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.  Continue reading