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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

On this day in 1816. . .

Sixty-second in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters.

From time to time, you will hear writers claim that they “never read reviews.” These people are lying.

Oh, fine: Perhaps they are simply Martians whose veins are filled with liquid mercury instead of heart’s blood. Invest years of work into a project and then ignore what other people think of the result? Well, all I can say is – I can’t do it. (Not that I obsess over, say, my one-star Goodreads ratings. All thirty-four of them. No, that would be unhealthy.)

Apparently, Jane Austen had no such Martian restraint, or so we can conclude from the letter she wrote to her publisher John Murray exactly 205 years ago today (#139 in Deirdre LeFaye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). Murray had lent Austen a recent issue of the distinguished literary journal Quarterly Review, which featured an unsigned piece on the newly published Emma, and she was returning his copy with thanks.

The review (find it here, at pp. 210-22) approvingly mentions two of Austen’s earlier books – Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice – before offering a detailed plot summary and generally favorable impressions of Emma. Curiously, Mansfield Park is omitted – perhaps because it sold poorly and wasn’t mentioned on the title page of Emma.* But the reviewer perceptively situates Austen at the forefront of a new literary movement, as an exemplar of what we would now call realism: fiction concerned with the ordinary lives of ordinary people, rather than with sensational events embroiling unusually high-born or virtuous protagonists.

Austen does not appear to have known the identity of her admirer, and Murray, who did – he was the publisher not only of Austen but also of the Quarterly Review -- doesn’t seem to have told her. Today, of course, the piece is commonly attributed to Sir Walter Scott, a towering literary figure in his own time; contemporary critics either praise Scott for his early understanding of Austen’s genius or chide him for estimating it less highly than we do.

Austen herself seems to have reacted to her review as do most authors, bundles of insecurity that we are: She knew the glass was more than half full, but she couldn’t help noticing the ways in which it wasn’t quite full enough.

“The Authoress of Emma has no reason I think to complain of her treatment in it—except in the total omission of Mansfield Park,” Austen wrote to Murray. “I cannot but be sorry that so clever a Man as the Reveiwer of Emma, should consider it as unworthy of being noticed.”

Like I said – not a Martian.

* The scholar Helena Kelly argues -- unconvincingly, in my opinion -- that Austen’s handling of the slavery subtext in the pages of MP made the book too hot to handle.

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