Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 599

Sense and Sensibility, Austen's first published work, was initially attributed to "A Lady." Considering her desire to remain anonymous and a tendency for criticism of the age to merely include a plot summary, there were few reviews of Sense and Sensibility in Austen's lifetime. Although he only mentioned Sense and Sensibility in passing, renowned Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott wrote of his admiration for Emma, a later work of Austen's, a year before Austen's death in 1816. As for so many important writers, acclaim was to come slowly and posthumously. Later recognition did not single out Sense and Sensibility; all of Austen's works began to gain a wider audience and appreciation in the years following her death, particularly following a collected volume of her works which appeared in 1833. After Scott, critics started taking measure. As noted by editor Graham Handley in his 1992 compilation of Austen reviews, the Edinburgh Review in January of 1843 compared her admirably to Shakespeare, noting that her characters are "all as perfectly discriminated from each other as if they were the most eccentric of human beings." Handley also quoted G. H. Lewes's words from 1847: "[Henry] Fielding and Miss Austen are the greatest novelists in our language." However, noted Handley, Charlotte Brontë was not so impressed; she preferred George Sand to the "only shrewd and observant" Austen.

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It was not until her nephew, J. E. Austen-Leah, wrote Memoir (1870) that Austen's reputation began to really take off. As her reputation grew, so did the need for more biographies and biographical information. The letters between Austen and her sister Cassandra appeared in 1884. Various other personal studies appeared, trying to give a broader perspective than that of her nephew in the memoir. Finally, in 1938, Elizabeth Jenkins's landmark biography, Jane Austen: A Biography appeared.

By the twentieth century, Austen's reputation was so well established that she could not be ignored. Henry James, G. K. Chesterton and Virginia Woolf, among many others, sang praises of Austen. Graham Handley, in Criticism in Focus: Jane Austen, quotes Woolf from a passage that originally appeared in the Times Literary Supplement of May 1913, in which Woolf lauded Austen as one of the top three English novelists.

While nineteenth-century criticism tended to focus on Austen's work as a whole, by the twentieth century, criticism on Austen had become highly specialized; critical works addressing Sense and Sensibility apart from the other novels became the norm. Much of the criticism dealt with the portrayal of Marianne and her romantic sensibility. W. A. Craik's study of Austen's novels, as put forth by Graham Handley, include the now widely accepted view concerning Marianne: "Marianne has been found more attractive than Elinor by most readers, which Jane Austen clearly did not intend." Other studies illustrated the historical ideologies implied in the conflicting personalities of Elinor and Marianne. Marilyn Butler compared Elinor's demeanor to that of humble Christians of the era. "The most interesting feature of the character of Elinor," Butler wrote, "and a real technical achievement in Sense and Sensibility, is that this crucial process of Christian self-examination is realised in literary terms." Conversely, Marianne has all the characteristics of the Jacobins, a radical party who played a part in the French Revolution. Feminist studies also appeared; for example, Claudia Johnson's work that criticizes the patriarchy that the heroines must endure. By 1994, critical editions and study guides appeared that were dedicated largely to Sense and Sensibility. These studies examined the minutiae of courtship in Austen's era, the influence of the French Revolution on Austen's philosophy, and feminist interpretations that regarded Austen's conformity, concerning the portrayal of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, with skepticism.

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