Jane Austen

by O.W. Firkins

Chapter XI: Conclusion

Jane Austen's nature was vigorous and down-right; her method was largely formal and abstract: the effort of the method to smother the nature and the craft of the nature in circumventing the method are points of analytic and dramatic interest in a survey of her work. In some respects I think she was unfortunately posted in the alignment of the forces of English literature in the vast terrain of the centuries. For the eighteenth-century pomp and circumstance which she so strongly exhibited, it was a little too late; for her nineteenth-century realism, it was a little too early. Recognition in the sequel was secure, but the recognition of posterity neither sustains nor encourages. By her backwardness in form and by her forwardness in substance she was equally divided from the great romantic movement which irradiated and transformed the literature of her day. In one point indeed its example might have been liberating; it might have prompted the transference to her novels of the concrete and pictorial diction which became her instinctive vehicle in the undress of the Letters. But in this point her luck in time was counterpoised by her mischance in place; that beer-brewing and ham-curing, that hat-trimming and shirt-making, that card-playing and Bath-visiting, society in which she lived moved too slowly to find in Jane Austen the youthful plasticity which would have leaped to welcome the renovating touch. I think her novels had one solitary point of resemblance to the prose fictions of her great contemporary and antitype, Walter Scott; the form in both was a quarter or half century behind the matter--if in Miss Austen's case we should not rather say a century behind.

Even in the point of matter I think that Miss Austen suffered from the intellectual and artistic poverty of her environment. Her associates had good minds no doubt, and they were just sufficiently well read to escape the charge of want of reading. But they could supply little to a novelist except a theme, and several traits in Jane Austen which might have flourished under culture were doomed to meagre sustenance and scant thrift in that ungenerous soil. One of these was feeling for landscape; another was interest in what might be broadly called thebody and apparelof life. A third was psychology, in which Miss Austen's success, though considerable and praiseworthy, was far from commensurate with the scope of her faculty. A fourth was reflection on life; few people who have generalieed so keenly have generalized so little. No wise critic will amplify these negations. In all cases of large achievement regret for shortcomings is as ignorant as it is thankless and sterile. Limitations have their unguessed benefits; the fence that keeps one good thing out may keep another good thing in. I am not sure that one great reason for Jane Austen's success was not that in the tightness of her enclosure she was not bothered by stimuli nor pestered with encouragements.

I am fortified in this resignation by a feeling that Jane Austen did her work with the minimum of fuss and self-consciousness. Literature as a whole is probably more instinctive than the deference of the layman imagines. There are authors who plan undoubtedly, but one suspects that this comes about less because they plan to plan than because they have an inborn appetite for planning. One may further suspect, if one likes, that, even when pains are lavished upon the work, the author is generous in one quarter and parsimonious in another in a fashion regulated rather by his own taste than the needs and deserts of the topic in question; otherwise it is hard to explain the absence of perfection, and even of any evenness or symmetry in the approach to perfection, on the part of works that bear the fingermarks of study. Let the principle be sound or not; our present concern is its bearing on Jane Austen. Byron woke one morning, and found himself famous; Jane may similarly have awakened some morning, and found that she had written a book. If I said that her material slid through her into her book, I might be accused of rhetoric. Let me say in less questionable terms that she saw things in life which she thought it would be amusing to set down, and she set them down--the earliest,simplest, and most auspicious origin of books. I doubt if she cared much to aid the world. True, her novels have lessons; in those didactic times she would no more have sent a novel into the world unprovided with a lesson than destitute of a binding. Both lessons and bindings have their use; they hold loose sheets together. I do not mean that she was insincere in her lesson any more than I mean that she was indifferent to her binding, but it is unlikely that either constituted her incentive to write. On one occasion she names those incentives. They include praise, and what she calls pewter (money), but she is shamelessly silent as to the satisfactions to be derived from the practice of leechcraft on an ailing race.

I doubt if she felt a moral responsibility in relation to the truth of her works. She would not have write ten truth with a capital letter; she would have feared that the next step might be to spell it "ew" with the oleaginous Mr. Chadband, whose as quaintance she did not live to make. I think she portrayed truth, when she did portray truth, because she liked it--really liked it--without theory and without conscience, and I think this independence and unconcern in combination with real attachment is part of her strength. It may be virtuous to speak truth, because it is holy or useful; but it is safe and fortunate to follow it because it is interesting. It is perhaps a slight defect in the otherwise unexceptionable attitude of our own excellent Mr. Howells that he affects us as having stood up in church with truth, and uttered the promise to hold, love and cherish with appropriate solemnity. After that, it is all a matter of course. Who minds a man's attentions to his wife? With Jane the affair has all the interest of courtship. Let truth be on his guard. If fiction should turn out to be the sprightlier fellow of the two? It is good to be natural in one's love of nature. I do not know whether Jane was unconscious or unscrupulous in the modifications of truth which she unquestionably tolerated. Her surrenders to convention were large, and we have already seen that in her comic portrayals, far from copying that slatternly housewife Nature in the dinginess of her kitchenware, she scoured the truth until it fairly shone. Jane Austen, it seems to me, was genuine, not superficially nor fussily nor delicately nor conscientiously nor heroically genuine, but genuine in a large, basic, temperamental way that winked at little lies and tiny poses, that could give way to manners, to decency, for aught I know, to interest, but which in the absence of deflectors instinctively and strongly preferred the fun of uttering its own sensations to the credit of voicing other people's. She enjoyed her own mind; she took herself cheerfully like other dispensations of Providence. She did not care to say what she did not feel, and she refused to do so unless the need were peremptory. She had neither presumption nor diffidence--the vices of self-consciousness. She had gauged her own capacities with singular exactness, and, by a pleasing paradox, a wise self-distrust kept her within the limits within which she could maintain a reasonable self-confidence. Her conformity and her self-reliance are both interestingly shown in her correspondence with the royal librarian, Mr. J. S. Clarke. She would dedicate Emma to the Prince Regent, if that potentate chose to have it so, but she writes a letter to his librarian in which the literary advice of that slightly presumptuous gentleman is civilly but summarily rejected.

To understand Jane Austen, we must remember that she had both a strong and a docile mind. The adjustment of these traits to each other was easier than it might have been in a more thoughtful environment or a later century. Agreement between the strength and the docility was more usual than difference, and where difference occurred, there was apparently no conflict. Sometimes the strength overcame or quietly set aside the docility, sometimes the docility was too much for the strength; and Jane Austen was no more humiliated by the second outcome than she was inflated by the first. Jane was conventional in the old fashion, the better fashion which prevailed before conventionality was discovered and the word had had time to define and defile the idea. There can be no doubt that her conformities are sometimes harmful to her work. Jane Austen was no precisian or pulpiteer, but a precisian or pulpiteer might have adopted her work as his model. I do not think that she was selfconscious us, but I think that almost all her characters speak self-consciously. Miss Austen wrote majestically for the same reason that she wrote in English. She felt that she could no more act on her undoubted preference for homely directness than she could have acted on an abstract preference for French. She donned the manner as her father and brother donned the surplice for the conduct of morning worship, or as she and the English world, if her presages were verified put on mourning for the Duke of Gloucester. A sharp distinction must be drawn between submission to general usage and that aping of a particular usage; neither natural to ourselves nor binding on the world, which we justly stigmatize as affectation. When people wore mourning for the Duke of Gloucester, nobody was sincere and nobody was affected; when everybody pretends, everybody confesses and nobody pretends.

The fate of Jane Austen in this particular was, I suspect the fate of George Crabbe, who, though at heart a plainspoken, straightforward fellow, had the eighteenth century on his back, and never taught his mere manner to straighten up from its bending posture to the natural and manly perpendicular. The eighteenth century was a selfconscious century, and a modest person brought up under its tutelage avoided personal self-consciousness by fleeing to the shelter of a self-consciousness so general and so binding as to deaden its own quality. In such an age one dared not be simple for fear of affectation. Jane's attitude in all this was absolutely unheroic. Souls of harder edge whose mission was to liberate and inspire the world would have followed their own impulses to all lengths at all costs. But there is room for variety of type on a tolerant and hospitable planet. Jane Austen's business was not to liberate or inspire the world, and these archangels in their empyreal preoccupations have found no time to leave us Northanger Abbeys or Mansfield Parks.

I have uttered the word "inspire," and I take up the implicit challenge of that word. What was the scope of Jane Austen's commerce with life? Were there depths and secrecies in her experience which left no mark on the sunny reaches of her tranquil and equable novels, no shadow on the current of her racy and provocative correspondence? To this query the reply is doubtful. We cannot co-ordinate experience with utterance until we have measured the limits of reserve, and reserve is silent as to its own limits. That Jane Austen may have felt things which she could not impart to that singular combination of intimate and stranger which we call a relative is believable enough. It is somewhat harder to believe that she felt things which it was impossible to impart to that combination of intimate and stranger on very different lines which we call a reader. If Jane Austen struggled and aspired, she wrote six novels without introducing a character who struggled and aspired, and I am not sure that this reticence is human. It is safer to assume that morality and religion made upon Miss Austen certain claims as definitive and as imperative as the butcher's and grocer's bills, and that they were as readily placated and as effectually put aside by the liquidation of these claims as the butcher and grocer by the application of pounds, shillings, and pence. That what may be called the wryness of things made itself known to her in some form or other it is impossible to doubt. A woman as keen as Jane Austen does not live to forty years without finding much to pardon, or not to pardon, in this churlish and inconsequential world. There is no reason to believe that her stoutness was not equal to all tests, or that she was warped or embittered by the stringencies that and their ruthless way into the most firmly fenced and snugly bolted lives. She was a censor, but no cynic. Cynicism is the revenge we tate upon a disobliging cosmos for its failure to come up to expectations. It is highly probable that the strong sense which is demonstrable and the absence of idealism which is presumable in Jane Austen reduced expectations to a level with which reality could rationally cope. She is not the sweet Jane Austen of complacent legend, but a Jane more to my taste, a plain, frank, keen-sighted Englishwoman, with an inspiriting wilfulness that had its bound and check in a touching docility, with an incisiveness finally and securely, though not immediately or showily, subject to benevolence, and with a friendly acceptance of limited surroundings of which the literature she gave to a grateful country was at once the expression, the result, and the reward.

Correction.--The author withdraws the following statement on page 191: "The impassive formula, To the Prince Regent, shows no cleavage in her impenetrable reserve." The facts do not, in any conclusive or decisive way, support this statement.

This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.