Jane Austen and Her Times
Chapter 18 - The Prince Regent and Emma
October 1815, Henry Austen was dangerously ill. He had by this time moved into another house, which was in Hans Place, quite near his former residence in Sloane Street, though the connection with the bank in Henrietta Street was still kept up. Both his sisters were with him at first, and an express was sent for his brother Edward, so critical was his state considered to be, but he rallied, and afterwards, when he was out of danger, Edward and Cassandra went on to Chawton, and Jane was left to nurse him back to complete health. The ideas of medicine at that time were primitive, and consisted chiefly of unmitigated blood-letting, an extraordinary custom, which must have been responsible for many a weak body's giving up the ghost.
This incredible system is exemplified in the following anecdote. When Mrs. Lybbe Powys' son Philip had a coach accident she comments on his treatment thus: "He has not, since the accident, tasted a bit of meat, or drunk a drop of wine, had a perpetual blister ever since, and blooded every three or four days for many weeks." Well may the editor of the book remark, "Truly Mr. Powys' enduring this treatment was a survival of the fittest!"
There was then a wide distinction between the Physician and the Apothecary, which may be noticed in Jane's playful repudiation: "You seem to be under a mistake as to Mr. H. you call him an apothecary. He is no apothecary, he has never been an apothecary; there is not an apothecary in the neighbourhood--the only inconvenience of the situation perhaps--but so it is, we have not a medical man within reach. He is a Haden, nothing but a Haden, a sort of wonderful nondescript creature on two legs, something between a man and an angel, but without the least spice of an apothecary He is perhaps the only person not an apothecary hereabouts."
The Rev. George Crabbe
As it happened, this nursing of her brother brought her into public notice, for the physician who attended Henry Austen was also a physician of the Prince Regent's. At that time, though Jane's name had not appeared on the title-page of her books, there was no longer any secret as to the writer's identity, and the doctor told her one day that the Prince of Wales, who had been made Regent in 1811, was a great admirer of her novels; this is the only good thing one ever heard of George IV., and one cannot help doubting the fact; it is hard to imagine his reading any book, however delightful. The physician, however, added that the Prince read the novels often, and kept a set in every one of his residences, further, he himself had told the Prince that the author was in London, and he had desired his librarian to wait upon her. The librarian, Mr. Clarke, duly came, and Jane was invited to go to Carlton House, but it does not seem that the Prince himself deigned to bestow any personal notice upon her, or that he even saw her; she saw Mr. Clarke and Mr. Clarke alone, and therefore one begins to feel tolerably sure that it was frorn Mr. Clarke the whole thing originated. This worthy man deserves some credit, but that he was lacking in any sense of humour or knowledge of life was evidenced by his ponderous suggestions as to future books, one of which was that Jane should "delineate in some future work the habits of life, character, and enthusiasm of a clergyman, who should pass his time between the metropolis and the country, who should be something like Beattie's minstrel"; and when this was rejected, "an historical romance illustrative of the august house of Cobourg, would just now be very interesting." Jane's reply is full of good sense and excellently expressed. "You are very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Cobourg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up, and never relax into laughing at myself or at other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other." (Mr. Austen-Leigh's Memoir.) She, however, gladly agreed to dedicate her next work to His Royal Highness. The next work was Emma, then nearly ready for publication. Mr. Murray was the publisher, and the dedication, which had been graciously accepted, appeared on the title-page.
In the Gardens at Carlton House
The state of the Court at that time is abundantly pictured in numerous memoirs, diaries, journals, etc., not the least among which is that of Miss Burney, Jane's contemporary and sister authoress. George III. had one very striking virtue--striking in his time and position and especially in his family--he seems to have lived a first feelings on seeing her had been those of disappointment, but being a sensible, kindly man, he had soon learnt to value the good heart and nature of the girl who so far to marry a man she had never seen. Their numerous family linked them together, and though the sons were a constant source of trouble and notorious come in their wild lives, the tribe of princesses seem to have endeared themselves to everyone by their gracious manners. Poor old George himself, with his well-meant, "What? What? What?" and his homely ways, could never offend intentionally, and the "sweet queen," as Miss Burney so fulsomely calls her, though fully conscious of her own dignity, and not disposed to make a fuss about the hardships inseparable from the position of her waiting-women, wasyet at the bottom kind-hearted too.
As for most of the princes, however, their ways were a byword and scandal. In every contemporary book we read of their being drunk, and otherwise disgracing themselves.
The Prince of Wales and the Duke of York were the worst, and the Dukes of Clarence and Kent seem to have been the best. At Brighten, where the Prince of Wales had established his pavilion, orgies of drink and coarseness went on that disgusted even those accustomed to very free manners; the princes appeared in public with their mistresses, and reeled into public ball-rooms. The Prince's treatment of his own ill-used wife is well known. Purely from caprice, and without a shadow of justification, she, the mother of his only child princess Charlotte, was dismissed from her home, and forbidden any of the privileges or respect due to her rank, a course of treatment which made England despised among the nations. Of the other two we read:--
"The duke of Kent is certainly one of the most steady looking of the princes, perhaps he may be heavy, but he has unquestionably the most of a Man of Business in his Appearance."And Horace Walpole says--
"My neighbour, the Duke of Clarence, is so popular, that if Richmond were a borough, and he had not attained his title, but still retained his idea of standing candidate, he would certainly be elected there. He pays his bills regularly himself, locks up his doors at night, that his servants may not stay out late, and never drinks but a few glasses of wine. Though the value of crowns is mightily fallen of late at market, it looks as if His Royal Highness thought they were still worth waiting for; nay, it is said that he tells his brothers, that he shall be king before either; this is fair at least." He was afterwards William IV.The Prince of Wales mixed freely in political intrigues of the worst kind, and took part in faction politics. As a man he was a contemptible creature without character or intellect, but, in spite of all his faults, he had a certain number of admirers, because as a young man he was graceful and obliging in manners, and personal graciousness in a sovereign covers a multitude of sins.
It is incongruous that a pure sweet story such as Emma should have been dedicated to a man whose faults and vices were such as the clean-minded author could never have conceived, but the dedication probably served the purpose of advertising this, the last novel that Jane hcrself was to see issued to the public.
Emma ranks very high indeed among the novels, but it relies for its position on a different sort of excellence from that which distinguishes Pride and Prejudice, there is in it, as we might have expected, more finished workmanship and less of the brilliancy of youth. The book is not so lively as Pride and Prejudice, and its somewhat slow opening, unlike Jane's usual style, is enough to discourage some readers who expect to be plunged into a scene such as that which begins her first novel, or which comes very soon in Sense and Sensibility. Emma has, however, more plot than is usual with Jane Austen's writings, it is more deliberately constructed, and yet the whole scene takes place in a quiet country village without once changing.
The heroine Emma, whose domestic importance as the only unmarried daughter of a wealthy widower has given her a full idea of her own value, has developed her individuality very strongly. She is not spoilt, but all her words and actions betoken one accustomed to impress her will on her surroundings, in a way not often allowed to unmarried girls at home. The motif is her matchmaking propensity, which again and again brings her to grief; this affords opening for many of the humorous touches in which the author delights.
The book is very rich in secondary characters. The garrulous, kind-hearted Miss Bates, with her rattling tongue, is one of the strongly individualised comic characters which Jane generally manages to insert. She ranks with Mr. Collins, with Mrs. Norris, and the lesser specimens of the same gallery, Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Jennings, She is admirably true to life,just such a garrulous, empty-headed, good-hearted, tiresome creature as many a governess of the old school has degenerated into in the evening of her life.
Emma's father, the valetudinarian Mr. Woodhouse, has been said to be overdrawn, but the great merit of Jane's work is that she does not exaggerate; traits to be found in people that any of us might number among our acquaintance are so skilfully depicted as to appear prominent; she selects true if extreme types, and does not draw monstrosities such as those in which Dickens's books abound, and of which one can only say they may have existed, once, at one time, but are as rare as the exhibits in a dime museum.
Mr. Woodhouse's married daughter, Mrs. Knightley, is excellently done; her sympathy with her father's tastes is only kept in check by her affection for husband and children, which forces her to attend to them and forget herself; yet the enjoyment with which she sips her gruel, when allowed to have it, is real enjoyment, and she would have certainly lived on gruel too had she been an old maid.
The hero, Mr. Knightley, is one of the few sensible men among Jane's heroes, and he with his experience and strength of character, is, as has been said elsewhere, the only true mate for Emma. Knightley has been criticised as a prig, but he is far from that. He was a stern elderly man apparently at least forty-five in age, though we are told he was only thirty. Emma herself has more ability than her rival, Elizabeth Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice; her mind has more depth and application: we could imagine Emma reading and studying, whereas, pleasant as Elizabeth might have been as a companion, her forte was general intelligent interest not depth, and we could not picture her deeply absorbed in any book but a novel. Emma was one of Jane's own favourite heroines, and she said of her, "I am going to draw a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." It is true that for the generality of men Emma would, in real life, have been just a little too strong, but she is none the less interesting to read about.
Mr. Elton has already been commented on in the chapter on clergymen; a more perfect match than he and his vulgar flashy wife would be difficult to find. As for Jane's traits of character in regard to the hero and his brother, her genius cannot be better expressed than in the words of Mr. Herries Pollock, who calls it "the finely touched likeness and unlikeness between the brothers Knightley. At every turn of phrase, at every step so to speak, one knows which is the better man, and yet the point is never pressed by the author." Though on the whole the book has less verve than Pride and Prejudice, it is rich in observation and quiet humour.
It was published by Mr. Murray in December 1815. Jane says of it--
"My greatest anxiety at present is that this fourth work should not disgrace what was good in the others. But on this point I will do myself the justice to declare that, whatever may be my wishes for its success, I am strongly haunted with the idea that to those readers who have preferred Pride and Prejudice it will appear inferior in wit, and to those qho have preferred Mansfield Park inferior in good sense." (Mr. Austen-Leigh's Memoir.)A reviewer in The Quarterly of the autumn 1815 includes Emma with other works of the same writer. It has been supposed, therefore, that the proof sheets must have been in the hands of the quarterly reviewer before the work was actually issued. Mr. Austin-Dobson, by application to Mr. Murray, cleared up the difficulty, for he ascertained that, owing to exceptional delays, the number of the Review bearing date October 1815 did not in reality come out until March 1816, and that therefore Emma had actually appeared before its production.
The reviewer was Sir Walter Scott, as is stated by Lockhart in a note to the Life, who adds that Emma and Northanger Abbey were in particular great favourites of Scott's. In his summary at the end of the article, Sir Walter Scott says--
"The author's knowledge of the world and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognise, 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." "The faults on the contrary arise from the minute detail which the author's plan comprehends. Characters of folly or simplicity such as those of old Woodhouse and Miss Bates, are ridiculous when first presented, but if too often brought forward, or too long dwelt upon, their prosing is apt to become as tiresome in fiction as in real society."In this we cannot agree, to accuse Jane of it is to accuse her of lacking the very gift in which she was preeminent--selection. The merit of her bores is that they never bore, but are only amusing. She never proses, and her few paragraphs of quotation from the sayings of Miss Bates set that lady before us as clearly or more clearly than if fifty pages from the actual life had been given by the phonograph. From what Jane says she apparently saw this article in March 1816 when she was back at Chawton; for she writes: "The authoress of Emmn has no reason, I think, to complain of her treatment in it, except in the total omission of Mansfield Park; I cannot but be sorry that so clever a man as the reviewer of Emma should consider it as unworthy of being noticed."
That Jane was satisfied with her treatment by Mr. Murray may be seen by her handing over to him the conduct of the second edition of Mansfield Park. She writes in one place, "I had a most civil note in reply from Mr. Murray. He is so very polite indeed that it is quite over-coming."
At this time she must have begun the last and shortest of her books, Persuasion, which she finished in August of the same year. And with this we enter on the last phase, the gradual decline and sinking of the bright spirit, which had added so greatly to the happiness of thousands it had never known.
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.