Who is your favorite American novelist?

Jane Austen and the Oliphant in the room

by Alice Chandler, author of Aunt Jane and the missing cherry cakeI apologize for the pun in my title. The Olifant I am referring to is Margaret Olifant (1828-1894), a prolific and popular 19th century writer who is considered Queen Victoria's favorite novelist. The reason I'm figuratively placing Olifant in the same room as Jane Austen is because she was such an astute and empathetic critic of Austen's work. Austen was not always lucky with her critics in the century after her death. While famous male authors praised 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 known in her day for her charming short novel. Our city. Mitford disliked Elizabeth Bennett as a character and criticized "all the lack of taste that could produce such a pert, as worldly heroine as the mistress of a man like Darcy". Charlotte Bronte was particularly negative about Austen. She compared her writing to a "daguerrotyped portrait of an everyday face" and complained that her work "lacked poetry". She thought that Austen's novels were "the surface ... the lives of fine English people". But they ignored "what is beating fast and full ... what the blood flows through ... the invisible seat of life." In simpler terms, her books had no heart. Elizabeth Barrett Browning similarly, if less violently, criticized Austen's lack of passion. She found her novels perfect but flat. Which was Jane Austen's more accurate view? Was she worldly, tasteless, and pert? Or flat, bloodless and commonplace? Or was she, as other critics put it, perhaps too refined and posh? Of all the nineteenth-century critics, Margaret Oliphant seems to me to be spot on - to see and admire Austen's delicacy, but also to see its accuracy. Jane Austen of Mrs. Olifant is far from having no heart. But her Jane Austen has one too Understanding-a mind that can bridge the seeming Differentiation between feminine and truthful. As Olifant puts it so precisely: "Nothing but a spirit of this subtle, delicate, speculative temperament could have brought before our eyes images that are at the same time so astute ... so gently feminine and polite and so ruthlessly true." Oliphant's description of the hypocritical Mr. Collins - the one who wants to marry Elizabeth Pride and prejudice-is almost as good as Austen's. As Oliphant describes him (in capital letters), he was a figure of "undisturbed COMPLACEMENT ... BIG ... TOMB AND POMPOUS, WRAPPING IN A CLOUD OF SOLEMN VANITY, SERVILITY, STUPIDITY AND SPITEFULNESS". However, Olifant's reflections on Jane Austen go deeper than pure literary criticism. Her further comments on the novels reflect the same insights into the lives of women that Anne Elliott expresses at the end of Conviction, when she compares men's opportunities for courageous and outward action to the patient (and passive) ability of women only "to love the longest ... when hope is gone". Olifant understands Anne Elliott's patience - maybe the novel should have been called Patience Instead of Conviction-but refers much more clearly to the persistent impotence of women both in Austen and in her own era. Your Jane Austen has one:
fine streak of female cynicism ... very different from the rude and brutal man [version] ... It is the gentle and silent disbelief of a viewer who has to look at a lot of things without showing any external dissatisfaction and who has learned to give up on all moral ones Classification of social systems… She is not surprised or offended…. when people make it clear how selfish and selfish they are, or when they wreak social cruelty without realizing it. She is essentially feminine in a world where women can only watch every now and then and do nothing ... [other than say] to make the best of things and wonder why human beings should be such fools ... So are the foundations on which Jane Austen's cynicism is based.
How Olifant himself coped with the limitations of women's freedom of action is a sad and interesting story in itself. Born into a middle-class Scottish family in 1828, she began writing at 16, published her first novel at 21, married her cousin at 24, and widowed at 31. Three of her six children died in infancy, and she sadly survived the other three children too. In contrast to Jane Austen, who only signed her works as “by a lady”, Olifant gave her name her name and could not have survived financially without her. She has published more than two dozen novels, nearly 70 short stories, and numerous articles, biographies, and historical and critical works. Her views on the role of women in society evolved greatly over the course of her life and were likely influenced by the fact that she had to earn a living as a writer. She began, as she wrote in an article from the 1850s, with the belief that "God ... has designated one sphere and one type of work for a man and another for women." But in her later work, unmarried female characters like Miss Marjoribanks in the novel of the same name take on the responsibility of a man and become the dominant characters in local society. Your views on the indissolubility of marriage may have changed over time. Though Olifant is strongly opposed to a divorce in her 1850s writings, her 1883 novel The Lady Lindores ends with the heroine rightly delighting that her wicked and abusive husband is dead. How Jane Austen's views might have changed over time is, of course, an unanswerable question. conviction shows that she deals more explicitly with issues of social class and field of activity of women than her previous novels. But that's another question that even Margaret Olifant couldn't answer.
Alice Chandler is the author of Aunt Jane and the Missing Cherry Pie: A Jane Austen Secret for Children, available here


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