Jane Austen published anonymously, but her identity was such an open secret, an d her books had achieved sufficient acclaim, that the Prince Regent asked her to dedicate a book to him. The book she dedicated was Emma, and it was quite awkward as she loathed the Prince Regent but there are some requests that one cannot easily refuse.
The job of reviewing books is about as old as the job of writing them, so Austen’s books had a lot of contemporary reviews, mostly positive.
In 1815, Sir Walter Scott reviewed Emma. In the review, Scott defends the practice of reading novels (novels were considered a mite scandalous – certainly a big waste of time and brain power). Scott gives a short history of the novel, discussing how the fantastical novels that were fashionable for so long are giving way to a new genre – the realistic novel:
We, therefore, bestow no mean compliment upon the author of Emma, when we say that, keeping close to common incidents, and to such characters as occupy the ordinary walks of life, she has produced sketches of such spirit and originality,that we never miss the excitation which depends upon a narrative of
uncommon events, arising from the consideration of minds, manners and sentiments, greatly above our own. In this class she stands almost alone; for the scenes of Miss Edgeworth are laid in higher life, varied by more romantic incident, and by her remarkable power of embodying and illustrating national character. But the author of Emma confines herself chiefly to the middling classes of society; her most distinguished characters do not rise greatly above well-bred country
gentlemen and ladies; and those which are sketched with most originality and precision, belong to a class rather below that standard. The narrative of all her novels is composed of such common occurrences as may have fallen under the observation of most folks; and her dramatis
personae conduct themselves upon the motives and principles which the readers may recognize as ruling their own and that of most of their acquaintances. The kind of moral, also, which these novels inculcate, applies equally to the paths of common life, as will best appear from a short notice of the author’s former works, with a more full abstract of that which we at present have under consideration.
The review is interesting not only because it’s exciting to hear what Austen’s contemporaries think about her, but because Scott gives such a detailed picture of how different Austen’s novels are, and why they work:
The author’s knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting. The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader.
You can find the full review at Only A Novel.