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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, June 29, 2017

7 famous Austen haters (some of who really weren’t)

This morning I happened upon the following article that first ran over 4 years ago:
“7 People Who Hated Pride & Prejudice” by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

In the article, after some introductory comments on the enduring worldwide popularity and fame of Pride & Prejudice, McRobbie turned to her main topic:  
“…Despite how beloved Pride and Prejudice is, there have been plenty of people who hated it. Here are seven of them….”

I missed that article when it was first published on the bicentennial of the first publication of Pride & Prejudice on January 28, 1813, but its popping up again online gives me the perfect opportunity, in one blog post, to debunk the myth of several of those supposed haters of P&P, the two most famous of whom I am certain were actually closet Janeites –read on to find out which ones!

“CHARLOTTE BRONTË: In 1848, 41 years after Austen’s death, Charlotte Brontë picked up Pride and Prejudice on the recommendation of friend and literary critic George Henry Lewes. Brontë, author of the grim “romance” Jane Eyre, wasn’t backwards about coming forward with her criticism: “Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point,” she wrote, explaining that she got the book after Lewes talked it up. “And what did I find? An accurate, daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully-fenced, high-cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.” Two years later, Brontë took up the theme again, in a letter to another friend: “[A]nything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré or extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well ... [But] She no more, with her mind’s eye, beholds the heart of her race than each man, with bodily vision, sees the heart in his heaving breast. Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete and rather insensible (not senseless) woman.”

Now, here are links to three of my prior blog posts, which collectively give a range of evidence for why I am certain that Charlotte Bronte was actually a closet Janeite who emulated several of Austen’s novels:

Rest assured, my claim is not based solely on the intriguing fact that, in Jane Eyre, the first name of the heroine (Jane) followed by the middle name of the hero (Fairfax), combine to give us “Jane Fairfax”. That, of course, is the name of the shadow heroine of Austen’s Emma, who speaks the following poignant words, with great passion, to her false friend Mrs. Elton, about needing to take on the undesirable position of a governess---I’m sure you’ll agree that these are words we’d have expected to hear from Bronte’s fiercely honest, outspoken, protofeminist Jane Eyre herself:
“…When I am quite determined as to the time, I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something—Offices for the sale—not quite of human flesh—but of human intellect.”
“Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.”
“I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,” replied Jane; “governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies….” 

That and numerous other hints scattered in the text of Jane Eyre by “Currer Bell” have long since shown  me that Charlotte Bronte, flush with the success of her first published novel, got a big kick out of totally punking Lewes ---who, while a diehard Janeite, and presumably a worthy life partner to George Eliot, was however a little too serious and way too gullible for his own good, and so had a tin ear for a clever put-on –sorta like Mr. Collins not realizing that Mr. Bennet is putting him on:
“You judge very properly,” said Mr. Bennet, “and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?”

So, Charlotte Bronte, closet Janeite – check. Now let’s go on to the next supposed P&P hater….

“WINSTON CHURCHILL: It's a little too strong to say that Winston Churchill hated Pride and Prejudice, as Britain’s beloved Prime Minister seems to have found some comfort in the book as the Second World War ground on. But he did have some mild complaint about it: “What calm lives they had, those people! No worries about the French Revolution or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars. Only manners controlling natural passion as far as they could, together with cultural explanations of any mischances.” “

I checked, and saw that the full context of the Churchill quote makes it less negative, since it sounds like only a part of P&P was read to him while he was feverish, and so not in the best frame of mind to recognize the presence of the real world of the Napoleonic Wars at the center of P&P with Wickham and his fellow militiamen in Meryton and Brighton:
“The days passed in much discomfort. Fever flickered in and out. I lived on my theme of the war, and it was like being transported out of oneself. The doctors tried to keep the work away from my bedside, but I defied them. They all kept on saying, “Don’t work, don’t worry,” to such an extent that I decided to read a novel.  I had long ago read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and now I thought I would have Pride and Prejudice. Sarah read it to me beautifully from the foot of the bed. I had always thought it would be better than its rival. What calm lives they had, those people! No worries about the French Revolution, or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars. Only manners controlling natural passion so far as they could, together with cultured explanations of any mischances.”  

Also, had the great English mid-20th century leader read Emma, he might’ve realized that Austen gave Frank Churchill in Emma that famous surname, so as to wink at the complex romantic entanglements of Sir Winston’s equally famous war hero ancestor, John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, who saved his country’s skin in the early 18th century!

In all events, Prime Minster Winston Churchill was surely no Austen hater, based on all the evidence.

And that now brings us to #3 in our literary murderer’s row:

McRobbie: “RALPH WALDO EMERSON: Ralph Waldo Emerson, having read both Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice, bemoaned the fact that all anyone in the books seemed to care about was money and marriage: “I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seems to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and so narrow ... Suicide is more respectable.””

I hadn’t previously been aware of Emerson’s benighted point of view on Austen’s writing – alas, I can find no saving grace or trace of irony in his bitter invective toward Austen’s fiction --- suffice to say that when the worthy Transcendentalist savages her alleged Jane’s tone, invention, wit, and genius, he only smears himself with his own deeply misguided brush, since we all know her to be the apex of all those writerly gifts. Emerson doth protest too much, and my speculation is that, although the above quote is found in one of his private journals, perhaps Emerson was also pushing back against the gentle Janeite urgings I imagine he received from the assertive daughter of his great friend Bronson Alcott. Of course I refer to Louisa May Alcott, whose March family of girls in Little Women et al clearly draws major inspiration from Austen’s Bennet family of girls. And so, I must agree that Emerson was, by all appearances, indeed an Austen hater, whose pride perhaps “transcended” his understanding.

So a common theme begins to emerge among these famous Austen haters, real and imagined—that of being provoked into discomfort by a passionate Janeite close to them, bugging them to read and love Jane Austen! Now, I ask you, my fellow Janeites reading this, how many times has this scenario played out in your own life?? ‘Fess us: if you’re like me, at least once or twice, before you learned your lesson, which is that we Janeites can at times take on the appearance of a zealous cult, to those on the outside.

And with that caveat, let’s move on to the next supposed hater:

McRobbie: “VIRGINIA WOOLF: The Mrs. Dalloway writer, in a 1932 letter to a friend, had faint praise for Austen: “Whatever ‘Bloomsbury’ may think of Jane Austen, she is not by any means one of my favourites. I’d give all she ever wrote for half what the Brontës wrote—if my reason did not compel me to see that she is a magnificent artist.” “

First, to read the above quotation as indicating Woolf hated Austen’s writing is to grossly misread Woolf’s cleverly phrased irony – “magnificent artist” doesn’t sound like the words of a hater! But, beyond that, it’s well known that Woolf was an ardent Austen admirer, as most memorably summed up in Woolf’s bon mot about Austen being “of all great writers…the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness…”  Just read A Room of One’s Own for a lot more where that quote came from! So, Woolf, most assuredly NOT an Austen hater!

But…now we come to the other true Austen hater among the seven, a man without the slightest apparent self-awareness of his own grotesquely virulent misogyny:

McRobbie: “D.H. LAWRENCE: D.H. Lawrence, author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (published in 1928), intensely disliked the England Jane Austen represented both in her novels and personally. In 1930, he wrote, “This again, is the tragedy of social life today. In the old England, the curious blood-connection held the classes together. The squires might be arrogant, violent, bullying and unjust, yet in some ways, they were at one with the people, part of the same blood-stream. We feel it in Defoe or Fielding. And then, in the mean Jane Austen, it is gone. Already this old maid typifies 'personality' instead of character, the sharp knowing in apartness instead of togetherness, and she is, to my feeling, English in the bad, mean snobbish sense of the word, just as Fielding is English in the good generous sense.” “

I don’t know which is worse, Lawrence’s unwitting misogyny or his utter failure to grasp Austen’s sharp satire of the snobbishness of the English self-styled elite – Lady Catherine de Burgh being Exhibit A.

I will move quickly past Madame de Stael, as my small acquaintance with her writing enables me to say only that I infinitely prefer Jane Austen’s subtle erudition to de Stael’s seemingly overblown rhetorical blasts, which appear to me to be the kind of writing that Sir Edward Denham, the fulsome poetry-mad fool of Sanditon, would have loved.

“This French-speaking Swiss writer, a great patron of the literary salon who lived contemporaneously with Jane Austen (they even died in the same year), pronounced Pride and Prejudice "vulgaire." “

What de Stael meant by calling P&P vulgar is especially mysterious, given that P&P is so obviously the opposite of vulgar in every fair sense of the word.

And now we come to the last, and perhaps the most famous, supposed Austen hater of all:

McRobbie: “MARK TWAIN: It was that great American man of letters, Mark Twain, who had the meanest thing to say about poor, dead Jane Austen and her books: “I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin bone!”  “

As with Charlotte Bronte, I’ve known for over a decade that Mark Twain was a closet Janeite, and that his hatred of Austen was a put-on! Here are my two prior posts that make a detailed case in this regard:

As I explained therein, once again, we have a clever put-on, designed to prank an earnest Janeite with a tin ear for irony – in this case, Twain’s longtime friend, William Dean Howells! And how hard is it to recognize the irony of “Every time I read P&P”---- what sort of Austen hater reads P&P over and over!!??

And so there you have the tale of the famous Austen haters who weren’t.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAusten on Twitter

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