Opinions by various people of Jane Austen's work
Jane Austen was keenly interested in what her friends, family and acquaintances thought of her work. She copied their opinions of two of her novels, Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815), in these sheets. Some opinions are clearly quotations from letters, while others are briefer and more colloquial. We can assume that these briefer opinions are Austen’s recollections either of opinions said to her directly, or relayed by a third party.
What do the ‘Opinions’ tell us about contemporary attitudes to Austen’s novels?Many of the readers echo contemporary reviews of Austen’s work by commenting upon the novels’ faithfulness to ordinary life. A Lady Gordon gives one of the most detailed comments of this kind, about Mansfield Park:
In most novels you are amused for the time with a set of Ideal People whom you never think of afterwards or whom you the least expect to meet in common life, whereas in Miss A—‘s works, & especially in MP. you actually live with them, you fancy yourself one of the family; & the scenes are so exactly descriptive, so perfectly natural, that there is scarcely an Incident or conversation, or a person that you are not inclined to imagine you have at one time or other in your Life been a witness to, born a part in, & been acquainted with.
Most readers who comment on Austen’s ‘naturalness’ do so favourably, but a couple regard it as a failing: Mrs Guiton, for example, ‘thought [Emma] too natural to be interesting’. These differences in opinion reflect late 18th and early 19th-century debates about the purpose of novels and novel-reading. Novels at this time usually featured exaggerated characters and events, and were highly sentimental or dramatic in tone. Austen’s focus on everyday life therefore marks a major development in the history of the novel.
The ‘Opinions’ show that Austen’s immediate family disagreed over the relative merits of her novels. Her sister Cassandra liked Emma ‘better than P&P – but not so well as M.P.’ while her mother found the same novel ‘more entertaining than MP – but not so interesting as P&P’.While most of the comments are positive, Austen recorded the bad as well as the good. Mr Cockerelle ‘liked [Emma] so little, that Fanny would not send me his opinion’; Mrs Augusta Bramstone ‘owned that she thought S&S – and P&P downright nonsense… having finished the 1st vol. [of Mansfield Park] flattered herself she had got through the worst’.
Jane Austen’s voice in the ‘Opinions’There is only one explicit authorial comment in the ‘Opinions’: in response to Miss Isabella Herries being ‘convinced that I had meant Mrs & Miss Bates for some acquaintance of theirs’, Austen writes that they are ‘People whom I never heard of before’.
However, some of the opinions (for example, those of Mrs Bramstone, Mrs Augusta Bramstone, Miss Sharpe and Mrs Digweed) sound so much like something Austen’s comic characters might say that one suspects a degree of mockery in her portrayal of them. Such opinions also reaffirm the likelihood that she was using her own observations of life around her as material for her fiction.
Opinions of Mansfield Park. -
“We certainly do not think it as a whole, equal to P. & P. - but it has
many & great beauties. Fanny is a delightful Character! and Aunt Norris
is a great favourite of mine. The Characters are natural & well sup-
-ported, & many of the Dialogues excellent. - You need not fear the
publication being considered as discreditable to the talents of it’s Author.”
F. W. A.
Not so clever as P. & P. - but pleased with it altogether. Liked the
character of Fanny. Admired the Portsmouth Scene. -
Mr K. -
Edward & George. - Not liked it ^ near so well as P. & P. -
Edward admired Fanny - George disliked her. - George interested
by nobody but Mary Crawford. - Edward pleased with Henry C. -
Edmund objected to, as cold & formal. - Henry C.s going off
with Mrs R. - at such a time, when so much in love with Fanny,
thought unnatural by Edward. -
Fanny Knight. - Liked it, in many parts, very much indeed,
delighted with Fanny; - but not satisfied with the end - wanting
more Love between her & Edmund - & could not think it natural
that Edm[ond] sh[ould] be so much attached to a woman without Principle
like Mary C. - or promote Fanny’s marrying Henry. -
Anna liked it better than P. & P. - but not so well as S. & S. -
Could not bear Fanny. - Delighted with Mrs Norris, the scene
at Portsmouth, & all the humourous parts. -
Mrs James Austen, very much pleased. Enjoyed Mrs Norris
particularly, & the scene at Portsmouth. ^ Thought Henry Crawford’s
going off with Mrs Rushworth very natural. -
Miss Clewes’s objections much the same as Fanny’s. -
Miss Lloyd preferred it altogether to either of the others. -
Delighted with Fanny. - Hated Mrs Norris. -
- Article by:
- Kathryn Sutherland
- The novel 1780-1832
Jane Austen’s characters are continually watching, judging and gossiping about others and, in turn, are watched, judged and gossiped about. Professor Kathryn Sutherland explores the ways in which behaviour and etiquette are closely monitored in the novels, and how characters must learn to be skilful readers of those around them.
- Article by:
- Kathryn Sutherland
- The novel 1780-1832
Jane Austen fills her novels with ordinary people, places and events, in stark contrast to other novels of the time. Professor Kathryn Sutherland considers the function of social realism in Austen’s work.