Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 990
In the early nineteenth century, when Jane Austen published her first two novels Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, writes B. C. Southam in his introduction to Jane Austen The Critical Heritage, "fiction reviewing had no . . . dignity, and in the light of prevailing standards the two novels were remarkably well-received. The reviewers were in no doubt about the superiority of these works. Although their notices are extremely limited in scope they remark on points which any modern critic would want to make." These points, in the case of Pride and Prejudice, include the spirited characterizations of Elizabeth Bennet and her family, Fitzwilliam Darcy, and the other major personalities of the novel. Those people that criticized the novel, however, complained that the author of the book (who was unknown at the time—Austen published her works anonymously and her authorship did not become widely known until after her death) depicted socially and morally unrefined people, that the book was simply entertaining without being uplifting, and that the realism of her book threatened their concept of literature as an idealized higher reality.
Most of the known contemporary opinions of Pride and Prejudice come from private journals and diaries, where important figures of the time recorded their opinions of the book as they were reading it. In January of 1813, the month of the publication of Austen's novel, however, two reviews were published anonymously in the British Critic and the Critical Review. Both reviewers praised the novel's readability, but most of the reviews are dedicated to appreciations of Austen's characterization. Pride and Prejudice "is very far superior to almost all the publications of the kind which have lately come before us," wrote the British Critic reviewer. "It has a very unexceptionable tendency, the story is well told, the characters remarkably well drawn and supported, and written with great spirit as well as vigour." "It is unnecessary to add," the reviewer concluded, "that we have perused these volumes with much satisfaction and amusement, and entertain very little doubt that their successful circulation will induce the author to similar exertions." The Critical Review contributor began his appreciation with the words, "Instead of the whole interest of the tale hanging upon one or two characters, as is generally the case in novels, the fair author of the present introduces us, at once, to a whole family, every individual of which excites the interest, and very agreeably divides the attention of the reader." "Nor is there one character which appears flat," the contributor concluded, "or obtrudes itself upon the notice of the reader with troublesome impertinence. There is not one person in the drama with whom we could readily dispense,— they have all their proper places; and fill their several stations, with great credit to themselves, and much satisfaction to the reader."
Those contemporaries of Austen who criticized Pride and Prejudice did so, says Southam, out of a feeling that the novel offended their sense of the tightness of the world. "While few readers could deny that they enjoyed reading the novels— for the vitality of the characters, the wit, the accuracy and realism of her picture of society—praise comes grudgingly, fenced round with qualifications," he states. Commentators, including Lady Darcy and Miss Mitford, complained that the characters, particularly the Bennets, are unrefined and socially mannerless. "These notions of decorum persisted throughout the nineteenth century, and created a particular unease in the reader," Southam concludes, "the sense on one hand that he was undoubtedly enjoying Jane Austen, but equally a sense that he must temper his admiration, recalling that novels so very worldly and realistic could never be great art."
Because of this common reaction to her fiction, criticism of Austen's works, including Pride and Prejudice, as a whole was delayed until after her death. "In 1819," writes Laura Dabundo in the Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, "Henry Crabb Robinson wrote the first of several diary entries in praise of her novels." Another contemporary reviewer, the novelist Sir Walter Scott "recognized Austen's greatness, but his remarks also help to perpetuate the notion that her range was limited." It was the publication of James Edward Austen-Leigh's A Memoir of Jane Austen, by Her Nephew in 1870 that sparked a revival of Austen criticism. However, its depiction of Austen as a "spinster aunt" whose works were written primarily for her own amusement created a distorted picture of the author. "Later in the century," Dabundo explains, "George Henry Lewes argued for the unqualified excellence of her writing, comparing her accomplishment to that of Shakespeare, but nonetheless he saw her fiction as cool and unfevered." It was not until after the publication of Mary Lascelles's Jane Austen and Her Art in 1939 that twentieth century critics began to overturn the Victonan concept of Austen as an amateur artist uncommitted to creating great literature.
Austen criticism has exploded since 1939. Scholars turn to Pride and Prejudice for its portraits of late eighteenth-century society, for the technical expertise of its composition, and for its capacity to find and maintain interest in the everyday lives of small-town English society. "Increasingly, in studies like those of Dorothy Van Ghent, Reuben Brower, Marvin Mudnck, and Howard Babb," declares Donald J. Gray in his preface to Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice, An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Reviews and Essays in Criticism, "[twentieth-century critics] study the development of characters and themes, the structure of episodes and sentences, even her very choice of words, in order to explain how novels about three or four families in a country village are also novels about the important business of making a fruitful life in a society and of a character which do not always encourage the best of even the few possibilities they permit." Austen's novels, Dabundo concludes, "deal with passionate but realistic people whose world was changing and being challenged, people who conducted their lives in the context of their immediate friends and family and a national culture that nourished and sustained them."
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