William Lyon Phelps: Jane Austen’s First Publicist

Image of William Lyon Phelps“The happiest people are those who think the most interesting thoughts. Those who decide to use leisure as a means of mental development, who love good music, good books, good pictures, good company, good conversation, are the happiest people in the world. And they are not only happy in themselves, they are the cause of happiness in others.” William Lyon Phelps

When I ran across this quote, I was quickly struck by the similarity to one of my favorite passages from Persuasion.

“My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.”

“You are mistaken,” said he gently; “that is not good company; that is the best.” Anne Elliot & William Elliot, Persuasion, Chapter 16

You will understand the coincidence after reading further.

Illustration by H.M. Brock, Mansfield Park, (1906)In 1890, Jane Austen was not widely read in American college curriculum. She had her small circle of admirers, and her fame had been slowly building since the 1870 publication of her nephew’s biography, A Memoir of Jane Austen, but she had not been embraced by academia. Publishers such as J.M. Dent and Richard Bentley & Son in London, and MacMillan in New York saw her potential and began producing matching ‘sets’ of her novels and letters which were a great success. To meet the new public demand, publishers produced finer bindings with illustrations by the Brock brothers and Hugh Thomson, and included prefaces and introductions by leading scholars of the day.

The winds of change were building. Her public had embraced her, but academia still wavered. Happily, we can credit Yale English Literature Professor William Lyon Phelps‘ (1865-1943) influence for changing that misapplyment. Jane could not have had a more influential or noble champion to wear her colors and sing her praises. By 1900, Dr. Phelps was known throughout the world as a leading literary scholar, educator, author, book critic and preacher. When he spoke, people listened.

Professor Phelps was one of those gifted orators that could make any obscure ancient author or wayward poet shine and students flocked to his lectures. Early in his career he had been instrumental in circular reform, teaching classes in the modern novels which raised more than a few eyebrows of his tenured peers and the attention of the international press. This was the beginning of a long career of academic reform and literary influence. 

Image of the title page of Persuasion, Frank S. Holby, (1906)In 1906 he wrote the introduction to The Novels of Jane Austen, published by Frank S. Holby, New York. This edition included ten volumes, illustrations by C.E. & H.M. Brock and was edited by the eminent Austen scholar R. Brimley Johnson. Even though Dr. Phelps was an intellectual, he knew his audience. The introduction was brilliant; combing personal recollections of his pilgrimage to Austen’s grave at Winchester Cathedral and her home at  Chawton, an Austen family biography, criticism and insights of her talents and influence as a writer, and the legacy of her six major novels in such a friendly and unpretentious way, that the reader felt like you were in conversation with a close friend.

To read Jane Austen’s books is to add to our circle of acquaintances men and women whom it is most desirable to know, and whose presence in our mental world adds enormously to the pleasure of life. They are so real that the mere mention of their names brings a clear image of their faces before our consciousness, along with a glow of reminiscent delight. One of the sincere joys of existence is to discuss with kindred souls the characters and fortunes of the men and women born into life eternal on the pages of Jane Austen!

And…I could not agree more.

After researching his life and learning a bit about his personality, I can understand his affinity to Jane Austen and other writers such as Mark Twain and William M. Thackeray because Prof. Phelps was a bit of a wit himself! Here are a few choice quotes.

I divide all readers into two classes: those who read to remember and those who read to forget.

A bibliophile of little means is likely to suffer often. Books don’t slip from his hands but fly past him through the air, high as birds, high as prices.

One of the secrets of life is to keep our intellectual curiosity acute.

Illustration by H,M, Brock, (1906)In 1939, Time Magazine proclaimed William Lyon Phelps a “literary showman, playboy of the humanities, Dale Carnegie of the critics, and the world’s champion endorser“. He was appointed the honor of Lampson Professor of English Literature at Yale University where he taught for over 40 years. His interest and respect for Jane Austen changed the way that academia perceived her genius forever. You can read the entire introduction to The Novels of Jane Austen in our opinions section. Enjoy!

4 thoughts on “William Lyon Phelps: Jane Austen’s First Publicist

Add yours

  1. Wonderful post, thank you Laurel Ann.
    I find all your posts very interesting and the illustrations are delightful. I have printed and glued lot of them on my little JA note-book.
    Read from you soon


  2. Thank you to Vic, Loredana and Laurie for your complements. I was so excited when I sleuthed out this Austen history tidbit that I’ll admit that I entered the realm of complete Jane Austen geekdom!

    Cheers, Laurel Ann


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