by O.W. Firkins
Part II: The Realist
Chapter VIII: The Realist
I must treat with some fulness Miss Austen's general method in character-drawing, because her truth to life is majnly exhibited in her portraits, and the correction of certain common misapprehensions as to the nature and extent of her truth to life is the main purpose of this book. The calm remark of her grand-nephew that she describes men and women exactly as men and women really are would perhaps be accepted without dissent or qualification by the majority of trustworthy judges; but, waiving for the moment all question as to the narrowness of her held, which, as the image and measure of the narrowness of her life, was an attestation of her realism, I believe that even within that field her accuracy is subject to two great deductions--a deduction on the score of decoration or convention and another on the score of extravagance or hyperbole. In both these points I believe her to have been the child and inheritor of the eighteenth century, as in her faithfulness to truth in other matters she was the forerunner and in part the parent of the nineteenth and the twentieth.
The eighteenth century was a curious mingling of courtly and the brutal. It was an age in which a clergyman like Sterne could write like a rake, and in which a rogue like Defoe could write like an evangelist; an age in which a rough rider like Smollett, a vagabond like Goldsmith, and a prodigal like Sheridan could practice and to all appearances relish a stately and decorous diction framed in ceremonious and rotund periods. In the ancient Indian dramas the aristocrats spoke Sanskrit, while the inferior characters contented themselves with a vulgar dialect known as Prakrit. Now the eighteenth century dramatists and novelists had a homespun speech for everyday people, while they contrived a formal Sanskrit for the use of their high-born and high-bred characters. The convention is not limited to language, but language is one of its plainest and most notable manifestations and is a point of distinct value for the criticism of Miss Austen. There is not the slightest doubt that Fielding, Smollet, Richardson, Johnson, and Mrs. Radcliffe bequeathed their stilts to her, and there is every evidence she was proud and happy in the legacy.
Let us see how her people talk in an early novel Sense and Sensibility.
"Whoever may have been so detestably your enemy, let them be cheated of their malignant triumph, my dear sister, by seeing how nobly the consciousness of your own innocence and good intentions supports your spirits. It is a reasonable and laudable pride which resists such malevolence."Is this the exuberance of youth which maturity will prune? Let us try Jane Austen by a novel finished after forty. Anne has just told Mr. Elliot that she is a very poor Italian scholar.
"Yes, yes, I see you are. I see you know nothing of the matter. You have only knowledge enough of the language to translate at sight these inverted, transposed, curtailed Italian lines into clear, comprehensible, elegant English. You need not say anything more of your ignorance. Here is complete proof."How does a lively girl talk to the father from whom she has inherited her own racy humor? These are the words of Elizabeth Bennet:
"I will not oppose such kind politeness; but I should be sorry to be examined by a real proficient."
It is not of peculiar, but of general evils, which* I am now complaining. Our importance, our respectability in the world must be affected by the wild volatility, the assurance and disdain of all restraint which mark Lydia's character. Excuse me,--for I must speak plainly. If you, my dear father, will not take the trouble of checking her exuberant spirits, and of teaching her that her present pursuits are not to be the business of her life, she will soon be beyond the reach of amendment. Her character will be fixed, and she will, at sixteen, be the most determined flirt that ever made herself and her family ridiculous;--a flirt, too, in the worst and meanest degree of flirtation; without any attraction beyond youth and a tolerable person; and, from the ignorance and emptiness of her mind, wholly unable to ward off any portion of that universal contempt which her rage for admiration will excite. In this danger Kitty is also comprehended. She will follow wherever Lydia leads. Vain, ignorant, idle, and absolutely uncontrolled.The extreme censure that I can pass upon this specimen of conversation is that it would have been approved by the author of Pamela and extolled as superlative by the author of Rasselas. "In this danger Kitty is also comprehended." The diction is senatorial. But Miss Austen does not stop at pomp. She of all persons must traffic in romantic melancholy. The following lines are not engraved upon a tombstone; they are part of Anne Elliot's speech to a mere acquaintance: "All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very envious one: you need not covet it) is that of loving longest when existence or when hope is gone." This decides the eavesdropping Captain Wentworth; it would have decided me. Even that acme of affected elegance, the use of the third person for the second, is not spared us. Captain Wentworth is talking to Louisa Musgrove: "If Louisa Musgrove would be beautiful and happy in her November of life, she will cherish all her present powers of mind." German romanticism could hardly go further.
Do all of Miss Austen's characters tails in periods? By no means. If a character is ill-bred, or, if he is comic or fatuous, he is allowed to talk in a vivid and natural way. The reader of Jane Austen--even the educated reader--is under the constant humiliation of seeing the English which he himself talks appropriated to the fools and grotesques in her novels. The grace of naturalness is permitted only to the under-bred. Miss Austen was too clearheaded to imagine that she was drawing life in the lofty diction of her favored characters; that diction was merely her way, as it was her century's way, of letting the reader know that the persons so expressing themselves were ladies and gentlemen. It was a most arbitrary, circuitous, and cumbersome way of imparting the fact, and reflected pointedly, if not quite fairly, on the genuineness of a breeding which bad to be identified by a fabrication. A ciictum which I reserve the right to amend by an important deduction later on may be stated provisionally in this form: From one large field of truth Jane Austen was debarred by her conformity to the prescriptions of her age. For her, distinctions of rank were capital, and since dress, the ordinary badge of people of rank, could not be transported into literature, she turned their speech into costume. The plays and novels of men like Galsworthy had not yet taught the world that refinement and distinction might find in simplicity not a peril but a safeguard. The athlete can afford to strip himself, and the true gentleman does not fear to lay aside pomp.
It may be said that I am going too fast, that a century which made fine language the convention of gentility in literature might make it the convention of gentility in life, that the condemnation of Jane Austen by the living critic is the condemnation of the eye-witness by the absentee. I admit Miss Austen's authority, and to that authority I will appeal. It is impossible to believe that on normal occasions she heard any better English than she spoke, and it is equally impossible to believe that she spoke any better English--in the sense of finer or comelier English--than she wrote in her letters. I will take a passage from the very first page on which I light in opening the Letters at random. Whatever elegance or intricacy is superaddedd to this in the conversation of her high-bred characters is clearly superadded to nature.
The Evelyns returned our visit on Saturday; we were very happy to meet, and all that; they are going to-morrow into Gloucestershire to the Dolphins for ten days. Our acquaintanance, Mr. Woodward, is just married to a Miss Rowe, a young lady rich in money and music.
I thank you for your Sunday's letter, it is very long and very agreeable. I fancy you know more particulars of our sale than we do; we have heard the price of nothing but the cows, bacon, hay, hops, tables, and my father's chest of drawers and study table. Mary is more minute in her account of their own gains than in ours; probably being better informed in them. I attend to Mrs. Lloyd's commission and to her abhorrence of musk when I write again.What is the effect of this limitation on Miss Austen's delineation of character? Naturally, the disadvantage, the incumbrance, is very great. But the elasticity of Miss Austen's rebound from the stringencies of this compression is as noteworthy as the compression itself. Beyle once said that the iogenuities and resourcefulness of the classic French drama reminded him of the nimbleness of a person dancing in chains. Miss Austen certainly danced in chains, but the agility with which she moved within the restriction was marvellous. The effect of a uniform parlance is to slur distinctions and the tendency of a formal diction is to crush vivacity. It was highly fortunate for Miss Austen's self-extrication from these difficulties that her discrimination in characters was extraordinary, and that in drawing character animation was her strong point. Observe the resilience of her faculty in the load it shoulders in the manipulation of a passage like the following:
"I see what you think of me," said he, gravely; "I shall make but a poor figure in your journal to-morrow."Observe that Mr. Tilney's style is as much heavier than Catherine's in mass as it is lighter in movement. His syntax at a ball outweighs that of many clergymen in the pulpit; but the more Jane Austen thickened her dough, the more she poured in her yeast, and the struggle between levity and gravity is exhilarating. Miss Austen both loses and profits by the test. In the absence of the load, the actual result might have been greater, but the demonstration of capacity would have been less. Of course the relatively happy issue is confined to the livelier cbttracters; the solemn persons founder in their own verbosity.
"Yes; I know exactly what you will say. Friday, went to the Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings, plain black shoes; appeared to much advantage, but was strangely harassed by a queer half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed me by his nonsense."
"Indeed, I shall say no such thing."
"Shall I tell you what you ought to say?"
"If you please."
"I danced with a very agreeable young man, introduced by Mr. King; had a great deal of conversation with him; seems a most extraordinary genius, hope I may know more of him. That, madam, is what I wish you to say."
"But perhaps I keep no journal."
"Perhaps you are not sitting in this room, and I am not sitting by you. These are points in which a doubt is equally possible. Not keep a journal! How are your absent cousins to understand the tenour of your life in Bath without one? How are the civilities and compliments of every day to be related as they ought to be unless noted down every evening in a journal? How are your various dresses to be remembered and the particular state of your complexion, and curl of your hair to be described, in all their diversities, without having constant recourse to a journal? My dear madam, I am not so ignorant of young ladies' ways as you wish to believe me. It is this delightful habit of journalizing which largely contributes to form the easy style of which ladies are so generally celebrated. Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female. Nature may have done something, but I am sure it must be essentially assisted by the practice of keeping a journal."
"I have sometimes thought," said Catherine, doubtingly, "whether ladies do write so much better letters than gentlemen. That is, I should not think the superiority was always side."
"As far as I have had opportunity of judging, it appears to me that the usual style of letter-writing among women is faultless, except in three particulars."
"And what are they?"
"A general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar."
There is another quality in Miss Austen's portrayal of life, for which, as I strongly suspect, she mas not indebted to her faculty of observation. I have in mind the judiciousness which it is the pride and delight of nearly every person to exhibit in his kind and degree. I do not mean simply judgment; judgment is the underpinning of civilieation, and its distribution in moderate amounts is fairly universal. What is peculiar in Miss Austen is the pomp and gusto with which this judicial faculty is exercised. Tbe persons affect us like bureaux; they make a vocation of foresight; they pose as experts in life. The quality or its imitation is more or less pervasive. The starch is evident not only in Sir Thomas Bertram, where its accumulation is pardonable, but in his young son Edmund; even in Fanny Price, where much of the starch, under a well-known chemical analogy, has undergone a conversion into sugar, its aroma is unmistakable. I can hear the intonation of casuistry even in the frou-frou of Mrs. Elton's frivolous and vapid speech. If I hold my hand to my ear, I fancy I can even catch its attenuated echoes in the clatter and jingle of the scatter-brained Isabella Thorpe. Let any one compare these two Young women with what a fribble and a flirt would have been a hundred years earlier in Dryden or Etherege or a half-century later in Dickens or Thackeray, and he will be struck by the largeness of the difference. As in a theocratic organization the very scoundrels are pietists, so in the Jane Austen world the very fools are wiseacres. It must not be supposed that the amount of wisdom even in the exploited and favored characters bears any propertion to the amount of flourish with which the wisdom is set forth. The sense is sense for the most part, but its limitations both in depth and breadth are notable.
This attitude as the habit of a community is unknown to me in actual life. The responsibiliey with which two young girls in the security of isolation discuss the conduct of life is received with mis giving by a critic whose acquaintance with tha;t species has been formed in America. No doubt the vanity of discretion is quite imaginable as a social formula, however thoroughly in one's own time and place it has been supplanted by the vanity of smard ness. The literature of the age seems at first blush emphatic in Miss Austen's support. From Pope's sense in the early seventeen hundreds to Words worth's solemnities in the early eighteen hundreds, the art of behaving "like one well studied in a sad ostent to please his grandam" was practiced by the sages and professed by the madcaps of literature. Goldsmith's Good-Natured Man is a case in point. Here the ripe baronet, Sir William Honeywood, is entitled by age and rank to the treasures of wisdom he exhibits, but the key to his intellectual coffers has clearly been filched by his prodigal nephew, who is all acuteness and discretion in the pursuit of thoughtlessness and extravagance. The young lady of the play, Miss Richland, might have chaperoned her own grandmother.
But this unanimity of literature is capable of two interpretations. Indeed, literature is a witness whose veracity is already discredited. That any young girl should talkto go back, for an instant, to the previous point--as Elizabeth Bennet talked in the passage just quoted on page 149 is not only beyond the credible; it is beyond all temperance and decency in the incredible. Yet it is not so very much worse than the customary genteel speech of literature in its time. There is no reason why a literature that lyingly affinned that birth in a good family and education at Eton and Oxford conferred the gift of talking lihe a book should not lyingly affum its power to install its protégé in what might be defined as a professorship of good sense. All this is somewhat speculative, and the main reason for my skepticism--a skepticism into which I am not anxious to urge the reluctant or hesitating reader--is drawn once more from the correspondence of Miss Austen. In Jane Austen's letters good sense is never out of the way, but it is seldom to the fore, and never goes out for an airing. With her heroes and heroines it is always driving through the country in a barouche-landau. These people are serious in fact, and still moreserious in theory. With Miss Austen herself, as with most sensible people in our time, precisely the reverse is the case.
An example will clarify the point. Miss Austen's niece, Fanny Knight, wants advice as to anoffer of marriage. For a spinster of thirty-nine the occasion was priceless. Here was a chance for "My dear Fanny's" ad nauseam (there are plenty of "My dear Fanny's" in Mansfield Park--three on four pages) for the parade of experience the mouthing and mummery of good sense. Of all this not a vestige is discoverable. Jane's letters are easy and unpretending; they are vivacious; they are even jolly. At the same time they abound in care for Fanny and for Fanny's welfare. Even the graver letters are not unduly grave; the grief is not smothered in bombazine. Jane Austen may have been an exception among her family and circle, but on this point I am disposed to trust the letter-writer and impugn the novelist. I believe that the pragmatism of her fictions was a bid for respect, or, what is almost the same thing, an obeisance to respectability. When Martha Lloyd wanted Jane to buy a pair of shoes for her in Bath, Jane's reluctance was marked and she adds to her protest the emphatic words: "At any rate they shall all have flat heels." No wonder she refused high heels to Martha; she was to, busy in providing them for the characters in her novels.
On Miss Austen's realism in this point my mind is still open, but there is another matter on which my convictions are immovable. In my review of individual characters in the several books I have often pointed out the fact of overcharge. I now wish to declare my belief that in the comic figures, which include so many of Miss Austen's liveliest and most famous characters, the rule is overcharge. Miss Austen was capable, as few writers have been capable, of shaded portraiture, and this fact in combination with the mildness of her plots and her pose as schoolmistress has obscured the cardinal fact that a large part of her best and best loved characterixation is the untempered and strident characterization of comedy, the comedy of Molière, Sheridan, and Goldsmith. Macaulay, in a famous passage, thus exposes the garishness of Fanny Burney in contrast with the chastened half-lights of Jane Austen.
In Cecilia, for example, Mr. Delvile never opens his lips without some illusion to his own birth and station; or Mr. Briggs, without some allusion to the hoarding of money; or Mr. Hobson, without betraying the self-indulgence and self-importance of a purseproud upstart; or Mr. Simkins, without uttering some sneaking remark for the purpose of currying favor with his eustomers; or Mr. Meadows, without expressing apathy and sariness of life; or Mr. Albany, without declaiming about the vices of the rich and the misery of the poor; or Mrs. Belfield, without some indelictlte eulogy on her son; or Lady Margaret, without indicating jealousy of her husband. Morrice in all skipping, officious impertinence, Mr. Gosport all sarcasm, Lady Honoria all lively prattle, Miss Larolles all silly prattle.Now I intend to furnish a parallel to this passage from the sinless and adorable Miss Austen; and if I draw my examples from two novels instead of one, it must be remembered that Miss Burney's novels are longer and more thickly peopled than Miss Austen's. Here is my effort. Mrs. Jennings never opens her mouth without some low-bred allusion to courtship nor Mrs. Palmer without some outgush of imbecile good-nature; nor Mr. Palmer without some laconic insult; nor Fanny Dashwood without the use of some mercenary manouvre; nor Lucy Steele without some fawning and malicious calculation; nor Sir John Middleton without some display of gregarious joviality; nor Robert Ferrars without some betrayal of supercilious conceit; nor Mr. Bennet without some cynical pleasantry; nor Lady Catherine de Bourgh without some overbearing or interfering remark. Mrs. Bennet is all addleheaded worldliness, Lydia Bennet all boisterous levity, Mary Bennet all pompous verbosity, Georgiana Darcy all flutttered reticence. Of course these assertions are not literally true, but they are satisfyingly near to truth, and a satisfying nearness is quite as much as Macaulay attains in his indictment of the uniformities of Fanny Burney. Strange as it may appear, in this section of her field, Miss Austen is to be reckoned among dashing and reckless artists, the artists who draw character as they drive nails by pounding with all their might upon one spot.
This is part of the truth--the neglected part; the other part is the fact that in another group of characters she is mistress, as perhaps no other artist in our literature has been mistress, of the restrained, the shaded, the impalpable. Macaulay's picture of her four young clergymen who are all alike and all unlike, though pressed rather far in certain phrases, is just in its main contention. It is easy to handle a character with handles; Miss Austen can dispense with that convenience. Put the neutral character beside the strongly marked, put Charlotte Collins beside her husband, put Kitty Bennet beside Lydia or Mary, put Charles Musgrove beside his wife, and you feel that in Miss Austen's palette the drabs are as significant as the purples. The milder figures on Miss Austen's canvas are finer and abler--I do not say stronger or even more valuable--than the outstanding ones, in much the same way that Seth Bede is a greater achievement than Adam, that Mrs. Tulliver is the solution of a greater difficulty than Mrs. Glegg. How Miss Austen, in whose temper, method, and style there is no shading, manages to get shade into her characters is a problem that I cannot solve; it is an instance of squaring the circle, or rather of rounding the square, the secret of which I do not pretend to fathom. Miss Austen is prone, to spend the delicacies of her workmanship on cheap materials, cheap, I hasten to explain, by the test of intellectual and moral values. As I have hinted, she rarely combines her most delicate and her most spirited work in the same portrait. I think, however, that it is quite possible to name a character who is as finely edged as any of her neuters and as vital, if not quite so vivid, as the most glaring of her exaggerations. That character is Emma Woodhouse.
Is this finer discrimination the result of complexity? Are Miss Austen's figures complex? At this point it behooves us to distinguish. There is something elusive in Miss Austen's presentations, and it is always possible that a property which we cannot name may have its source in an invisible complexity. But if complexity refers to ascertainable traits--traits which may be named and reached by a process of critical decomposition--I am disposed to think that Miss Austen surpasses all other novelists in the fewness of the traits out of which her persons are moulded. Take two of the young divines in whose diversification Macaulay exulted. What is there in Edward Ferrars but affection and diffidence? What trait can Henry Tilney boast of but winsomeness in raillery? After he has mocked daintily at Catherine two or three times, Henry is drained of significance. In my reviews of individual portraits I have noted the fact that the tune or air of a character is sometimes conveyed to us entire in the first few notes, and that da capo might fittingly stand for the remainder of the score. I have also noted Miss Austen's marvellous capacity for bestowing at least a spectrum of individuality on characters the whole account of whom is compressed into twenty or thirty lines. Mr. Hurst in Pride and Prejudice is a clear example.
Glance at any really complex character, Jane Eyre, for instance, and the differences from Miss Austen's method will be readily perceptible. Jane Eyre has powerful passions and a mighty will; even tbat relatively simple combination is unknown to Jane Austen. Capable of vehemence, Jane Eyre can school herself to long years of savorless and colorless routine. She is the kind of person to whom the education of a young girl may be securely committed, and she is also the kind of person to whom men are impelled to relate stories of their discarded mistresses. She can rally and advise the formidable St. John Rivers, can later on become the vassal of his relentless will, and can still later nerve herself to throw off that vassalage. She is demure as governess and as fiancee she is malapert. Even with complexities less diacult than these Miss Austen was scarcely qualified to grapple. Most readers mould probably dissent from my own impression that Darcy is a failure, but I should command a much aider indorsement for the proposition that the Crawfords with their cloven natures are only half successful, and that a two-sided character like Willoughby is rather a group of strokes than a picture.
Restrictions of this kind may not always impair the quality of Miss Austen's realism, but they limit its field. A second interesting limitation is the virtual suppression of the body as a factor in the delineations. Miss Austen's way is to summarize the physique in two or three main traits the specification of which is compressible into as many lines In this proceeding the body is paid off, so to speak, and is expected to trouble an upright authoress no further. I do not mean that Miss Austen's people are ascetics or phantoms; on the contrary, the men have a mundane fondness for port, and the objections of the women to turkey and sweetbreads with asparagus are always removable with a little pressure. I mean that that sense of the present body as a spur to the imagination which belongs to Thackeray's Beatrix Esmond, to James's Lady Barbarina, to Meredith's Clara Middleton, and to Hardy's Eustacia Vye, is scarcely discoverable in Miss Austen's novels. The body is not an actor in the play. After specification the features vanish, and are almost never recalled except in relation to pallors and blushes, which are priceless as clews to invaluable "agitations."
When two people converse, there is usually no shift of position, no interpretative gesture, no play of feature, no modulation of tone. Even the "she said's" and "he answered's" are often omitted, and the dialogue suffers a depilation not unlike that of the tonsured dialogue of Alfieri or an English morality. I do not assert that the speech is dull. We know from Chaucer's Monk and from daily observation that baldness often shines, and conversation in Miss Austen supports the induction.
Another conversational trait which has its part in simplifying Miss Austen's characters may be described, a little loosely, as generality or abstraction. The people in her books are as intensely particular as vehemently personal, in their interests as people are everywhere in life itself and in all pictures of life which claim even an approximation to erectness. The talking of generalities, like the talking of literature, was merely a badge of caste, a point of ceremony; it was, nevertheless, obeyed with that zeal which ceremony so readily inspires in its disciples. Elizabeth and Anne Elliot are discussing the probebility of their father's victimixation by an uncomely but insidious woman.
"You must have heard him notice Mrs. Clay's freckles."In modern realism the last two speeches might read as follows:
"There is hardly any personal defect," replied Anne, "which an agreeable manner might not gradually reconcile one to."
"I think very differently," answered Elizabeth, shortly, "an agreeable manner may set off handsome features, but can never alter plain ones."
"Her manners are good," said Anne.This roundness of period in which generalities dilate and globe themselves has much the same blurring effect on variations of character that the enforced adoption of the orotund by a group of open-air speakers mould have upon the idiosyncracies of voice. The expression of difference in speech is limited. The conversation remains vigorous, and often brilliant, but it ceases to picture the character, or--to speak more temperately and accurately--a veil neither quite opaque nor quite transparent is dropped between us and the picture. A bodiless personality expresses itself in a bodiless diction. At this point I shall be very lucky, if even the liberal and amiable reader does not consign this volume to the fire, or, if no fire be at hand, to a place where the provision of that element is supposed to be unlimited and constant. The reader has a right to his indignation, but I cling to my thesis. My sentiment would be that of Themistocles when Eurybiades, the Spartan, lifted up his sticke to inflict corporal chastisement on the presumtuous Athenian: "Strike, but hear me." Miss Austen is probably the most downright, the most all novelists in English, yet her method is the highly Abstract method of which one development is found in the ponderous tenuity of Rasselas, and another in the formless rarefaction of Mr. James's Sacred Fount. Her creations are not so much bodied forth as winded forth, but they are alive in the face of conditions which are the normal extinguishers of vitality. So much stronger was her nature than her method that the quality of her work may almost be called tbe antithesis of the quality of her method. She was an individualist of the first order, and individuality in her figures could survive the abatement or attenuation of corporal and concrete substance to an extent to which the length and breadth of literature hardly offers a parallel. The character like Tithonus might waste to a grain of a sand, but that grain would be flint.
"Manners," said Elizabeth with a sniff.
There is another point in which the truth of the characterizations is liable to a grave deduction. She thought herself hostile to those
Men that every virtue decks, And women models of their sexto whom fiction has owed half its popularity. She writes to her niece Fanny: "Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked." We have seen that she expresses a measure of discontent with the faultless heroine of her own Persuasion. The two facts, the faultlessness and the discontent, taken together are significant. Miss Austen virtuously prided herself on her aversion to the unqualified, but those who have read her novels and also her letters from Bath will understand me when I say that several of her own characters hadtheir dwelling in Paragon Street. Nothing is easier than to despise perfection in the characters of other novelists. Fielding recoiled from Richardson's inffable Pamela, but I should not like to undertake off-hand to name a fault in the wife of Captain Booth or in the sweetheart of Tom Jones. George Eliot in Adam Bede began with a plea for alloys and mixtures, but was destined to produce in Daniel Deronda a paragon who roused explosiveness in Stevenson. Stevenson did not draw Derondas, but after preaching to others, I suspect that he himself became a castaway with John Hawkins on Treasure Island, if not with David Balfour in the Hebrides. The truth is that virtue is so insidious that the wariest novelist is not proof against its seductions. How does the case stand with Miss Austen?
Of Elinor Dashwood we might say what an American satirist said of Elinor's country that "when the vartoos died they made her heir." Colonel Brandon's worst offense is rheumatism. We concede a few faults to Elizabeth Bennet and her lover, though Elizabeth's are of the mildest type, and Darcy's resemble the folds in a table-cover, which disappear the moment it is spread out. But what is to be said in stay of sentence for the impeccable Jane Bennet? The other Jane--Jane Fairfax--is almost as bad--I should say as good, but we are not required to like her unless we choose. The interval between Fanny price and perfection is distressingly slight, and Anne Elliot is practically dismissed as hopeless by her creator. Edmund Bertram is allowed one little fault, but no such indulgence is vouchsafed to Mr. Henry Tilney.
Evil in many characters is equally unrelieved. The virtues have been so far used up on the paragons that no good trait is left for Fanny Dashwood, for Lucy Steele, for George Wickham, for Lydia Bennet, for Lady Catherine de Bourgh, for Mr. Collins, for General Tilney, for John Thorpe, for Isabella Thorpe, for Mr. Elliot, for Mrs. Elton. About Mrs. Norris the authors of the Life and Letters make the following remark:
Mrs. Norris, we are told, would have done much better than Mrs. Price in her position. It must have given Jane Austen geat pleasure to make this remark. None of her bad characters (except possibly Elizabeth Elliot) were quite inhuman to herer, and to have found a situation in which Mrs. Norris might have shone would be [would have been?] a real satisfaction.It is needless to comment on the methods of a novelist in whom a character is only saved from total inhumanity by a paragraph of eleven lines in the last quarter of the book.
This is one phase of the matter. There is another phase, smaller in bulk and less pronounced in quality, but of much significance and of surpassing worth. As we have seen, Miss Austen was not strong in the divided character, but in what may be called the slanting character, the character that is remote both from the perpendicular and the horizontal, she had a rare and precious gift. The decent and self-respecting meanness of John Dashwood, the mixture of self-indulgence and obligingness in Charles Musgrove, receive little space or emphasis, but they are of that profound truth which is plunlbed only here and there by the wisest and most penetrating fiction. The case of Emma Woodhouse is somewhat different. Here the character, excellent in the main, is weakened by frailties that are more damaging than grave, or, if the reader likes, more estranging than damaging. The plan requires that this character be endangered and safe-guarded at every moment, and the skis shown in the convoy is worthy of the sister of two admirals. Mr. John Knightley presents a third problem. He has an ill temper, not the agreeable and almost ingratiating ill temper which seasons the virtue of his uncompromising brother, but the sort of ill temper of which one might say, in mimicry of the Frenchman's censure of the murder of the duke d'Enghien, that it is worse than a fault, it is a nuisance. He really tries the reader, yet keeps his place in the reader's esteem--a process normal in but reserved in fiction for the attempered hand of the severe and ripened artist.
I shall quote a few passages which show Miss Austen's grasp of this doubleness, this circumflex, in life for which the dramsitic craftsman is so prone to substitute the grave or the acute accent.
Charlotte herself was tolerably composed. She had gained her point, and had time to consider of it. Her reflections were in general satisfactory. Mr. Collins, to be sure, was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage bad always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.This may be questionable as ethics--it is certainly dismal as philosophy; but its art is consummate.
Two passages from Persuasion may be cited.
He had very good spirits, which never seemed much affected by his wife's occasional lowness, bore with her unreasonableness sometimes to Anne's admiration, and upon the whole, though there was very often a little disagreement (in which she had sometimes more share than she wished, being appealed to by both parties) they might pass for a happy couple.
Lady Elliot had been an excellent woman, sensible and amiable, whose judgment and conduct, if they might be pardoned the youthful infatuation which had made her Lady Elliot, had never required indulgence afterwards. She had humoured, or softened, or concealed his failings, and promoted his real respectability for seventeen years; and though not the very happiest being in the world herself, had found enough in her duties, her friends, and her children, to attach her to life, and make it matter of indifference to her when she was called on to quit them.Miss Austen is clearly at home in that prevalent state of mind to which fiction so rarely adjusts itself--the state in which happiness is sufficiently clouded to lose all its brilliancy without losing all its worth. It sometimes seems as if the main business of life were to confute our expectations, to upset our theories, and to blunt our epigrams. Even this dictum is too epigrammatic to be true. The division of men into optimists and pessimists is at once the consequence and the evidence of the refusal of life to ally itself with either party.
In Miss Austen's standing as realist three elements must be noted--the conventionalist, the dramatist, and the observer. Convention was mighty in her, and influenced her conformity to truth. It not only affected her style and her ethics, but it made the whole form--not the spirit--of her conversation artificial, and--as I personally think--it warped realism by informing her novels with what one may call the odor of the seminar. The second force is the dramatist, working on an admirable ground of observed truth, but heightening the lights and blackening the shadows, producing integers of good and evil, intensifying and simplifying till nothing was left of the character but the exaggeration and reiteration of one or possibly two or three qualities--giving in the end the truth, not of life, but of comedy. Last of all comes the observer, in the tempered and chastened exercise of a faculty whose compass has often been exaggerated, but the quality, the delightfulness, of which it would be difficult to overpraise.
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.