Happy Women’s History Month, everyone! Celebrating isn’t generally a heavy lift for me, since I write about women a lot anyway and everything on this blog is history by definition. This year, though, I decided to take a look at someone who was already history in 1922—Jane Austen, who had died just over a hundred years before.
I ordered Oscar Firkins’ 1920 book Jane Austen two years ago, while I was in Washington during the early months of COVID. I figured it would shed interesting light on how Austen was viewed at the time. What I wasn’t expecting was a delightful romp through her work that brightened some lonely afternoons during that terrible spring.
Our own century, of course, is not lacking in writing about Austen. There is scholarship focusing on all sorts of topics, including material culture and her depiction of slavery. There are memoirs and novels about reading Austen. What we don’t have, at least to my knowledge, is a book that makes you feel like you’re talking about Austen with a witty, perceptive friend.* So I was delighted to find that friend in Firkins.
Rather than describing Firkins’ writing on Austen, I’ll let him speak for himself. I realize the risk this poses, as does Firkins, who prefaces a long passage from Pride and Prejudice by acknowledging that “extracts, like other transplantations, are likely to be disappointing.” (If you’re not in the mood for transplantations, you can skip down to the first squiggle and read about Firkins’ intriguing life.)
If Firkins comes across as overly critical here, that’s my fault, not his—he’s an Austen fan, with plenty of good things to say, but criticism is so much more fun to read than praise. Also, admiration of Austen is a bit of a civic religion, so it’s refreshing to encounter someone who’s willing to look at her work through a non-adulatory lens.
On Sense and Sensibility
“Our liking [for Elinor Dashwood] passes through crises at every turn, and its final safety is a form of miracle. The reader is aided by the fact that under Miss Austen’s convoy he takes up his abode in the mind of Elinor, and a well-bred person feels a difficulty in quarreling with his hostess.”
On Pride and Prejudice
“When he [Darcy] first appears, he speaks insultingly of a young girl within her hearing. After that, all is over, and to search the character for virtues is to delve among ruins for salvage.”**
“A family, as Americans understand that term, they [the Bennets] are not; they are a congeries.*** They are bedded and boarded in the same enclosure, but a family life is unimaginable in their case. Even under the double disadvantage of the father’s neglect and the mother’s attention it is difficult to conceive that Kitty and Lydia should have sprung from the same stem from which Jane and Elizabeth were the primary offshoots.”
On Northanger Abbey
“I think I am drawn to Catherine by the fact that she is the only one of the heroines who acts like a young girl. Anne Elliot’s youthfulness is past; she already wears the willow,**** and her attitude imitates its droop. Emma, Elizabeth, and Elinor (they run to E’s like the early Saxon kings) are not really young. I reject the futility of baptismal registers and the vain umpireship of the family Bible. They all impress us as having sat on boards; we are lucky if we do not feel that they are sitting on boards in our very presence. Marianne’s conversation is ten years older than her behavior. I shall be told that Fanny Price is a young girl. Miss Becky Sharp was obliged by circumstances to be her own mamma; to my mind, Fanny Price is obliged by nature to be her own maiden aunt. But Catherine Morland is young in the fashion of young girls whom I actually know, simple, warm-hearted, pleasure-loving, diffident between her impulses and eager behind her shyness.”
On Mansfield Park
“Transferred to Mansfield Park, the ten-year-old girl [Fanny] grows up with the marvellous rapidity with which that operation—so tedious in real life—is accomplished by the heroines of fiction.”
“The elopement of Henry Crawford and Maria Rushworth in a story of this kind is like the firing of a piston shot at an afternoon tea. The story, naturally enough, flees to the nearest hiding-place, crouches down, and puts its fingers in its ears.”
“We feel that Edmund is overstarched, that Fanny is oversweetened, and that the two Crawfords are unfortunate in their resemblance to unstable chemical compounds.”
“We respect [Mrs. Weston] for bearing a child; that is an act of refreshing solidity in a world in which the people are mostly idle observers of each other’s idleness.”
“He [Mr. Knightley] is almost cruel in his rebuke of cruelty; one feels that he is the sort of master who would damn a servant for a lapse into profanity. I cannot but feel that this world must be far better and far better-natured than it now is before a mere flick of satire at another person’s obvious and obtrusive folly can deserve the avalanche of reprobation which Emma receives for her treatment of Miss Bates.”
“As for her [Jane Fairfax’s] sufferings, there are people who have a talent for endurance which is little short of an entreaty to destiny to unload its carload of misfortunes at their door.”
“A doctor’s resource for a troublesome case and a novelist’s expedient for an invalid story are one and the same. They must go to Bath.”
“Even the exertions of a novelist can no longer keep the lovers [Anne and Captain Wentworth] apart, but the contrivance by which understanding is brought about is so clumsy and artificial that perhaps it ought not to surprise us to hear that it has been warmly admired.”
“For my own pleasure, I could wish that Anne was less subject to agitation. I feel the same mixture of pity and irritation before the quivers and tremors that I should feel for a woman whose veils and draperies were blown hither and thither in the turbulence of a high wind. The embarrassment may be real, but the costume seems to invite it.”
On the novels as a group
“If a novelist wants to portray many persons, he must choose between logic and nature, in other words between artifice and incoherence. Dickens, in his populously intricate fiction, to his gain and to his loss, chose artifice. But for Jane Austen the grand scale of Dickens was impracticable. Her world was a Belgium—populous but minute.”
This is just a small sample of what Firkins has to offer. If you open the book at random, there’s a good chance that you’ll come upon something as clever as what I’ve quoted here.*****
As I was reading through these passages, it flashed through my mind that Firkins, with his biting wit, might have been a worthy partner to Austen in life. I immediately swatted that thought away, though. In the first place, there’s no need to think that a single novelist must be in want of a husband. Also, pairing Austen with someone by virtue of his put-downs of her is veering into Mr. Knightley territory. And there are other obstacles that we’ll get to by and by.
Who, I wanted to know, was Firkins? I knew nothing about him when I read Jane Austen other than that he was a college professor. When I started researching this post, he proved elusive at first. No Wikipedia entry. No grave at Find a Grave. No photo. (I eventually found the ones included here on the website of the Minnesota Historical Society.)
It turned out that I wasn’t the only one who had trouble pinning Firkins down. In an introduction to his essay on O. Henry in the 1921 collection Modern Essays, literary man-about-town Christopher Morley, the volume’s editor, wrote that he had been surprised not to find an entry for Firkins in Who’s Who. “It seemed hardly credible,” he wrote, “that a critic so brilliant had been overlooked by the industrious compilers of that work, which includes hundreds of hacks and fourflushers.” Morley wrote to Firkins asking for biographical details, but “modestly, but firmly, he denied me.”
Finally, in an entry on Firkins in the SNAC Archive,****** I learned that he was a professor at the University of Minnesota and a well-known critic, and that he also wrote plays and poetry. He was born in 1864 and died in 1932.
A 1934 New York Times review of Firkins’ posthumously published memoirs and letters revealed that he suffered from severe vision problems all his life. The reviewer calls the book “the quiet record of a quiet and scholarly life,” which isn’t exactly jacket blurb material, but he ends up praising it and calling Firkins “a good citizen of the American intellectual world.”
And then I found it, the Rosetta Stone of Oscar Firkins studies: a 1938 University of Arizona master’s thesis by Lena Smith Doyle titled “Can the Plays of Oscar W. Firkins Succeed on the Stage?” Her answer, in brief, is “sort of,”******* but, more to the point for my purposes, the thesis includes a ten-page chapter on Firkins’ life.
Firkins, Doyle tells us, was described by those who knew him as a man whose “gentleness of nature but inflexibility of intellect and morals” was most “eccentric and original.” He was “capable of being both depressed and exalted.” While “a recluse when he chose,” he “could be most charmingly entertaining when he accepted social responsibility.”
Doyle tells us of Firkins’ early life that “one cannot help feeling that the twig had been severely inclined if not bent in childhood,” but, infuriatingly, she tells us nothing more of the twig-bending. (His memoirs may shed light on this, but they’re still under copyright.) With his “strange, gifted, and almost mysterious personality,” she writes, Firkins “was not of the earthly earth but lived within the cloistered circles of a constructive educational atmosphere and imposed upon himself rigid rules of living which had limiting tendencies toward the idealistic and spiritual personality.”
Soon after his graduation from the University of Minnesota, Firkins began teaching there. He was to remain at the university for the rest of his life except for the years 1919 to 1921, when, after being “called to New York,” he served as the drama critic for the Weekly Review. The prominent British critic William Archer called Firkins “the ablest of the living American critics of the drama.” The Weekly Review was absorbed into The Independent in 1921, which may have put Firkins out of a job.
In Minnesota, Firkins lived with his mother and sisters, who supported his career, reading to him to save his eyes and taking care of the practical details of life. He went to New York for Christmas every year, taking in plays and lecturing on them when he returned. A student said of his teaching that “those present could not but feel that they were listening to scholarship interpreted by wit and epigrammatic analysis of a Damascus-blade sharpness and brilliance.” Along with the study of Austen, Firkins also published books on Emerson and William Dean Howells, as well as essays, poems, and plays.
This sounds like a career to be proud of, but Firkins considered himself a failure. In a letter to a friend, he described himself as experiencing “a moral as well as a material November, a season of blankness, grayness, depressions, finalities.” He went on to say that “the sum of evils is, as commonly happens with me, far less imposing in recital than painful in experience, consisting in brief of a marked aggravation of my chronic nervous disorder, a series of vexations and disappointments in my literary and quasi-literary work, and a moral shock, the slight ground of which has been redoubled and multiplied by a sensitiveness which refuses to yield to my clear sense of its irrationality.”
Firkins’ sister Ina, who worked as a librarian at the University of Minnesota and edited his posthumous memoir, described him as suffering from “social maladjustment” and “chronic nervous exhaustion.” His emotional life, she said, was “repressed and starved.”
Firkins died of pneumonia at the age of 67, shortly before his planned retirement. After his death, a friend commented that “the deepening of character that come through marriage and the knowledge of womanhood and parenthood were not his,” yet his treatment of “the sex relations” was “rich profound, and many-sided.”
“Dare one suggest,” Doyle asks in her thesis, “that had Firkins possessed and experienced the love of an immediate family he could have reached even greater heights?”
No, Lena, one daren’t! These descriptions show us a man who was nervous and depressed, reclusive and secretive, and subject to morbid introspection and vaguely defined “moral shock.” At the same time, he was witty, companionable, and fond of travel. A modern reader—or at least this modern reader, but I doubt I’m alone here—looks at this and sees a closeted gay man. (Or maybe an uncloseted gay man whose sexual orientation his friends and family members were tiptoeing around. That could be what Doyle’s bent twig reference was about.)
Firkins, as I imagine him, had a blast during his holiday sojourns and the two years he lived in New York, finding kindred spirits and, perhaps, romance. I picture him returning reluctantly to the bosom of his family and to the university. (I think of T.S. Eliot in England, so desperate to avoid returning to his preordained life as a Harvard philosophy professor that he married a woman he hardly knew in order to be able to stay there.)
It may be, as the author of the biographical sketch in his memoir pointed out, that Firkins “loved the sparkle of a fine phrase more than he could love the somber fact behind it.” He was more of a reader than a scholar. But, like any good Jane Austen fan, I can’t resist a sparking phrase. I’m grateful that Firkins left his lively prose behind, and eager to read more of it.********
*The novelist Brandon Taylor, who is in my opinion the most entertaining and insightful literary critic writing right now, shared his thoughts on Mansfield Park recently in his Substack newsletter, Sweater Weather.
**In case Darcy’s take-down isn’t fresh in your mind, here it is: “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.”
***I.e. a jumble.
*****That’s exactly what I had to do with Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, since apparently I didn’t have my Post-It Notes on hand when I was reading these chapters in 2020.
******The Social Networks and Archival Context (SNAC) Archive is an online biographic database compiled by a consortium of archives. It’s such an amazing resource that I was embarrassed that I had never come across it until I learned, in a 2017 article on the University of Virginia website ominously titled “Digital Social Network Linking the Living and the Dead Expands,” that it’s fairly new.
*******Judging from their titles, like The Bride of Quietness and The Revealing Moment, I don’t picture Firkins’ plays packing them in on Broadway.
********His poetry, not so much. Here are the opening lines of a typical example, which was published in an anthology of war poems after appearing in The Nation.
New on the Book List:
The Way of an Eagle, by Ethel Dell (1911)