“Suicide is Preferable”: Ralph Waldo Emerson on Jane Austen

Jeff O'Neal

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Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.

It is pathologically delicious to suspect that one author would hate another and then find out that they indeed did. I would have guessed that Henry James hated Dickens, and I can think of no canonical author Emerson would have detested more than Austen. And I was right. Check this out:

“Never was life so pinched & narrow.  The one problem in the mind of the writer in both the stories I have read, “Persuasion”, and “Pride & Prejudice”, is marriageableness; all that interests any character introduced is still this one, has he or she money to marry with, & conditions conforming? ‘Tis “the nympholepsy of a fond despair”, say rather, of an English boarding-house.  Suicide is more respectable.”

Emerson, to his credit, saved these critiques for his personal notebooks, which were published after his death. This one comes from the summer of 1861, when the drama of landed Englis gentry probably seemed all the more frivolous.