chapter
158 Pages

Introduction

WithB.C. Southam

Thanks to the review-essays by Scott (No. 8) * and Whately (No. 16), there was never any serious danger that Jane Austen would be forgotten. She was too well-loved and her admirers too influential for that. But down to 1870, the formal criticism was sparse and thinking remained at a standstill. Scott’s account of Jane Austen as an anti-romantic novelist of everyday life and Whately’s analytical essay were not superseded. Together, they stand as the source of critical thinking for much of the century. Attention was elsewhere: on Scott, generally regarded as the great novelist of the early period; and from the 1840s onwards, on the Brontës, Thackeray, Trollope, Dickens, Mrs Gaskell and George Eliot as writers dealing with far wider areas of society, deeper levels of experience and social questions more pressing. Beside this literature of more apparent scope and power, Jane Austen was seen at a disadvantage. Slight and provincial, a period novelist of Regency manners, her success seemed limited to the small world of domestic comedy. The subtlety, restraint and concentration of her art were rarely observed, the commanding irony went unperceived; and it was left to a few enthusiasts to keep her name alive. As far as criticism and the public at large were concerned, Jane Austen was a minor writer of a past age. The point is nicely made by the comment Trollope wrote on the end-papers of his copy of Emma in 1865: ‘It is as a portrait of female life among ladies in an English village 50 years ago that Emma is to be known and remembered.’