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Jane Austen and the Oliphant in the Room

by Alice Chandler, author of Aunt Jane and the Missing Cherry Pie

I do apologize for the pun in my title.

The Olifant I refer to is Margaret Olifant (1828-1894), a prolific and popular nineteenth-century writer and said to be Queen Victoria’s favorite novelist. The reason that I figuratively place Olifant in the same room as Jane Austen is that she was such a trenchant and perceptive critic of Austen’s work.

Austen was not always fortunate in her woman critics during the century after her death. While famous male authors lauded her and often compared her work to Shakespeare’s, some notable women writers were very critical of her writing.  Her contemporary Mary Mitford, whose mother actually knew Jane Austen, was well-known in her time for her charming short novel, Our Village. Mitford disliked Elizabeth Bennett as a character and criticized “the entire want of taste that could produce so pert, so worldly a heroine as the beloved of such a man as Darcy.”

 Charlotte Bronte was particularly negative about Austen. She compared her writing to a “daguerrotyped portrait of a commonplace face” and complained that her work “lacked poetry.” She thought that Austen’s novels delineated “the surface… lives of genteel English people.”  But they ignored “what throbs fast and full… what the blood rushes through… the unseen seat of life.” Or to put it more simply, her books had no heart. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was similarly, though less violently, critical of Austen’s passionlessness. She found her novels perfect but shallow.

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Jane Austen For Children: Aunt Jane and the Missing Cherry Pie

Aunt Jane and the Missing Cherry Pie

Aunt Jane and the Missing Cherry Pieby Alice Chandler

How did I come to write Aunt Jane and the Missing Cherry Pie: A Jane Austen Mystery for Children?

Jane Austen has been part of my life for almost all of my life, ever since my parents took me to see the 1940 movie version of Pride and Prejudice when I was nine. They must have wondered if I was old enough to enjoy the movie. But I loved it—so much so that my mother took me to buy a copy of the book the very next day. I still have that much-worn, much-loved volume. Its thick pre-war paper has not yellowed over time. But the fake-leather, gold-tooled binding is frayed and showing its age.

My favorite chapter as a child–the one that I read, and reread, and read again—was the scene in which Elizabeth rejects Darcy’s first marriage proposal. Was it because I was envisaging the darkly handsome Laurence Olivier of the 1940 movie as Mr. Darcy, or because I subconsciously wanted to be as archly clever as Elizabeth? I know that I tried to model my personality on Elizabeth Bennet—a daunting task for a nine-year-old.

Continue reading Jane Austen For Children: Aunt Jane and the Missing Cherry Pie