"Miss [Jane] Austen was surely a great novelist. What she did, she did perfectly. Her work, as far as it goes, is faultless. She wrote of the times in which she lived, of the class of people with which she associated, and in the language which was usual to her as an educated lady. Of romance, -- what we generally mean when we speak of romance -- she had no tinge. Heroes and heroines with wonderful adventures there are none in her novels. Of great criminals and hidden crimes she tells us nothing. But she places us in a circle of gentlemen and ladies, and charms us while she tells us with an unconscious accuracy how men should act to women, and women act to men. It is not that her people are all good; -- and, certainly, they are not all wise. The faults of some are the anvils on which the virtues of others are hammered till they are bright as steel. In the comedy of folly I know no novelist who has beaten her. The letters of Mr. Collins, a clergyman in Pride and Prejudice, would move laughter in a low-church archbishop." — Anthony Trollope, “On English Prose Fiction as a Rational Amusement” (1870), in An Autobiography: and Other Writings, edited by Nicholas Shrimpton (2015)
Today marks the 200th anniversary of the death of English novelist Jane Austen. As I read this short appreciation by Anthony Trollope, it occurred to me that, if you changed “Miss Austen” to “Mr. Trollope” and the female pronouns to male ones, you could just as easily have been talking about the Victorian novelist as the one who wrote of the Napoleonic Era. Indeed, a number of contemporary readers have deemed him “a male Jane Austen.”
Trollope’s openness to her virtues as a writer was by no means a given. In The Way We Live Now, he depicted Lady Carbury, a beginning female writer, with some compassion, but even more irony. Aware that she is not possessed of much ability, Lady Carbury feels compelled to write as a 43-year-old widow who wants to ensure that her grown children are decently provided for. She might not succeed through talent, but she can through still-considerable attractiveness and charm used on male editors and critics who can give her book more attention than it deserves .
Thought of another way: Trollope doesn’t think Mrs. Carbury has earned her way, but Jane Austen most definitely has. Take a look at the half-dozen books she churned out in the last four years of her life—including Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility—and see if he wasn’t right.