anghraine: a piece of paper covered in handwriting and a fountain pen; text: writer (writing)
[personal profile] anghraine
I just saw another of those endless inane articles about how Austen could never have imagined that Pride and Prejudice would be super famous, nobody could have imagined it!!!! humble little Aunt Jane, scribbling away, and now she’s—

Sure, the meek and/or acerbic spinster aunt working quietly away, underappreciated by the world, consumed by the Art, is a nice romantic story. But it’s not … you know, what actually happened.

P&P was a popular novel. Not in the sense of being part of the lowbrow pop culture of the time (though it was also that). Her books were read widely and liked. Critics wrote approving reviews; the first comparison of Pride and Prejudice to Much Ado About Nothing occurs in the second review of it ever written, within two months of its publication.

Reviews of the time talked about how much Austen’s novels stood out from the usual Gothic or sentimental fare. The language of realism was barely a thing at the time, but reviews and recommendations reiterated how ‘probable’ everything seemed, how much the characters felt like real people and ordinary life—from the teenaged Princess Charlotte to Sir Walter Scott to random neighbours. People argued about whether the unknown author actually was “A Lady”—because the novels were too brilliant to be written by a woman!

P&P was the hit novel of 1813. The fashionable world constantly gossiped about who the author was, generally assuming she must be one of their own until the Austens’ inability to keep their mouths shut leaked it out. In particular, it got to the point that it was being hashed over for the umpteenth time at a party Henry Austen happened to be attending, and he snapped and blurted out that the author was actually his little sister. (Austen’s response: *sigh*)

The great playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan raved about her; he thought Pride and Prejudice was one of the cleverest things he had ever read and urged random people to go buy it. Annabella Milbanke, Lady Byron, thought it was one of the most realistic things she had ever read, while simultaneously engaging, especially wrt Darcy. Mary Russell Mitford got in on early ship hate, sneering at the tasteless people and author who could see an awful pert, worldly girl like Elizabeth with Darcy when obviously he should have married Jane, but otherwise thought it a “precious gem” and all the characters incredibly well-written.

The famous statesman Charles James Fox said “nothing had come out for years to be compared with Pride and Prejudice.” Novelists like Susan Ferrier complained that nobody would STOP TALKING ABOUT IT, OMG. Fans included the Earl of Dudley and the Countess of Morley. Lady Caroline Lamb thought of using an alliterative title for her own book because “the fashion is to call everything in the manner of Pride and prejudice, sense and sensibility.” Austen even had a quasi-stalker who deliberately kept travelling through her village in the hope of meeting her. She received an invitation from the Prince Regent and was further “invited” to dedicate Emma to him. She was able to get her last novels accepted for publication by John Murray, one of the most important publishers of the day (he published Byron and Wordsworth).

She had haters, too, which was … special. But the thing is that yes, of course she knew it would be famous, because it was famous. Not the classic it is now, no. But she knew it was amazing, she knew that the most powerful people in her nation loved it, that her neighbours loved (or hated) it, that her family did, that she was a popular writer. She flat-out said that she enjoyed all the praise, but also wanted to get as much money out of her books as she could. She also worried that her awareness of that audience would interfere too much in her process.

Much of her fame faded after her death and particularly in the Victorian years, when she was beloved of a narrow segment of literati. (For all that she’s stereotyped as a woman’s writer today, the original “Janeite” stereotype was of stuffy male scholars who regarded her as their collective maiden aunt.) Her reputation soared through the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries—Virginia Woolf’s discussion of Austen-the-artist in 1929 feels much more familiar than what you find pre-1870.

But during Austen’s own lifetime, her books were well-known and well-liked: by critics, by the general public, by politicians and artists and aristocrats, by most of her neighbours and family members, by most of her country’s public. Pride and Prejudice in particular was obnoxiously popular when it was published, and Austen knew perfectly well that she had written a deservingly famous book.
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anghraine: from the 2005 p&p: darcy standing at a piano while georgiana plays it (Default)

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