‘Also read again and for the third time at least Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow wow strain I can do myself like any now going but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary common-place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early.’ Sir Walter Scott, journal entry March 1826
Whiled away the evening over one of Miss Austen’s Novels… There is a truth of painting in her writings which always delights me. Sir Walter Scott, journal entry September 1827
Good morrow, fair readers.
This month we shall explore the mutual admiration – even if our favourite author tinged her respect with her typical humour – between Sir Walter Scott and Miss Jane Austen.
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and Jane Austen (1775-1817) were contemporaries, not only in life, but in publication. Scott, who as not elevated to the baronetage until 1820 (for finding the crown jewels of Scotland in 1818 – but that’s another story), published poetry and plays beginning in 1796, the same year Austen began Elinor and Marianne (which was revised and published 15 years later as Sense and Sensibility). Scott branched into short stories in 1811 and his first novel, Waverly, debuted in 1814, the same year as our beloved Austen’s Mansfield Park.
In a September 1814 letter to her niece, Anna Austen, Aunt Jane wrote: Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones.—It is not fair.—He has Fame and Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths.—I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it—but I fear I must.
If you have never read Jane Austen’s letters, I suggest you do. They are full of the snark you see above and always make me smile. I do not take seriously at all that Jane did ‘not like him’ [Scott] for references to his works weave their way throughout her letters and even into Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and the unfinished Sanditon.
As much as Jane Austen admired Scott, she did not try to emulate him, even for profit. In an 1815 exchange of letters with the Prince Regent’s Librarian James Stanier Clarke, after a visit to Carlton House library, she is likely referring to Scott when she wrote: I am fully sensible than an Historical Romance founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg might be more to the purpose of Profit or Popularity, than such pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages as I deal in – but I could no more write a Romance than an Epic Poem. – I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other notice than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I finished the first Chapter.- No – I must keep to my own style & go on in my own Way.
In their day, Austen’s and Scott’s novels were criticised for not teaching a moral, though Scott somewhat redeemed himself by “teaching” history. Reviews – most of which are in letters or journal entries – use words like “delightful” and “refreshing” to describe our dear Jane’s novels, but bemoan a lack of dramatic romance and adventure. Over the last five years, I have read dozens of novels, poetry, essays, and histories of the long eighteenth-century (1688-1815), I have come to believe that it is the very lack of each of these three formerly necessary ingredients of a novel which makes Jane Austen the first truly modern novelist.
These lacks, unpopular with her contemporary readers, have meant that in the latter half of the twentieth- and first quarter of the twenty-first-centuries, Jane Austen’s novels and popularity have soared to new heights whilst the other, more popular novels of her day, are fading into obscurity. Even the great Sir Walter Scott, the author against whom all other novelists were compared, is now eclipsed by the very author he turned to for both comfort and entertainment.
Considering how well he thought of our dear Jane, I don’t think Mr Scott would mind.