Critical Essays Critical Reception of Sense and Sensibility


The nineteenth century contained a hotbed of critical views about the writer. Consistently inconsistent, critics, ranging from the fiery romantics to the subtle Victorians, could not agree.

Jane Austen's warmest admirers have always been men. Archbishop Whately and Macaulay both compared her with Shakespeare. Coleridge, Whewell, Tennyson, Sidney Smith, Andrew Bradley all spoke out in her favor.

Sir Walter Scott, the great romantic, had this to say: "That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch which renders commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiments is denied me." Affirmative acclaims could also be heard from Robert Southey, poet laureate and friend of the great romantics: "Her novels are more true to nature, and have, for my sympathies, passages of finer feeling than any others of this age." And of the Victorians, George Henry Lewes, George Eliot's devoted friend, said: "In spite of the sense of incongruity which besets us in the word prose Shakespeare, we confess the greatness of Miss Austen; her marvelous dramatic power seems, more than any thing in Scott, akin to the greatest quality in Shakespeare."

But adverse criticism rang as loudly as did the favorable. Because they did not rely on high-colored pictures of life, complicated plots, or supernatural terrors, the novels of Jane Austen seemed tame and commonplace to many readers of her time. Madame de Staël pronounced Austen's novels "vulgaires" (commonplace), and Charlotte Bronte said: "The passions are perfectly unknown to her. . . . Even to the feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition — too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress. Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands and feet. What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study: but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of life and sentient target of death — this Miss Austen ignores." Thomas Carlyle dismissed Austen's novels as mere "dish washings," and Wordsworth "used to say that though he admitted that the novels were an admirable copy of life, he could not be interested in productions of that kind; unless the truth of nature were presented to him clarified, as it were, by the light of the imagination, it had scarce any attraction in his eyes" (quoted by Sara Coleridge).

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