Mark Twain on Jane Austen

Am reading ‘Who is Mark Twain’, a brilliant collection of personal papers that Mark Twain left behind. The one on Austen is a crack-up. Here is an excerpt:
Does Jane Austen do her work too remorselessly well? For me, I mean? Maybe that is it. She makes me detest all her people, without reserve.
Is that her intention? It is not believable. Then is it her purpose to make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters? That could be. That would be high art. It would be worth while, too. Some day I will examine the other end of her books and see.
All the great critics praise her art generously. To start with, they say she draws her characters with sharp discrimination and a sure touch. I believe that this is true, as long as the characters she is drawing are odious…
…Old Mrs. Ferrars is an execrable gentlewoman and unsurpassably coarse and offensive.
Mr. Dashwood, gentleman, is a coarse and cold-hearted money-worshipper; his Fanny is coarse and mean. Neither of them ever says or does a pleasant thing.
Mr. Robert Ferrars, gentleman, is coarse, is a snob, and an all-round offensive person.Mr. Palmer, gentleman, is coarse, brute-mannered, and probably an ass, though we cannot tell, yet, because he cloaks himself behind silences which are not often broken by speeches that contain material enough to construct an analysis out of.
His wife, lady, is coarse and silly.
Lucy Steele’s sister is coarse, foolish, and disagreeable.
Did you see how her characters drawn with sharp discriminaton are all ‘coarse’?

7 thoughts on “Mark Twain on Jane Austen

  1. Hemant/Manish, if you read more Austen, you will see that she just takes two people and rotates them around in all her stories under different names. A lot of her fans say that it must have been remarkable to write such novels at the time she did. I find it amusing to use that yardstick for judgement. Gogol and Pushkin wrote way before, coming from less literary spaces.
    Twain has a sharp way of putting things. is allowing free subscription of ‘WHo is Mark Twain’ – a collection of Twain’s personal letters. Worthwhile to invest time in reading a mail-length entry everyday.


  2. Hello Madhuri, first time here and this was such a good post. Marked Twain's personal letters for reading.

    And I fall into the Jane Austen fan category. You are right about the similarity of her many characters. The main thing about Austen is that her breadth and scope were very narrow because she only wrote of the world she was intimately familiar with. Somebody once described her art as chipping away on a tiny piece of ivory. The beauty is in the fine details – the different ways of writing about 'coarse' if you will.


  3. Hi Lavanya,
    Welcome to the site. I quite liked the expression chipping away at a piece of ivory. I have read a few of Austen's work in school, and couple even later. I found little to be enthused about as she wrote a lot and repeatedly about her 'small' world, in what appeared to me the same flavor without variation. Perhaps I missed the finer distinction.


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