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Apr 13 2017

Trolls and Critics in the 19th Century

We often like to perceive the past as something quite alien, populated with unfamiliar people who are ‘not like us’. However, the more primary sources you encounter, the more this belief is shaken.

For part of my Literature Review I have been exploring the 19th century reviews of Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth and Sydney Owenson’s novels, and the venom expressed in some of them has been quite shocking.

Jane Austen
Austen gets off relatively lightly, not because of her popularity but because her novels were almost entirely overlooked by the reviewers. The British Critic, in 1812, praises the characters in Sense and Sensibility for being “happily delineated”, going on to say “we will, however, detain our female friends no longer than to assure them that they may peruse these volumes not only with satisfaction but with real benefit, for they may learn from them, if they please, many sober and salutary maxims for the conduct of life” (p.527). Well, that’s a relief then – just what you look for in a novel!

The most famous review of Austen’s novels was written by Sir Walter Scott, appearing anonymously in The Quarterly Review (1816). The review focuses on Emma but also draws attention to two of Austen’s previous novels Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. As Peter Sabor notes in his article about the significance of this review: “In taking notice of an obscure female novelist, and in commissioning a review from the greatest man of letters of his age, Murray was tacitly acknowledging the particular significance of Emma: only a very few of the hundreds of contemporary novels would ever be so favoured”. This was not entirely lacking in self-interest, John Murray the publisher of The Quarterly Review, was also the publisher of Austen and Scott’s novels.

Scott proposes that her novels belonged to a new “class of fictions which has arisen almost in

“Even less story than either of the preceding novels” – on Emma
our own times, and which draws the characters and incidents introduced more immediately from the current of ordinary life than was permitted by the former rules of the novel” and indicated that it was superior to “the ephemeral productions which supply the regular demand of watering-places and circulating libraries” (p.189). After such high praise, the review itself seems rather a slap in the face, to a modern reader. Scott informs his readers that Emma, although having “even less story than either of the preceding novels”, has “subjects… [which] are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader” (p.195-7). He praises her “quiet yet comic dialogue” but criticises “the minute detail” of her “haracters of folly or simplicity” which “is apt to become tiresome in fiction” (p.199-200). High praise indeed! However, this review was critical in securing the the future value placed upon Austen’s novels in the late nineteenth century and beyond, saving her from becoming one of the great unread.

Maria Edgeworth
Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1802), received a rather mixed review from The Monthly Review. The critic acknowledges their “respect for her talents” and call her novel the “production of no common pen” but go on to say that although the novel starts well it fades

“tameness and insipidity” – on Belinda
into “tameness and insipidity” (p.368), they were clearly disappointed that the female duellist Lady Delacour had been reformed.

The reviews for Patronage were not so favourable, Edgeworth had made the mistake of setting parts of her novel in the male, public sphere of law, politics and the Church. The reviewers of The British Critic and Quarterly Theological Review were pretty savage, her understanding of diplomacy could only have come from “some ape of his superiors”, and her descriptions of political characters were “absurd” and “raise an incredulous disgust”. Rather more menacingly they “advise her, as she regards her own reputation, not to libel our English Church”. This phrase concludes a series of comments regarding her morality (“To the morality of Miss Edgeworth we can raise no objection”) and her private life (“With the private lives of those whose works are before us we have not the slightest knowledge”), one can’t help envisioning a tabloid campaign to dig up the dirt on Miss Edgeworth. Ultimately, in perhaps the greatest insult to the author, the reviewers conclude: “If we shall be thought to be severe upon those parts…it is to be remembered, that it is not upon our ingenious and lively authoress that our censures rest so heavily, as upon that Father” (p160-173).

Edgeworth did not let this go unanswered:

Sydney Owenson, Later Lady Morgan
However, it was for Sydney Owenson that the critics saved their worst jibes. Perhaps not a polished a writer as Austen and Edgeworth, Owenson was also an outspoken social climber. Her second book (The Novice of St Dominick), The Critical Review tells us, “was the last book that amused the hours of illness of the late Mr Pitt” and “tho’ we cannot speak of it [her third book, The Wild Irish Girl] in the first type of panegyric, is yet in many parts capable of exciting considerable interest, and may well amuse a leisure hour” (p.327-328). Such positive reviews were not to last.

In 1804, Owenson made a public response to John Wilson Croker’s anonymously published Familiar Epistles, to Frederick J–S Esq, On the Present State of the Irish Stage, which attacked many of her father’s friends. This made her an influential, political enemy and prompted a twenty year war of words.

Croker seems to have been the ultimate troll, anonymously attacking Owenson and her writing. In a series of letters to The Freeman’s Journal, Croker wrote: “her merits have been over-rated…and her arguments over-praised…I accuse Miss OWENSON of having written bad novels, and worse poetry…I accuse her of attempting to vitiate mankind – of attempting to undermine morality by sophistry” (Connolly p.98). This war of words may have provided Owenson with more support than Croker anticipated; one particular letter writer, identifying himself

“I accuse Miss OWENSON of having written bad novels, and worse poetry” – J W Croker
only as the ‘Son of Ireland’ suggested that Croker’s motive was jealousy and that “the puny pretender to wit is prompt to undervalue the talent that can detect his insufficiency” (p.104).

In a review of Ida of Athens, a book in which Owenson herself was disappointed, calling it a ‘bad book’ in her Memoir, Croker suggested that if she “practise a little self denial, and gather a few precepts of humility…she might then hope to prove, not indeed a good writer of novels, but a useful friend, a faithful wife, a tender mother, and a respectable and happy mistress of a family” (The Quarterly Review p.52).

As a Tory politician, Croker, may also have found Owenson’s support of Whig politicians and the cause of Catholic emancipation a threat to his political party and his own emerging political career. Yet there are suggestions that Croker was not just attacking Owenson’s work and political stance, he was also attacking her as a woman who sought financial independence and admittance to the higher ranks of society. “Croker makes it clear that had Owenson not been in search of commercial gain – as in her countertype, the independently wealthy and ultimately frivolous author…her reputation might have remained her ‘private property'” (Connolly p112). Even Owenson’s husband was attacked. In 1821 Owenson published a travel book, Italy, Croker’s review states: “Notwithstanding the obstetric skill of Sir Charles Morgan (who we believe is a male midwife), this book dropt all but stillborn from the press” (Adburgham p.255).

Croker seems to have relished the vitriolic attack, Owenson was not his only target (he also attacked Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, and the works of Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas) but he seemed to have a particular hatred for her. Like modern trolls, the attacks frequently went beyond the content of her novels and other writings and attacked Owenson herself, almost always from the safety of anonymity, a cowardly man with an axe to grind.

Works Cited

  • Adburgham, Alison. Women in Print. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1972. Print.
  • “Belinda, By Maria Edgeworth.” The Monthly Review; or Literary Journal 37 (1802): 368–374. Web.
  • Connolly, Claire. “‘I Accuse Miss Owenson’: The Wild Irish Girl as Media Event.” Colby Quarterly 36.2 (2000): 98–115. Print.
  • “Emma; a Novel. By the Author of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Etc.” The Quarterly Review 14 (1816): 188–201. Web.
  • “Patronage by Miss Edgeworth.” The British Critic and Quarterly Theological Review 1 (1814): 159–173. Web.
  • Sabor, Peter. “‘Finished up to Nature’: Walter Scott’s Review of Emma.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal 13 (1991): 88–99. Web.
  • “Sense and Sensibility by A Lady.” The British Critic 39 (1812): 527. Web.
  • “The Wild Irish Girl, By Miss Owenson.” The Critical Review; or Annals of Literature 9 (1806): 327–328. Web.
  • “Woman: Or , Ida of Athens.” The Quarterly Review 1 (1809): 50–52. Web.

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