Jane Austen's Collection of Critical Feedback From Her (Sometimes Harsh) Friends and Family

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
June 18 2014 11:10 AM

Jane Austen's Collection of Critical Feedback From Her (Sometimes Harsh) Friends and Family

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In an eight-page document, Jane Austen collected her friends’ and family’s opinions of her third and fourth novels, Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815). The British Library recently made the manuscript available online as part of its great Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians collection.

Below, I’ve transcribed Austen’s collection of feedback on Mansfield Park. This novel, literary scholar Pat Rogers writes, was always “relegated to the lower levels of the [Austen] pantheon” during her life. While none of her novels received much critical attention while Austen was alive—and her work provoked active disdain from some nineteenth-century literary lights—Mansfield Park was particularly neglected, and in the nineteenth century it went through few published editions.

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By today’s standards, the honesty in these collected observations can seem blunt, bordering on cruel. Many of the readers who replied to Austen's inquiries about Mansfield Park told her that they liked “P.& P.” (Pride and Prejudice [1813]) or even “S. & S.” (Sense and Sensibility [1811]) better than her latest effort. Rogers notes that the Austen family was a little more likely to offer unvarnished opinions; the positive feedback in the document comes, on the whole, from people who weren’t related to Austen.

There are a number of comments about the “morality” of the novel—critiques that would be common at a time when an assessment of moral message was one tool that people used to approve or disapprove of a novel. Rogers points to one of the only early published reviews of the novel, by Richard Whately, an author and clergyman who praised the novel for containing “moral lessons” alongside humorous moments.

My transcript follows the image. Click on the image, or here, to reach the full document, including Austen's collected critiques of Emma

AustenCritiques1
Click on the image, or here, to reach the full document.

Courtesy of the British Library.

My transcript:

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 supported, & many of the Dialogues excellent. You need not fear the publication being considered as discreditable to the talents of its author.” – T.W.A.

Not so clever as P. & P. – but pleased with it altogether. Liked the character of Fanny. Admired the Portsmouth scene. – W.A.

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. going off with Mrs. R. [Maria Bertram] 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 Edmd shd 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 humorous parts. –

Mrs. James Austen, very much pleased. Enjoyed Mrs. Norris particularly, & the scene at Portsmouth. Thought Henry Crawford’s going off with Mrs. Rushworth [Maria Bertram] very natural.

Miss Clewes’ 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 stupidity.

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 elopement as unnatural.

W.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 teasing 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 were treated - W. 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 Edward’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 imaged 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 MP better, & having finished the 1st vol – flattered herself that she has got through the worst.

The families at Deane [?] – all pleased with it – Mrs. Anna Harwood delighted with Mrs. Norris & the green Curtain.

The Westbury [?] Family – very much pleased with it; preferred it to either of the other.

Mr. Egerton the Publisher – praised it for its’ [sic] 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, makes it a most very desirable as well as useful work, & reflects the highest honour – universally admired in Edinburgh, by all the wise ones – indeed I have not heard a single fault given to it.” 

Mrs. Sharpe – “I think it excellent - & of its good sense & moral Tendency there can be doubt. Your characters are drawn to the Life – so very, very natural & fresh – but as you beg me to be perfectly honest, I must confess I prefer P.& P.” -

Mrs. Carnick [?] – “All who think deeply & feel much will give the preference to Mansfield Park.”

W.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 constructed that I had not an idea til the end which of the two wd. marry Fanny, H.C. or Edmund. Mrs. Norris amused me particularly, & Sir Thos. is very clever, & his conduct proves admirably the defects of the modern system of education.” – W.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 Langhorne & W.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.

Alethia Bigg – “I have read MP & 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, and they are delightful in their way.”

Charles – did not like it near so well as P.&P. – thought it wanted Incident.

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. Lifroy – liked it, but thought it a mere Novel.

Mrs. Portal – admired it very much – objected chiefly 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 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 a 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.”

Mrs Pole wrote, “There is a particular satisfaction in reading all Miss A’s works – they are so evidently written by a Gentlewoman – most novelists fail & betray themselves in attempting to describe familiar scenes in high life, some little [?] escapes & shews that they are not experientially 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 [?] & doubt, & that everybody was desirous to attribute them to some of their own friends, or to some person of whom they thought highly.”

Update, Weds, June 18: An original version of this transcript had mis-transcribed the name "Cassandra" as "Cafiander," with appended question mark. The error has been amended.  

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.