This review of Jane Austen's novel Emma appeared anonymously in the October 1815 issue of the Quarterly Review. It is generally accepted to be by the Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), although some critics dispute this. The author of the review considers Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice as well as Emma, and uses them to discuss the state of the novel in the early 19th century.
The Quarterly Review
The Quarterly Review was a literary and political periodical founded by the publishing house John Murray, which also published Emma. This may be part of the reason why the Quarterly Review printed such a long and favourable review of Austen’s novel.
What does the review say?
The writer argues that Austen’s novels represent a new kind of fiction. Until the beginning of the 19th century, novels were chiefly interesting because of the extraordinary scenes, events and characters they portrayed. Such novels were highly dramatic and sentimental, and contained extremes of human behaviour and emotion. Austen’s novels, by contrast, describe events and characters that readers will recognise from their own experience. The reviewer suggests that it is hard to make such realistic depictions interesting, but that Austen succeeds, writing with ‘such spirit and originality, that [readers] will never miss the excitation which depends upon a narrative of uncommon events’.
Although the reviewer portrays Austen’s novels as part of a trend for more realistic and less romantic fiction, it is clear that he sees Austen as an original writer, and Emma, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice as superior examples of this new kind of novel.
The writer notes that Austen’s characters are middle-class rather than aristocratic, and that she describes them with great precision; he picks out Mr Collins and Mr Bennet from Pride and Prejudice as especially believable. He compares Austen’s writing to the Flemish school of painting, which was famous for showing ordinary individuals engaged in ordinary tasks.