January 28, 1813: Pride and Prejudice Published

Two centuries today since the publication of Pride and Prejudice.  I confess that I have generally found Jane Austen to be a snore fest unless her text is enlivened, if that is the proper word when Zombies are involved, as in the above video.  Austen’s books began to be published in America in 1832, although they made little impact with the general public until the latter part of the Nineteenth Century when the novelist William Dean Howells wrote several essays celebrating Austen as an author.

One of her most biting critics was Mark Twain.  A sample of his Austen tirades:

Jane Austen? Why I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.

I haven’t any right to criticise books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.

Ralph Waldo Emerson decades before got in a good anti-Austen lick:

I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world.  Never was life so pinched & narrow.  The one problem in the mind of the writer in both the stories I have read, “Persuasion”, and “Pride & Prejudice”, is marriageableness; all that interests any character introduced is still this one, has he or she money to marry with, & conditions conforming? ‘Tis “the nympholepsy of a fond despair”, say rather, of an English boarding-house.  Suicide is more respectable.

Outraged Austen fans should feel free to defend her literary honor in the comboxes.

 

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Published in: on January 28, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments (34)  
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34 Comments

  1. High school literature class killed any hope of enjoying a Jane Aistin book. It would make a football player so ill that he could not play on Friday night. Mindless Romance Novel genre for brains of mush.

    • “Mindless Romance Novel genre for brains of mush.”
      Romance novels with pretensions dennis!

  2. I already disliked Emerson on other grounds, and while I appreciate that Mark Twain is the first full-blown literary genius in American history, I think that as a critic he was a flake and as a mind entirely too provincial. The man who was silly enough to say “Heaven for climate, Hell for company” and think it witty certainly does not have the breadth of mind to appreciate anything outside his own narrow range of reference, and the brutality, ugliness and vulgarity of his language only worsen his position. Sorry, but this is as dumb as GB Shaw’s and Tolstoy’s attacks on Shakespeare, and for much the same reason – the unslain dragon of puritanism writhing and shrieking behind the screens,

    • I can think of few Americans less Puritan Fabio than Mark Twain. Twain’s besetting weakness is that he could not resist a funny line, hence the “Heaven for climate, Hell for company.” I tend to enjoy Twain when he is funny, annoyed by him when he is angry and abhor him when he is bitter, and an ever broadening streak of bitterness stayed with Twain throughout his career. I will say something for Twain however, he is never dull, something I cannot say for Austen.

      • The trouble is that that line is not funny. By definition, and by experience, the people who go to Hell are the least charming company imaginable. Edith Sitwell had it right: “Hell is no vastness, it has naught to keep/ But little rotting souls.” I had more to say about it here: http://fpb.livejournal.com/406368.html . And that is where Puritanism, denied, repressed, hated, yet active in the soul, comes in. MT conceived of heaven as being no better than the narrow, joyless, provincial congregations he had hated at home; and imagined that Hell would have all the liveliness and reality that he had never found at Sunday service. Nonsense, and intellectually ruinous nonsense; and nonsense that allowed the very worst of the Puritan – the provinciality, the bad manners, the ill-grounded anger and everlasting suspicion – to remain undiscussed and unnoticed at the bottom of soul. Hence the vulgarity and brutality of his statements about Jane Austen – worthy of Harlan Ellison.

      • “The trouble is that that line is not funny.”

        There we will have to differ Fabio.

        “By definition, and by experience, the people who go to Hell are the least charming company imaginable.”

        Not having talked with any of the damned I am sure that I cannot venture an opinion on that suject. Certainly on this Earth some very evil people have been quite charming when they wished to be.

        “Hence the vulgarity and brutality of his statements about Jane Austen – worthy of Harlan Ellison.”

        The editor of Dangerous Visions and other drek should not be mentioned in the same breath as Twain. I disagree that Twain was influenced at all by Puritanism. His religious views, the more extreme of which he largely kept to himself, were fairly commonplace among nineteenth century agnostics and atheists. His biography of Joan of Arc is deeply reverential however, which perhaps indicates that Twain doubted his disbelief at times.

      • I regret to say that Twain can be dull at times–he wrote a *lot,* much of it no better than it should be–one can’t wade through a complete Mark Twain collection without realizing that Homer nods, and so do other blind Greek poets of the same name.

        Austen also had her off moments–Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Lady Susan, and perhaps Sense and Sensibility. But Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion are absorbing and full of interest. Her characters were vivid and likable. To like her best books is to like people.

        Patrick O’Brian held her in very high esteem, which should be authority enough. If not, I’ll cite the authority of a thousand or so high school, middle school, and elementary school kids. I went to a play version of Pride and Prejudice put on during the school day for school trips. The dialogue was straight Austen. No concessions were made to ‘updating’. And the kids loved it.

      • “I regret to say that Twain can be dull at times–he wrote a *lot,* much of it no better than it should be–one can’t wade through a complete Mark Twain collection without realizing that Homer nods, and so do other blind Greek poets of the same name.”

        Twain has often infuriated me, especially his late musings on religion, but never bored me, although I do not claim to have read all that he wrote. Early Twain I have read most of.

    • Hear, hear.

  3. What deserves mention in the same breath is the brutality, intolerance, bad manners, which come straight from provincial presumption and puritanical arrogance. And it is not restricted to those two: it is an American bad habit, abundantly found, for instance, in Mencken. And what else do Twain, Mencken and Ellison have in common? That’s right: their anti-religious bent. And, mind you, the three of them have the same reason to dislike what they call religion: they find it narrow, provincial, irrational and brutal, At which point, since these are exactly the bad habits of mind that can easily be spotted in all these three otherwise quite different people, I have to say that they hate “teligion” not because it is unlike them, but because it is a damn sight too like their own worst side, and that the old village puritan is alive and active, even in the ex-Jew Ellison.

    • “And it is not restricted to those two: it is an American bad habit,”

      Actually Fabio in my experience American “provincials” have absolutely nothing to teach European “cosmopolitans” when it comes to being rude and generally bloody bad manners.

      In regard to Twain, Mencken and Ellison I think they have little in common. Twain and Mencken were writers of brilliance and Ellison is at best a hack who was lucky. In regard to religion both Mencken and Ellison embraced a boorish atheism while Twain veered throughout his life between religious belief and agnosticism. Mencken and Twain both had loving marriages while Ellison I believe is on wife number five. In regard to manners, Twain’s breaches of courtesy were almost entirely for humor, Mencken’s savage diatribes suited his curmudgeon persona and Ellison is simply a brat who never grew up. As for Puritanism being at the root of their bad behavior, I find this explanation fanciful at best.

  4. As on other occasions, I don’t think we will agree.. it’s not boorishness in general that I am speaking about, but the kind of boorishness that goes with the very village puritanism that both Mencken and MT detested and mocked. Read Mencken’s savage account of village preachers, their ignorance and their arrogance. It is not without meaning that this particular kind of boorishness is the one major fault of CS Lewis, a writer whose background is in the bigoted puritanism of Northern Ireland, who hated it all his life, and who nevertheless, according to JRR Tolkien, could never be rid of what Tolkien called “the ulsterior motive.”

  5. Twain could be an unmitigated ass at times. This is one of those times.

    People who dismiss Austen as jumped-up romance novel have obviously read neither Austen nor romance novels.

    • “Twain could be an unmitigated ass at times. This is one of those times.

      People who dismiss Austen as jumped-up romance novel have obviously read neither Austen nor romance novels.”

      Agreed as to Twain. I disagree this is one of the times, although he was obviously trying for an over the top effect.

      Well, I have read Austen in between naps while trying to read Austen. I found her much inferior to Gone With the Wind which is the only romance novel I have read, and I didn’t think that much of that tome although it didn’t put me to sleep.

      • I have quite good friends who are tone deaf, so I likewise see no particular reason why this opinion of yours should diminish my respect for you, no matter how much it made me laugh.

      • I had a friend once who was mighty disturbed by my favorite meal as a teenager: Royal Crown Cola, mustard sandwiches and barbecue potato chips. His disapproval did not make the viands taste less delightful to me, as my low opinion of Jane will not disturb Austen-philes.

  6. Jane Austen as moral philosopher:

    http://philosophynow.org/issues/94/Reading_Jane_Austen_as_a_Moral_Philosopher

    The author says some things you’d agree with that I wouldn’t–that her characters aren’t as realistic as we’d expect these days and that her plots have contrived endings (though *if* that could be said of Austen, it could also be said of Twain). But he acknowledges the obvious truth that there must be a reason why super-boring archaic romance novels remain broadly popular both with the reading public and the reading public with taste, and proposes one reason.

    • As you pointed out Adam, even Homer can nod!

      • When it comes to literary judgment, Kipling licks Twain and Emerson (Emerson, forsooth) all hollow.

      • Oh I agree, and sometimes, like the Sultan of Swat, Kipling can strike out.

      • Glory, love, and honour unto England’s Jane!

  7. Come now, have none of you noticed one odd note in Twain’s rant? Go back and look at it again. Do you see it yet?

    He says “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to…” Let me ask you, if you were to use the expression “every time I read X”, where X is a specific work, how many times would you have read it? Obviously, at least 2. Nobody says “every time” if they have only read it once. Twice is the absolutely least number possible, but it is not the probable number. More likely, for that expression, he read it 3 times, maybe 4. In fact, the expression doesn’t imply any upper limit at all, so it might be more than 4. But if the number was exactly 2 times, more likely the speaker of English would use “both times I read it”. By saying “every time”, Twain was fairly clearly implying that he read P&P at least 3 times.

    And why, if it was so bad the first time, would he have read it a second? Or (supposing peer pressure and other external motivations made him subject himself a second time), why ever would he read it a 3rd time? No, if Twain really did object to P&P “every time” that much, no external pressure could have been brought to bear to make him endure it a third time. More likely, he was having us on. He was not above such pranks and gimmicks as that. He actually rather enjoyed pulling the wool over our eyes. A chance to play a prank on both the critics and the high-brow readers of the English world would be difficult to pass up, once it lent itself to his fertile mind.

    I just cannot see Twain reading P&P that much if he truly detested it.

    • “And why, if it was so bad the first time, would he have read it a second?”

      No doubt for the same reason that people gawk at car crashes. Actually some things are so bad it becomes a pleasure to watch them. My family and I always view the 1984 film Dune every New Years Eve and it is not because we view it as a theatrical masterpiece:

      https://almostchosenpeople.wordpress.com/tag/dune-1984/

      • And you are seriously proposing to stand up in front of the whole of planet Earth and assert that “Pride and Prejudice” is a car crash? Friendly advice – don’t. You’ve already had a taste of what to expect from friends. NOBODY agrees with you. Or with Mark Twain for that matter.

      • Being outnumbered Fabio has never been of the slightest consequence to me. If I hold to an opinion it matters not to me if I be in a minority of one. An argument from numbers is the weakest argument to make to me.

        Comparing car crashes to Austen’s writings is probably unfair to car crashes as they tend to be much more exciting than the cure-for-insomnia-in-print which is the main use of her literary contributions.

  8. Now you’re getting silly. But I suppose that’s the only resource left.

    • The intent of this post was lighthearted Fabio. That you take it so seriously I find rather amusing. Battles over matters of taste usually are amusing, since there is no convincing someone who disagrees. Certainly more amusement than I have ever gleaned from reading Austen’s dessicated tomes. Keep up the good work!

  9. Please stop. I find myself losing respect for you. Tastes differ, no doubt, but that is no cause for you to plod and plod and plod with a series of uninspired insults. You are no Mark Twain. These repeated mindless attacks on someone that I and Kipling and Patrick O’Brian and thousands of other people of some taste and judgment cherish is boorish and beneath you.

    • Completely disagree Adam. Quite a few people throughout history have enjoyed many things of dubious value and I put the scribblings of Jane Austen in that category. The conviction of her fans that she is a great writer is of no more value to me than the popularity of Elvis impersonators. I wouldn’t call her a bad writer precisely, but vastly overrated and deeply, deeply dull. Her characters are one dimensional and their domestic concerns of no more interest to me than the usual small town and rural gossip.

      • You are entitled to your opinion. But if my opinion as a reader is of so little account to you that you feel like you need to tell me, repeatedly, that you don’t care what I think and that you are entitled to be insulting about it (as you have been), you aren’t the man I thought you were and this is not the blog for me.

        God speed.

      • I will miss you as a reader Adam. I have insulted no one but merely given my opinion as to Jane Austen’s lack of merit as a writer in my eyes. Those who disagree with me have been given ample opportunity to express their disagreement in the com boxes. Vigorous disagreement with an opinion I express has rarely caused me to change my mind about a matter of taste, and it has not in this case.

  10. Please stop. I find myself on the edge of losing respect for you. Tastes differ in unaccountable ways, no doubt, but that is no cause for you to plod and plod and plod with a series of uninspired insults. You are no Mark Twain. These repeated mindless attacks on someone that I and Kipling and Patrick O’Brian and thousands of other people of some taste and judgment cherish is boorish and beneath you.

  11. Come on… stick around Adam. Fabio has for a long time and seldom agrees with Don.
    As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. If I agreed with anyone all the time then one of us would be useless. It took me almost 10 years, navy enlistment, and an Appalachian Literature course to get over Austen’s work highlighted in high school literature class. As you said, tastes defer.


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