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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Which Austen novel do Austen scholars (academics and lindependents) believe is the "greatest"?

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 confidence! 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.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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