I’ve complained here before about seeing my second favorite novelist referred to as a “Victorian.” This howler has been popping up less and less of late. (No credit due here, of course: people probably just started using Wikipedia….) But now I’m beginning to see a similar mistake. In a piece—not entirely without interest—in the Atlantic about Austenian political economy, one finds her referred to in the headline as an “18th-century novelist.”
Ugh. Yes, she wrote some of her novels in the late eighteenth century, but when critics talk about “eighteenth-century novelists” or “the eighteenth-century novel,” they do not simply mean novelists who wrote during what American high-school teachers now call “the seventeen-hundreds” or their work. They are talking about the baggy episodic picaresques of Fielding and Smollett and the bloated epistolary bildungsromans of Richardson. Austen, whose carefully structured domestic miniatures anticipate Flaubertian realism and the modernism of Woolf, was a very different kettle of fish.
I see what’s coming next: Okay, so if “18th-century” isn’t a strictly chronological designation, why should “Victorian” be one? Isn’t it fair to class Austen with, say, Dickens and Thackeray? The answer is “no.” Austen wasn’t a Victorian novelist chronologically or aesthetically. Victorian novelists tended to write serially, which led them to introduce their subplots, cliffhangers, and so on in a way that lent itself well to the periodical format. The fact that, say, The Way We Live Now reads as well as it does in book form is an aesthetic miracle, to be sure; it just isn’t one that Jane Austen ever performed.
Anyway, why can’t we just call her “Jane Austen,” or, if one wants to avoid repetition, “the author of Mansfield Park“?