Jane Austen is ubiquitous. New film adaptations, book spinoffs, and sequels emerge almost every week. You can scarcely avoid her, even if you wished to, as Charlotte Lucas said of the famous chimney piece at Rosing Park in Pride and Prejudice.
But not everyone is enamored with the author of Pride and Prejudice and five other novels; the scathing critiques of her most eminent critics have achieved a cult-like status of their own. Below are five barbs from her most damning detractors:
1. Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“Emerson wrote that Austen’s novels are “imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow…Suicide is more respectable.”
He should talk. Emerson inherited a substantial sum of money when his young wife, Ellen, died – money he went to court to recover. He had no business lecturing anyone about money, least of all Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice who, should she be widowed, stood to lose her home, her income, and her household furnishings, unless she married one of her daughters off to a wealthy man. So it’s not surprising that money, an admirable antidote to destitution, is among Austen’s most persistent themes.
2. Charlotte Brontë
Brontë was another notorious Austen detractor who stated, “. . .what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through . . .” this Miss Austen ignores . . .”
Obviously Brontë overlooked Lydia Bennet’s remark about “a great slit in my worked muslin gown,” made before eloping with the iniquitous Wickham in Pride and Prejudice.
In fact, Austen’s novels are saturated with sex; you just have to know how to look. It’s called sub-sexting, a subtle form of sexual tension that Brontë’s pen was too heavy to dwell on.
3. Mark Twain:
Emerson recommended suicide, but Twain wanted to dig up Austen’s bones and kill her over all again:
“Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin bone!”
Why doesn’t he stop rereading it, then? But he can’t help himself; Twain is obsessed with the bones of dead geniuses, snarkily speculating that Shakespeare was already dead when the Bard penned his own tombstone inscription,“curst be he that moves my bones.”
4. Winston Churchill:
“What calm lives they had, those people!” Churchill commented on Pride and Prejudice. “No worries about the French Revolution or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars.”
The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars might have been offstage in Austen’s novels (though two of her brothers saw action) but Austen’s novels are soaked in blood. Aside from figurative references to cold-blooded vanity or half-blood relations, actual blood makes an appearance, if only implicitly. In Emma Mr. Elton cuts his finger with a new penknife, resulting in lovelorn Harriet Smith making a treasure of the leftover sticking plaister he used to bind the wound.
5. The Unenlightened Readership:
As for charges that Austen prudishly omits allusions to physical hygiene (and I’m not talking about Colin Firth in that copper tub) or coarse bodily functions, this is patently untrue and easily disproved. In Emma, a character momentarily leaves the room.
How obvious can you get?
I never read Austen in school, which was a good thing since I hated school, and any book that was assigned was automatically suspect. (Middlemarch, in particular, had nothing to do with real life, I complained, a failure of understanding that rivals the novel itself in its monumentality). Thank goodness I discovered Austen on my own, since over a lifetime, her six novels have fully satiated my lust for blood, sex, and money.
Pamela Jane is a children’s author and essayist whose work has appeared in The NY Times, The Wall Street Journal, The NY Daily News, Writer’s Digest, The Independent, and The Writer.