History of reading: An introduction to reading in the past
History of reading: An introduction to reading in the past

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History of reading: An introduction to reading in the past

3 Jane Austen’s readers

By Katie Halsey

The first time I read Jane Austen’s Emma, I was fifteen. Bored one day during the Christmas holidays, when the weather was dreadful and the television worse, I turned to my mother’s bookshelf. Her cheap paperback edition of Emma, with its cover showing a dark-haired beauty in a Regency-style dress, caught my eye among the cookery and gardening books, and I picked it up, idly flicking through the pages.

Like many a reader before and since, in that moment I was caught in a golden snare from which there was no escaping. I read that book, cover to cover, in twenty-four hours. Lost in Austen’s fictional world, I hardly knew where I really was. Hartfield and Donwell Abbey seemed more real to me than my own home; Emma Woodhouse, Mr Knightley, Frank Churchill, Harriet Smith, Mr Woodhouse and the Eltons infinitely more interesting than my own family. I couldn’t put into words what it was about the writing that appealed to me so strongly but I knew, on putting Emma down, that I’d both encountered something entirely new to me and somehow found a friend who understood me, who spoke my language and thought my thoughts; someone who had, in some way I couldn’t understand, become a part of myself. That feeling - self-centred, even solipsistic, though it was - changed my life. I am now a lecturer in English literature, and my specialist subject is not hard to guess. Looking back on that moment now, it makes me wonder how many other people have felt that shock of recognition when reading Jane Austen, that sense that a kindred spirit speaks to them across a divide of time and space.

So I embarked upon a short voyage of exploration through the UK RED site, my aim being to discover what readers over the 200 years since Austen’s novels were first published have thought of the books and their author. I searched for ‘Jane Austen’ in the ‘Author of the Text being Read’ category, and discovered a large number of records which gave me a variety of responses. Many readers did comment on a feeling of ‘friendship’ with either Austen or her characters.

Anne Thackeray Ritchie, for example, described Jane Austen as the ‘unknown friend who has charmed us so long – charmed away dull hours, created neighbours and companions for us in lonely places’. Her characters are, to Ritchie, ‘familiar old friends’, and ‘like living people out of our own acquaintance’ (UK RED: 31360). [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] Harriet Martineau similarly responded to Austen’s extraordinary gift of making her readers feel that they had ‘a score or two more of unrivalled intimate friends’ in her characters (UK RED: 9947).

Anne Thackeray Ritchie by Julia Margaret Cameron, albumen print, circa 1867
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Figure 7 Anne Thackeray Ritchie by Julia Margaret Cameron, albumen print, circa 1867

Princess Charlotte identified with Sense and Sensibility’s Marianne Dashwood, seeing in her ‘the same imprudence’ that characterised herself (UK RED: 146). Katherine Mansfield neatly described the peculiar quality of intimacy between Austen and her readers, encapsulating my own feeling by suggesting that ‘every admirer of the novels’ feels he or she has become the ‘secret friend’ of the author (UK RED: 31359).

The Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, by George Dawe, 1817, oil on canvas
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Figure 8 The Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, by George Dawe, 1817, oil on canvas

The American writer Mark Twain, on the other hand, was clearly very far from being an admirer of, or friend to, Austen’s novels. ‘Every time I read Pride and Prejudice’, Twain said, ‘I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone’ (UK RED: 8031).

Figure 9 Mark Twain, by London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, albumen carte-de-visite, 1870s
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Figure 9 Mark Twain, by London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, albumen carte-de-visite, 1870s

Another writer, Charlotte Brontë, damned my favourite with faint praise: ‘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 or suitable – anything like warmth or enthusiasm ... is utterly out of place in commending these works’ (UK RED: 8029). At this point, I wondered which books did stir Charlotte Brontë to ‘warmth and enthusiasm’ – was there any way of finding out whether she had felt those moments of recognition and intimacy with a different kind of writer? A brief further search of RED ensued, this time for ‘Charlotte Brontë’ as a reader. I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that Brontë rarely did express her views of books with much warmth. At least she hadn’t called Jane Austen ‘both turgid and feeble’, as she had a tale by Eliza Lynn Linton (UK RED: 4379), or, worse, ‘trebly wrong’, her impression of Thackeray’s lectures on Fielding (UK RED: 4412). She did describe the experience of reading Harriet Martineau’s Deerbrook (1839) as ‘a new and keen pleasure’ (UK RED: 9773), and George Sand’s Consuelo (1842-3) as ‘sagacious and profound’ (UK RED: 8028), but in general, Charlotte Brontë’s comments on Jane Austen show more, rather than less, ‘enthusiasm’ than those on other authors.

In my voyage through the UK RED site I have wandered a little distance from my original question (what readers have thought of Austen over 200 years). In doing so I have begun to unearth some valuable comparative material about the relationships between readers and their books more broadly, and to question my preconceptions and assumptions. Whether driven by personal interest or a particular research agenda, serendipitous discoveries, interesting connections, and unusual findings tend to make the researcher challenge more linear kinds of thinking about both history and literature. Perhaps, for all of us who use the RED site, new seas and uncharted waters lie ahead.

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