Mark Twain on Jane Austen ~ Methinks he protests too much!

My son popped in the other night, quite excited about his discovery in a new Mark Twain book of an essay on Jane Austen – he was thrilled to pass on to me the curmudgeon-par-excellence of Twain bashing Austen.  He was disappointed to discover I already knew about Twain’s avid dislike of Austen – but I appreciated his concern for my feelings!


The new Twain book is Who is Mark Twain, edited by Robert H. Hirst, The Mark Twain Foundation, 2009 [texts copyrighted 2001].  As Hirst explains in his Note:

I have described all twenty-four pieces as ‘previously unpublished,’ by which I mean not printed or otherwise made readily accessible to the general reader.  More strictly speaking, all of them were included in a microfilm edition issued by the Mark Twain Project in 2001…. But Who is Mark Twain? represents the first time any of these manuscripts has been published for a general audience.

The book is a collection of essays penned by Twain over the years but never published – one of these is titled “Jane Austen” written in 1905.  I knew of this essay because it was actually published by Emily Auerbach in the Virginia Quarterly Review [Winter 1999] and latterly in an Appendix in her Searching for Jane Austen [University of Wisconsin, 2004], along with an insightful article on Twain.  But alas! the book sits upon my shelf, skimmed, and I did not read this until my son gave me the nudge. [There have also been other posts on some of the Austen blogs about this and I don’t mean to be repetitive, but finally just getting to this … thanks to my son!]

Auerbach asks the question in her article “A Barkeeper Entering the Kingdom of Heaven:  Did Mark Twain Really Hate Jane Austen?” – she concludes that perhaps Twain was “a closet Janeite, a fake who read and appreciated far more of Jane Austen than he admitted” [p.299]; that his astute and unfinished essay on Austen indeed proved that he really “got” her [p.301], and despite all his moanings to the contrary, they were more alike than not in observing and depicting human foibles and relying on humor to best express their views [Auerbach compares Twain and Austen to the pairing of Bogart and Hepburn in the film The African Queen: Twain “the irrepressible riverboat pilot, and Austen, the tea-drinking maiden aunt.” [p. 302]- this made me smile!]

I am appending several passages from Twain’s essay, as it quite delightful and many of you may not have read it.  Go out and buy the book – and the other essays cover all manner of Twain’s humorous musings.

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. Because he considered himself better than they? Not at all. They would not be to his taste—that is all.


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.


All the great critics praise her art generously.  To start with, they say she draws her characters with sharp distinction and a sure touch.  I believe that this is true, as long as the characters she is drawing are odious.  I am doing “Sense and Sensibility” now, and have accomplished the first third of it – not for the first time.  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.  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.

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?

Willoughby is a frankly cruel, criminal and filthy society-gentleman.

Old Mrs. Ferrars is an execrable gentlewoman and unsurpassable course and offensive.

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.

[from Who is Mark Twain, pages 47-50]

And there it ends – quite the review! [and as almost everyone has pointed out, Twain applies the word “course” to nearly all the characters in the book]- one would think he was actually enjoying EVERY minute of his reading of S&S! [don’t you just LOVE the “filthy” Willoughby!?]




Further reading:

  • Auerbach, Emily, Searching for Jane Austen [University of Wisconsin Press, 2004]
  • Flavin, James.  The Sincerest Form of Flattery:  Twain’s Imitation of Austen.  Persuasions 25, [2003], pp. 103-109 [not online] [Flavin’s premise is that Twain actually COPIED Austen’s famous scene of money manipulation between Fanny and John Dashwood in S&S in his Life on the Mississippi] – a great article
  • Twain, Mark; Robert H. Hirst, editor.  Who is Mark Twain? [ Mark Twain Foundation, 2009]
  • The Offical Website of Mark Twain
  • The Mark Twain House [Hartford Connecticut]

Posted by Deb