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. -
My Mother - not liked it so well as P. & P. - Thought Fanny
insipid. - Enjoyed Mrs Norris. -
Cassandra - thought it quite as clever, tho’ not so brilliant as
P. & P. - Fond of Fanny. - Delighted much in Mr Rushworth’s
My Eldest Brother - a warm admirer of it in general. - Delighted with
the Portsmouth Scene.
Edward - Much like his Father. - Objected to Mrs Rushworth’s Elop:
:ment as unnatural.
Mr B.L. - Highly pleased with Fanny Price - & a warm admirer
of the Portsmouth Scene. - Angry with Edmund for not being in love
with her, & hating Mrs Norris for teazing her. -
Miss Burdett - Did not like it so well as P. & P.
Mrs James Tilson - Liked it better than P. & P.
Fanny Cage - did not much like it - not to be compared to P. & P. -
Nothing interesting in the Characters - Language poor. - Characters
natural & well supported - Improved as it went on. -
Mr & Mrs Cooke - very much pleased with it - particularly with the
manner in which the Clergy are treated. - Mr Cooke called it
“the most sensible Novel he had ever read.” - Mrs Cooke wished
for a good Matronly Character. -
Mary Cooke - quite as much pleased with it, as her Father & Mother;
seemed to enter into Lady B.’s character, & enjoyed Mr Rushworth’s folly.
Admired Fanny in general; but thought she ought to have been
more determined on overcoming her own feelings, when she saw
Edmund’s attachment to Miss Crawford. -
Miss Burrel - admired it very much - particularly Mrs Norris &
Dr Grant. -
Mrs Bramstone - much pleased with it; particularly with the
character of Fanny, as being so very natural. Thought Lady Bertram
like herself. - Preferred it to either of the others - but imagined that
might be her want of Taste - as she does not understand Wit. -
Mrs Augusta Bramstone - Owned that she thought S. & S. - and
P. & P. downright nonsense, but expected to like M.P. better, & having
finished the 1st vol. - flattered herself she had got through the worst.
The families at Deane - all pleased with it. - Mrs Anna Harwood
delighted with Mrs Norris & the green Curtain.
The Kintbury Family - very much pleased with it; - preferred it
to either of the others. -
Mr Egerton the Publisher - praised it for it’s Morality, & for
being so equal a composition. - No weak parts.
Lady Rob: Kerr wrote - “You may be assured I read every line with
the greatest pleasure ^ interest & am more delighted with it than my humble
pen can express. The excellent delineation of Character, sound sense, Elegant
Language & the pure morality with which it abounds, make it a very ^ most
desirable as well as useful work, & reflects the highest honour &c &c.
- Universally admired in Edinburgh, by all the Wise ones. - Indeed,
I have not heard a single fault given to it.” -
Miss Sharpe - “I think it excellent - & of it’s good sense & moral Tendency
there can be no doubt. - Your Characters are drawn to the Life - so
very, very natural & just - but as you beg me to be perfectly honest,
I must confess I prefer P. & P.” -
Mrs Carrick - “All who think deeply & feel much will give the
Preference to Mansfield Park.”
Mr J. Plumptree - “I never read a novel which interested me so very
much throughout, the characters are all so remarkably well kept up
& so well drawn, & the plot is so well contrived that I had not an
idea till the end which of the two w[ould] marry Fanny, H.C. or Edm[und].
Mrs Norris amused me particularly, & Sir Tho[mas] is very clever, &
his conduct proves admirably the defects of the modern system
of Education.” - Mr J.P. made two objections, but only one of them
was remembered, the want of some character more ^ striking & interesting
to the generality of Readers, than Fanny was likely to be: -
Sir James Langham & Mr H. Sanford, having been told that it was
much inferior to P. & P. - began it expecting to dislike it, but were
very soon extremely pleased with it - & I believe, did not
think it at all inferior. -
Alethea Bigg. - “I have read M.P. & heard it very much talked of, very
much praised, I like it myself & think it very good indeed, but as I
never say what I do not think, I will add that although it is superior
in a great many points in my opinion to the other two works, I
think it has not the spirit of P. & P., except perhaps the Price
family at Portsmouth, & they are delightful in their way.” -
Charles - did not like it near so well as P. & P. - thought it wanted
Mrs Maling - (Lady Mulgrave’s Mother) delighted with it; read it through
in a day & a half. -
Mrs Dickson - “I have bought M. P. - but it is not equal to P. & P. - .
Mrs Lefroy - liked it, & but thought it a mere Novel. -
Mrs Portal - admired it very much - objected cheifly to Edmund’s
not being brought more forward. -
Lady Gordon wrote “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 M. P. 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, been a
part in, & been acquainted with.”
Mrs Pole wrote, “There is a particular satisfaction in reading all Miss A-s
works - they are so evidently written by a Gentlewoman - Most Novellists
fail, & betray themselves in attempting to describe familiar scenes in high
Life, some little vulgarism escapes & shews that they are not experimentally
acquainted with what they describe, but here it is quite different.
Everything is natural, & the situations & incidents are told in a
manner which clearly evinces the Writer to belong to the Society
whose Manners she so ably delineates.” Mrs Pole also said that
no Books had ever occasioned so much canvassing & doubt, & that
everybody was desirous to attribute them to some of their own
friends, or to some person of whom they thought highly.
[Add. MSS.] 41253A
Adm[iral] Foote - surprised that I had the power of drawing the Portsmouth ~
~ Scenes so well. -
Mrs Creed - preferred S. & S. & P. & P. to Mansfield Park.
Opinions of Emma.
Capt[ain] Austen. - liked it extremely, observing that though there
might be more Wit in P. & P. - & an higher Morality in
M. P. - yet altogether, on - account of it’s peculiar air of
Nature throughout, he preferred it to either.
Mrs F.A. - liked & admired it very much indeed, but must still
prefer P. & P.
Mrs J. Bridges - preferred it to all the others.
Miss Sharp - better than M.P. but not so well as P. & P. - pleased
with the Heroine for her Originality, delighted with Mr K. -
& called Mrs Elton beyond praise. - dissatisfied with Jane Fairfax. -
Cassandra - better than P. & P. - but not so well as M.P. -
Fanny K. - not so well as either P. & P. or M.P. - could not bear
Emma herself. - Mr Knightley delightful. - Should like
J. F. - if she knew more of her. -
Mr & Mrs J. A. - did not like it so well as either of the 3 others.
Language different from the others; not so easily read. -
Edward - preferred it to M.P. - only. - Mr K. liked by everybody.
Miss Bigg - not equal to either P.& P. - or M.P. - objected
to the sameness of the subject (Match-making) - all
through. - Too much of Mr Elton & H. Smith. Language superior
to the others. -
My Mother - thought it more entertaining than M.P. - but not so
interesting as P. & P. - No characters in it equal to L[ad]y Catherine
& Mr Collins -
Miss Lloyd - ^ thought it as clever as either of the others, but did not receive so
much pleasure from it as from P. & P. - & M.P. -
Mrs & Miss Cor__cer [?] - liked it very much, but not so much as
the others. -
Fanny Cage - liked it very much indeed & classed it between
P. & P. - & M.P. -
Mr Shirn - did not think it equal to either M.P. - (which he
liked the best of all) or P. & P. - Displeased with my
Pictures of Clergymen. -
Miss Bigg - on reading it a second time, liked Miss Bates much
better than at first, & expressed herself as liking all the people
of Highbury in general, - except Harriet Smith - but c[ould] not
help still thinking her too silly in her Loves.
The family at Upton Gray - all very much amused with it. - Miss
Bates a great favourite with Mrs Beaufoy.
Mr & Mrs Leigh Perrol - saw many beauties in it, but c[ould] not
think it equal to P. & P. - Darcy & Eliz[abeth] had spoilt them for
anything else. Mr K. however, an excellent Character; Emma
better luck than a Match-maker often has. - Pitied Jane
Fairfax - thought Frank Churchill better treated than he
Countess Craven - admired it very much, but did not think it equal to
P. & P. - which she ranked as the very first of it’s sort.
Mrs Guiton - thought it too natural to be interesting.
Mrs Digweed - did not like it so well as the others, in fact if she had
not known the Author could hardly have got through it.
Miss Terry - admired it very much, particularly Mrs Elton.
Henry Sanford - very much pleased with it - delighted with Miss
Bates, but thought Mrs Elton the best-drawn Character in
the Book. - Mansfield Park however, still his favourite.
Mr Haden - quite delighted with it. Admired the Character of
Miss Isabella Herries - did not like it - objected to my exposing
the set in the character of the Heroine - convinced that
I had meant Mrs & Miss Bates for some acquaintance of
theirs - People whom I never heard of before. -
Miss Harriet Moore. - Admired it very much, but M.P. still
her favourite of all.
Countess Morley - delighted with it. -
Mr Cockerell - liked it so little that Fanny w[ould] not send
me his opinion.
Mrs Dickson - did not much like it - thought it very inferior
to P. & P. - Liked it the less, from there being a Mr & Mrs Dixon
in it. -
Mrs Brandreth - thought the 3[r]d vol[ume] superior to anything I had
ever written - Quite beautiful! -
Mr B. Lefroy - thought that if there had been more Incident, it
would be equal to any of the others. - The Characters quite as
well drawn & supported as in any, & from being more Every-
-day ones, the more entertaining. Did not like the Heroine
so well as any of the others. Miss Bates excellent, but ra:
:ther too much of her. Mr & Mrs Elton admirable & John
Knightley a sensible Man. -
Mrs B. Lefroy - rank’d Emma as a composition with S. & S. -
not so Brilliant as P. & P. - nor so equal as M.P. - Preferred
Emma herself to all the heroines. - The Characters like
all the others admirably well drawn & supported -
perhaps rather less strongly marked than some but
only the more natural for that reason. Mr Knightly
Mrs Elton & Miss Bates her favourites - Thought one or
two of the conversations too long.
Mrs Lefroy - preferred it to M.P. - but liked M.P. the
least of all.
Mr Fowle - read only the first & last Chapters, because
he had heard it was not interesting. -
Mrs Lutley Sclater - liked it very much, better than
M.P. - & thought I had “brought it all about very
cleverly in the last volume.” -
Mrs C. Cage wrote thus to Fanny - “A great many thanks for the loan of
Emma, which I am delighted with. I like it better than any. Every
character is thoroughly kept up. - I must enjoy reading it again with
Charles. Miss Bates is incomparable, but I was nearly Killed with
those precious treasures! - They are Unique, & really with more
fun - than I can express. I am at Highbury all day, & I can’t
help feeling I have just got into a new set of acquaintances.
No one writes such good sense & so very comfortable.
- 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.