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.