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.