Browsing in Basement Books on my way home from UTS yesterday, I came across “Poisoned Pens” edited by Gary Dexter, “Literary invective from Amis to Zola”. It was AU$7.95 (original price AU$24.95) for the hardback, and the quote in the dust jacket sealed the deal. If you’re really keen to have a read though, the entire thing is on Google Books here for you to peruse (especially have a read of the introduction) – and you can do a quick search for Jane Austen to see all the snippets I will be discussing below.
“Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the head with her own shin bone” -Mark Twain on Jane Austen, it read. Amusing, giggle-worthy words and I decided to buy the book for hopes of more Austen tidbits.
It’s a terrific book. It is a compilation of authors’ bad reactions to one another, with hilarious but insightful comments. While at times bland if you have not read the author being spoken about, and there isn’t a huge amount of context provided (the footnotes are, however, fantastic) the sense of antagonism is thrilling and it gives a weirdly exciting kick to read some of the top authors being kicked down by their peers. We’re so used to reading sucking up, that this is largely entertaining. Sick, but intriguingly so.
“Strangely, it seems that when writers are attacking other writers they are often performing at their very best…” Dexter points out, and he seems to be fairly on the ball with this one. Some of the comments had me shrieking with laughter, for instance: when Martin Amis speaks on Cervates he says “While clearly an impregnable masterpiece, Don Quixote suffers from one fairly serious flaw – that of downright unreadability … The book bristles with beauties, charm, sublime comedy; it is also, for long stretches (approaching about 75 per cent of the whole), inhumanly dull.” or Thomas Babington Macaulay on Socrates “The more I read about him, the less I wonder why they poisoned him.” or, my favourite, Cyril Connolly on George Orwell “He would not blow his nose without moralizing on conditions in the handkerchief industry” (which is probably why I love Orwell, but I still laughed).
I found myself agreeing and disagreeing in equal measures, even about authors that I particularly like. There were also more than a few “WTF” moments. Arguments about plagiarism, being the devil or just being “a tiresome, affected sod” (Noel Coward on Oscar Wilde). This is juicier than Perez Hilton.
Divided into sections: “Contempt for the Classics”, “Disgust for the Augustans”, “Rancour for the Romantics”, “Venom for the Victorians” and “Malice for the Moderns”, it is the third, the Romantics, where we can find Jane Austen.
I can picture Austen quipping about other authors in private, but only just. Funnily enough, Jane does not criticise other writers in this collection and as far as we know she never moved in literary circles particularly much nor are any distasteful views of other authors present in what remains of her letters today. Though this certainly doesn’t stop other people from being particularly vocal about her.
“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, high-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.” Charlotte Bronte.
That is some pretty serious stuff. Certainly, some of it is true, and yet does it detract from what Austen has written as much as Bronte implies? Personally, I don’t think so.
However Ralph Waldo Emerson thinks the same: “I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seems to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit or knowledge of the world … The one problem in the mind of the writer in both stories I have read, Persuasion, and Pride and Prejudice, is marriageableness … Suicide is more respectable.” Harsh words, and while I found myself wincing a little I was definitely interested. How can anyone be prompted to say this of our beloved Jane?
“Whatever ‘Bloomsbury’ may think of Jane Austen, she is not by any means one of my favourites. I’d give all she ever wrote for half what the Brontes wrote – if my reason did not compel me to see that she is a magnificent artist” says Virgina Woolf on the matter. She also notes Jane Austen on page 169 when quoted about Forster, mentioning Austen’s ability to represent lifelike subject matter, just not have the impulses of a poet.
D. H. Lawrence, and some more Mark Twain, are also included in the little collection.
Some writers, it seems, are quoted again and again against other authors (one can’t help but imagine that they weren’t terrifically popular), for instance: Virgina Woolf, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Dame Edith Sitwell, George Orwell, Alexander Pope, Anthony Trollope, Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Johnson, George Eliot and Thomas De Quincey are several of the many that have more than enough to say about other people in their field. Many of the quotations are from academic journals, diaries and letters, however some are from published reviews, essays and newspaper articles.
A truly marvellous glimpse at the rivalries and fond bickering between authors. But does any of it have truth when it comes to Jane, and Pride and Prejudice? Or are the criticisms void?