Mark Twain House, Hartford, Conn.
The news on the internet is that the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut has hit hard times, and is in danger of closing. Jane Austen might find an ironic twist in the rumors of its demise since Twain was so unkind to her writing during his lifetime. In one of his many infamous quotes against his fellow 19th-century author, he claimed that he had no right to criticize books and does so only when he hates them.
“I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” – Letter to Joseph Twichell, 13 September 1898
Twain’s three story rambling Victorian home was built in 1874 at the height of his popularity and financial prowess. He penned many of his masterpieces there including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. He also corresponded with his life-long friend William Dean Howells, a fellow author and literary critic, about Howells favorite author Jane Austen. It was an ongoing amusement for Twain to rib his friend about his decidedly poor choice of admiration of Austen. In Howells’ essay My Mark Twain: Reminiscences (1910) he tells us more about Twain’s motivations.
His prime abhorrence was my dear and honored prime favorite, Jane Austen. He once said to me, I suppose after he had been reading some of my unsparing praise of her-I am always praising her, “You seem to think that woman could write,” and he forbore withering me with his scorn, apparently because we had been friends so long and he more pitied than hated me for my bad taste.
In Emily Auerback’s excellent book Searching for Jane Austen, she explores Mark Twain’s ongoing banter over Jane Austen’s talent, or lack of it. One of his unfinished writings is entitled Jane Austen. In the last chapter of her book, she includes an insightful investigation of the unfinished work, and Twain’s published letters and quotes about his distaste of Jane Austen’s writing. You can read the entire essay online though The Virginia Quarterly Review. Here is an interesting excerpt.
Twain marveled that Austen had been allowed to die a natural death rather than face execution for her literary crimes. “Her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy,” Twain observed, apparently viewing an Austen novel as a book which “once you put it down you simply can’t pick it up.” Yet one becomes suspicious of Twain’s supposedly frenzied loathing when he confesses that he likes to reread Jane Austen’s novels just so he can hate them all over again.
The financial troubles of the Mark Twain House and Museum are a sad business. The New York Times reports that it is partially due to an ambitious choice by the directors to expand the facilities and build an elaborate 19 million dollar visitors center. Twain, the consummate cynic might have found humor in this predicament since he had been forced to sell his beloved home in 1891 due to his own financial challenges from speculative business ventures! Jane Austen could relate to this tenuous situation also since her brother Henry Austen lost his fortune, and some of her own, when his banking business failed in 1816. It is interesting to consider that on this one point they could be in total agreement. When Twain quipped, “the lack of money is the root of all evil“, it was heartfelt.
Both of these literary giants works are still widely published and read by millions throughout the world. I have no idea how much money is generated from their book sales, let alone movies or other marketing ventures based on their names, but after a quick Google search one could estimate billions over the course of the expiration of their copyrights. It would behoove such mega-entities such as publishers and movie makers who freely profit from out-of-copyrighted works to step forward and make contributions to the homes and museums of their literary meal tickets. It would benefit the establishments such as the Mark Twain House and Museum and the Jane Austen House in Chawton enormously, perpetuate corporate ‘good will’, and subsequently their own profits.
Mark Twain may have disliked Jane Austen’s work, but she has the last laugh. Her home and museum in Chawton are not on the brink of closure, and just might be in the position to contribute a donation toward paying off the debt incurred by his directors in a bout of arrogance; – – because we all know that it is “better to be without sense, than to misapply it.”
Just in case any ‘deep pocket’ types, or generous and benevolently minded Janeites would like to make a donation to stave off the Mark Twain House and Museum’s looming closure, you can make a contribution online. Jane Austen would have been first in line!