Emerson did not care for Jane Austen

I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world.  Never was life so pinched & narrow.  The one problem in the mind of the writer in both the stories I have read, “Persuasion”, and “Pride & Prejudice”, is marriageableness; all that interests any character introduced is still this one, has he or she money to marry with, & conditions conforming? ‘Tis “the nympholepsy of a fond despair”, say rather, of an English boarding-house.  Suicide is more respectable.

That is from Emerson’s Notebooks, August-September 1861.


Regency England couldn't have Gary Becker so that time it was Jane Austen who shed light on the workings of the marriage market. And I think she did so brilliantly. Moreover, her work contains much about nformation problems and signaling. I have to disagree with Emerson.

Wow, I just read this tasty bit from Mark Twain also seriously dissing P&P

“I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” - Mark Twain

"Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ ..."

If Austen's books "madden" Twain so much, I wonder why he rereads them...

"Just the omission of Jane Austen's books alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn't a book in it." Mark Twain

Twain didn't seem to like any other author that the critics praised. He also bashed Henry James. I suspect jealousy played a part along with personal preference.

There is also a touch of Scottish Enlightenment in Austen. She is deeper than most people (including most of her fans) would think.

Emerson seems to be confusing the mind of the writer with the mind(s) of the characters...

I agree with Emerson.

Very amusing, thanks for sharing.

You know, the guy isn't renowned for his sense of humor. Either he doesn't get satire or finds it hits a bit close to home. Read Emerson and you can see Mr. Collins without squinting too hard.

Twain and Emerson were both men.

Good point. I've never met a man who answered Jane Austen when asked about his choice of authors. Women though adore her. My mental stereotype of the Jane Austen fan-club is white, female, boringly-married, housewives. The correlate knitting is also strong.

I'm a man, and I love Jane Austen. She's my uncle's favorite author, and one of my (male) high school teachers thought highly of her.

I think the difficulty is that the social commentary is very easy to miss. Without it, Austen's novels seem like strangely pragmatic sorts of romance novels which would be rather difficult to like.

My dad and Steve Sailer are also Austen fans.

Your dad is Steve Sailer! Wow.

I don't understand how anyone could possibly have that takeaway given my use of "and" and "are" for the plural case.

I and several other men I know are fans.

Emerson is an ass.

"The one problem in the mind of the writer in both the stories I have read, “Persuasion”, and “Pride & Prejudice”, is marriageableness;"

Marriageableness is a big deal:


I was going to say. That kind of *was* the one problem for women in English society. The only way to attain power in any sense was through a good marriage.

The problem with J. Austen (and this could be why Emerson didn't like her works) is that she seems utterly incapable of critiquing the social relations and institutions she describes from an outside edifice. I left P&P with a sense that that was all she had to offer. But I don't think that really gets us to why she is a good writer, which I think she is. She has a profound ability to convey the opinions and thought processes of her characters to her readers.

I felt the same way about Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby. There didn't seem to be any objective or external critique that made you think about the social system it described. They seem perfectly content to latch onto the popular criticism of bourgeois society without offering anything material about what was really wrong in those structures, or how to go beyond them.

Yes and no.

Jane Austen is withering in her attacks on those who do not live up to their (in her way of thinking) proper roles in society - her novels are full of absentee parents, drunken fathers, women who made bad choices and pay for it with poverty, cads who get women pregnant and leave them to their own devices, etc. She is essentially attacking the society around her for not living up to its supposed ideals - and in this case her eye is especially focused on the gentry - people who in her mind ought to know better.

Whatever happened to just writing good stories?

Agreed that Austen had some penetrating insights into the marriage market. She anticipated the "Game-osphere". See also: women prefer the Wickams of the world, even to their own ruin. She also had some strong criticisms of pre-Victorian life. See also: Charlotte Blackwood choosing to marry the awful Mr. Collins because it is better than spinsterhood.

Well, she would probably not have liked him. After all, she was very into men who had lots of very nice rural real estate in England, and he was this loser who hung around in transcendentalist communes. I mean, yuck!

This comment makes me wish for a "like" button!

Interesting. I saw this post just as I was about to start reading Emerson for the first time. I like Ms. Austen's ability to laugh at ordinary concerns of the era. Her characters did what they chose to do. And sometimes they chose to stay trapped.

I don't usually link to my own site, but....:

Although the video linked from my post is offline for copyright, you can find "Jane Austen's Fight Club" in other places.

Perhaps Emerson resented Austen's superb prose style, which makes his opaque prose look even worse by comparison.

Emerson was a master stylist and you should be ashamed of yourself. Good day, sir.


Well I never liked Emerson all that much either, and Mark Twain was a very good writer most of the time but he always suffered from the angry and rebelious form of colonial cringe and his critical hjudgements were often horrific. Mark Twain on Shakespeare is Beyond awful and he was a Baconian to boot.

The opinions of great writers such as Naipaul are rarely reliable because they often speak to their neuroses and insecurities, the female sex for Mr. Naipaul for example. Tolstoy had a legendary hatred of Shakespeare, and wanted Lear banned (I wonder why???), and Austen's bourgeois nature is like waving a red flag in front of Emerson.

Emerson didn't understand the central theme of "marriageableness" because Emerson was a man. For women of that time, marriage was survival. Literally. If you look at Austen's novels through the lens of modern-day feminism, the obsession these characters have with getting married seems archaic, even repulsive. But when put into historical context, Austen in her own way popularized an ideal that could also be considered feminist for her day... that you marry someone because you love them and expect them to love you back, NOT because you're after some kind of political or social gain. The fact that the main characters generally "married up" socially was sort of a reward for having strong principles. They fell in love with the male leads for who they were as individuals, while antagonist female rivals were chasing the same men mostly for their money and social standing. And let's be honest, when your only option as a woman is to get married or sink into poverty, marrying a rich and good-looking man is some serious icing on the cake!

Emerson also obviously missed Austen's wit entirely. In the true British tradition, her humor is heavily anchored in irony. Some of her supporting characters are utterly absurd, the most famous probably being Mr. Collins and Elizabeth Bennet's mother. The British love the absurd! As for her narratives being "pinched & narrow" with little "knowledge of the world,"... again, Emerson was a man. He did not understand how limited the world of the typical woman was -- not because she was disinterested, but because she was limited, traditionally, socially, and legally. The female-dominated domestic sphere has traditionally been regarded as unimportant and uninteresting, but female authors like Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott and others drew back the curtain to reveal just how complex that sphere is, laced with nuance and the daily influences of human interaction, as well as the impact those interactions have on anyone who is in any way connected to them.

Didn't Austen herself never marry?

Yes, she was only an observer in the game. It might contributed to her good insights.

I wonder if people like this realize their revolutions are mostly the luxuries of economic development. It would make for shorter books.

Thank God she didn't. And even unmarried, she died comparatively young, so we have just six finished novels.

On the first day of my Austen class, I take a poll of my students to see how many times members of the class have read Pride and Prejudice. (Seeing the films does not count.) The number is almost always 2 or 2.5 times the number of students on the roster. The only other book I've ever taught with that sort of record is...Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

She once received a proposal from an independently-wealthy man (also younger than her), accepted it, then changed her mind overnight and broke off the engagement.

Fantastic analysis. But does that explain why Austen is still very popular with females?

"For women of that time, marriage was survival."

For your genes, it still, more or less, is.

The other problem with this quote is that Emerson hadn't read Mansfield Park, which I think is Austen's best work. Few writers can dwell so long and so well on the psyche of a character so frail and helpless in social situations.

In ways already pointed out by posters upthread, Austen speaks to he ages. Let me take it down to my level: Any movies been made of Emerson's work?

No movies have been made of the Republic either. ergo, Stieg Larssonsen >>> Plato

"Suicide is more respectable."

Great line in a review. Gotta remember that.

I'm no partisan of Austen, Emerson, or Swinburne, but I've long delighted in an anecdote cited by Frank Muir. Emerson had dismissed Swinburne in an interview published (c. 1873) in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper as "a perfect leper, a mere sodomite"; to which Swinburne responded in correspondence to RWE by characterizing Emerson as "a gap-toothed and hoary-headed ape, carried at first into notice on the shoulder of Carlyle, and who now in his dotage spits and chatters from a dirtier perch of his own finding and fouling", and as cheerleader-in-chief of his own buggering tribe of autocoprophagous baboons. Muir elsewhere cited Swinburne's earlier (c. 1869) dismissal of H. B. Stowe (for her part in attempting to blacken the reputation of Lord Byron) as "a blatant Bassarid of Boston, a rampant Maenad of Massachusetts". (Readers consulting The Frank Muir Book [1976] can also find a catty characterization of Miss Austen from the private pen of Mary Russell Mitford [April 1815].)
Ahhh, literary invective!

The initial reaction to Jane Austen (Emerson, Twain, Naipaul) is that the content of her books is puerile, frivolous, womanly navel gazing.

The (fairly well established by now) counter-reaction is: "No, you are not reading Jane Austen carefully enough, her writing is witty, perceptive, and much more sophisticated that it appears at a surface level."

But I wonder if she ends up being overrated by the contrarians. Yes, her books are more sophisticated than they appear, but are they really masterpieces of literature? Or are they just surprisingly good books that are often underrated by readers looking for more typically masculine literary content.

What makes for a masterpiece of literature, as opposed to "surprisingly good"? I think the distinction turns entirely on your definition of "masterpiece of literature". If you think, for example, that a masterpiece of literature has to offer a view of how society could be organised better, then a book that doesn't offer that can't be a masterpiece, but that doesn't mean that it isn't a masterpiece by some other definition. And there's no single definition of "masterpiece of literature" like there is of "prime number".

Did Emerson like any novelist? Goethe, I guess. In his essay on Literature in English Traits, I don't seem him praise any novelist. I think it's hard to really like novels if you read only for the "lustres."

And he only liked Goethe because Carlyle forced him to.

Emerson didn't like most novelists. He was more into poetry. He understood this was a limitation and tried his best to read and like Dickens and some others. I guess he was just too exhausted with the whole thing by the time he got around to Jane Austen.

She is pretty exasperating for most male readers. You have to at least give us that. We can't really help it.

Read it for the sarcasm.

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