Last week, I read an interview with JASNA Lifetime Member Patricia Meyer Spacks...
....during which (on p.3 as you scroll through) Spacks made the
following claim when asked which were considered, by Austen scholars, to
be the _greatest_ Austen novels:
"...I think for most scholars it's poised between Persuasion and Emma.
Earlier I thought Emma was the best, but I recently decided I think
Persuasion is the best. I think most scholars would settle on one or the
other." END QUOTE
It is not my intent in bringing this quotation forward to trigger a
vigorous debate as to which Austen novel _is_ the greatest, although if
anyone who responds to me wishes to express an opinion on that point (as
I will do, below), you are welcome to do so.
What I was more curious about was whether those reading this post who
have some familiarity with the opinions of Austen scholars (whether
academics or independents) would agree with Spacks's above quoted
comments that most Austen scholars would consider either Emma or
Persuasion as Jane Austen's "greatest" novel.
Spacks's tabulation caught me up short because, while I have, over the
past decade, heard or read a pretty large number of Janeite scholars,
both academic and independent, who believe Emma is Austen's greatest
novel, I cannot recall any (other than Spacks, as I just read in the
above linked article) who believe Persuasion is Austen's greatest. I've
read a _very)_ large sampling of scholarly writings about Jane Austen,
and my recollection does not match Spacks's at all. Most scholars, I
think, avoid the question altogether, but as to those who don't, aside
from my recalling Emma getting the largest number of #1's
overall---probably about half---my recollection is otherwise that the
other half of those Austen scholars who have taken the plunge and rated
the six novels according to greatness have been pretty much divided
equally among P&P, S&S, MP and Persuasion, with each having its own
special advocates--with only poor Northanger Abbey always being held to
be in the shadow of the other 5.
So, my main question is, is Spacks correct and am I out of touch with a
general Austen scholarly consensus which holds JA's last two completed
novels (by dates of composition) as her greatest? Or has Spacks,
perhaps, allowed her own preference for Persuasion to color her
impression of what her colleagues think?
I should briefly state my own current personal answer on the "greatness"
question, which has evolved considerably over the course of my intensive
Austen studies during the past decade---I now mostly consider this a
moot question, because I rate the difference in literary quality amongst
the six novels to be extremely small and highly subjective, when stood
up in comparison alongside the monumental greatness of each one of them.
Now, had you asked me this same question 5 years ago, I would not have
hesitated to place Emma at the top of the heap by a significant margin,
and I would have shared the common Janeite belief that Northanger Abbey
was not in a league with the others.
But now it's not that my respect for Emma has lessened, it's that my
respect for the other 5 has grown. For example and most dramatically, my
respect for Northanger Abbey has grown a hundredfold, as I've come to
realize that part of what makes it so great is that JA deliberately
masked its greatness beneath the veneer of a "mere parody" of the
Gothic, deliberately leading the reader down the garden path of
minimizing NA's value. Imagine a literary self confidence that could
afford to write a work of genius and have part of that genius work so
hard to make itself appear a light confection. That's a _lot_ of self
And...my respect for P&P has grown a hundredfold since then as
well--because I've come to see that it is every bit as complex and great
as Emma, but that JA hid that greatness beneath the veneer of a "too
light bright and sparkling" veneer. And I believe that P&P should not
suffer the ironic fate of being faulted for its unique status as the
overwhelming _favorite_ or "beloved child" of Janeites, which is not the
same thing, by a long shot, as the "greatest". I believe that P&P, like
NA, was deliberately masked by JA as being somehow a lighter production
than it actually is. Again, a manifestation of enormous authorial self
confidence, and also a firm commitment to the philosophical
underpinnings of all her writings, her obsession with the subjectivity
of human perception and cognition.
And most of all I have come to see that because all six were published
within a seven year period at the end of JA's life and just beyond, they
are all in a very real sense part of _one_ prolonged ecstasy of
publication, they are sextuplets from one giant artistic birth! So it is
not at all surprising that I see them all as being so close to each
other in literary quality--they were all, essentially, finished "at the
same time", i.e., at the end of JA's all too short literary career, all
finalized after she had been an accomplished writer for 20 years!
So, I will look forward to any and all replies that I prompt by the
above questions and comments.
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Miss Willmott’s Ghost
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