Jane Austen as ‘Prose Shakespeare’: Early Comparisons

  • Joanne Wilkes


In an 1821 review of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, Richard Whately compared Austen to Shakespeare on account of her ability to create characters who are universal types as well as individuals. In the 1840s and 1850s, Thomas Babington Macaulay and George Henry Lewes took up this point.

This analogy between Austen and Shakespeare continued during the rest of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and obviously boosted Austen’s reputation. This chapter examines the less obvious implications of such frequent comparison: on the one hand, it meant that Austen, a female practitioner of a genre generally considered inferior to poetry and drama, was aligned with the most elevated male poet/dramatist in English literature. On the other hand, this also induced some critics to identify the differences between the two. Austen was, for some of these critics, fully in control of what she attempted, but she did not attempt much.

It is these problematic implications of the Austen/Shakespeare comparison that the current chapter examines. It surveys the work of a range of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century critics. These critics’ studies bring into focus the question of how far writers’ works survive because they express putatively ‘universal’ aspects of human life.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joanne Wilkes
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of English, Drama and Writing StudiesUniversity of AucklandAucklandNew Zealand

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