"Her fools, her prigs, her worldlings"

On this day in 1811 Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, her first novel, was published. Promotional advertisements suggested that it was a conventional love story, its anonymous author “a Lady” or “Lady ____,” this cover-up for privacy but also to add romantic allure. Approaching the novel more or less as billed, early reviewers found it to be “a genteel, well-written novel” as far as “domestic literature” went, and “just long enough to interest without fatiguing.”

Later critics recognized that Sense and Sensibility was more a send-up of the romantic-melodrama genre than yet another installment in it, and a comic slap at the genteel and the “sensibility” craze. Some feel that Austen was at her most unladylike in her first novel, and perhaps not at her consistent best. Virginia Woolf praised Austen’s ability to portray “her fools, her prigs, her worldlings” with “the lash of a whip-like phrase which, as it runs round them, cuts out their silhouettes for ever,” and then added: “Sometimes it seems as if her creatures were born merely to give Jane Austen the supreme delight of slicing their heads off.”

*** Richard Brinsley Sheridan was born on this day in 1751, and his satire The Critic premiered at the Drury Lane Theatre on this day in 1799. The play’s target is the theater itself — the bombastic playwrights, the proclaiming critics, the audiences that would rather follow the critics’ proclamations than “undergo the fatigue of judging for themselves.” Enter Mr. Puff, a critic-publicist, would-be playwright and general pen-for-hire:

I make no secret of the trade I follow … I love to be frank on the subject, and to advertise myself viva voce — I am, sir, a practitioner in panegyric, or, to speak more plainly, a professor of the art of puffing, at your service — or anybody else’s.

The Critic was Sheridan’s last play before moving on to politics; as described by his biographers, Sheridan lost his enthusiasm well before finishing the script. With the last scene still unwritten just two days before the opening, Sheridan’s partners at Drury Lane Theatre called a night rehearsal and lured him into the green room with a message that they had “something particular to communicate.” The message was a table set with a dish of anchovy sandwiches, two bottles of claret, a stack of paper, pens and ink; as soon as Sheridan stepped in the room, they stepped out, and told him through the locked door that he would remain inside until the scene was completed. He finished everything — wine, sandwiches, scene — and reportedly “laughed heartily at the ingenuity of the contrivance.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.