I have likewise read one of Miss Austen’s works “Emma” – read it with interest and with just the degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable – anything like warmth or enthusiasm; anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all demonstration the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré and extravagant… she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood…’
—letter to W.S. Williams, April 12, 1850 (source)
Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say that you would have rather written “Pride and Prejudice” or “Tom Jones”, than any of the Waverley Novels? I had not seen “Pride and Prejudice” till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses. These observations will probably irritate you, but I shall run the risk.
—Letter to G.H. Lewes, January 12, 1848 (source)
Well, there you have it—the great Charlotte Brontë’s opinion of the great Jane Austen. I shudder to think what she would have said about Mansfield Park.
I found these excerpts in the Reading Experience Database, a project of the UK Open University to collect data on the reading experiences of British subjects from 1450 to 1945. Project researchers and volunteers are scouring letters, diaries, book margins, and other documents for comments by readers on their reading. They aren’t just interested in famous readers because the ultimate goal is to create a large database from which we can learn something about the reading habits of the British throughout history. Anyone can contribute by filling out an online form whenever you encounter a reference to reading that meets the project’s criteria (e.g. no fictional readers allowed!). They are also looking for more volunteers to take on specific readers or mine sources of their own. The most important thing is to spread the word so people know about the database and can add to it. It will be interesting to see what kind of research comes out of this and how it compares to what the blogosphere says about how we read today.