Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Jane Austen

Jane Austen: Two Centuries of Criticism

Laurence W. Mazzeno
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 312
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Jane Austen
    Book Description:

    Among the most important English novelists, Jane Austen is unusual because she is esteemed not only by academics but by the reading public. Her novels continue to sell well, and films adapted from her works enjoy strong box-office success. The trajectory of Austen criticism is intriguing, especially when one compares it to that of other nineteenth-century English writers. At least partly because she was a woman in the early nineteenth century, she was long neglected by critics, hardly considered a major figure in English literature until well into the twentieth century, a hundred years after her death. But consequently she escaped the reaction against Victorianism that did so much to hurt the reputation of Dickens, Tennyson, Arnold, and others. How she rose to prominence among academic critics - and has retained her position through the constant shifting of academic and critical trends - is a story worth telling, as it suggests not only something about Austen's artistry but also about how changes in critical perspective can radically alter a writer's reputation. Laurence W. Mazzeno is President Emeritus of Alvernia University, Reading, Pennsylvania.

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-767-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-11)

    How surprised, and how amused, Jane Austen would have been if she could have known what an immense number of critical works would be devoted to her,” writes Jane Aiken Hodge in her 1972 biography of the novelist. “‘Who, me?’ one imagines her saying, with one of her occasional grammatical lapses. ‘All those books . . .’” (15).

    All those books, indeed.

    As Claire Tomalin observed in 1997, “Austen has become very big business” (25). Contemporary interest in her rivals that which Britons over the years have shown for members of the Royal Family, or which contemporary fans exhibit toward...

  5. 1: Becoming England’s Jane, 1811–1918
    (pp. 12-42)

    It may seem unusual to be covering an entire century of criticism in a single chapter, but I think there are good reasons for this approach. First, until after the First World War, much of what was published about Austen’s fiction was more along the lines of appreciation rather than critical commentary. Some of this material is important, of course, in that opinions formed during the nineteenth century influenced judgments made by critics in the twentieth, especially those writing before the rise of New Criticism as a dominant critical methodology. Second, and perhaps even more important, this field has been...

  6. 2: Modernist, Humanist, and New Critical Approaches, 1918–1948
    (pp. 43-65)

    In Rudyard Kipling’s “The Janeites” (1924), a humorous fictional account of Austen’s influence, a group of soldiers discusses the comfort they get from reading her work. “It’s a very select society,” one of them remarks, “an’ you’ve got to be a Janeite in your ’eart, or you won’t have any success” in understanding her. “You take it from me,” the soldier says, “there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place” (Debits and Credits, 173). That Austen could appeal to soldiers in the trenches during the First World War as well as to women and schoolgirls speaks...

  7. 3: The Zenith of Formalist and Humanist Criticism, 1949–1974
    (pp. 66-98)

    By the end of the Second World War, Austen’s reputation had become firmly established, so it is not surprising to find a marked increase in the study of her fiction during the next thirty years. Concurrently, during the postwar period New Criticism became a dominant mode of critical inquiry for examining fiction. Applying techniques of New Criticism to realist fiction had always posed something of a challenge, since the assumption was that the approach worked better when applied to lyric poetry than for the more socially connected genre of the novel. A look at essays by the respected American critic...

  8. 4: The Austen Bicentenary, 1975 (and Beyond)
    (pp. 99-106)

    By 1975, the two hundredth anniversary of her birth, Austen had become a major figure in the canon of English literature. As one might expect, the bicentennial was a time of great activity among critics. Individual articles, special issues of journals, and several books appeared offering new readings of individual works, assessments of Austen’s reputation, and speculations about the future of Austen studies. Most significantly, though, one can see in work published coincident with the bicentenary that the division over Austen’s politics that had begun during the 1930s had become the principal focus of critics by this time. A quick...

  9. 5: The Feminist Revolution in Austen Studies, 1976–1990
    (pp. 107-130)

    Anyone examining the history of critical studies in the English-speaking world during the past half-century would quickly recognize the significant influence feminism has had in revising opinions of both male and female writers. However, looking back at the 1960s and 1970s in 2010 one might concede that “feminism” is but one of many new critical lenses through which the work of novelists have been examined. Hence, I think it would be permissible in most studies such as this one to include “Feminist Criticism” as a subheading under “New Theoretical Approaches.” But in the case of Austen, the importance of feminist...

  10. 6: Austen among the Theorists, 1976–1990
    (pp. 131-146)

    It should come as no surprise to find a sharp spike in Austen criticism beginning in the 1970s even without the significant contributions of feminist critics. In fact, the explosion of feminist criticism may have masked advances in Austen studies brought about by critics approaching her work from a variety of other new approaches. Between 1970 and 1990 more than three hundred doctoral candidates wrote dissertations either focused exclusively on Austen or containing large sections devoted to analysis of her work. While most commentary produced after the mid-1970s reflects the influence of feminists, many practitioners of other new critical theories...

  11. 7: Traditional Criticism, 1976–1990
    (pp. 147-173)

    The explosion of criticism of Austen’s fiction based on new approaches to literary study may have pushed more traditional forms of criticism to the side, but by no means did these disappear from the critical landscape. Textual studies, biographies, and various forms of “old-style” formal and aesthetic analysis, as well as a healthy collection of humanist commentaries, continued to be published during the 1970s and 1980s. Many of these, however, reflect the influence of recent theoretical studies, especially feminist critiques of Austen’s fiction, even when that debt is unacknowledged. Only occasionally after 1970 does a critic willfully ignore, or specifically...

  12. 8: Theory-Based Criticism of Austen, 1991–2008
    (pp. 174-209)

    Criticism of Austen at the end of the twentieth century and for the first decade of the twenty-first continued to follow patterns established during the “revolutionary” 1970s and 1980s. Feminism continued as the dominant ideology informing Austen criticism during the 1990s and 2000s, but other critical methodologies gained in prominence and influence in shaping the novelist’s reputation and aiding in understanding her fiction. While the preponderance of criticism written after 1990 reflects new theoretical methodologies, work by critics who practiced what had come to be called traditional methods of inquiry was also published routinely. In fact, however, a good bit...

  13. 9: Traditional Approaches to Austen, 1991–2008
    (pp. 210-237)

    It may be best to begin this chapter with a cautionary note. It is almost impossible to find any criticism of Austen written after the 1970s that does not somehow take into account the work of theorists, especially feminist critics and those who have made great advances in placing Austen’s fiction in its historical and cultural context. Nevertheless, there continue to be studies published that, in the main, use methodologies developed in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth — critical biographies, influence studies, and comparative analyses, to name a few. The books and essays discussed below...

  14. 10: Speculations on the Future
    (pp. 238-244)

    As we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century and approach the bicentennial of the publication of Austen’s first novel, there seems to be no letup in the outpouring of commentary on Austen and her fiction. Articles on Austen are as likely to be found today in Critical Inquiry or Studies in English Literature as they are in Eighteenth-Century Studies or Victorians Institute Journal. Perhaps the best evidence of the continuing interest can be seen by looking at the activities of the Jane Austen Society of North America. In 1981 JASNA, which boasts a healthy mix of American and...

  15. Works by Jane Austen
    (pp. 245-246)
  16. Chronological List of Works Cited
    (pp. 247-288)
  17. Index
    (pp. 289-302)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 303-303)