May 22, 2014
Jane Austen read her reviews… and kept notes on them
by Sal Robinson
Some authors refuse to read their reviews. And then there’s Jane Austen. Who not only, it turns out, listened to what her friends and acquaintances had to say about her books, both positive and negative, but also took notes on it.
Austen’s notes are part of a cache of 1,200 documents that the British Library have drawn out of their Victorian and Romantic collections and are now highlighting on their website with all kinds of supplementary bells and whistles—contextualizing essays, documentary films, and images of primary sources ranging from manuscripts to illustrations to advertisements, broadsides, and the occasional dancing manual.
Austen appears to have compiled the reactions of her readers from letters, hearsay, and direct conversations and recorded them on a set of closely written pages around 1815, before her death at the age of 41, two years later.
Unlike the self-inflating supportive writer bubbles on Twitter and Facebook, Jane’s own family weren’t uncritical fans of everything she wrote, though their criticism was gentle. According to the British Library’s mini-essay on the notes:
her sister Cassandra liked Emma ‘better than P&P [Pride and Prejudice] – but not so well as M.P. [Mansfield Park]’ while her mother found the same novel ‘more entertaining than MP – but not so interesting as P&P’.
Other acquaintances were less restrained:
Mrs. Augusta Bramstone ‘owned that she thought S&S – and P&P downright nonsense… having finished the 1st vol. [of Mansfield Park] flattered herself she had got through the worst’.
Thanks to Jane Austen (and Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, and Charles Dickens), I have a pretty good sense of what Mrs. Augusta Bramstone must have been like in person.
And then there were the thoughtful and appreciative readers, like one “Lady Gordon,” who said of Mansfield Park that:
In most novels you are amused for the time with a set of Ideal People whom you never think of afterwards or whom you the least expect to meet in common life, whereas in Miss A—‘s works, & especially in MP. you actually live with them, you fancy yourself one of the family; & the scenes are so exactly descriptive, so perfectly natural, that there is scarcely an Incident or conversation, or a person that you are not inclined to imagine you have at one time or other in your Life been a witness to, born a part in, & been acquainted with.
This must have been gratifying to Austen, who read some escapist romantic fiction herself, but honed for her own books a style of satirical realism, writing in a letter from April 1816:
I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter. – No – I must keep to my own style & go on in my own Way.
One wonders, of course, why Austen kept such detailed notes on what the Mrs. Bramstones of the time thought of her novels: was she trying to ascertain which book had been the most successful? Mulling over possible directions for future novels? Assembling a proto-press release, or a list of who to snub on the next appropriate occasion? I suspect that all of the above was true, and also that Austen, as her novels demonstrate, was just broadly, ecumenically curious about people, their responses, the way they expressed themselves—and her own work’s place in this world.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.