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I have described all twenty-four pieces as ‘previously unpublished,’ by which I mean not printed or otherwise made readily accessible to the general reader.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

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

  1. Amazing comments!! Loved reading them. I too think he admired her brillance. If he didn’t like her writing, why was he reading S&S “not for the first time”?

    I really need to read more commentary about Austen. It’s so much fun!


  2. Thanks Jane and Marcia for visiting!- yes, it is quite funny how he professes his adamant dislike, then goes on to give an insightful review after numerous re-readings- some critics have thought that his dislike was more a playing the devil’s advocate to his good friend W.H. Howells who unabashedly adored Austen… [thoughts for another post!]


  3. I think he meant what he said, he hated Austen’s work. His arguements, however, are lacking. Aside from the book being difficult to read, which shouldn’t be the matter of a negative review, given the time gap between the two authors, there is only his dislike of the characters. Also him reading the first 1/3 of the book more than once in no way means he secretly adores it. It just means he has that obligation feel as a writer, to finish each book he had started reading and feels not reading it to the end equals a failure. He doesn’t enjoy reading S&S and thus he hates the need of doing it.


  4. I agree with 1234. If anything, those multiple readings of her work made it *fun* for him to hate her. It’s similar to how I love making fun of Stephenie Meyer. Granted, Austen is a FAR better author than she is, but the same feelings are present in both situations. Also, as an author I think he would feel that criticism of her work *without* reading it would be foolish. The only right way to go about complaining is to actually know what you’re talking about, and in order for that to occur you need to read the source material (possibly more than once). Otherwise, his friend would’ve just pointed out how his opinions were completely unfounded.


    • Yes, Laura, – good points! – we can never really know what Twain thought – he was great at playing the devil’s advocate, and he as likely started out hating her as strongly as he states – it took on a life of its own when his best friend Howells took a stand on the other side – one can almost HEAR their arguments! – and yes, you do need to read what you are criticizing – though too often that is not the case as people sound off on books they know nothing about [I haven’t read any of the Twilight series, and likely won’t [so much to read, so little time!], but have the good sense to keep my opinions to myself unless I do…]
      Thanks for visiting!


  5. As a literary man (and general know-it-all), I think Mark Twain felt obliged to attempt the works of Jane Austen. I’m in the same boat (though I’m definitely not a literary man!). I’ve reserved the next few years for working my way through the entire Western Canon. I’m muscling my way through “Persuasion” right now, and it’s a bit of a speed bump on my journey. I don’t like it. The last two books I read were “Daniel Deronda” (which I liked very much!) and “Jane Eyre” (which was well-written, if a bit romantic). I think that Jane Austen wrote her books for women. There is nothing in them to engage a man’s attention. But, even some literary WOMEN have found her works to be less-than-wonderful:

    “Anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré or extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well. There is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy, in the painting. She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood … What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study: but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of life and the sentient target of death–this Miss Austen ignores….Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete and rather insensible (not senseless woman), if this is heresy–I cannot help it.” – Charlotte Bronte


    • Hello – Yes, I agree with you about Twain feeling a sort of obligation to read Austen as a “literary man” – I am sure that he and Howells [who adored Austen] had many a good argument about her literary worth! And Bronte’s dislike of Austen is well-known – Gaskell wrote about it in her biography of CB [but then of course really did a re-write of Pride & Prejudice in her own North & South – now that is a book to read, so add it to your list!] – but George Eliot “got” Austen as did George Lewes, and the debate has continued for 200 years, so you are in good company!

      Austen is not for everyone – but I do think she requires re-reading – the surface stories can look mild in relation to Jane Eyre or anything Eliot. I gave my husband Persuasion to read [he had read P&P in HS – required], thinking he would like this because of the military allusions – but he just thought she could have said the same thing with 1/4 of the words! – Austen is about her wit, her language, her characters, and I find you see more of all that on re-readings. I can see where you would say she wrote for women, as she has really become the Queen of romance – but that is not what she is about – she has a lot more to say about her contemporary society, and she just wraps it up quite nicely in a romantic tale.

      Persuasion is my favorite of the novels, but I would recommend you read P&P – it is “light and bright and sparking” as she says herself – and then read Emma, just because it is so perfect. You don’t need to be a “literary man” to appreciate any of this – and if after these reads you can still say, she’s not for you, then you are not alone! – but at least you gave it a good shot!

      Thank you for visiting – let me know if your thoughts if you read any more!


  6. I think Mark twain resented the fact that Jane Austen was affectionately regarded by people he sorrounded with. I assume he suffered the generic male ego in those days where man and woman cannot be competiting for the same thing. It was a given that a woman knew her place. Having analyzed his analysis on Austens characters, i see him as objectively analyzing them– and using his own taste on what is a good character point of referrence. He was not capable of appreciating a work for its own right and genre. The main accusations he has of Austens works is that–her characters were very bad or coarse people and also–her lead hero and heroines lacked ‘passion’. By that i assume he means–he like Charlotte Bronte–who incidentally hates Austen in the same capacity as Twain. Both celebrated authors consider Austen lacking passion because they are comparing her to romantic figure authors. (And for charlotte to herself. I mean a person who wrote Jane Eyre we must accord her toknow what it is to have passion mixed sadism and machoisism contents)
    I thin Twain genuinely was puzzled by Austens motives to write such bad coarse characters, to make him dislike them, only to like them in the end.In hindsight– we can view with confusion with a sound analysis. Austen a comedic writer–not a romantic writer. There is no need for ‘passion’ in comedic writing—all u need is the ability to mock or laugh at unnecessary, over heightened romantic sensibility.


    • Hi Arnie – never too late to comment! – I see from your post that you are referring to Elizabeth’s claim about seeing Darcy in her ramble even though she had told him she often went there – you may be the first person to comment on it, but certainly not the first to notice this very funny sequence on Austen’s part – so obvious, indeed, we didn’t need to comment on it! – anyone who has ever lived through the years of being a teenage girl will immediately recognize this behavior, both concsious and unconscious on Elizabeth’s part [and Charlotte’s, though hers was totally a conscious act], and while I know you to be quite perceptive about many things Austen, I do know that you have never been a teenage girl! – but I give you pointers for seeing it all very clearly, despite that lack of personal experience…

      Thanks for visiting Arnie – always a pleasure!


  7. Deb, you misread what I wrote–which was actually the following:

    “Is it not obvious that JA wants her alert readers to associate the above sentence [about Lizzy’s rambles] with this one from Chapter 22, eleven chapters earlier?: “Miss Lucas perceived him from an upper window as he walked towards the house, and instantly set out to meet him accidentally in the lane.” With 20:20 hindsight, JA is practically hitting the reader over the skull with the connection, drawing a parallel between Charlotte cynically and deliberately staging an accidental encounter with Mr. Collins in the lane, and Elizabeth fulfilling her own _unconscious_ yearnings, and doing exactly the same! And yet, to the best of my knowledge, I AM THE FIRST to point out this connection! It speaks to the power of the right assumption to turn the invisible visible!”

    I did _not_ claim to be the first to notice that Lizzy keeps unconsciously putting herself in Darcy’s path on her rambles—I know very well that others have written about it, and many others have seen it but have not written about it–although I note in passing that it amazes me that many Janeites do _not_ even acknowledge that interpretation to be valid!

    Anyway, what I did claim to be the first to see was that JA had very pointedly but subliminally connected that meme to Charlotte’s “accidental” stalking of Mr. Collins! And I stick by that claim or priority, as I have checked and cannot find any sign of someone spotting that parallelism earlier. And it is hardly in the category of “so obvious that it does not require mentioning”.

    Cheers, ARNIE


    • On the contrary Arnie, I read exactly what you said, and mentioned that in my italics – I don’t think you are the first to notice the connection between Charlotte’s “accidental” stalking of Mr. Collins and Lizzie’s unconcsiously doing the same – the fact that I (and many others) may have noticed it, but alas! did not publish it somewhere at the time does not mean it was first “discovered” by you – I think it is quite an obvious connection and one of the many hints that Austen gives the reader that Lizzie is indeed quite smitten with Mr. Darcy, and from the very first… there are a number of other such well-placed hints, but I do not need to belabor the point as I am sure you have already ferretted them all out already and they will hopefully be in your forthcoming book?

      Please don’t play semantics with me Arnie, or nit-pick what I say, or tell me that I misread what you wrote when in this case you have misread what I wrote…! – the argument is quite hopeless you see…


  8. Deb,

    I completely disagree with you that it is an obvious connection, and as evidence for that assertion, I can tell you that I’ve read 1,000 books and articles that discuss Lizzy and Darcy, as well as many thousand more posts about them in a variety of online groups, and I’ve never seen that meme articulated by a single one of those sources. Not one. And these are Janeites responding to the text, and otherwise demonstrating an enormous eagerness to take note of every single minute aspect of the relationship between Lizzy and Darcy, including many very obvious ones, let alone something highly significant, and veiled, like this one.

    So if you saw it and thought it was obvious, you might want to consider writing up your thoughts on other “obvious” matters in Austen studies, because you are way ahead of all the others (except me of course) in making such interpretations.

    Indeed, quite hopeless YOU see, too! ;)

    Cheers, ARNIE


  9. And I completely forgot to ask before….you never said what you think about my claim that Mark Twain was secretly praising Pride & Prejudice by his famous bon mot, pointing to these particular passages in P&P.

    Agree or disagree? If you agree, is that discovery of mine obvious, too? ;)

    Cheers, ARNIE


    • Hello again Arnie, well, I would say that I had written about the issue of Mark Twain protesting too much long before you wrote your blog post on this issue – and I was not the first to comment on this as you know -read Emily Auerbach on the topic for one… – and as you bring up Nabokov in your original post I assume you have read his Lectures on Literature – the one on Mansfield Park – which clearly shows he was enamored of Austen from a literary standpoint – and I agree with you that he was likely joking with Wilson [though I would have to go back and read all the writings in the original not out of context as well as date them to really be sure about this – and how can we ever be really sure about what someone writes with no allowance for tone and body language – one of my quibbles with all the internet writings] – so Nabakov was likely joking as was Twain funning with Howells – but whether Twain was specifically referring to the P&P passages you quote – the “every time” etc – you are taking the use of the English language a tad too far – if every time I used or wrote the terms ‘every time’ the reader should harken back to P&P and Lizzie and Darcy and call me a lover of Austen because of it, I would roll over in my grave…

      And I still think that the Charlotte and Lizzie behaviors are obvious, clear in the text and perhaps have just not warranted writing about …. as to Lizzie being smitten with Darcy from the beginning you can go to this website for a starting list on how Elizabeth feels about Darcy [and others]:

      I still think you better get your book out there before everything has been already said by someone else…


      • “whether Twain was specifically referring to the P&P passages you quote – the “every time” etc – you are taking the use of the English language a tad too far – if every time I used or wrote the terms ‘every time’ the reader should harken back to P&P and Lizzie and Darcy and call me a lover of Austen because of it, I would roll over in my grave…”

        To quote Mr. Darcy, about defects:

        “”And yours,” he replied with a smile, “is willfully to misunderstand them.”

        I find you do that a lot, Deb. If I were to take the trouble to explain how you have, yet again, set up a simplistic straw man out of my own unsimplistic argument, so as to readily shoot your own straw man down, I am pretty sure you would still find another way to mischaracterize my argument. So I will just leave what I wrote as it stands, and not try to explain it further.

        As to your claim of Lizzy’s being attracted to Darcy as obvious, I can say that this has been a hotly debated point, on several occasions, in Janeite circles over the 11 years I have participated in Janeite discussions online. While it seems obvious to you and to me, it’s apparently not obvious to a lot of other Janeites, since so many Janeites _don’t_ think she is attracted to him, and I still have never seen any evidence that anyone other than myself (and, taking your word, you) having reached the far more subtle echo of Charlotte in Lizzy’s ramblings.

        Cheers, ARNIE


  10. lets face it people,men back in the day (and some to this day) feel threatened when a women attempts to do (and do well) what a man can do.He was clearly trying to put her down because he did not want to dare let himself believe that a WOMEN could write as well as he and he certainly was trying his best to make others feel the same


  11. I largely agree with Twain’s assessment of the characters in S&S. They’re a bad lot. What I don’t get is why he finds this so upsetting. Did he feel novelists were morally obliged to write about good-hearted, nice people? It seems to astonish him that Mrs Ferrars, while occupying a respected place in society, is an ill-mannered old cow. ??? Hadn’t he got out much?


    • An interesting question! – perhaps he saw so much out there that he just didn’t need to spend time reading about the likes of the Mrs. Ferrars of the world, in which case he missed the point – but then I think that he didn’t dislike Austen as as much as he claims and he got the point quite nicely…

      Thank you for stopping by!


  12. Perhaps in Twain’s day there was an expectation, even pressure on novelists to come up with at least some characters readers could warm to? Good guys to cheer on, bad hats to boo. Dickens has a lot to answer for. At the end of his books all his villains get their comeuppance, but one of the things I love about Austen is she won’t play that game. Her nasty people often don’t get what they deserve. It’s a lot like life.

    But Twain knew people, he was no sentimental fool. I’ve never got over that Huck Finn passage where he tells lovable old Aunt Sally he was delayed on his journey because the boat ‘blew out a cylinder-head’. She asks anxiously ‘Good gracious, anyone hurt?’ No. Just a slave was killed. ‘Well it’s lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt.’ The man who could write that could surely not be shocked by Austen. I think he just didn’t quite believe a gentlewoman could be that consciously tough in her writing, or expect her readers to stay with her when she was.


  13. I recently read another Twain quote that said when he read P&P he wanted to unbury Austin and hit her with her own shin bone. So no I don’t think he was a fan. And to be honest neither am I. All the characters in her works are shallow, social climbers, whose only concern in life is finding a rich husband.


    • Yes, Twain did say that about digging her up! – I don’t think he liked her that much but exaggerated his dislike to play the devil’s advocate to his friend W. D. Howells, who did very much appreciate Austen. You are welcome to your opinion of course, and you are not alone – Austen is certainly not for everyone. But I will disagree with you that all her characters are social climbers, etc – Austen was writing comedy and was satirizing the very culture she lived in, but also telling the truth about the women of her time – they needed to find husbands to survive – their only recourse was to be a governess if educated, or a servant if not, or worse. Her language / writing is some of the best in the English language and why she is so often compared to Shakespeare, but I digress…

      Thank you for visiting and sharing your thoughts…


  14. Austen was a spiteful, jealous skank. She was as ugly as sin; she must have been a wallflower at parties. That’s why her characters are hateful. She envied pretty women. She also satirized Anne Radcliffe because she was jealous of the latter’s success as a writer. A writer should write his/her thing and not worry about others. I agree with Twain, Charlotte Bronte, and several others who criticized her.


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