“Whenever I take up Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, I feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven. . . . Jane Austen . . .makes me detest all her people, without reserve. —from Mark Twain’s “Jane Austen,” an unpublished, incomplete fragment
Mark Twain expressed unparalleled hatred of Jane Austen, defining an ideal library as one with none of her books on its shelves. “Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it,” Twain insisted in Following the Equator. Did Mark Twain genuinely detest Jane Austen? Or was the bushy-eyebrowed, irascible Twain merely posing?
In his extensive correspondence with fellow author and critic William Dean Howells, Mark Twain seemed to enjoy venting his literary spleen on Jane Austen precisely because he knew her to be Howells’ favorite author, In 1909 Twain wrote that “Jane Austin” [sic] was “entirely impossible” and that he could not read her prose even if paid a salary to do so. Howells notes in My Mark Twain (1910) that in fiction Twain “had certain distinct loathings; there were certain authors whose names he seemed not so much to pronounce as to spew out of his mouth.”
His prime abhorrence was my dear and honored prime favorite, Jane Austen. He once said to me, I suppose after he had been reading some of my unsparing praise of her—I am always praising her, “You seem to think that woman could write,” and he forbore withering me with his scorn, apparently because we had been friends so long and he more pitied than hated me for my bad taste.
Rather than pitying Twain when he was sick, Howells threatened to come and read Pride and Prejudice to him.
Twain marveled that Austen had been allowed to die a natural death rather than face execution for her literary crimes. “Her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy,” Twain observed, apparently viewing an Austen novel as a book which “once you put it down you simply can’t pick it up.” Yet one becomes suspicious of Twain’s supposedly frenzied loathing when he confesses that he likes to reread Jane Austen’s novels just so he can hate them all over again. In a letter to Joseph Twichell in 1898, Twain fumed, “I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read “Pride and Prejudice” I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
Twain obviously enjoyed taking verbal pot shots at “classic” authors. In his famous essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” Twain lambasted Cooper for scoring “114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115” and committing “a crime against the language” through his stilted diction and sentimentalized characterizations. Perhaps Twain planned a similar essay to pillory the much-praised Jane Austen: an incomplete and unpublished fragment called “Jane Austen” is now housed in the Mark Twain papers at the University of California-Berkeley Library. Why might Twain have become uncomfortable with a vitriolic attack on the “impossible Jane Austin”? Could it be that he found too much common ground?
“Jane Austen” opens with the unforgettable image of the uncouth Twain entering the polite parlor-room society of Jane Austen’s novels:
Whenever I take up “Pride and Prejudice” or “Sense and Sensibility,” I feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven. I mean, I feel as he would probably feel, would almost certainly feel. I am quite sure I know what his sensations would be—and his private comments. He would be certain to curl his lip, as those ultra-good Presbyterians went filing self-complacently along. Be- cause he considered himself better than they? Not at all. They would not be to his taste—that is all.
Twain’s barkeeper has no taste for the stifling, “ultra-good” (and ultra self-righteous) world of Sunday school.
Like Huckleberry Finn dying to escape the parlor and head out for the river, Twain imagines his cantankerous barkeeper unable to abide the polite ladies and gentlemen in Austen’s novels. “He would not want to associate with them; he would not like their gait, their style, their ways; their talk would enrage him.”
At the same time, Twain’s barkeeper suspects his lack of appreciation might reveal some cultural failing.
Yet he would be secretly ashamed of himself, secretly angry with himself that this was so. Why? Because barkeepers are like everybody else—it humiliates them to find that there are fine things, great things, admirable things, which others can perceive and they can’t.
The barkeeper would “brace up” for another attack on Austen’s novels:
What would the barkeeper do next? Give it up and go down below, where his own kind are? No, not yet. He would wander out into the solitudes and take a long rest; then he would brace up and attack the proposition again, saying to himself, “Others have found the secret charm that is in those Presbyterians, therefore it must be a fact, and not an illusion; I will try again; what those others have found, I can find.”
So he tries again. Does he succeed? No. Because he has not educated his taste yet, he has not reformed his taste, his taste remains as it was before, and the thing involved is purely a matter of taste: he will not be able to enjoy those Presbyterians until he has learned to admire them.
Although Twain notes “Jane Austen’s characters are not Presbyterians, and I am not a barkeeper,” he deleted that passage from the essay, perhaps not wanting to relinquish the parallels he saw between himself and his low-brow but persevering barkeeper.
Just as Twain had quipped that it is easy to quit smoking—he had done it many times—so he jokes in “Jane Austen” that Austen’s novels are easier to start than to finish:
Does Jane Austen do her work too remorselessly well? For me, I mean? Maybe that is it. She makes me detest all her people, without reserve. Is that her intention? It is not believable. Then is it her purpose to make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters? That could be. That would be high art. It would be worth while, too. Some day I will examine the other end of her books and see.
Twain admits that “All the great critics praise her art generously” for her supposed gift of characterization. “To start with, they say she draws her characters with sharp discrimination and a sure touch. I believe that this is true, as long as the characters she is drawing are odious.”
Then the essay takes a sudden turn, switching from general anti-Austen invective to a consideration of Sense and Sensibility— or rather, the beginning of Sense and Sensibility! Twain remarks, “I am doing “Sense and Sensibility” now, and have accomplished the first third of it—not for the first time.” He then parses the characters one by one, demonstrating surprising perception. He starts with Marianne Dashwood, the emotional heroine with greater sensibility than sense:
To my mind, Marianne is not attractive; I am sure I should not care for her, in actual life. I suppose she was intended to be unattractive.
Indeed, Twain and Austen share a discomfort with unbridled sentimentality. Austen describes Marianne as “eager in everything,” possessing an “excess of. . .sensibility” in which “her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation.” When upset, Marianne “court[s] misery” and wallows in her grief, “seeking increase of wretchedness in every reflection that could afford it” and indulging in “melancholy remembrances.” “I must feel—I must be wretched,” Marianne gushes in her “effusion of sorrow” and “nourishment of grief,” perhaps foreshadowing Twain’s Emmeline Grangerford, the young poet of Huckleberry Finn who “could write about anything you
choose to give her to write about, just so it was sadful.” Like Twain, Austen mocked heroines too busy heaving their bosoms to act rationally. “One fatal swoon has cost me my Life,” exclaims one hyperventilating heroine of a burlesque Austen wrote as a teenager, “Beware of swoons, Dear Laura . . . Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint.” Because Marianne of Sense and Sensibility waxes poetic and melancholic (“And you, ye well-known trees!”), she has little time to help others around her—or herself.
Twain then turns his withering gaze on Marianne’s sensible older sister, Elinor, and the man she will eventually marry, Edward Ferrars.
Edward Ferrars has fallen in love with Elinor, and she with him; the justification of this may develop later, but thus far there is no way to account for it; for, thus far, Elinor is a wax figure and Edward a shadow, and how could such manufactures as these warm up and feel a passion.
Twain correctly notes that both Edward and Elinor are reserved in nature, governing their emotions rather than wearing them openly, like Marianne. Even Elinor admits of Edward, “There was, at times, a want of spirits about him,”
A comparison of a typical Edward Ferrars sentence with one of Huck Finn’s may shed light on Twain’s coldness toward Austen’s “hero”:
Edward: “You have not been able, then, to bring your sister over to your plan of general civility.”
Huck: “I clumb up the shed . . . and I was dog-tired.”
Twain not surprisingly considered the Oxford-educated mother-dominated Edward Ferrars a milquetoast.
Twain’s essay continues his analysis of Edward and his relationships:
Edward is an unpleasant shadow, because he has discarded his harmless waxwork and engaged himself to Lucy Steele, who is coarse, ignorant, vicious, brainless, heartless, a flatterer, a sneak— and is described by the supplanted waxwork as being “a woman superior in person and understanding to half her sex;” and “time and habit will teach Edward to forget that he ever thought another superior to her.” Elinor knows Lucy quite well. Are those sentimental falsities put into her mouth to make us think she is a noble and magnanimous waxwork, and thus exalt her in our estimation? And do they do it?
Here suspicion turns to surmise. Although Twain had boasted earlier in “Jane Austen” that he was doing “the first third” of Sense and Sensibility and not for the first time, he quotes here from the final third of her three-volume novel.
Was Mark Twain a closet Janeite, a fake who read and appreciated far more of Jane Austen than he admitted?
Twain shows his understanding of Austen through his apt description of Lucy Steele as “coarse, ignorant, vicious, brainless, heartless, a flatterer, and a sneak.” Despite his usual admiration for down-to-earth speech and manners, Twain clearly does not prefer the uneducated, “ignorant and illiterate” Lucy with her bad grammar and “want of real elegance” to the well-bred Dashwood sisters. Lucy’s “insincerity” and “artfulness” make her vicious—for both Austen and Twain.
For Marianne’s tormentor, the smooth-talking Willoughby who leads her on while planning marriage to an heiress, Twain has nothing but censure: “Willoughby is a frankly cruel, criminal and filthy society-gentleman.” Like Austen, Twain scorned those whose gentlemanly appearance masked an inhuman, hollow core. Just as Austen had made the powerful, socially superior Lady Catherine de Bourgh the least admirable character in Pride and Prejudice, so Twain had no truck with aristocracy by birth rather than by behavior, scornfully observing that the Russian emperor sneezes just like anybody else. In Sense and Sensibility, the Lady Catherine equivalent is Edward’s haughty and malicious mother, Mrs. Ferrars: Twain concludes, “Old Mrs. Ferrars is an execrable gentlewoman and unsurpassably coarse and offensive.”
For his remaining character notes, Twain adds the label “gentleman” or “lady,” followed by “coarse,” as if to endorse Austen’s scathing indictment of the upper classes:
Mr. Dashwood, gentleman, is a coarse and cold-hearted money-worshipper; his Fanny is coarse and mean. Neither of them ever says or does a pleasant thing.
Mr. Robert Ferrars, gentleman, is coarse, is a snob, and an all-round offensive person.
Mr. Palmer, gentleman, is coarse, brute-mannered, and probably an ass, though we cannot tell, yet, because he cloaks himself behind silences which are not often broken by speeches that contain material enough to construct an analysis out of.
His wife, lady, is coarse and silly.
Lucy Steele’s sister is coarse, foolish, and disagreeable.
By this point, Twain has reiterated the word “coarse” for eight characters. One might have assumed that Twain would embrace coarseness—the rough crudeness he seemed to cultivate in remarks such as “If I can’t swear in heaven I won’t stay there”—but here he equates the term with general meanness and the crass money-mindedness of Austen’s schemers.
Austen would hardly dispute Twain’s spluttering character analyses. John and Fanny Dashwood are indeed coarse, mean, cold-hearted money-worshippers who refuse to share their inheritance with relatives. Should they give 3000 pounds away? No, they decide. They selfishly talk the initial sum down to nothing but occasional “presents of fish and game.” As Fanny observes when quashing the idea of a yearly donation to her husband’s widowed stepmother, “people always live forever when there is any annuity to be paid them.”
Robert Ferrars possesses “emptiness and conceit,” Austen tells us, and perhaps she and Twain would agree that he deserves to marry (as he does) the equally offensive Lucy Steele.
Rather than celebrating Mr. Palmer’s bad manners, Twain senses his brutishness and the horror of the Palmers’ loveless marriage. Austen observed of the dourly anti-social Mr. Palmer, “His temper might perhaps be a little soured by finding, like many others of his sex, that through some unaccountable bias in favour of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman.” Mr. Palmer responds to his marriage to a brainless woman by retreating behind his newspaper, putting it down only to utter contemptuous comments about everyone, particularly his wife. Twain echoes Austen’s description of Mrs. Palmer as “silly” and pronounces her husband “an ass.” (Austen runs Mr. Palmer through more politely but with a sharper rapier as a man of “studied indifference, insolence, and discontent.”)
Last on Twain’s character list in “Jane Austen” is Lucy Steele’s fawningly affected sister, dismissed as “coarse, foolish, and disagreeable” (and no lady) by both Twain and Austen.
And there, with his complaint about the disagreeable Miss Steele, Twain’s essay abruptly ends. Did he leave the essay unfinished because, like his barkeeper, he had been defeated in his attempt to appreciate Jane Austen? Or was it (I would argue) that he could no longer reconcile his virile desire to disparage Austen with the fact that he actually “got” her? I suspect that he was afraid that admitting honestly to reaching the final parts of Sense and Sensibility would be unmasculine, like confessing he admired ballet or played the flute.
If Twain were alive today, would he maintain his image by grumbling malevolently about Jane Austen’s status as “The Woman of the Year”? If Twain continued his anti-Austen pose, he would find plenty of company among contemporary American male humorists. While working on a series about Jane Austen for National Public Radio satellite distribution featuring Margaret Drabble and a cadre of other distinguished Austen scholars and admirers, I turned for comic relief to two institutions of American humor—Andy Rooney and Dave Barry—and heard echoes of Twain.
From his office at CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Rooney made it clear to me that he had a decided Twainish prejudice against Austen:
What do I think of Jane Austen? Almost nothing, I’m afraid. I’ve never read anything she wrote and don’t feel any great void where knowledge of her work would be. Jane Austen has not been chosen by me as someone I deliberately wish to be ignorant of; I just never got at reading Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. They seemed to be the Bobbsey Twins for grownups.
Rooney admitted he had not read anything by “Evelyn Bronte” either (have any of us?).
Humorist Dave Barry of The Miami Herald expressed sorrow at learning that Austen had not written Wuthering Heights (“that was my one shot at reading a Jane Austen book”). I asked him what image comes into his mind when he hears the name Jane Austen.
Well, I picture all these movies that I don’t go to—that’s the main image—with that all-star Emma Thompson, who I’m sure is a wonderful actress. I’m looking at the multiplex and I’m almost going to go into that movie with Emma Thompson and then right next door there’s a movie where Arnold Schwarzenegger crashes a jet ski into a helicopter and I think that’s probably more along my line of thinking, so I never quite get to those Jane Austen movies.
Barry chastised Rooney for dismissing Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, noting, “I don’t understand why he would criticize two books he had not personally read, so I can’t say I would agree with him,” Instead, Barry concluded, “Everyone should read everything she ever wrote and then tell me about it so I don’t personally have to.” Like Twain, who boasted “I don’t know anything about anything, and never did,” Barry and Rooney seem to celebrate their philistinism—particularly in regard to women writers.
How unfortunate that Jane Austen (1775—1817) died two decades before the birth of Mark Twain (1835—1910). What might she have said (ironically, no doubt) of him? What if the two had met on one of Twain’s trips to Europe? Ushered into her presence in rural Hampshire, would Twain have felt like a barkeeper entering the kingdom of heaven?
Thinking of Twain, the irrepressible American riverboat pilot, and Austen, the tea-drinking maiden aunt, I’m reminded of Bogart and Hepburn in the film classic The African Queen. Charlie, the unshaven, boorish pilot of The African Queen, shares Twain’s delight in cigars, alcohol, freedom, and laxity, noting “Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow” (much as Twain quipped “Do not put off till tomorrow what can be put off till day-after-tomorrow just as well”). Like Twain in the company of Austen’s gentlemen and ladies, Charlie seems hilariously out of place at high tea with Rosie and her reverend brother. Both look at Charlie in pained but elegant silence as his stomach growls uncontrollably. Charlie may be natural, but as Rosie disdainfully observes, “Nature is what we’re put in this world to rise above.”
The dislike is mutual: Charlie scorns the “skinny old maid” Rosie and her world of propriety and sobriety. He feels much like the “cramped up” Huckleberry Finn:
The Widow Douglas . . . allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer, I lit out.
But Charlie and Rosie “light out” together—and the results are surprising. Weeks together in a boat strip away layers of seemingly insurmountable cultural differences—not to mention the layers of Rosie’s starched, high-necked lacy gown. Charlie and Rosie discover a common zest for life.
Could not Twain and Austen be seen as such an odd couple? I believe Jane Austen would have enjoyed Mark Twain’s pair of stories called “The Good Little Boy” and “The Bad Little Boy.” Overturning moralistic Sunday school stories, Twain’s superhumanly, ridiculously good little boy meets with a miserable death, while his bad little boy winds up rich and with a seat in the legislature. Austen had commented in a letter, “Pictures of perfection . . .make me sick and wicked.” Overturning conduct books advising girls to be pious, submissive, and ladylike, Austen wrote sketches as a teenager in which heroines get drunk, steal, lie, commit murder, and raise armies, enjoying themselves. Even in her mature works, she presented protagonists devoid of traditionally “heroic” qualities. Note her opening to Northanger Abbey:
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. . . . The Morlands . . . were in general very plain, and Catherine . . . as plain as any. She had a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features. . . She was moreover noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house.
Huckleberry Finn might have enjoyed rolling down the slope with Catherine Morland, escaping “confinement and cleanliness”—or “sivilization,” as Huck put it. Austen’s heroines are not all “sadful,” either. Elizabeth Bennet admits in Pride and Prejudice, “I dearly love a laugh. I never ridicule what is wise and good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.”
Twain and Austen would have been hard pressed to decide who was the more irreverent of the two. Both took on clergymen, aristocrats, and “superiors” of all sorts, skewering them in just a few ironic words. Austen observed of some tedious neighbors, “I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow” and pronounced her clergyman Mr. Collins “favoured” with stupidity. Twain noted of a clergyman, “He charged nothing for his preaching, and it was worth it too,” and he quipped that doctors need but two things: ignorance and confidence.
Despite their pose as “mere” comic writers, both believed deeply in the power of their humor to reveal deeper truths about human behavior. Austen argued in Northanger Abbey that a work dismissed as “only a novel” was in fact “only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.” But her voice would remain comic, she insisted when a clergyman asked her to change her style:
My dear Sir, You are very very kind in your hints. . . [but] I could not sit seriously down to write . . .under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter.
Austen ends the letter by asserting, “No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way.”
As Satan observes about the human race in Mark Twain’s “The Mysterious Stranger,” laughter may not only be its best medicine but its best weapon:
“For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon—laughter. Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution—these can lift at a colossal humbug but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand. You are always fussing and fighting with your other weapons. Do you ever use that one? No; you leave it lying rusting. As a race, do you ever use it at all? No; you lack sense and the courage.”
Both Twain and Austen had the “sense and the courage” to use humor to attack the “colossal humbug” they observed around them.
Twain noted, “We keep losing all the world’s great authors. Chaucer is dead, so is Shakespeare, so is Milton. And I’m not feeling very well myself.” Twain and Austen both belong in that pantheon of the world’s great authors, perhaps winking at each other when they think no one is looking.
“Jane Austen” by Mark Twain, which is quoted in its entirety in this article, is copyright 1999 by Richard A. Watson and Chase Manhattan Bank as Trustees of the Mark Twain Foundation, which reserves all reproduction or dramatization rights in every medium. It is published here with the permission of the University of California Press and Robert H. Hirst, General Editor of the Mark Twain Project.