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Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Reception of Jane Austen and Walter Scott by Annika Bautz

Jane Austen has transcended literature and entered the world as a pop culture icon, with "Movie Versions" of her books dominating book stores in waves.

The Reception of Jane Austen and Walter Scott
A Comparative Longitudinal Study
 by Annika Bautz
Continuum Reception Studies
Published by Continuum Books, 2007

   One of the central questions of early nineteenth century literature is why Jane Austen is so popular today while Walter Scott is forgotten, when it was the exact opposite when both authors were writing at the same time in the early 19th century.  This reversal of fortune intrigued me several years back when I was reading both authors as part of the 1001 Books project.  I've actually looked into the rise of Jane Austen before, when I read "Janes Fame" which took a more anecdotal approach to this same question of "the rise of Jane Austen."

  Bautz makes it clear that Austen was in no way ignored upon initial publication- writing anonymously, at a time when both women and the novel had low status in the eyes of critics, Austen's books were singled out by reviewers- at times being the ONLY novel reviewed in the few literary periodicals of the early 20th century.  Scott, on the other hand, was thought to be such a genius that his books transcended the "genre" of the novel, and were treated as either a new type of literature or a novel without compare.

  In the period after the initial publication, Scott was above everyone else, and Austen was typically compared favorably to other Authors, but clearly underneath Scott.   Walter Scott dominated the 18th century.  What is often forgotten by contemporary writers opining on the subject is that Scott continued to be extremely popular into the 20th century- and this is an important point- he was more popular with general audiences into the 1920s and 30s, but critics deserted him a generation earlier, demonstrating that popular support exceeded critical support.

   This corresponds more with the popular conception of critics "leading" popular opinion than do the circumstances around his rise to prominence.  When his first novels were published, Scott already had a strong reputation as a poet, which was seen as "real" literature compared to the novel.  His first novel, Waverley, was a huge sales success, but critical notice trailed AFTER the sales had been obtained, leaving the critics, not leading public taste, but being led.

  Austen meanwhile was more of a slow burn.  Her femaleness and "ordinariness," which initially worked against her in terms of being taken seriously, turned into huge assets over time, when generations of female readers, and male educators, saw Austen as a kind of quintessential "high art" exponent of the novel as art form.  Today, the works of Austen are like a familiar shorthand for "high literature" and Scott is forgotten.  Scott is often now offhandedly claimed to be "unreadable" for modern audiences, but the truth is that few, outside of undergraduate and graduate literature programs, even try, whereas every high school senior has read at least one Austen novel.

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