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Sunday, 22 May 2016

Jane Austen's Defence of Novels

Jane Austen’s famous defence of novels in Northanger Abbey was timely. In Robert Bage's Hermsprong (1796), a curate wonders whether it is worth his while to write a novel, as they were at the time considered as the lowest of all human productions.

We know from her letters that Jane was proud her family resisted the contemporary tendency to disparage fiction. She wrote: I have received a very civil note from Mrs Martin requesting my name as a Subscriber to her Library ... As an inducement to subscribe Mrs Martin tells us that her Collection is not to consist only of Novels, but of every kind of Literature &c &c – She might have spared this pretension to our family, who are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so.

The point is elaborated in Northanger Abbey, where Jane fills half of Chapter 5 with a homage to novelists and their art. It is an interpolation by the author in the manner of Fielding. She regrets that other novelists do not depict their heroines as reading novels with pleasure, and thereby add to the feeling that novels are worthless. She blames reviewers, who are more ready to praise someone who edits a thin anthology of poetry and prose than someone who writes a novel which has only genius, wit and taste to recommend it. Young ladies, taken by surprise while reading a novel, will quickly hide the book, saying, Oh! it is only a novel! They mean, says Jane, it is 

only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.

With the passage of time, Jane's comments have been given gravitas by their aptness to her own novels.

However, even in this ‘Defence’, Jane may be enjoying a joke. The terms she uses are deliberately exaggerated. She may have been suggesting that contemporary novelists were puffing themselves up with claims about their art, when in fact most of the novels fell far short of such claims. When she was orginally writing this novel, there had recently been a correspondence in The Monthly Magazine: a contributor had written: ‘The business of familiar narrative should be to describe life and manners in real or probable situations, to delineate the human mind in its endless varieties, to develop the heart, to paint the passions, to trace the springs of action, to interest the imagination, exercise the affections, and awaken the powers of the mind!

There is more than an echo of this (probably an intentional parody) in Jane’s words.