungsroman of the early 19th
century was concerned with "everyday life", which represented "an unchallenged stability of social
relationships" in a world that was wracked by war and revolution.[117] In this sense, Moretti argued
that the education that Bennet needs is to learn to accept the stability represented by the world
around her in England, which is preferable to war and revolution to be found elsewhere in Europe,
without losing her individualism.[117] In the same way, Clifford Siskin in his 1988 book The Historicity
of Romantic Discourse argued that all of Austen's books were Bildungsroman, where the struggle of
the characters to develop was mainly "internal" as the challenge to the characters was not really to
change their onward lives, but rather their "self".[117] Siskin noted in Henry Fielding's popular 1742
novel Joseph Andrews, that a young man working as humble servant, goes though much suffering,
and is ultimately rewarded when it is discovered that he is really an aristocrat kidnapped by the
Romany (gypsies) when he was a baby.[118] By contrast, Siskin wrote that Elizabeth Bennet's
paternity is not in question and there are not improbable strokes of luck which will make her rich;
instead her struggle is to develop her character and conquer her "prejudice" against Darcy, marking
the shift in British literature from an "external" to "internal" conflict.[118] Alongside studies of Austen as
the writer of Bildungsroman are studies of Austen as a writer of marriage stories.[119] For Susan
Fraiman, Pride and Prejudice is both a Bildungsroman concerning Elizabeth Bennet's growth and a
marriage story that ends in her "humiliation" where she ends up submitting to Mr. Darcy.[120] Critics
are badly divided over the question of whether the marriages of Austen's heroines are meant to be a
reward for their virtuous behavior as seen by Wayne Booth, or merely "Good Girl Being Taught a
Lesson" stories as seen by Claudia Johnson.[120]Stuart Tave wrote that Austen's stories always seem
to end unhappily, but then end with the heroine getting married happily, which led him to the
conclusion that these happy endings were artificial endings imposed by the expectations of an early
19th century audience.[120]
About the question of the "relevance" of Austen to the modern world, Julia Prewitt Brown in her 1979
book Jane Austen's Novels: Social Change and Literary Form challenged the common complaint
that she did not deal with social changes, by examining how she presented social changes within the
households she chronicled.[121] Brown argued that the social changes Austen examined were the
birth of the "modern" individualism where people were "alienated" from any meaningful social
identity, existing only as "atoms" in society.[121] The exhibit A of her thesis, so to speak,
was Persuasion where she argued that Anne Eliot cannot find personal happiness by marrying
within the gentry; only marriage to the self-made man Captain Wentworth can give her
happiness.[121] Brown argued that Persuasion was in many ways the darkest of Austen's novels,
depicting a society in grip of moral decay, where the old hierarchical certainties had given way to a
society of "disparate parts", leaving Eliot as a "disoriented, isolated" woman.[121] Brown was not a
Marxist, but her book owed much to the Hungarian Communist writer Georg Lukács, especially his
1920 book The Theory of the Novel.[121]
One of the most fruitful and contentious arguments has been the consideration of Austen as a
political writer. As critic Gary Kelly explains, "Some see her as a political 'conservative' because she
seems to defend the established social order. Others see her as sympathetic to 'radical' politics that
challenged the established order, especially in the form of patriarchy ... some critics see Austen's
novels as neither conservative nor subversive, but complex, criticizing aspects of the social order but
supporting stability and an open class hierarchy."[122] In Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1975),
perhaps the most important of these works, Marilyn Butler argues that Austen was steeped in, not
insulated from, the principal moral and political controversies of her time, and espoused a partisan,
fundamentally conservative and Christian position in these controversies. In a similar vein, Alistair M.
Duckworth in The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen's Novels (1971) argues that
Austen used the concept of the "estate" to symbolise all that was important about contemporary
English society, which should be conserved, improved, and passed down to future
generations.[123] Duckworth argued that Austen followed Edmund Burke, who in his 1790
book Reflections on the Revolution in France had used the metaphor of an estate that represented
the work of generations, and which could be only be improved, never altered, for the way that
society ought to work.[124] Duckworth noted that in Austen's books, one's ability to keep an estate
going, which could only be improved, but never altered if one was to be true to the estate, is usually
the measure of one's good character.[125] Butler placed Austen in the context of the reaction against
the French Revolution, where excessive emotionalism and the sentimental "cult of sensibility" came
to be identified with sexual promiscuity, atheism, and political radicalism.[126] Butler argued that a
novel like Sense and Sensibility, where Marianne Dashwood is unable to control her emotions, is
part of the conservative anti-revolutionary literature that sought to glorify old fashioned values and
politics.[126] Irvine pointed out that the identification of the "cult of sensibility" with republicanism was
one that existed only in the minds of conservatives, and in fact the French Republic also rejected
sentimentalism, so Butler's challenge is to prove Austen's call for emotional self-restraint as
expressed by a character like Elinor Dashwood is in fact grounded in conservative politics.[126] Butler
wrote "the characteristic recourse of the conservative ... is to remind us ultimately of the
insignificance of individual rights and even individual concerns when measured against the scale of
'the universe as one vast whole'".[127] Irvine wrote that a novel like Sense and Sensibility appears to
support Butler's thesis, but a novel like Pride and Prejudice does not, as Elizabeth Bennet is an
individualist and a non-conformist who ridicules everything, and who to a certain extent has to learn
the value of sentiment.[128]
Regarding Austen's views of society and economics, Alastair MacIntyre in his 1981 After
Virtue offered a critique of the Enlightenment as leading to moral chaos and decay, and citing
Aristotle argued that a "good life for man" is only possible if one follows the traditional moral rules of
one's society.[129] In this regard, MacIntyre used Austen as an "Aristotelian" writer whose books
offered up examples of how to be virtuous, with the English country estate playing the same role that
the polis did for Aristotle.[129] By contrast, Mary Evans in her 1987 book Jane Austen and the
State depicted Austen as a proto-Marxist concerned with the "stability of human relationships and
communities" and against "conspicuous consumption" and the "individualisation of feeling" promoted
by the Industrial Revolution.[130] In her 1987 book Desire and Domestic Fiction, Nancy Armstrong, in a
study much influenced by the theories of Karl Marx and Michel Foucault, argued that all of Austen's
books reflected the dominant political-economic ideology of her times, concerning the battle to
exercise power over the human body, which determined how and whether a woman was considered
sexually desirable or not.[131] The Marxist James Thompson in his 1988 book Between Self and the
World likewise depicted Austen as a proto-Marxist searching for a realm of freedom and feeling in a
world dominated by a soulless materialism promoted by capitalism.[130] By contrast, Beth Fowkes
Tobin in her 1990 article "The Moral and Political Economy of Austen's Emma" depicted Austen as a
Burkean conservative with Mr. Knightly as a responsible land-owner taking care of his family's
ancient estate and Emma Woodhouse symbolising wealth cut off from any sort of social
role.[132] David Kaufmann in his 1992 essay "Propriety and the Law" argued that Austen was a
classical liberal in the mold of Adam Smith, who felt that virtue was best exercised in the private
sphere of the family life rather than in the public sphere of politics.[133] Kaufmann rejected the claim
that Austen was influenced by Edmund Burke, arguing that for Austen, virtue was not something
passed down from time immemorial from a landed elite as Burke would have it, but rather was
something that any individual could acquire, thus making Austen into something of a
radical.[133] Lauren Goodlad in a 2000 article rejected Kaufmann's claim of Austen as a classical
liberal, arguing that the message of Sense and Sensibility was the failure of liberalism to reconcile
alienated individuals from a society that only valued money.[134] As Rajeswari Rajan notes in her
essay on recent Austen scholarship, "the idea of a political Austen is no longer seriously
challenged". The questions scholars now investigate involve: "the [French] Revolution, war,
nationalism, empire, class, 'improvement' [of the estate], the clergy, town versus country, abolition,
the professions, female emancipation; whether her politics were Tory, Whig, or radical; whether she
was a conservative or a revolutionary, or occupied a reformist position between these extremes".[135]
[I]n all her novels Austen examines the female powerlessness that underlies monetary pressure to marry,
the injustice of inheritance laws, the ignorance of women denied formal education, the psychological
vulnerability of the heiress or widow, the exploited dependency of the spinster, the boredom of the lady
provided with no vocation.
– Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979)[136]
In the 1970s and 1980s, Austen studies was influenced by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's
seminal The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), which contrasts the "decorous surfaces" with the
"explosive anger" of 19th-century female English writers. This work, along with other feminist
criticism of Austen, has firmly positioned Austen as a woman writer. Gibler and Gubar suggested
that what are usually seen as the unpleasant female characters in the Austen books like Mrs. Norris
in Mansfield Park, Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice and Mrs. Churchill
in Emma were in fact expressions of Austen's anger at a patriarchal society, who are punished in
guilt over her own immodesty in writing novels, while her heroines who end up happily married are
expressions of Austen's desire to compromise with society.[137] The Gilbert-Gubar thesis proved to be
influential and inspired scholars to reexamine Austen's writings, though most have a more favorable
opinion of her heroines than Gilbert and Gubar did.,[138] Other scholars such as Linda Hunt have
argued that Austen used realism as a way of attacking patriarchy from the outside as opposed to
subverting it from within by irony as Gilbert and Gubar claimed.[138] The interest generated in Austen
by these critics led to the discovery and study of other woman writers of the time.[139] Moreover, with
the publication of Julia Prewitt Brown's Jane Austen's Novels: Social Change and Literary
Form (1979), Margaret Kirkham's Jane Austen: Feminism and Fiction (1983), and Claudia L.
Johnson's Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel (1988), scholars were no longer able to
easily argue that Austen was "apolitical, or even unqualifiedly 'conservative'".[140] Kirkham, for
example, described the similarities between Austen's thought and that of Mary Wollstonecraft,
labelling them both as "Enlightenment feminists". Kirham argued that by showing that women were
just as capable of being rational as men, that Austen was a follower of Wollstonecraft.[141] Johnson
similarly places Austen in an 18th-century political tradition, although she outlines the debt Austen
owes to the political novels of the 1790s written by women.[142]
The war with France that began in 1793 was seen as an ideological war between the British
monarchy vs. the French republic, which led conservative writers such as Jane West, Hannah More,
and Elizabeth Hamiltonto depict the feminine private sphere in the family as the embodiment of
British values under threat from France, and to write a series of polemical works demanding that
young women defend their "modesty", as defined by conduct books, to give Britain the moral
strength to prevail over the French.[143] Johnson argued that Austen appropriated the sort of plot that
More, West and Hamilton used in their books to quietly subvert via irony.[144] In support of her thesis,
Johnson noted in Sense and Sensibility that the Dashwood sisters are victimized by their greedy
half-brother John, showing the family as an area for competition instead of warmth and comfort;
in Mansfield Park the lifestyle of the eminently respectable Bertram family is supported by a
plantation in Antigua worked by slave labour; and Northanger Abbey where satirizing Gothic stories
gives "a nightmare version of patriarchal oppression" as General Tilney, if not guilty of the specific
crimes that Catherine Moreland imagines he has committed, is indeed a vicious man.[145] Likewise,
Johnson noted that Maria Rushworth's adultery in Mansfield Park is portrayed as merely salacious
local gossip that does not presage a great victory for Napoleon while Marianne Dashwood does not
die after being seduced by Willoughby, which undercuts the standard plot devices of the
conservative writers.[146] Johnston argued because of the drastic wartime censorship and the
campaign of vitriolic abuse waged against Wollstonecraft that Austen had to be quiet in their criticism
of patriarchy.[147] Irvine, in a critique of the work of feminist scholars like Johnson and Kirkham,
argued that if Austen was indeed an Enlightenment feminist, there were clearly limits to her
radicalism as Austen never criticised either explicitly or implicitly the hierarchical structure of British
society, with her villains failing to live up to the standards expected of their class, instead of their
moral failures being presented as a product of the social system.[148]Writing about the work of
Johnson, Irvine wrote that for her, Austen was a radical because it is women like Emma
Woodhouse, Mrs. Elton and Mrs. Churchill who really run Highbury society, undercutting traditional
gender roles, but Irvine questioned whether this really made Austen into radical, noting it was the
wealth and status of the gentry women of Highbury that gave them their power.[149] Irvine argued it
was just as possible to see Emma as a conservative novel that upholds the superiority of the gentry,
writing that Johnson was "close here to defining 'conservative' in terms of gender politics
alone".[149] Likewise, Elizabeth may defy Lady Catherine de Bourgh who wants to keep her in place
by marrying Mr. Darcy, who comes from old landed family, which Irivine used to argue that
while Pride and Prejudice does have a strong heroine, the book does not criticise the structure of
English society.[150]
Many scholars have noted "modesty" in the "conduct books" that were very popular for setting out
the proper rules for young ladies. In Austen's book there was a double meaning to the word
modesty.[151] Modesty meant that a woman should refrain from flamboyant behavior and be quiet;
modesty also meant that a woman had to be ignorant of her sexuality.[151] This double meaning
meant that a young woman who was behaving in a modest way was not really modest at all as she
was attempting to conceal her knowledge of her sexuality, placing young women in an impossible
position.[151] Jan Fergus argued that for this reason, Austen's books were subversive, engaging in
"emotional didacticism" by showing the reader moral lessons meant to teach young women how to
be modest in the conventional sense, thus undercutting the demand made by the conduct books for
modesty in the sense of ignorance of one's sexuality.[152] In the same way, Kirkham used Mansfield
Park as an example of Austen undercutting the message of the conduct books, noting that Fanny
Price is attractive to Henry Crawford because she outwardly conforms to the conduct books, while,
at the same time, rejecting the enfantisisation of women promoted by the conduct books, she is
attractive to Edmund Bertram because of her intelligence and spirit.[153] Rachel Brownstein argued
that Austen's use of irony should be seen in the same way, as a way of writing in a manner expected
of a woman writer in her age while, at the same time, undercutting such expectations .[152] Devoney
Looser in the 1995 book Jane Austen and the Discourses of Feminism argued in her introduction
that there were a number of ways in which Austen could be placed, not merely within a feminist
tradition, but as herself a feminist.[152]
Using the theories of Michel Foucault as their guide, Casey Finch and Peter Bowen in their 1990
essay, "'The Tittle-Tattle of Highbury': Gossip and the Free Indirect Style in Emma", argued that the
free indirect discourse in Austen validates Foucault's thesis that the Enlightenment was a fraud, an
insidious form of oppression posing as liberation.[154] Finch and Bowen argued that the voice of the
omnipresent narrator, together with the free indirect discourse summarizing the thoughts of
characters in Emma, were a form of "surveillance" that policed the thoughts of the character. Seen in
this light, Emma Woodhouse's discovery that she loves Mr. Knightley is not an expression of her real
feelings, but rather society imposing its values on her mind, persuading her that she had to engage
in a heterosexual marriage to produce sons to continue the Establishment, all the while fooling her
into thinking she was in love.[155] By contrast, Lauren Goodlad in her 2000 essay "Self-Disciplinary
Self-Making" argued that the self-discipline exercised by Elinor Dashwood in Sense and
Sensibility was not an act of oppression as held by Foucault and those writing from a Foucaultian
perspective, but was an "emancipatory act of political resistance", arguing that there was a tension
between "psychology" and "character" since Dashwood must be the observer of her character, and
used what she has learned to grow.[156]
A very controversial article was "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" by Eve Kosofsky
Sedgwick that juxtaposed three treatments of female suffering, namely Marianne Dashwood's
emotional frenzy when Willoughby abandons her, a 19th century medical account of the "cure"
inflicted on a girl who liked to masturbate, and the critic Tony Tanner's "vengeful" treatment of Emma
Woodhouse as a woman who had to be taught her place.[157] Sedgwick argued that the way the
portrayal of Marianne as emotionally overwrought and too inclined to give in to her feelings very
closely resembled the account of patient X, the teenage girl seen as too inclined to masturbate, and
the way a male critic like Tanner attacked Woodhouse for her emotional self-indulgence was no
different from the doctor imposing the gruesome and painful treatment on the masturbating
girl.[158] Sedgwick says that the way Elinor disciplines Marianne, Tanner's "vengeful" views and the
treatment given to patient X were all attempts to crush female sexuality as she maintained that
"emotional self-indulgence" was merely a code-word for female masturbation.[158] Sedgwick argued
that characters such as Dashwood and Woodhouse, who did not precisely conform to the feminine
ideals are symbols of both female and homosexual resistance to the ideal of heterosexuality and
patriarchy as the norm for everyone.[159] Sedgwick's provoked an uproar in 1991, becoming a prime
exhibit in the American "Culture war" between liberals and conservatives.[159]
The Italian critic Franco Moretti argued that Austen's novels articulated a new form of English
nationalism via the marriage plot, noting most of the heroes and heroines came from different parts
of England.[160] Some critics such as Roger Gard have seized upon Austen as a symbol of an "eternal
England", whose "unpolitical" works unlike the "political" novels of the great French and Russian
novelists of the 19th century reflected the central values of "modern Anglo-Saxon
civilisations".[161] According to Gard, Austen is so English that only the English could really appreciate
Austen, writing "Foreigners, whether reading in translation or in the original, see little or nothing of
her true brilliance ... the feel of Jane Austen-so far as we can imagine it dissociated from her
language is still ... peculiarly English".[162] Irvine wrote that Gard's book 1992 Jane Austen's Novels:
The Art of Clarity is full of historical errors such as his claim that Austen was part of the movement
towards "an evolving national democracy", when in fact the Great Reform Bill, which lowered the
franchise requirements for men in a very limited way, was passed in 1832, 15 years after Austen's
death, and "nowhere in her novels or letters is England imagined as 'evolving' towards democracy of
any kind".[163] Irvine wrote that while Austen did see England as different from the rest of Europe, she
did not see England as apart from Europe in the way that Gard claimed, or as a part of "Anglo-Saxon
civilisations", which apparently include the United States and English-speaking parts of the
Commonwealth, a way of thinking that did not exist in her time.[163] Irvine charged that Gard appeared
to be trying to use Austen as a way of furthering his opposition to British membership in the
European Union, with his dichotomy between Austen's England with its "clear" style and "unpolitical"
way of life vs. the presumably muddled style and "political" way of life of continental Europe with the
implication that the two do not belong together.[163]
In the late-1980s, 1990s and 2000s ideological, postcolonial and Marxist criticism dominated Austen
studies.[164] Generating heated debate, Edward Said devoted a chapter of his book Culture and
Imperialism (1993) to Mansfield Park, arguing that the peripheral position of "Antigua" and the issue
of slavery demonstrated that colonial oppression was an unspoken assumption of English society
during the early 19th century. The question of whether Mansfield Park justifies or condemns slavery
has become heated in Austen scholarship, and Said's claims have proved to be highly
controversial.[165] The debate about Mansfield Park and slavery is the one issue in Austen scholarship
that has transcended the limits of academia to attract widespread public attention.[166] Many of
Austen's critics come from the field of post-colonial studies, and take up Said's thesis
about Mansfield Park reflecting the "spatial" understanding of the world that he argued was used to
justify the British empire.[167] Writing in a post-colonial vein, Carl Plasa in his 2001 essay "'What Was
Done There Is Not To Be Told' Mansfield Park's Colonial Unconscious" argued that the "barbarism"
of Maria Bertram's sexuality, which leads her into adultery, is a metaphor for the "barbarism" of
the Haitian revolution, which attracted much media attention in Britain at the time, and was often
presented as due to the "barbarism" and uncontrolled sexuality of the Haitian slaves.[168] Plasa
argued that British society in Austen's time was based on a set of expectations about everyone
being in their "place", which created order. The Haitian revolution was seen as a symbol of what
happened to a society without order, and Plasa argued that it was not accident that when Sir
Thomas Bertram leaves Mansfield Park for his plantation in Antigua that his family falls apart,
showing the importance of the family and individuals staying in their proper "place".[168] Likewise,
Maaja Stewart in her 1993 book Domestic Realities and Imperial Fictions argued that the plantations
in the Caribbean were the source of much worry about female sexuality in Austen's time, with the
main concerns being the need of slave owners to depend upon the fertility of slave women to create
more slaves when the slave trade was abolished in 1807, and about the general collapse of
traditional English morality in the West Indies as the slave masters routinely kept harems of slave
women or alternatively raped female slaves.[168] Stewart linked these concerns to Mansfield Park,
writing that Sir Thomas Bertram's failure to manage his own family is put down to his failure to
manage the emerging sexuality of his teenage daughters, which is precisely the same charge that
was applied to the owners of the plantations in the West Indies at the same time.[168]
Other critics have seen the message of Mansfield Park as abolitionist.[168] Joseph Lew argued that
Fanny's refusal to marry Henry Crawford was "an act of rebellion, endangering a system based upon
the exchange of women between men as surely as a slave's refusal to work".[168] Susan Fraiman, in a
1995 essay argued strongly against the Said thesis, arguing that the values of Sir Thomas are those
which Austen affirms in Mansfield Park and that if his attempt to restore order to his family in
Mansfield Park is seen as analogous to his restoration of order at his Antigua plantation, then he
was a failure for the "moral blight" at Mansfield Park that he finds after he returns to
England.[168] Fraiman conceded to Said that Austen was one of the writers who "made colonialism
thinkable by constructing the West as center, home and norm", but argued slavery in Mansfield
Park "is not a subtext wherein Austen and Sir Thomas converge", but rather is used by Austen "to
argue the essential depravity of Sir Thomas's relations to other people".[168] Fraiman argued that
Austen used the issue of slavery to argue against the patriarchal power of an English gentleman
over his family, his estate and "by implication overseas".[168] Fraiman argued that British imperialist
discourse tended to depict the British empire as masculine and the colonies as feminine, which led
to the conclusion that Said had merely inverted this discourse by making Austen a representative of
the British empire while lionizing various male anti-colonial writers from Britain's colonies.[169] Brian
Southam in a 1995 essay argued that the much discussed scene about the "dead silence" that
follows Fanny Price's questions about the status of slaves in the Caribbean refers to the moral
decadence of those members of the British gentry who chose to be involved in the abolitionist
campaigns of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.[169] Trevor Lloyd in a 1999 article argued on the
basis of the statements in the novel, that about 10% of the income from Mansfield Park came from
the plantation in Antigua.[170] John Wiltshire in a 2003 article argued that the parallel between the
condition of women in Britain and the treatment of slaves in the West Indies is to be understood as
metaphoric, not as literal, and that Sir Thomas' willingness to make a trip in the middle of a war to his
plantation in Antigua, despite the well known perils of yellow fever and malaria in the Caribbean,
suggested that he be understood as a good master.[170] In Wiltshire's account, it is the slave trade,
not slavery, that Austen condemns in Mansfield Park.[170]
Irvine argued that though all of Austen's novels are set in provincial England, there is in fact a global
component to her stories with the British Empire as a place where men go off on adventures, to get
rich and to tell stories which edify the heroines.[171] Irvine used as examples the naval career of
Captain Wentworth in Persuasion; that Sir Thomas Bertram owes a plantation in Antigua while
William Price joins the Royal Navy in Mansfield Park; and Colonel Brandon is a veteran of the
campaigns in the West Indies in Sense and Sensibility.[171] Irvine observed that all of these men are
in some way improved by the love of women, who domesticate otherwise scarred men, noting for
example that Colonel Brandon had fought in the British campaign to conquer Saint-Domingue,
where the British lost about 100,000 men between 1793–98, mostly to yellow fever, an experience
that scarred him and left him looking for a "home".[171] Irvine argued that Elinor Dashwood, by
arranging for Colonel Brandon to marry her sister Marianne, is finding for him the "home" that he had
lost while fighting for the British empire in a doomed effort to restore slavery to Saint-
Domingue.[171] Irvine suggested that for Austen, women had a role in domesticating men scarred by
their imperial experiences, and that Said was wrong that Austen could "not" write of the British
Empire; arguing instead in Austen's works that the "stories of empire" are placed in a "context of
their telling that domesticates them, removes them from the political and moral realm where the
horrors they describe might demand a moral and political response".[171]
Another theme of recent Austen scholarship concerns her relationship with British/English national
identity within the context of the long wars with France.[172] Jon Mee in his 2000 essay "Austen's
Treacherous Ivory: Female Patriotism, Domestic Ideology, and Empire" examined how Fanny Price
defined her sense of Englishness in connection with the English countryside, arguing that Austen
was presenting a version of England defined as country estates in a bucolic countryside that was
insulated from a "larger, more uncertain and un-English world".[172] Mee suggested that in Emma, the
very name of Mr. Knightley, which suggests the Middle Ages, together with the name of his estate,
Donwell Abbey, are meant to suggest a continuity between medieval and modern England, in
contrast to the newness of the political institutions in the novice republics in the United States and
France.[172] Miranda Burgress in her 2000 book British Fiction and the Production of Social
Order argued that Austen defined her England as a nation made up of readers, as the experience of
reading the same books had created a common culture across all of England.[173] in this regard, Janet
Sorenson in The Grammar of Empire noted that in Austen's books, none of her characters speak in
dialect and all use the same form of polite "King's English" that was expected of the upper
In Jane Austen and the Body: 'The Picture of Health', (1992) John Wiltshire explored the
preoccupation with illness and health of Austen's characters. Wiltshire addressed current theories of
"the body as sexuality", and more broadly how culture is "inscribed" on the representation of the
body.[175] There has also been a return to considerations of aesthetics with D. A. Miller's Jane Austen,
or The Secret of Style (2003), which connects artistic concerns with queer theory.[176] Miller in his
book began the "queer" reading of Austen, when he asked why Austen's work which celebrates
heterosexual love is so popular with gay men.[158] Miller answered that it was because the narrator of
the novels has no sexuality and has a "dazzling verbal style", which allows homosexuals to identity
with the narrator who stands outside the world of heterosexuality and whose chief attribute is a
sense of style.[177]

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