Commemorating the 200th Anniversary of Jane Austen’s Death

jane-austenJane Austen passed away on July 18, 1817. Anthony Trollope was but two years old at the time, though by the age of 19 years, as he wrote in his An Autobiography, he had already made up my mind that Pride and Prejudice was the best novel in the English language.” This belief held steady until Trollope encountered Thackeray, at which point Henry Esmond became his favorite novel.

Trollope still held Austen in high esteem for the rest of his life. In the late 1860s as he lectured across England, one of his presentations was a survey course in English literature entitled On English Prose Fiction as Rational Amusement.” Published privately in 1870 in a volume entitled Four Lectures, the lecture traces the history of the novel from its very beginnings with Sir Philip Sidney’s 1580 proto-novels through Thackeray’s Victorian classics. Though Austen was not widely read by the Victorians until the first posthumous republication of her novels in 1870, Trollope was an admirer of Austen as a “surely great novelist.” Following is an excerpt from Trollope’s essay extolling Austen’s virtues.

“And now, before we come to the great epoch of modern English Prose Fiction, I must mention the names of two ladies who wrote novels which were true to life, full of excellent teaching, and free from an idea or a word that can pollute. I speak of Maria Edgeworth and of Miss Austen. Scott has told us that he was instigated to write his own novels by the extended and well-merited fame of Miss Edgeworth. ‘Without being so presumptuous,’ he tells us, ‘as to hope to emulate the rich humour, pathetic tenderness, and admirable tact of my accomplished friend, I felt that something might be attempted for my own country of the same kind with that which Miss Edgeworth so fortunately achieved for Ireland.’ I will not pause to make an easy comparison, but will simply say that Scott expressed the general opinion of the works of that lady. She had hit the taste of the public, which now demanded that Prose Fiction should be life-like and clear. It was becoming weary of the fantastic romance of Mrs. Radcliffe, as it had long since been weary of the mere fantastic romance of Sir Philip Sidney. And it had so far refined itself as to feel the coarseness of Fielding and Smollett to be distasteful. I shall not enter here upon a criticism of Miss Edgeworth’s works, which in my judgment lack a certain strength which those of Miss Austen possess; but I may assert that no mother need hesitate to place the tales of Maria Edgeworth in the hands of her daughter.

“Miss Austen was surely a great novelist. I do not know how far I may presume that you are acquainted with her works, but I recommend such of you as may not be so, to lose no time in mending that fault. What she did, she did perfectly. Her work, as far as it goes, is faultless. She wrote of the times in which she lived, of the class of people with which she associated, and in the language which was usual to her as an educated lady. Of romance,—what we generally mean when we speak of romance,—she had no tinge. Heroes and heroines with wonderful adventures there are none in her novels. Of great criminals and hidden crimes she tells us nothing. But she places us in a circle of gentlemen and ladies, and charms us while she tells us with an unconscious accuracy how men should act to women, and women act to men. It is not that her people are all good;—and, certainly, they are not all wise. The faults of some are the anvils on which the virtues of others are hammered till they are bright as steel. In the comedy of folly I know no novelist who has beaten her. The letters of Mr. Collins, a clergyman in Pride and Prejudice, would move laughter in a low-church archbishop. Throughout all her works, and they are not many, a sweet lesson of homely household womanly virtue is ever being taught.”

Posted on: July 18th, 2017 by Douglas Gerlach

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