Persuasions #13, 1991                                                                                                                                    Pages 33-38


“Without Impropriety”:
Maria Jane Jewsbury on Jane Austen



Department of English, University of Auckland,

Private Bag, Auckland, New Zealand


In Persuasions #8, David Groves discusses a neglected early article on Jane Austen which was published in the Athenaeum for 27 August, 1831.  He highlights the article’s praise of Austen’s novels for their realistic characterisation, particularly of the heroes and heroines, as well as its perceptive remarks on Austen’s skilful plot construction.1  There are, however, two other aspects of the Athenaeum article which merit further attention.  First, its author was a fellow female writer of fiction, Maria Jane Jewsbury (1800-33), who discusses Austen partly in the light of the constraints affecting would-be women writers of the period; secondly, George Henry Lewes was to quote from the article in a way which hints at the influence Austen’s works exerted on George Eliot.

In a survey of Maria Jane Jewsbury’s career, Monica Fryckstedt lists the reviews she had published in the Athenaeum in 1830-31, having identified them through the extant marked file providing the names of the magazine’s contributors for that period: among the articles attributed to Maria Jane Jewsbury is that on Jane Austen.2  But Jewsbury’s Athenaeum reviews, including several focussed on contemporary women writers, represent only the final stage of a career in which she had constantly grappled with the problems inherent to the life of a woman with literary aspirations in the early nineteenth century.

At the age of nine, this eldest child of a Derbyshire manufacturer turned Manchester insurance agent had conceived the ambition of publishing a book, achieving public recognition thereby, and associating with authors.  But ill-health forced her to leave school at fourteen, and when her mother died in 1819 after giving birth to her sixth child, Maria Jane, still in her ‘teens, was left in charge of bringing up her siblings.  Hence she found it very difficult to pursue her literary ambitions as well, and, not knowing any authors or even “a single person of superior mind,” she was unaware of how deficient in cultivation her aborted education had left her.3  In the early 1820s help came in the shape of journalist Alaric Watts, who guided her reading, and persuaded Hurst and Robinson to bring out in 1825 Phantasmagoria, a two-volume collection of her verse and short prose pieces.4  Among the latter are several sharp and witty sketches ridiculing the affectations and pretensions of contemporary writers, critics and literary hangers-on; for all their wit, nevertheless, they do suggest that Jewsbury doubted the value of achieving success as a writer in the current climate.  Aspirants to literary renown are depicted as often lacking in talent and full of self-importance; critics as lazy, pedantic, or preoccupied with their own hobby-horses; readers as given to extreme and fickle judgments based simply on fashion.  Possibly relevant to Jewsbury’s later interest in writing on Austen is the observation that people of her own period tend to overrate both the literature of the present and that of the distant past, but to underrate the writings of immediate precedessors.5

Moreover, a later work about a woman writer, Jewsbury’s short novel The History of an Enthusiast (1830, one of a collection called The Three Histories) suggests that literature as a career offers particular difficulties for women.  These result partly from social prejudices against women who aspire to an education with any intellectual substance, or to any sort of life outside the domestic sphere, and the heroine’s struggles against these obstacles are presented quite sympathetically.  Yet her success costs her the man she loves, and the story implies that in achieving it she has also betrayed her essential womanhood.  She comes to lament the situation of the celebrated woman writer:


However much as an individual she may have gained in name, and rank, and fortune, she has suffered as a woman; in the history of letters she may be associated with man, but her own sweet life is lost; [...] She is a reed shaken with the wind; a splendid exotic nurtured for display; an ornament to be worn only on birth-nights and festivals […] a flower plunged beneath a petrifying spring.6


This suggests that Jewsbury may have some sympathy with the traditional nineteenth-century view of women’s natural sphere as being the private domain of home and family, and indeed in her Letters to the Young (1828), the recipient (the writer’s younger sister) is urged to accept that life for women is a matter of “graceful and good-humoured attention to inferior employments, homely duties and ordinary associations.”7  Yet while such observations may bear witness to Maria Jewsbury’s own self-doubt about the validity of her enterprise as a woman writer, they may also be instances of the strategies of accommodation to prevailing assumptions about women which Norma Clarke has shown to be characteristic of women writers of the period.  Women were very conscious of how writing for publication implicitly challenged masculine domination of the public sphere and the literary marketplace, not to mention the notion that their sex was incapable of a high level of intellectual cultivation.  Hence they sometimes made their own contributions to the conventional criticism of women writers as a means of self-protection, of playing down the autonomy betrayed by their own works.8  Certainly Maria Jewsbury never ceased to aspire to literary success: even when she married in 1832 and accompanied her clergyman husband to India, she took with her copies of her periodical contributions so as to arrange them for possible republication, a project only aborted by her premature death from cholera the following year.

Given her own concerns and experiences, it is not surprising that in considering Jane Austen’s life, Maria Jewsbury should pay particular attention to its apparent serenity, a serenity deriving from Austen’s congenial upbringing and her lack of ambition.  The daughter of a conscientious clergyman, “a scholar, a man of fine general taste,” Jane Austen had lived most of her life in the country.  She was, Jewsbury claims, “placed from infancy under two influences, calculated to mature female intellect in the happiest manner – rural life, and domestic intercourse at once polished, intellectual, and affectionate.”  Jewsbury is of course echoing here the only biographical source on Jane Austen then available, the “Biographical Notice” by her brother Henry which accompanied the posthumous publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, but there may be some underlying envy of Austen present as well, since Maria Jewsbury .disliked living in Manchester, and did not find her own family “polished” or “intellectual.”9  Maria Jewsbury notes too that (unlike herself), Austen did not strive anxiously for literary success, having no financial or emotional need for it:


Placed by Providence in easy and elegant circumstances – endowed preeminently with good sense, and a placid unobtrusive temperament, she passed unscathed through the ordeal of authorship, and, in addition to exciting enthusiastic affection in immediate friends, received the general good-will of all who knew her.


Literature was not a profession to Jane Austen, but an occupation she took up “entirely from taste and inclination,” and, “not having staked her hopes of happiness on success or failure,” she was “amply satisfied” with the attention her works received.  Her lack of ambition meant that Austen did not assert her own claims for public recognition in a way which might be considered unwomanly, but her works still gained a degree of appreciation.

Jewsbury also observes:


For those who may doubt the possibility of engrafting literary habits on those peculiarly set apart for the female sex, and for those who may doubt how far literary reputation is attainable, without a greater sacrifice to notoriety than they may deem compatible with female happiness and delicacy, it is pleasant to have so triumphant a reference as Miss Austen.


Significantly, the tone and sentence construction here suggest that the writer does not necessarily share the doubts alluded to; rather, given that such reservations (prejudices?) are common, the writer may be pleased to be able to cite Jane Austen’s career so as to undermine them.  Because this article, like most in the Athenaeum, was anonymous, Jewsbury is not writing overtly as a woman, and thus may have more freedom to distance herself from conventional assumptions about women writers.  The following sentence is also ambiguous: “Being dead, she may be quoted without impropriety.”  Does Maria Jewsbury genuinely believe it improper to bring women even into so much public notice as to write about them while they are still alive, or is she merely deferring to such a conviction in her readers?

If there may be a gap between Maria Jewsbury’s own attitude to women writers and that prevailing in her society, there is certainly, in her view, a divergence between the personality projected by Jane Austen in her life, and that conveyed by her novels.  While I agree with David Groves that the article does not present Austen as “a kind of covert revolutionary or aggressive malcontent,”10 I do think it implies that Austen was obliged to conceal her true feelings and opinions in society, partly because she was a woman.   Since her fictional strength is “delineating folly, selfishness, and absurdity,” the universal affection and good-will she aroused represents “a high tribute to the benevolence of her temper and the polish of her manners in daily life.”  What Austen must have done, Jewsbury decides, was to adopt deliberately in her life a demeanour attuned to conventional beliefs about women:


In society, she had too much wit to lay herself open to the charge of being too witty; and discriminated too well to attract notice to her discrimination.  She was, we suspect, like one of her own heroines, “incurably gentle,” and acted on the principle of another, that “if a woman have the misfortune of knowing anything, she should conceal it as well as she can.”


Rather than legitimising her role as a writer by endorsing traditional attitudes in her works, Austen ensured that she came across in society as gentle, unintellectual, and thus acceptably feminine, while using her fiction as an outlet for her wit, discrimination, and social criticism.  In a later article Maria Jewsbury was to claim that women writers tend to be more outspoken in novels than in works overtly focussed on the female role, because they are therein more free of “a paralyzing fear of man.”  When a woman writes fiction, “she then fancies herself veiled, and often enunciates important truths; the fear of man somewhat departs from her mind, and she becomes (by comparison), free, natural, and unconventional.”11

Given Jewsbury’s belief that Austen consciously adopted a pose in life, it is perhaps surprising that she accepts at face value the self-deprecation in the famous letter comparing her work to a “little bit of ivory” – especially as Henry Austen does call it “playful.”  The first in a long line of critics to discuss the passage, Jewsbury comments


She herself compares her productions to a little bit of ivory two inches wide, worked upon with a brush so fine that little effect is produced after much labour.  It is so; her portraits are perfect likenesses, admirably finished, many of them gems, but it is all miniature-painting; and, satisfied with being inimitable in one line, she never essayed canvas and oils – never tried her hand at a majestic daub.


This, together with other of Jewsbury’s observations on Austen, was very congenial to George Henry Lewes, who quotes from her article extensively in the last and longest of his several appraisals of Austen’s works, published in Blackwood’s in July 1859.  One of Lewes’s central contentions is that Austen is a consummate artist, in that she offers “the truest representation” of human life with “the least expenditure of means,” but that many artists are greater than she because they choose a higher range of character and subject.  He therefore quotes approvingly Jewsbury’s discussion of the “little bit of ivory” passage, stating that it “at once defines [Austen’s] position and lowers her claims.”12  But strangely, Lewes attributes both this and his other citations from her article not to it, but to the earlier discussion of Austen by the Rev. Richard Whately in the Quarterly Review for January 1821.  The reason for the error is obscure – one of Lewes’s allusions to Whately’s article is in fact accurate – but the misattribution does enable Lewes to invest greater authority in the critic than would have been possible had he got the authorship right.  In introducing Jewsbury’s discussion of the “little bit of ivory” analogy, he ascribes it to Austen’s “reverend critic in the Quarterly,” and in citing a lengthy analysis of Austen’s characterisation, he solemnly intones, “[i]t is worth remembering that this is the deliberate judgment of the present Archbishop of Dublin, and not a careless verdict dropping from the pen of a facile reviewer.”  As well as being inaccurate, this is somewhat meretricious, since Whately was a long way from being Archbishop of Dublin in 1821, but the opinion of a male Church dignitary would probably have impressed Blackwood’s readers more than that of a nearly forgotten female (if not facile) reviewer.

And Lewes is presumably concerned that his readers respect what he presents as Whately’s views on Austen’s characterisation, not only because they support his own, but also because the passage in question provides a link between Austen and George Eliot.  Marian Evans had adopted her male pseudonym partly so as to have her work taken more seriously, and her recently published stories Scenes of Clerical Life (1858) were thought by some to have been written by a clergyman.  Speculation about their authorship was going on in the early months of 1859, while Lewes was writing his article on Austen, but it is impossible to tell whether there is any connection between all this and Lewes’s metamorphosis of Maria Jane Jewsbury’s views into the more authoritative opinions of the Archbishop of Dublin.  In any case, the passage he quotes reads:


Miss Austen was a thorough mistress in the knowledge of human character; how it is acted upon by education and circumstance; and how, when once formed, it shows itself through every hour of every day, and in every speech to every person.  Her conversations would be tiresome but for this; and her personages, the fellows to whom may be met in the streets and drank tea with at half an hour’s notice, would excite no interest.  But in Miss Austen’s hands we see into their hearts and hopes, their motives, their struggles within themselves; and a sympathy is induced, which, if extended to daily life and the world at large, would make the reader a more amiable person […] we must think it a reader’s own fault who does not close her pages with more charity in his heart towards unpretending, if prosing worth – with a higher estimation of simple kindness and sincere good-will – with a quickened sense of the duty of bearing and forbearing in domestic intercourse, and of the pleasure of adding to the little comforts even of persons who are neither wits nor beauties.


According to Lewes, this analysis highlights “Miss Austen’s power of representing life,” and “the effect which her sympathy with ordinary life produces.”  And Lewes stresses the latter point, he says, “for the sake of introducing a striking passage from one of the works of Mr. George Eliot” – the opening of the fifth chapter of “Amos Barton,” where the narrator urges the reader at some length to feel sympathy for the story’s “palpably and unmistakably commonplace” characters.  Clearly Jewsbury’s article spelt out for Lewes an important element of Austen’s novels – her capacity to portray ordinary people from the inside, and so as to arouse in her readers a sympathy for the literary creations which would then extend to people in the world outside the novels.  Needless to say, such was Eliot’s objective also.  Admittedly it is not an aim which can be said to owe its genesis to her reading of Austen – reflecting, rather, the convergence of Eliot’s humanism and her preoccupation with artistic representation, adumbrated as early as her famous 1854 review, “The Natural History of German Life.”  But given that Lewes claims to consider Eliot “inferior to Miss Austen in the art of telling a story, and generally in what we have called the ‘economy of art’ ” (albeit “greatly superior in culture, reach of mind, and depth of emotional sensibility”), it is conceivable that he presented Austen to Eliot as a writer with aims similar to her own, and urged her to learn from her predecessor in the areas where he thought her work deficient.  And it is possible too that Maria Jewsbury’s articulation of what she saw as Austen’s particular strengths suggested to Eliot how her own concerns might be perceived in the works of this earlier woman novelist.13





1 David Groves, “Jane Austen and the Athenaeum,” Persuasions, 8 (1986): 58-59.


2 Monica Correa Fryckstedt, “ ‘The Hidden Rill’ ”: The Life and Career of Maria Jane Jewsbury,” Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 67 (1984-1985): 450-73.  I am indebted to this two-part article – Pt. I appears in Vol. 66 (1983-1984): 177-203 – for much of my information about Jewsbury’s career.  Other important sources are Maria Jane Jewsbury, Occasional Papers, ed. Eric Gillett (London: Oxford University Press, 1932), and Norma Clarke, Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship, Love – The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans, and Jane Welsh Carlyle (London and New York: Routledge, 1990).


3 Maria Jane Jewsbury to Felicia Hemans, in Henry F. Chorley, Memorials of Mrs. Hemans (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1936), 67.  See also Alaric Alfred Watts, Alaric Watts, A Narrative of His Life (1884; repr. New York: AMS, 1974), I, 196.


4 Alaric Watts, I, 178ff.


5 “The Age of Books,” in Phantasmagoria: or, Sketches of Life and Literature (London: Hurst, Robinson and Co., 1825), I, 1-9; other relevant articles are “A Vision of Poets,” I, 55-73; “The Young Author,” I, 189-98; “First Efforts in Criticism,” I, 233-47; “My Critic,” II, 97-102; “The Miseries of Mediocrity,” II, 241-65.  All but the last two have been reprinted in Gillett’s collection.


6 The Three Histories (London: Frederick Westley and A.H. Davis, 1830), 132.


7 Maria Jane Jewsbury, Letters to the Young (London: J. Hatchard & Son, 1828), 113, quoted in Clarke, Ambitious Heights, 71.  The letters were based on those Maria Jane wrote to her younger sister Geraldine, later a prominent novelist and reviewer herself.


8 Ambitious Heights, 19 ff, and passim.


9 “Literary Women.  No. II. Jane Austen,” in The Athenaeum Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts, 27 August 1831, 553-54.  For Maria Jewsbury’s views on her life in Manchester, see Gillett, Maria Jane Jewsbury, xliii, liii-lv.


10 “Jane Austen and the Athenaeum,” 58.


11 Review of Mrs. John Sandford, Woman, in her Social and Domestic Character, in Athenaeum, 5 May 1832, 282-83.  The attribution of this review to Maria Jane Jewsbury cannot be certain, since no marked file exists for the magazine for 1832, but on the grounds of its subject matter and style, I agree with Norma Clarke (Ambitious Heights, 91-92, 229-30) that it is probably hers.


12 “The Novels of Jane Austen,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 86 (July-October 1859): 99-113 (Lewes’s emphasis).


13 For Lewes’s and Eliot’s reading of Austen in 1857, see The George Eliot Letters, ed. Gordon S. Haight, II (New Haven: Yale University Press; London: Oxford University Press, 1954), 319n, 327, 358.

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