Jane Austen and Her Times
Chapter 5 - The Novels
The life of a genius is, after all, secondary to the works by which he lives; no one would want to know anything about him had not the works aroused their interest. The personality when revealed is oft-times disappointing, sometimes repulsive, but that cannot alter the value of the work. There is certainly no fear that we shall find anything repulsive in the simple life of Jane Austen, or that: we shall be disappointed in knowing her as she was, but for all that the works are the thing.
One writer on Jane Austen, in what purports to be a book, has devoted three hundred and thirty-two pages out of three hundred and eighty-six to a synopsis of the plots of the novels, told in bald and commonplace language, without any of the sparkle of the original, so that even the extracts embedded in such a context seem flat and uninteresting. This sort of book-making is worse than useless, it is positively harmful. Anyone who read the volume before reading the original novels would assuredly never.go to them after having seen them flattened out in this style. There is no place for such a book; anyone who is interested in Jane Austen at all should read her works as they are. There can be no excuse on the ground of length, the longest, Emma, runs to four hundred and thirty-six pages of clear type in duodecimo form. For the publication of an abridged form of Richardson's works, there might be excuse; anyone who read such an abridgement might be forgiven, for Richardson's masterpiece filled seven volumes! But with Jane Austen there is nothing to abridge, every sentence tells, there is no prolixity, every word has its intrinsic value, and to retell her sparkling little stories in commonplace language is indeed to attempt the painting of the rose.
This book, at all events, is intended only for those who know the novels at first hand, and there shall be no explaining, no pandering to that laziness that prefers hash to joints. Taking it for granted that everyone knows the six complete novels, we enter here on a discussion of the excellencies common to all, leaving them to be discussed singly as they occur chronologically in the life of their author. The first question that occurs to anyone in this connection is, how is it that these books, without plot, without adventures, without double entendre, have managed to entrance generations of readers, and to be as much alive to-day as when they were written? The answer is simple and comprehensive,--they are of human nature all compact. This is the first and greatest quality. We have in them no heroes and heroines, no villains, but only men and women; and while the world lasts stories of real live flesh-and-blood characters will hold their own. The second characteristic, which is the salt of fiction, is the keen sense of humour that runs throughout. Jane Austen's observation of the foibles of her fellow-creatures was unusually sharp, her remarks in her letters are not always kind, but in the novels this sharp and keen relish of what is absurd is softened down so as to be nowhere offensive. Like her own Elizabeth, she might say, "I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can."
A third characteristic, which is the result of genius alone, is her dainty sense of selection. She never gives anything redundant either in the actions or words of her characters, just enough is said or done to reveal the people themselves to us. One has only to think of writers deficient in this quality to realise how essential it is to enjoyment. In Miss Ferrier's Marriage, for instance, there are good and striking scenes, but in her conversations she never knows when to stop, the tedious long winded sentences have to be skipped in order to get on with the story. The art of selection is that which distinguishes real dramatic talent from photographic realism. To be able to put down on paper exactly what average people say is certainly a gift, for few can do it, but a far higher gift is to select and combine just those speeches and actions which give the desired effect without leaving any sense of omission or incompleteness. Jane Austen had the power also of giving a flash of insight into a state of mind or a personal feeling in a few words more than any writer before or since. It is one of her strongest points. Take for example that scene when Henry Tilney instructing Catherine "talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances; side screens and perspectives; lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar, that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of the landscape"; or the opening sentences of Mansfield Park. "Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of a handsome house and large income. All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match; and her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it."
It is by touches such as these that the characters are made to live before us, Jane never condescends to the device of tricks which Dickens allowed himself to use with such wearisome iteration; we have none o f"the moustache went up and the nose came down" style. Jt is by a perfect perspective, by light touches given with admirable effect, that we know the difference between Fanny Price and Anne Elliot, both good, sweet, retiring girls; or between Elinor Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse, who both had the generosity of character to sympathise with another's love affairs while hiding their own. Henry Tilney and Edmund Crawford were both young clergymen of a priggish type, but Henry's didactic reflections are not in the least the same as those which Edmund would have uttered.
The silliness of Mrs. Palmer, with her final summary on the recreant Willoughby, "She was determined to drop his acquaintance immediately, and she was very thankful she had never been acquainted with him at all. She wished with all her heart Combe Magna was not so near Cleveland, but it did not signify for it was a great deal too far off to visit; she hated him so much that she was resolved never to mention his name again, and she should tell everyone she saw how good for nothing he was," is entirely different from the continuous weak outpourings of poor little Miss Bates. "And when I brought out the baked apples from the closet, and hoped our friends would be so very obliging as to take some, 'Oh,' said he directly, 'there is nothing in the way of fruit half so good, and these are the finest looking home-baked apples I ever saw in my life.' That, you know, was so very-- And I am sure by his very manner it was no compliment. Indeed, they are very delightful apples, and Mrs. Wallis does them full justice, only we do not have them baked more than twice, and Mr. Woodhouse made us promise to have them done three times; but Miss Woodhouse will be so good as not to mention it. The apples themselves are the very finest sort for baking beyond a doubt--'" and so on and so on for a page or more.
The truth is that Jane Austen seized on qualities which are frequently found in human nature, and developed them with such fidelity that nearly all of us feel that we have at one time or another met a Miss Bates or a Mrs. Norris, or that we can see traits in others which resemble theirs; it is this which makes the appeal to all humanity. She did not take one person out of her acquaintance and depict him or her, but represented, in characters of her own creating, these salient traits which will ever revive perennially while men and women exist.
Lord Macaulay does not hesitate to speak of Jane in the same breath with Shakespeare. "Shakespeare has had neither equal nor second, but among the writers who have approached nearest to the manner of the great Master, we have no hesitation in placing Jane Austen, a woman of whom England is justly proud. She has given us a multitude of characters, all, in a certain sense, commonplace, all such as we meet every day, yet they are all as perfectly discriminated from each other as if they were the most eccentric of human beings." And Archbishop Whateley makes the suggestive remark, "It is no fool that can describe fools well."
Before the birth of Jane Austen, the novel, which had been hardly considered in England for many centuries, had suddenly found a quartette of exponents which had placed the country in the foremost rank of this branch.
It is rare indeed that four such men as Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne, with powers of imagination which make their work classic, should be evolved at the same date. It would almost seem as if the theory which declares that the world, in its onward rush through space, passes through regions impregnated with certain forms of ether that affect men's minds, must have some grain of truth, when simultaneously there leaped forth four exponents and first masters of an art that hitherto can hardly have been said to exist. The united scope of their four lives ranged from 1689 to 1771, and between these dates England was enriched for all time.
With these four Jane Austen's work has little in common. It is to Richardson only that her novels owe anything, and they differ from Richardson's in many striking particulars.
Apart from the masters already mentioned, "A greater mass of trash and rubbish never disgraced the press of any country than the ordinary novels that filled and supported circulating libraries down nearly to the time of Miss Edgeworth's first appearance. There had been The Vicar of Wakefield, to be sure, before, and Miss Burney's Evelina and Cecilia, and Mackenzie's Man of Feeling, and some bolder and more varied fictions of the Misses Lee. But the staple of our novel market was beyond imagination despicable, and had consequently sunk and degraded the whole department of literature of which it had usurped the name." (Jeffrey, Essays, Ed. 1853.)
And Macaulay says: "Most of the popular novels which preceded Evelina were such as no lady would have written, and many of them were such as no lady could without confusion own that she had read. The very name of novel was held in horror among religious people. In decent families which did not profess extraordinary sanctity, there was a strong feeling against all such works. Sir Anthony Absolute, two or three years before Evelina appeared, spoke the sense of the great body of sober fathers and husbands, when he pronounced the circulating library an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge. This feeling on the part of the grave and reflecting, increased the evil from which it had sprung. The novelist, having little character to lose, and having few readers among serious people, took, without scruple, liberties which, in our generation, seem almost incredible."
The effect that Miss Burney's stories had upon contemporary readers may be judged from a letter of Mr. Twining, a country clergyman of education and standing, who wrote in 1782 to her father, Dr. Burney: "I need not tell you that I gobbled up Cecilia as soon as I could get it from my library. I never knew such a piece of work made with a book in my life. It has drawn iron tears down cheeks that were never wetted with pity before; it has made novel readers of callous old maiden ladies, who have not for years received pleasure from anything but scandal. Judge, then, what effect it has had upon the young and the tender hearted I know two amiable sisters at Colchester, sensible and accomplished women, who were found blubbering at such a rate one morning! The tale had drawn them on till near the hour of an engagement to dinner, which they were actually obliged to put off; because there was not time to recover their red eyes and swelled noses."
Miss Burney (Madame D'Arblay)
Miss Burney's works are real enough, and not lightly to be dismissed; she understood the human heart, and especially the heart of a girl, her sentimental side is perfect, but beyond that she ceases to claim anything out of the common. Her society types are types only; the gay young man, a rake, but charming at heart, whose excesses were but the wildness of an ill-brought-up youth, had been drawn many times before. When she goes beyond affairs of the heart she at once caricatures; her Captain and Mrs. Duval are gross and overdrawn even according to the manners of the age.
Miss Burney preceded Jane Austen by several years; Evelina was published in 1778, when the sister-author was but three years old; Cecilia came out four years later, and Camilla in 1796, the same year in which Pride and Prejudice was written, though it was not published until 1813. There is no doubt that Jane Austen owed much to her rival and predecessor, but her gifts were incomparably the greater. Miss Burney's cleverness consisted in the portrayal of feeling in a young girl's sensitive mind, her stories are stories of fashion and incident; Jane Austen's are of country life, and simple everyday scenes. The one had its vogue, and, as an account of contemporary manners, the books have their value and delight now, especially Evelina, which stands high above its successors, each one of which is poorer than the preceding one; but none are to be compared with any of Jane Austen's novels, which are for all time.
"Miss Edgeworth indeed draws characters and details conversations such as occur in real life with a spirit of fidelity not to be surpassed; but her stories are most romantically improbable, all the important events in them being brought about by most providential coincidences." (Archbishop Whateley.)
It was a transition age from the conventional to the natural; as in the admiration of landscape, the love for natural gardens, the gradual disappearance of the formal and empty compliment to which women had hitherto been treated, we find taste changing, so in literature the conventional was giving way to the natural. Fielding and Smollett had broken down the barriers in this respect, they had depicted life as it was, not as convention had decreed it should be, hence their gigantic success; but the life they saw and rendered was the life of a man of the world, with all its roughness and brutality. Jane Austen was the first to draw exactly what she saw around her in a humdrum country life, and to discard all incident, all adventure, all grotesque types, for perfect simplicity. She little understood what she was doing, but herein lies her wonderful power, she was a pioneer. Jane's writing had nothing in common with Mrs. Radcliffe, whose style is mimicked in Northanger Abbey. It had absolutely no adventures. The fall of Louisa on the Cobb is perhaps the most thrilling episode in all the books, yet by virtue of its entire simplicity, its naturalness, its gaiety, her writing never fails to interest. Perhaps the most remarkable tribute to her genius lies in the fact that, though her books are simplicity itself, dealing with the love-stories of artless girls, they are read and admired not only by girls and women, but more especially by men of exceptional mental calibre. It has been said that the appreciation of them is a test of intellect.
Though her novels are novels of sentiment, they never drift into sickly sentiment, they are wholesome and healthy throughout. With tragedy she had nothing to do; her work is comedy, pure comedy from beginning to end. And as comedies well done are the most recreative of all forms of reading, it is no wonder that, slight as are her plots, hardly to be considered, minute as are the incidents, the attention of readers should ever be kept alive. In all her books marriage is the supreme end; the meeting, the obstacles, the gradual surmounting of these, and the happy ending occur with the regularity of clockwork. And yet each one differs from all the others, and she is never monotonous. Every single book ends well, and it is a striking fact that there is not a death in one of them. When, after a slight improvement, Marianne, in Sense nnd Sensibility, grows worse--
"The repose of the latter [Marianne] grew more and more disturbed; and her sister who watched with unremitting attention her continual change of posture, and heard the frequent but inarticulate sounds of complaint which passed her lips, was most wishing to rouse her from so painful a slumber, when Marianne, awakened by some accidental noise in the house, started hastily up, and, with feverish wildness cried out, 'is mamma coming?' . . . Hour after hour passed away in sleepless pain and delirium on Marianne's side, and in the most cruel anxiety on Elinor's," we know that in most books we should expect the worst, but with Jane Austen we are sure that it will all turn out well, as indeed it does. and our feelings are not unduly harrowed.One point which is obvious in all the books is the utter lack of conversation, except about the merest trivialities, among women. In Sense and Sensibility it is remarked of a dinner given by John Dashwood that "no poverty of any kind, except of conversation, appeared. . . . When the ladies withdrew to the drawing-room after dinner, this poverty was particularly evident, for the gentlemen had supplied the discourse with some variety--the variety of politics, enclosing land, and breaking horses--but then it was all over, and one subject only engaged the ladies till coffee came in, which was the comparative height of Harry Dashwood, and Lady Middleton's second son, William, who were nearly of the same age . . . the two mothers though each really convinced that her own son was the taller, politely decided in favour of the other. The two grandmothers with not less partiality, but more sincerity, were equally earnest in support of their own descendant."
The Christian names of that date were plain, and, for women, strictly limited in number; it detracts something from a heroine to be called Fanny Price or Anne Elliot; and Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet are little better; Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are the most fancy names applied by Jane to any of her heroines.
Another point which may be noticed in the novels is that the outward forms of religion, beyond the fact of a mans being a clergyman, are never mentioned, and that on all religious matters Jane is silent; but this does not signify that she was not herself truly religious at heart, for we have the testimony of those who knew her to the contrary, particularly that of her brother Henry in his preface prefixed to the first edition of Northanger Abbey, published after her death. But though actual religion does not appear in her pages, the lessons that the books teach are none the less enforced; had she been taking for her sole text the merit of unselfishness, she could not have done more, or indeed half so much, to further the spread of that virtue. To read the books straight through one after the other is to feel the petty meanness of self-striving, and the small gain that lies therein. The talk of the mammas, such as Mrs. Bennet, who are perfectly incapable of seeing their neighbours' interest should it clash with their own; the picture of the egregious Mrs. Norris with her grasping at the aspect of generosity and self-sacrifice, without any intention of putting herself to any inconvenience thereby; the weakness of such characters as Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, who allow themselves to drift along the lines of least resistance without a thought of the after misery they may cause: each and all of these are more potent than a volume of sermons.
It may be noted that Jane Austen chose her characters from the class of life in which she herself lived, we meet in her pages no dukes or duchesses, and only a few slightly sketched labourers and gardeners, who are brought in when inevitable; the story itself is concerned with people of the middle classes, the squires and country gentlemen, the clergymen, and upper-class prosperous tradespeople. We have no inimitable rustics as in George Eliot's wonderful books, nor any disreputable knaves of the fashionable rich as in Miss Burney's works. It is, however, a remarkable fact that all the mankind are always at leisure to picnicand dance attendance on the ladies at any hour of the day; we have no business men; rides and excursions and picnics are always provided with a full complement of idle young men to match the young women. To this rule the clergymen are, of course, no exception.
There was a particular sort of country gentleman who seemed to flourish in those days, of the type of Mr. Knightley and Mr. Bennet. These men did not own enough land to call themselves squires, their farming was very slight, they owned a secure fortune in some safe investment, and apparently spent their lives in the insipid avocations which, until recently, were the lot or nearly all men who were neither rich nor poor. They played cards, and rode and saw their neighbours, and read the newspapers, without seeming to feel their time hang at all heavy on their hands. This breed seems almost extinct now, we are all too excitable, and live too rapidly to make it possible. A man with such an income as either of the two mentioned would almost certainly travel, or take up some special hobby; he would be a social reformer, or on his County Council, a J.P., a M.F.H., or something of the kind, with occupations varied enough to afford him some apology for his existence.
The lowest of what may be called Jane Austen's speaking parts are filled by well-to-do tradesmen, or people just emerging from trade, as the Gardeners in Pride and Prejudice, who still lived at the business house in Gracechurch Street; for it was a time when house and shop were not divided.
Her characters are all supposed to be gentlepeople, but there is a difference between those who are of better family than others, such as Bingley, who condescends in marrying Jane Bennet. There is one point on which I venture to disagree with Mr. Pollock, who, in his extremely suggestive and interesting book on Jane Austen and her Contemporaries, says--
"Comment has been made, and justly made, on the perfect breeding and manners of those people in Miss Austen's novels who are supposed and intended to be well-bred."On the contrary, to go no further that Pride and Prejudice, Darcy himself passes every canon of gentlemanly conduct, and the Misses Bingley, who were supposed to be of irreproachable breeding, betray vulgarity and lack of courtesy in every sentence. The observations of Miss Bingley on Elizabeth and Darcy would disgrace a kitchen-maid. When Darcy has danced once with Elizabeth, Miss Bingley draws near to him, and observes of the society she is in--
"You are considering how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings in this manner--in this society, and indeed I am quite of your opinion. I never was more annoyed. The insipidity and yet the noise--the nothingness and yet the self-importance of all these people! What would I give to hear your strictures on them!'The insolence of Lady Catherine de Bourgh might be adduced as a second example from the same book. These people are well born and well bred, but their manners and conduct are impossible. It may be alleged that they were intended so to be. Probably; but that does not do away with the fact that the well-bred people in the books are not always free from vulgarity, which was the contention with which we started. They might have been made disagreeable in a hundred other ways, had Miss Austen so chosen, without violating all ordinary rules of conduct.
"Your conjecture is totally wrong, I assure you. My mind was more agreeably engaged. I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow!'
"Miss Bingley immediately fixed her eyes on his face, and desired he would tell her what lady had the credit of inspiring such reflections. Mr. Darcy replied with great intrepidity, 'Miss Elizabeth Bennet!'
"Miss Elizabeth Bennet!' repeated Miss Bingley, 'I am all astonishment. How long has she been such a favourite? And pray when am I to wish you joy?'
"That is exactly the question which I expected you to ask. A lady's imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment. I knew you would be wishing me joy.'
"'Nay, ifyou are so serious about it, I shall consider the matter as absolutely settled. You will have a charming mother-in-law indeed, and of course she will always be at Pemberley with you.'"
It is greatly to the author's credit, and speaks of her refinement of mind, that in an age when coarseness of every sort was rampant, her books should be free from a whisper of it. We of this present generation hardly realise how vice was countenanced in the days of the Georges; well indeed was it for England that males of that line died out, so that the heir to the throne was a girl-child, for during her long reign the example which the court set, and which the inferiors were quick to copy, was altered altogether. George the Third himself, who occupied the throne during the whole of Jane Austen's life, was a happy exception among the Hanoverian sovereigns, but the excesses of his sons were notorious.
Even the Duke of Kent, the best of them, accepts a left-handed alliance as inevitable, to say nothing of worse. In writing familiarly to Mr. Creevey after the death of Princess Charlotte, he says--
"The Duke of Clarence, I have no doubt, will marry if he can--he demands the payment of all his debts, which are very great, and a handsome provision for his ten natural children--God only knows the sacrifice it will be to make, whenever I shall think it my duty to become a married man. It is now seven and twenty years that Madame St. Laurent and I have lived together; we are of the same age, have been in all climates and all difficulties together, and you may well imagine, Mr. Creevey, the pang it will be to part with her." (The Creevey Correspondence.)The irregular unions of princes of the blood are unfortunately an accepted fact, but the epoch in which such things were done in broad daylight was one in which libertinism of all kinds was rampant. It was an age also of excessive drunkenness, the Prince Regent frequently appeared in public hardly able to stand. Creevey records that the prince "drank so much as to be made very seriously ill by it"; he says also, as if it were a thing to wonder at, "It is reckoned very disgraceful in Russia for the higher orders to be drunk."
The books of Smollett and Fielding had inculcated the general belief that indecency and interest in a novel were inseparable, and it is greatly to the credit of Miss Burney and Miss Austen that their writings were of an entirely different tone.
Sir Waiter Besant writes: "I do not wish to represent the eighteenth century as much worse than our own in the matter of what is called morality, meaning one kind of morality. The great were allowed to be above the ordinary restraints ofmorality. A certain noble lord travelled with a harem of eight, which was, however, considered scandalous." (London in the Eighteenth Century.)
No whisper of these things stains Jane Austen's pages. And her clear, unaffected view of middle-class life in small towns and villages was true and not idealised, for these people were then, as they still are, the salt of the world, neither apeing the fantastic vices of the upper, nor the abandoned coarseness of the lower classes. They were respectable and sometimes humdrum. They suffered from monotony, not dissipation. That anyone should have been able to extract so much pure fun from such slight materials is ever matter for wonder. She did it by her marvellously close observation and power of selection, qualities which are a gift. She was far more true to human nature than the superficial reader knows, perhaps than she herself knew, for it is a trait of genius to do by the light of nature what other people must set about laboriously and ever fall short of attaining. When we notice Mr. Bennet's caustic humour reappearing in more genial form in his second daughter, there is one of those little touches that binds the characters together--the touch of heredity.
Another instance is in the case of Lady Middleton, who obviously had not married either for love or for suitability, but only for convenience; she is a cold woman, incapable of passion in the usual sense, but her nature breaks out in an adoration of her children which is neither for their benefit nor for hers. We see this again and again in real life; it is the cold, unloving wives who idolise their children because they are theirs, a feeling which is not real love but a kind of extended selfishness, an instinct which, in the case of animals, finds expression in licking their young. The books abound in similar true touches, put in apparently without effort, and almost without thought. When one considers that out of the mass of novels of that age, then, as now, circulated and read by the aid of libraries, such books as Hannah More's Coelebs in Search of a Wife and Mackenzie's Man of Feeling and Man of the World were read and praised almost universally as being far superior to the usual run of novels, one gains some idea of the poverty of matter and manner that must have disgraced the ruck. Both these "masterpieces," so acclaimed as they were issued, are the dullest, driest stuff, without a gleam of humour, any attempt at a story, or any vivacity of expression or character. The general style is, "Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So are to-day expected. Mr. So-and-So is a pious, virtuous man, I am afraid I cannot say so much for his wife," and thereupon follows a long verbose description of the two, who when they appear on the scene do and say nothing to indicate any characteristics, but are mere dummies, pegs on which to hang the discourse that precedes their entry. A favourite device for filling up the pages that must be filled, is the narration by some secondary character of all that has ever befallen them since their birth. Even Miss Burney is not free from this; in Cecilia at least the characters break into narration as easily as some persons do into song. With this kind of stuff to set the standard, the miracle of Jane's books becomes more admirable than ever, for anyone who has ever attempted to write knows how exceedingly difficult it is to resist the influence of the conventional canons in vogue.
Jane Austen seems to have been also as far ahead of her time in the use of simple direct English as she was in construction and effect. She is at least a generation in advance of average contemporary letters and journals, in which the phrasing is often ponderous; the sonorous roll of heavily-weighted sentences in the Johnsonian style, then so much admired, does not ever seem to have occurred to her.
Yet even in her lively, crisp narration there are a few phrases that strike on a modern ear as unaccustomed. Such is the use of the active for the passive tense, "tea was carrying round" ; the elision of the final "n" in the infinitive, "but she said he seemed very angry at being spoke to"; the use of adjectives for adverbs (often reproved as a form of slang in the present day), "she must feel she has been acting wrong." The general use of men's surnames by women occurs in the earlier books, but we see an indication of change in this respect in the passage of Jane's lifetime, for in Emma it is considered vulgar of Mrs. Elton to address Mr. Knightley without the prefix. There are little ways of expressing things that are not now in vogue, men are "gentlemanlike," ladies "amiable," also "genteel and elegant" one phrase which has now descended to the realm of the lady's-maid was then quite good English, "so peculiarly the lady in it." "Excessively" takes the place of our "awfully," we hear continually such expressions as "monstrous obliging," "prodigious pretty," and "vastly civil."
We have not hitherto noticed Miss Edgeworth's, Miss Ferrier's, or Miss Mitford's work, though they are generally considered as belonging to the clever group of women writers who illumined the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, because in this chapter we are dealing only with Jane Austen's own novels, not with contemporary writers except as fhey affected her, and at the time when she wrote her first books none of these writers had published anything, and could not therefore possibly have influenced her. Miss Edgeworth's first novel, Castle Rarkrent, came out in 1800, and Miss Ferrier's Marringe in 1818, after Jane was in her grave.
Jane Austen's own novels were written at such widely differing times, and the interval between writing and publication was so great in some cases, that subject suffers confusion in the minds of those who have not looked into the question closely. As the order of writing is everything, and the order of publication a mere accident, we will take them as they were written. This was in two groups of three each. Pride and Prejudice was begun in October 1796 and finished the following August; Sense and Sensibility was begun in 1797 and finished in 1798, in which year Northanger Abbey was also written. Then there was a long gap, in which she produced only a fragment to be noted hereafter, and not until 1812 was Mansfield Park written; four years later, in 1816, came Emma, quickly followed by Persuasion. Of all these the first to be published was Sense and Sensibility in 1811, and the dates of publication will thereafter be noted in chronological order in the book as it progresses.
Besides these two distinct groups of three novels each, there is another of the unfinished fragments, which never became real stories. These consist of Lady Susan, a comedy in the form of letters, which is ended up hastily with a few paragraphs of explanation; and The Watsons, an unfinished tale, of which the end was told by Cassandra Austen from remarks that her sister had made. Both of these are included, as has been said, in Mr. Austen-Leigh's Memoir, and it seems a pity that they should not form a volume in one of the neat series of Jane Austen's novels now published, as to a real Austenite they contain much that is valuable, and are full of characteristic touches. Of the complete novels Pride and Prejudice is admittedly the best; there are several candidates for the second place, but the superiority of Pride and Prejudice is unquestioned. It was the earliest of the books written, under the title First Impressions, and as such it is referred to in Jane's correspondence: "I do not wonder at your wanting to read First Impressions again, so seldom as you have gone through it, and that so long ago;" this was to her sister in 1799, and later on she adds, with the playfulness never long wanting, "I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, and am very glad I did not leave it in your power. She is very cunning, but I saw through her design, she means to publish it from memory, and one more perusal must enable her to do it."
There has been great diversity of opinion as to the relative merit of the remaining books, but the concensus of opinion seems to declare for Emma, the last but one in point of time, which shows that the author's genius had not abated. This book is totally different from the first, it lacks the sparkle and verve which runs all through Pride and Prejudice, but it has perhaps more depth and is something softer and more finished also.
These two books, and all the others, will be dealt with in detail as they occur chronologically, for we are here only attempting tb treat them generally, and to bring out those characteristics and excellencies common to all which made them such masterpieces, and gave their maker such a unique place in the hierarchy of authors.
Jane Austen is one of the three greatest among English women novelists; the other two being, of course, George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë, whose lives overlapped at a much later date. The genius of these three women is so entirely different in kind that the relative value of their gifts can never be put into like terms; so long as m,, and women read and discuss fiction, so long will each of the three styles have its partisans who will argue it to be the supreme one of the trio. Yet in spite of this, in spite also of a momentary fashion to decry the wonderful gifts of George Eliot, it is quite certain that in depth and breadth of feeling, and ability in its portrayal, she was unequalled by either her predecessor or contemporary. Her range far surpasses theirs. They each dealt with one phase of life or feeling: Jane Austen with English village life, Charlotte Brontë with the element of passion in man and woman, while George Eliot's works embrace many varieties of human nature and action. If her detractors are questioned, it will commonly be found that they do not deny her ability or her brain power, but her genius, which is of course a totally distinct thing. On further probing of the matter, it is usually discovered that the contention is based on the later works, such as Middlemarch or Daniel Deronda. To be quite fair, there are some appearances in these volumes to justify such an estimate, but the mistake is that the opinion is superficial and based on appearance only. In her later days George Eliot's tremendous ability, tremendous soul, and tremendous is the only English word that can be fitly applied to it, made her see so far round and over her own work, as well as allowing her such a wide survey as to the causes and nature of things, that even the productions of her genius were analysed, curbed, and held in channels. She could not let herself go; her subtle insight, her complete knowledge of her characters, made her qualify and account for their actions, perhaps more for her own satisfaction than for that of readers. She might safely have left this to her innate perception without fear, her genius would never have let her go wrong, but she could not, she must analyse even her own creations. No one in the world was more free from this tendency than Jane Austen, she was perfectly unconscious of her own mastery of her subject, as unconscious as the bee when it rejects all other shapes in its cells for the hexagonal. The marvellous precision with which she selected and rejected and grouped her puppets was almost a matter of instinct. She put in the little touches which revealed what was in the mind of her men and women without premeditation or any striving. It is the perfection of this gift which allows her books to be read again and again, for once the story is known, all the slight indications of its ultimate ending, which may have been overlooked while the reader is not in the secret, stand out vividly. We grant to George Eliot's detractors that in her later works her eyes were opened, and she analysed the work of her genius instead of writing spontaneously, but to her true admirers the genius is still there, though curbed and trammelled.
Every one of her men and women to the last are breathing human beings. Having granted, however, so much, we turn to the earlier works, which, amazing to say, are so often overlooked; here her gallery is full of realities, not analysed or thwarted, but moving as impelled by nature. Was there ever a boy-brother and girl-sister in all fiction to equal Tom and Maggie Tulliver? And what of that inimitable trio, Sisters Glegg and Tulliver and Pullet? Of its kind is there a scene that can beat Bob Jakin's twisting Mrs. Glegg round his finger with judicious management? And these are from the abundance of one book only. No, Jane cannot dispute precedence with George Eliot, but must yield the palm; her characters, true and admirable as they are, lack that living depth which George Eliot had the power to impart. But the two are so totally different that it is difficult to find any simile that will bring them into relation with one another. Perhaps the most expressive is that of instrumental music: Jane Austen's clear notes are like those which a skilful performer extracts from a good harp, sweet and ringing, always pleasant to listen to, and restful, but not soul stirring; while George Eiiot's tones are like the deep notes of a violoncello, stirring up the heart to its core, and leaving behind them feeling even after the sound has ceased. The novels of Jane Austen were novels of character and manners, those of George Eliot of feeling. There is no intention in this comparison to minimise in any way the work of the earlier writer, she chose her style, and of its kind it is perfect; her subtle touches could only have been the result of the intuition which is genius, but the profounder emotions, the slow development of character by friction with those around, she did not attempt to depict.
We now turn to the third of the great trio. Charlotte Brontë's gift was a rush of strenuous passion that made her stories pour forth living and molten as from the furnace. Her best characters are admirable, but limited in number; we find the same timid heroine, who outwardly was herself, and inwardly was full of force and passion, appearing in more than one.
Charlotte's bitter indictment of Jane's work, though wholly untrue, can be made allowance for, seeing that her eyes viewed such a different section of the world of feeling. She says of Pride and Prejudice "An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultured garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers, but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck." And at another time, with much truth,"The passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood. What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study; but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of life, and the sentient target of death, this Miss Austen ignores."
Charlotte Brontë's own strongest point is her story, and as the teller of an interesting story, absorbing in its wild and strenuous action, she ranks very high, but character-drawing is not her forte. She herself fails in the poitlt of which she accuses Jane, she could photograph those persons she knew intimately,herself for instance, or her father's curates,--but directly she went beyond,she failed; what could be weaker than the society people in Jane Eyre,-- the ringletted Blanche and the wooden young men?
A great many of her minor characters are mere dummies who do not remain in the mind at all. But one of her strong points is one entirely ignored by Jane, and that is the impression of scenery and the aspects of Weather. Which of us has not felt a chill of desolation as he stood in fancy on the wet gravel-path leading up to Lowood? or not been seIlsible of the exhilaration of that sharp, clear, frosty night when Jane first encountered Mr. Rochester in the lane? In a few words, very few, Charlotte Brontë has a marvellous capability for making one feel the surroundings of her characters, and this is no mean gift. Adherents she will always have, and to them it may be granted that her whole theme was one totally ignored by Jane, whose men and women are swept by no mighty whirlwinds of their own generating. In fact it has been alleged against Jane that she had neither passion nor pathos, and perhaps, if we except one or two touches of the latter quality in dealing with forlorn little Fanny in Mansfield Park, this is true. The only simile that occurs as suitable to use in the comparison between Charlotte and Jane is that the soul of the one was like the turbulent rush of her own brown Yorkshire streams over the wild moorlands--streams which pour in cataracts and shatter themselves on great grey stones in a tumultuous frenzy, while that of the other resembled the calm limpid waters of her own Hampshire river, the Itchen, wending its way placidly between luscious green meadows.
"A deeper sky, where stooping you may seeThe preference between these two is all a matter of taste, and will be decided by the fact whether the admiration of clear incisive humour and comedy of manners outweighs that of fiery feeling and a rush of emotion.
The little minnows darting restlessly."
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.