At the time Jane Austen’s novels were published – between 1811 and 1818 – English literature was not part of any academic curriculum. In addition, fiction was under strenuous attack. Certain religious and political groups felt novels had the power to make so-called immoral characters so interesting that young readers would identify with them; these groups also considered novels to be of little practical use. Even Coleridge, certainly no literary reactionary, spoke for many when the asserted that “novel-reading occasions the destruction of the mind’s powers.”
These attitudes towards novels help explain why Austen received little attention from early nineteenth-century literary cities. (In any case a novelist published anonymously, as Austen was, would not be likely to receive much critical attention.) The literary response that was accorded to her, however, was often as incisive as twentieth-century criticism. In his attack in 1816 on novelistic portrayals “outside of ordinary experience,” for example. Scott made an insightful remark about the merits of Austen’s fiction.
Her novels, wrote Scott, “present to the reader an accurate and exact picture of ordinary everyday people and places, reminiscent of seventeenth-century Flemish painting.” Scott did not use the word ‘realism’, but he undoubtedly used a standard of realistic probability in judging novels. The critic Whately did not use the word ‘realism’, either, but he expressed agreement with Scott’s evaluation, and went on to suggest the possibilities for moral instruction in what we have called Austen’s ‘realistic method’ her characters, wrote Whately, are persuasive agents for moral truth since they are ordinary persons “so clearly evoked that we feel an interest in their fate as if it were our own.” Moral instruction, explained Whately, is more likely to be effective when conveyed through recongnizably human and interesting characters than when imparted by a sermonizing narrator. Whitely especially praised Austen’s ability to create character who “mingle goodness and villainy, weakness and virtue, as in life they are always mingled. “Whitely concluded his remarks by comparing Austen’s art of characterization to Dickens’, starting his preference for Austen’s.
Yet, the response of nineteenth-century literary critics to Austen was not always so laudatory, and often anticipated the reservations of twentieth-century literary critics. An example of such a response was Lewes complaint in 1859 that Austen’s range of subject and characters was too narrow. Praising her verisimilitude, Lewes added that, nonetheless her focus was too often only upon the unlofty and the commonplace. (Twentieth-century Marxists, on the other hand, were to complain about what they saw as her exclusive emphasis on a lofty upper middle class.) In any case having being rescued by literary critics from neglect and indeed gradually lionized by them, Austen steadily reached, by the mid-nineteenth century, the enviable pinnacle of being considered controversial.
According to the passage, the lack of critical attention paid to Jane Austen can be explained by all of the following nineteenth-century attitudes towards the novel