It has been pointed out that most novel-writers and the majority of novel readers were women (thus in Jane Austen calls a "sister author"), while the , would all have been men. So in Jane Austen's day, novels actually had something of the same reputation that mass-market romances do today.
``The progress of the friendship between Catherine [Morland] and Isabella was quick as its beginning had been warm... and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novels; - for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding - joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, , and , with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from , are eulogized by a thousand pens, - there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. "I am no novel-reader - I seldom look into novels - Do not imagine that I often read novels - It is really very well for a novel." - Such is the common cant. - "And what are you reading, Miss - -?" "Oh! it is only a novel!" replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. "It is only CeciliaCamillaBelinda"; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.
Alexander Pope, 1688-1744, a poet. Not a favorite of Marianne Dashwood's in Sense and Sensibility.
Matthew Prior, 1664-1721, a poet and diplomat.
A series of essays originally published 1711-1712. Jane Austen attacks this favorite of the literary elites as being open to much the same accusations which the elites make against popular novels.
2.2 Jane Austen's Limitations
"Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore every body, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort." - Mansfield Park
"I have read [Byron's] The Corsair, mended my petticoat, and have nothing else to do." - Jane Austen,
Jane Austen limited her subject-matter in a number of ways in her (though her early and her letters often did not conform to these limitations; that she knew about a number of things she did not choose to treat in her novels can also be seen from her glancing allusions to such topics as ). Many of these limitations are due to her artistic integrity in not describing what she herself was not personally familiar with (or in avoiding clichéd plot devices common in the literature of her day).
She never handles the (conventionally masculine) topic of politics.
She never uses servants, small tradesmen, cottagers, etc. as more than purely incidental characters. Conversely, she does not describe the high nobility (the highest ranking "on-stage" characters are ), and (unlike present-day writers of modern "Regency" novels, or some of her contemporaries) she does not describe London high society.
She confines herself to the general territory that she herself has visited and is familiar with (more or less the southern half of ). (See her )
In her novels there is no violence (the closest approaches are the duel between Colonel Brandon and Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, in which neither is hurt, and the indefinite menacements of the Gypsies towards Harriet Smith and Miss Bickerton in Emma), and no crime (except for the poultry-thief at the end of Emma).
She never uses certain hackneyed plot devices then common, such as mistaken identities, doubtful and/or aristocratic parentage, and hidden-then-rediscovered wills. In Emma, Harriet Smith's parentage is actually not very mysterious (as Mr. Knightley had suspected all along). Jane Austen had exuberantly parodied this type of plot in Henry and Eliza, one of her :
[Wife to husband:] "Four months after you were gone, I was delivered of this Girl, but dreading your just resentment at her not proving the Boy you wished, I took her to a Haycock and laid her down. A few weeks afterwards, you returned, and fortunately for me, made no enquiries. Satisfied within myself of the wellfare of my Child, I soon forgot that I had one, insomuch that when we shortly afterward found her in the very Haycock I had placed her, I had no more idea of her being my own than you had."
In Jane Austen's works there is hardly any male sexual predation or assaults on female virtue - a favorite device of novelists of the period (even in a novel such as Evelina, which has no rapes or abductions to remote farmhouses, this is a constant theme). The only possible case is the affair between Willoughby and the younger Eliza Williams in Sense and Sensibility (about which little information is divulged in the novel) - since of Pride and Prejudice and Maria Bertram of Mansfield Park more or less throw themselves at and Henry Crawford respectively. Also, the elder Eliza Williams in Sense and Sensibility is more likely tempted astray because she is a weak personality trapped in a wretchedly unhappy marriage (remember that almost the only grounds for was the wife's infidelity), rather than because of any extraordinary arts or persuasions used by her seducer. And finally, whatever the complex of motives involved in the Mrs. Clay-Mr. Elliot affair in Persuasion, it can hardly be regarded as the seduction of a female by a sexually predatory male. In Jane Austen's last incomplete fragment, Sanditon, it is true that likes to think of himself as a predatory male, but he is described as such an ineffectual fool that it is difficult to believe that he would have accomplished any of his designs against the beauteous Clara Brereton, if Jane Austen had finished the work.
Note that all these affairs take place entirely "off-stage" (except for a few encounters of flirtation between Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford, long before she runs away with him), and are not described in any detail.
No one dies "on stage" in one of her novels, and almost no one dies at all during the main period of the events of each novel (except for Lord Ravenshaw's grandmother in Mansfield Park and Mrs. Churchill in Emma).
The illnesses that occur ( in Pride and Prejudice and Louisa Musgrove's in Persuasion) are not milked for much pathos (Marianne's in Sense and Sensibility is a partial exception, but Marianne is condemned for bringing her illness on herself). And Mrs. Smith in Persuasion (who takes a decidedly non-pathetic view of her own illness) pours cold water on Anne Elliot's ideas of the "ardent, disinterested, self-denying attachment, [...] , fortitude, patience, resignation" to be found in a sick-room. And in Sanditon, written while she was suffering from , Jane Austen made fun of several hypochondriac characters.
"Mrs. F. A. has had one fainting fit lately; it came on as usual after eating a hearty dinner, but did not last long." - Jane Austen,
The only person who actually faints in one of Jane Austen's novels is the silly Harriet Smith of Emma (since one rather suspects the genuineness of the "fainting fit" that Lucy Steele is reported to have been driven into by the furious Mrs. John Dashwoo