Whately’s Review of Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion, 1821

By Brenda S. Cox

(Bonus Material for Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England)

Soon, my upcoming book, Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England will be available! It will be offered at the JASNA AGM at the end of September, then on Oct. 20 from Amazon! The Kindle version can be pre-ordered now and the print version will be available soon.

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting what I call “bonus materials” for Fashionable Goodness. These are resources, mostly from primary sources, on Austen’s church and world that I see as valuable, but which there was not space to include in the print version of the book. If you find them helpful, you may wish to subscribe to my blog in order to get them in your inbox each week.

Would you like to know what Austen’s contemporaries thought about her novels and their religious messages? (Especially Fanny Price; why did they admire her?) Clergyman Richard Whately, later Archbishop of Dublin, reviewed several of Jane Austen’s novels in 1821. He focused on her being “evidently a Christian writer: a merit which is much enhanced, both on the score of good taste, and of practical utility, by her religion being not at all obtrusive.” He shows that Austen teaches with natural, entertaining, moral examples, not by preaching. While it says it’s a review of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, much of the review focuses on Mansfield Park.

The review is quite long; you can access the whole review at the link below, but I have given what I think are the most relevant and interesting parts. I have added subtitles and broken up paragraphs for easier reading. I also corrected his spelling “Austin” to “Austen,” and added chapter references from modern editions of the novels. [Brackets are my explanatory additions.] (Parentheses are in the original.)

From The Quarterly Review, London, Volume 24, No. 48. January, 1821, Article V, 352–376.

Article V.—“Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. By the Author of ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ ‘Mansfield Park,’ and ‘Emma.’ 4 vols. New Edition.

Richard Whately’s 1821 review focuses on Jane Austen as a Christian writer.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Novels

The reviewer begins by saying that in previous times reviewers had to apologize for reviewing a novel, but not any more. “The delights of fiction, if not more keenly or more generally relished, are at least more readily acknowledged by men of sense and taste; and we have lived to hear the merits of the best of this class of writings earnestly discussed by some of the ablest scholars and soundest reasoners of the present day.”

Imaginative novels (presumably like the Gothic novels that Austen lampooned in Northanger Abbey) are improbable and so don’t teach any general lessons. But a realistic novel shows “us what must naturally, or would probably, happen under given circumstances; and thus displays to us a comprehensive view of human nature, and furnishes general rules of practical wisdom.” He goes on to give examples of both unnatural and improbable events in popular fiction, which do not help the reader deal with real life.

Whately says that others criticize novels for “inflaming the passions of young persons by warm descriptions, weakening their abhorrence of profligacy by exhibiting it in combination with the most engaging qualities, and presenting vice in all its allurements, while setting forth the triumphs of ‘virtue rewarded’”; in other words, novels can make bad behavior appealing, to the majority of people who, the reviewer says, have no discrimination.

Teaching by the Example of Realistic Characters

However, he writes, several modern novels are in “a much higher class.” They are just as valuable as moral essays, because “their views of men and manners” are also true, and they teach “practical lessons” “by example instead of precept.” Rather than an essayist writing generally about a group of people, we see truths through “individuals . . . who are so clearly delineated and brought into action before us, that we seem to be acquainted with them, and feel an interest in their fate.” In fact, novels are valuable as “a kind of fictitious biography” and therefore are an “attractive and profitable” kind of reading.

Jane Austen is the Best

Whately continues, “Among the authors of this school there is no one superior, if equal, to the lady whose last production is now before us [Jane Austen], and whom we have much regret in finally taking leave of: her death (in the prime of life, considered as a writer) being announced in this the first publication to which her name is prefixed. We regret the failure not only of a source of innocent amusement, but also of that supply of practical good sense and instructive example, which she would probably have continued to furnish better than any of her contemporaries:

Flaws of Maria Edgeworth, Rival Novelist

“Miss Edgeworth, indeed, draws characters and details conversations, such as they occur in real life, with a spirit and fidelity not to be surpassed; but her stories are most romantically improbable, (in the sense above explained,) almost all the important events of them being brought about by most providential coincidences; and this, as we have already remarked, is not merely faulty, inasmuch as it evinces a want of skill in the writer, and gives an air of clumsiness to the fiction, but is a very considerable drawback on its practical utility: the personages either of fiction or history being then only profitable examples, when their good or ill conduct meets its appropriate reward, not from a sort of independent machinery of accidents, but as a necessary or probable result, according to the ordinary course of affairs.

“Miss Edgeworth also is somewhat too avowedly didactic . . . she would, we think, instruct more successfully, and she would, we are sure, please more frequently, if she kept the design of teaching more out of sight, and did not so glaringly press every circumstance of her story, principal or subordinate, into the service of a principle to be inculcated, or information to be given. A certain portion of moral instruction must accompany every well-invented narrative. Virtue must be represented as producing, at the long run, happiness; and vice, misery; and the accidental events, that in real life interrupt this tendency, are anomalies which, though true individually, are as false generally as the accidental deformities which vary the average outline of the human figure. . . . But any direct attempt at moral teaching, and any attempt whatever to give scientific information, will, we fear, unless managed with the utmost discretion, interfere with what, after all, is the immediate and peculiar object of the novelist, as of the poet, to please.”

He continues, saying that Miss Edgeworth adds too much information about topics like law and medicine, which take away from the pleasure of the novel. He also complains that she says too little about religion. He considers it a defect that “virtue should be studiously inculcated with scarcely any reference to what [some people] regard as the main spring of it; that vice should be traced to every other source except the want of religious principle,” and that she fails to attribute improvement in character and consolation in affliction to God, more than to other causes.

Jane Austen, A Christian Writer without Preaching

“Miss Austen has the merit (in our judgment most essential) of being evidently a Christian writer: a merit which is much enhanced, both on the score of good taste, and of practical utility, by her religion being not at all obtrusive. She might defy the most fastidious critic to call any of her novels, (as Coelebs [Hannah More’s novel] was designated, we will not say altogether without reason,) a ‘dramatic sermon.’ The subject is rather alluded to, and that incidentally, than studiously brought forward and dwelt upon.

“In fact she is more sparing of it than would be thought desirable by some persons; perhaps even by herself, had she consulted merely her own sentiments; but she probably introduced it as far as she thought would be generally acceptable and profitable: for when the purpose of inculcating a religious principle is made too palpably prominent, many readers, if they do not throw aside the book with disgust, are apt to fortify themselves with that respectful kind of apathy with which they undergo a regular sermon, and prepare themselves as they do to swallow a dose of medicine, endeavouring to get it down in large gulps, without tasting more than is necessary.

Moral Lessons That Come Naturally from the Story

“The moral lessons also of this lady’s novels, though clearly and impressively conveyed, are not offensively put forward, but spring incidentally from the circumstances of the story; they are not forced upon the reader, but he is left to collect them (though without any difficulty) for himself; her’s is that unpretending kind of instruction which is furnished by real life; and certainly no author has ever conformed more closely to real life, as well in the incidents, as in the characters and descriptions.

Austen’s Skill as a Writer

“Her fables appear to us to be, in their own way, nearly faultless; they do not consist (like those of some of the writers who have attempted this kind of common-life novel writing) of a string of unconnected events which have little or no bearing on one main plot, and are introduced evidently for the sole purpose of bringing in characters and conversations; but have all that compactness of plan and unity of action which is generally produced by a sacrifice of probability: yet they have little or nothing that is not probable; the story proceeds without the aid of extraordinary accidents; the events which take place are the necessary or natural consequences of what has preceded; and yet (which is a very rare merit indeed) the final catastrophe is scarcely ever clearly foreseen from the beginning, and very often comes, upon the generality of readers at least, quite unexpected. . . .

“The vividness of description, the minute fidelity of detail, and air of unstudied ease in the scenes represented, which are no less necessary than probability of incident, to carry the reader’s imagination along with the story, and give fiction the perfect appearance of reality, she possesses in a high degree; and the object is accomplished without resorting to those deviations from the ordinary plan of narrative in the third person, which have been patronized by some eminent masters.”

“She does not go to the first person or put the story in a series of letters, but writes them more like “real histories.” She uses letters occasionally “with great effect,” and she gives “a dramatic air to the narrative, by introducing frequent conversations; which she conducts with a regard to character hardly exceeded even by Shakspeare himself. Like him, she shows as admirable a discrimination in the characters of fools as of people of sense; a merit which is far from common. . . . Miss Austen’s Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Rushworth, and Miss Bates, are no more alike than her Darcy, Knightley, and Edmund Bertram. Some have complained, indeed, of finding her fools too much like nature, and consequently tiresome. . . . Her minuteness of detail . . . is absolutely essential to a very high excellence.”

Mansfield Park on Education

“‘Mansfield Park’ contains some of Miss Austen’s best moral lessons, as well as her most humorous descriptions. The following specimen unites both: it is a sketch of the mode of education adopted for the two Miss Bertrams, by their aunt Norris, whose father, Sir Thomas, has just admitted into his family a poor niece, Fanny Price, (the heroine) a little younger, and much less accomplished than his daughters.

“Dear Mamma, only think, my cousin cannot put the map of Europe together—or my cousin cannot tell the principal rivers in Russia—or she never heard of Asia Minor—or she does not know the difference between water-colours and crayons!—How strange!—Did you ever hear anything so stupid?”

“My dear,” their considerate aunt would reply, “it is very bad, but you must not expect everybody to be as forward and quick at learning as yourself.”

“But, aunt, she is really so very ignorant!—Do you know, we asked her last night which way she would go to get to Ireland; and she said, she should cross to the Isle of Wight. She thinks of nothing but the Isle of Wight, and she calls it the Island, as if there were no other island in the world. I am sure I should have been ashamed of myself, if I had not known better long before I was so old as she is. I cannot remember the time when I did not know a great deal that she has not the least notion of yet. How long ago it is, aunt, since we used to repeat the chronological order of the kings of England, with the dates of their accession, and most of the principal events of their reigns!”

“Yes,” added the other; “and of the Roman emperors as low as Severus; besides a great deal of the Heathen Mythology, and all the Metals, Semi-Metals, Planets, and distinguished philosophers.”

“Very true indeed, my dears, but you are blessed with wonderful memories, and your poor cousin has probably none at all. There is a vast deal of difference in memories, as well as in everything else, and therefore you must make allowance for your cousin, and pity her deficiency. And remember that, if you are ever so forward and clever yourselves, you should always be modest; for, much as you know already, there is a great deal more for you to learn.”

“Yes, I know there is, till I am seventeen. But I must tell you another thing of Fanny, so odd and so stupid. Do you know, she says she does not want to learn either music or drawing.”

“To be sure, my dear, that is very stupid indeed, and shews a great want of genius and emulation. But, all things considered, I do not know whether it is not as well that it should be so, for, though you know (owing to me) your papa and mamma are so good as to bring her up with you, it is not at all necessary that she should be as accomplished as you are;—on the contrary, it is much more desirable that there should be a difference” (ch. 2).

         Whately continues, “The character of Sir Thomas is admirably drawn; one of those men who always judge rightly, and act wisely, when a case is fairly put before them; but who are quite destitute of acuteness of discernment and adroitness of conduct. The Miss Bertrams, without any peculiarly bad natural disposition, and merely with that selfishness, self-importance, and want of moral training, which are the natural result of their education, are conducted, by a train of probable circumstances, to a catastrophe which involves their father in the deepest affliction.

         “It is melancholy to reflect how many young ladies in the same sphere, with what is ordinarily called every advantage in point of education, are so precisely in the same situation, that if they avoid a similar fate, it must be rather from good luck than any thing else. The care that is taken to keep from them every thing in the shape of affliction, prevents their best feelings from being exercised; and the pains bestowed on their accomplishment, raises the idea of their own consequence: the heart becomes hard, and is engrossed by vanity with all its concomitant vices. Mere moral and religious instruction are not adequate to correct all this. But it is a shame to give in our own language sentiments which are so much better expressed by Miss Austen.

Sir Thomas too lately became aware how unfavourable to the character of any young people, must be the totally opposite treatment which Maria and Julia had been always experiencing at home, where the excessive indulgence and flattery of their aunt had been continually contrasted with his own severity. He saw how ill he had judged, in expecting to counteract what was wrong in Mrs. Norris, by its reverse in himself, clearly saw that he had but increased the evil, by teaching them to repress their spirits in his presence so as to make their real disposition unknown to him, and sending them for all their indulgences to a person who had been able to attach them only by the blindness of her affection, and the excess of her praise.

Here had been grievous mismanagement; but, bad as it was, he gradually grew to feel that it had not been the most direful mistake in his plan of education. Something must have been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its ill effect. He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting; that they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers, by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice. To be distinguished for elegance and accomplishments—the authorised object of their youth—could have had no useful influence that way, no moral effect on the mind. He had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition; and of the necessity of self-denial and humility, he feared they had never heard from any lips that could profit them.

Bitterly did he deplore a deficiency which now he could scarcely comprehend to have been possible. Wretchedly did he feel, that with all the cost and care of an anxious and expensive education, he had brought up his daughters without their understanding their first duties, or his being acquainted with their character and temper (ch. 48).

Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford, not fiends or angels

Whately continues, “Edmund Bertram, the second son, a sensible and worthy young man, is captivated by a Miss Crawford, who, with her brother, is on a visit at the Parsonage with her half-sister, Mrs. Grant: the progress of his passion is very happily depicted:

Miss Crawford’s attractions did not lessen. The harp arrived, and rather added to her beauty, wit, and good-humour, for she played with the greatest obligingness, with an expression and taste which were peculiarly becoming, and there was something clever to be said at the close of every air. Edmund was at the Parsonage every day, to be indulged with his favourite instrument; one morning secured an invitation for the next, for the lady could not be unwilling to have a listener, and every thing was soon in a fair train.

A young woman, pretty, lively, with a harp as elegant as herself; and both placed near a window, cut down to the ground, and opening on a little lawn, surrounded by shrubs in the rich foliage of summer, was enough to catch any man’s heart. The season, the scene, the air, were all favourable to tenderness and sentiment (ch. 7).

Whately says, “He [Edmund] is, however, put in doubt as to her character, by the occasional levity of her sentiments, and her aversion to his intended profession, the church, and to a retired life. Both she and her brother are very clever, agreeable, and good-humoured, and not without moral taste (for Miss Austen does not deal in fiends and angels,) but brought up without strict principles, and destitute of real self-denying benevolence.

Fanny Price and Henry Crawford, objecting to his principles

“The latter [Henry Crawford] falls in love with Fanny Price, whom he had been originally intending to flirt with for his own amusement. She, however, objects to his [religious] principles; being not satisfied with religious belief and practice in herself, and careless about them in her husband. In this respect she presents a useful example to a good many modern females, whose apparent regard for religion in themselves, and indifference about it in their partners for life, make one sometimes inclined to think that they hold the opposite extreme to the Turk’s opinion, and believe men to have no souls.

“Her uncle, Sir Thomas, however, who sees nothing of her objection, is displeased at her refusal; and thinking that she may not sufficiently prize the comforts of wealth to which she has been so long accustomed, without the aid of contrast, encourages her paying a visit to her father, a Captain Price, of the Marines, settled with a large family at Portsmouth. She goes, accompanied by her favourite brother William, with all the fond recollections, and bright anticipations, of a visit after eight years’ absence.

“With a candour very rare in a novelist, Miss Austen describes the remedy as producing its effect. After she has spent a month in the noise, privations, and vulgarities of home, Mr. Crawford pays her a visit of a couple of days; after he was gone,

Fanny was out of spirits all the rest of the day. Though tolerably secure of not seeing Mr. Crawford again, she could not help being low. It was parting with somebody of the nature of a friend; and though in one light glad to have him gone, it seemed as if she was now deserted by every body; it was a sort of renewed separation from Mansfield; and she could not think of his returning to town, and being frequently with Mary and Edmund, without feelings so near akin to envy as made her hate herself for having them.

Her dejection had no abatement from any thing passing around her; a friend or two of her father’s, as always happened if he was not with them, spent the long, long evening there; and from six o’clock to half-past nine, there was little intermission of noise or grog. She was very low. The wonderful improvement which she still fancied in Mr. Crawford, was the nearest to administering comfort of anything within the current of her thoughts. Not considering in how different a circle she had been just seeing him, nor how much might be owing to contrast, she was quite persuaded of his being astonishingly more gentle, and regardful of others, than formerly. And, if in little things, must it not be so in great? So anxious for her health and comfort, so very feeling as he now expressed himself, and really seemed, might not it be fairly supposed, that he would not much longer persevere in a suit so distressing to her? (ch. 42)

         Whately continues, “Fanny is, however, armed against Mr. Crawford by a stronger feeling even than her disapprobation; by a vehement attachment to Edmund. The silence in which this passion is cherished—the slender hopes and enjoyments by which it is fed—the restlessness and jealousy with which it fills a mind naturally active, contented and unsuspicious—the manner in which it tinges every event and every reflection, are painted with a vividness and a detail of which we can scarcely conceive any one but a female, and we should almost add, a female writing from recollection, capable.

Austen and Female Character, being like male character

“To say the truth, we suspect one of Miss Austen’s great merits in our eyes to be, the insight she gives us into the peculiarities of female character. . . .  Her heroines are what one knows women must be, though one never can get them to acknowledge it. As liable to ‘fall in love first,’ as anxious to attract the attention of agreeable men, as much taken with a striking manner, or a handsome face, as unequally gifted with constancy and firmness, as liable to have their affections biased by convenience or fashion, as we, on our part, will admit men to be.”

Northanger Abbey and Persuasion

The review continues with a discussion of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. He doesn’t like Northanger Abbey as well as Austen’s other novels, saying it has “less plot” and “less exquisite nicety of moral painting,” yet it deserves praise for “the same kind of excellencies which characterise the other novels,” and he enjoys the humorous depictions of John and Isabella Thorpe.

He admires the maturity of Persuasion, “one of the most elegant fictions of common life we ever remember to have met with.” He continues with a plot summary and extensive quotes from Persuasion.


Whately says the prevailing fault of his day is for young people to “sacrifice all for love,” and he appreciates, in contrast, Anne Elliot’s “prudent refusal to listen to the suggestions of her heart.” He recommends, “To disregard the advice of sober-minded friends on an important point of conduct, is an imprudence we would by no means recommend; indeed, it is a species of selfishness, if, in listening only to the dictates of passion, a man sacrifices to its gratification the happiness of those most dear to him as well as his own; though it is not now-a-days the most prevalent form of selfishness.

“But it is no condemnation of a sentiment to say, that it becomes blameable when it interferes with duty, and is uncontrouled by conscience: the desire of riches, power, or distinction,—the taste for ease and comfort,—are to be condemned when they transgress these bounds; and love, if it keep within them, even though it be somewhat tinged with enthusiasm, and a little at variance with what the worldly call prudence, i.e. regard for pecuniary advantage, may afford a better moral discipline to the mind than most other passions. It will not at least be denied, that it has often proved a powerful stimulus to exertion where others have failed, and has called forth talents unknown even to the possessor. . . .

“It is proverbially true that men become assimilated to the character (i.e. what they think the character) of the being they fervently adore. . . . Moreover, all doubts of success . . . must either produce or exercise humility; and the endeavour to study another’s interests and inclinations, and prefer them to one’s own, may promote a habit of general benevolence. . . . Every thing, in short, which tends to abstract a man in any degree, or in any way, from self,—from self-admiration and self-interest, has . . . a beneficial influence in forming the character.

Austen Provides Entertainment and Knowledge of Human Nature

 “On the whole, Miss Austen’s works may safely be recommended, not only as among the most unexceptionable of their class, but as combining, in an eminent degree, instruction with amusement, though without the direct effort at the former, of which we have complained, as sometimes defeating its object. For those who cannot, or will not, learn any thing from productions of this kind, she has provided entertainment which entitles her to thanks; for mere innocent amusement is in itself a good, when it interferes with no greater; especially as it may occupy the place of some other that may not be innocent. The Eastern monarch who proclaimed a reward to him who should discover a new pleasure, would have deserved well of mankind had he stipulated that it should be blameless. Those, again, who delight in the study of human nature, may improve in the knowledge of it, and in the profitable application of that knowledge, by the perusal of such fictions as those before us.”


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