Jane Austen and Her Times

Chapter 9 - Contemporary Writers

The end of the eighteenth century was an age when merit in literature was an Open Sesame to the very best society that the capital could supply. An author who had brought out a work a little above the average was received and fêted, not only by the literary set, who rapidly passed her or him on from one to another, but by the persons of the highest social rank also. London was so much smaller then, that there was not room for all the grades and sets that now run parallel without ever overlapping. When anyone was made welcome they were free of all the best society at once, and the ease with which some people slipped into the position of social lions on the strength of very small performance is little short of wonderful. When Hannah More first visited London, in 1774, she was plunged at once into the society of men of letters, of wit, of learning, and of rank. Her plays, which to our taste are intolerably stiff and dull, were accepted by Garrick, she became his personal friend, and he introduced her to everyone whose acquaintance was worth having. The Garricks' house became her second home, and she met Bishops by the half dozen, visited the Lord Chamberlain at Apsley House, and was on familiar terms with Sheridan, Johnson, Walpole, Reynolds, and many another whose name is still a household word in England.

In those days the same people met again and again at each other's houses, more after the fashion of a country town than of that of London at present. Indeed they seem to have spent the whole day and most of the night running after each other. There is one custom which we must all be thankful exists no longer, the intolerable fashion of morning calls. Calls are bad enough now as custom decrees, but we are at least free from the terror of people dropping in upon us before the day's work is begun.When staying in Northumberland Miss Mitford remarks, "Morning calls are here made so early, that one morning three different people called before we had done breakfast." Hannah More looked on a morning visit as an immorality, yet she breakfasted with a Bishop, afterwards going to an evening party with another on the same day! She, being of a sensible mind, soon grew tired of the ceaseless talk, though much of it may have been good stuff and worthy of preservation, and she rejoiced when she could get a day to herself, and deny herself to everyone.

After Garrick's death, when she came to stay with his brave but heart-broken widow she lived very quietly. "My way of life is very different from what it used to be. After breakfast I go to my own apartment for several hours, where I read, write and work; very seldom letting anybody in. At four we dine. We have the same elegant table as usual, but I generally confine myselfto one single dish of meat. I have taken to drink half a glass of wine. At six we have coffee; at eight tea, when we have sometimes, a dowager or two of quality. At ten we have sallad and fruits."

This was in 1779, and two years previously her play Percy had been brought out with extraordinary success; she says of it herself, "far beyond my expectation," and it produced more excitement than any tragedy had done for many years. The author's rights, sale of copy, etc., amounted to near six hundred pounds, and"as my friend Mr. Garrick has been so good as to lay it out for me on the best security and at five per cent., it makes a decent little addition to my small income. Cadell gave £ 150, a very handsome price, with conditional promises. He confesses that it had had a very great sale and that he shall get a good deal of money by it. The first impression is near four thousand and the second is almost sold."

It is customary to think of Hannah More as so quiet and Quakerish that the idea of her writing plays and living a gay society life is new to many people, but the seriousness and retirement came later.

Considering how easily the heights of celebrity were stormed at that time, and especially by a woman, it is most remarkable that Jane received no encouragement, and had no literary society, and not one literary correspondent in the whole of her lifetime. Of course her first novel was not published until 1811, and then anonymously, with the simple inscription "By a Lady" on the title-page, yet it sold well and became very popular, and though no effort was made to proclaim her the authoress certainly there was no rigid attempt to hide her personality. Before the publication of Emma her identity was known, for she was requested to dedicate this book to the Prince Regent, as will be related in due course. And this was the only recognition of any public sort she received. Many of her contemporaries were brought up in a sort of hotbed of intellect, and associated with men of talent and distinction from their cradles--what a wonderful quickening and impetus must this have brought with it! Jane had none of these advantages, her genius was her own entirely, and her material of the slightest; she had no contemporaries of original talent with which to exchange ideas, to strike out sparks or receive suggestions. She did not mingle with people of her own calibre at all. Herein Miss Burney had an immense advantage over her, from her babyhood she was surrounded by men and women of distinction. Her father, himself an author and possessing musical talent, drew to his house all sorts of persons. Macaulay says, "It would be tedious to recount the names of all the men of letters and artists whom Fanny Burney had an opportunity of seeing and hearing. Hundreds of remarkable persons had passed before her, English, French, German, Italian, lords and fiddlers, deans of cathedrals and managers of theatres, travellers leading about newly caught savages, and singing-women escorted by deputy-husbands." She was fêted, caressed and brought forward until she accepted the appointment at the court which condemned her to a weary round of dull duties, and must have made her life appear like a draught of ditch-water after the heady champagne to which she was accustomed.

But the London of 1811, when we have the first record of Jane's visiting it, was not what it had been thirty years before. Johnson was dead, Walpole was dead, Garrick was dead, Reynolds was dead, Sheridan living but sunk in debt and disease; of the brilliant band that Hannah More had known few were left.

Doctor Johnson had died fourteen years previously, when Jane was only nine years old. Miss Burney had had not only his friendship but his help in the revision of her works--perhaps a doubtful privilege. To quote Lord Macaulay again: "When she wrote her early journals, and her novel of Evelina, her style was not indeed brilliant or energetic; but it was easy, clear, and free from all offensive faults. When she wrote Ceciliashe aimed higher. She had then lived much in a circle of which Johnson was the centre; and she was herself one of his most submissive worshippers. . . . In an evil hour the author of Evelina took the Rambler for her model. She had her style. It was a tolerably good one; she determined to throw it away to adopt a style in which she could attain excellence only by achieving an almost miraculous victory over nature and over habit. In Cecilia the imitation of Johnson, though not always in the best taste, is sometimes eminently happy. There were people who whispered that Johnson had assisted his young friend and that the novel owed all its finest passages to his hand. This was merely the fabrication of envy."

But after the death of Johnson,"she had to write in Johnson's manner without Johnson's aid. The consequence was that in Camilla every passage which she meant to be fine is detestable; and that the book has been saved from condemnation only by the admirable spirit and force of those scenes in which she was content to be familiar."

After he had read Camilla, Walpole says of Miss Burney: "Alas! She had reversed experience which I have long thought reverses its own utility by coming at the wrong end of our life when we do not want it. This author knew the world and penetrated characters before she had stepped over the threshold; now she has seen so much of it she has little or no insight at all."

It was therefore, perhaps, lucky for Jane Austen that she was not so overshadowed by the direct personality of a mighty man as to lose her clear, bright English style. Her admiration for Miss Burney's work was decided and clearly expressed, and she was among the first subscribers to Camilla in 1796.

Though Jane never came into contact with the men and women who made literature in her day, she took a keen interest in their works, and was a great novel reader. She says in one place, "As an inducement to subscribe (to her library) Mrs. Martin tells me that her collection is not to consist only of novels but of every kind of literature. She might have spared this pretension to our family, who are great novel readers and not ashamed of being so."

There are frequent references to novels in her letters: "We have got Fitz-Albini, my father has bought it against my private wishes, for it does not quite satisfy my feelings that we should purchase the only one of Egerton's works of which his family are ashamed."

In another place: "To set against your new novel, of which nobody ever heard before, and perhaps never may again, we have got Ida of Athens by Miss Owenson, which must be very clever because it was written the authoress says in three months. We have only read the preface yet, but her Irish girl does not make me expect much. If the warmth of her language could affect the body it might be worth reading this weather." [January.]

There were many writers thought highly of at the time of their writing, who have yet dropped into oblivion to all but the student; among these is Jane Porter, born a year later than Jane Austen, who published her first romance, Thaddeus of Warsaw, in 1803, this was a great success, and immediately ran through several editions; it was followed in 1810 by her chef d'oeuvre The Scottish Chiefs. In 1809, when it had just come out, and was anonymous, Hannah More's Coelebs in Search of a Wife came into Cassandra's hands.

Jane writes of it: "You have by no means raised my curiosity after Caleb. My disinclination for it before was affected but now it is real. I do not like the evangelicals. Of course I shall be delighted when I read it like other people, but till I do, I dislike it." And in her next letter she replies to her sister, "I am not at all ashamed about the name of the novel, having been guilty of no insult towards your handwriting; the diphthong I always saw, but knowing how fond you were of adding a vowel wherever you could, I attributed it to that alone, and the knowledge of the truth does the book no service; the only merit it could have was in the name of Caleb, which has an honest unpretending sound, but in Coelebs there is pedantry and affectation. Is it written only to classical scholars?"

Coelebs itself it must be admitted is dull, unqualifiedly dull. Jane Austen's own books are not novels of plot, but they radiate plot in comparison. In Coelebs a procession of persons stalks solemnly through the pages; they never reveal themselves by action, but are described as by a Greek chorus by the other characters in conversation or by the author, while long dry disquisitions on religion fill half, or more than half, of the book, and Coelebs himself is a prig of the first water. Yet there are certain little touches which indicate a knowledge of human nature, such as that of the man who has married a beauty, "Who had no one recommendation but beauty. To be admired by her whom all his acquaintance admired gratified his amour-propre."

A book called Self Control, which appeared in 1810, by Mary Brunton, the wife of a Scotch minister, had a fair measure of success, and was reprinted as lately as 1852. Jane speaks very slightingly of it: "I am looking over Self Control again, and my opinion is confirmed of its being an excellently meant, elegantly written work, without anything of nature or probability in it. I declare I do not know whether Laura's passage down the American river is not the most natural possible every-day thing she ever does." Miss Mitford in regard to this book quotes the opinions of two men, one of whom said it ought to be burnt by the common hangman and the other that it ought to be written in letters of gold, which shows that public opinion was as various in those days as it is in these. In 1807, Jane mentions Clarentine, a novel of Sarah Burney's, who was a younger sister of the famous Miss Burney; though the same author brought out another novel later, it was evidently only because she followed in her sister's wake, and not from any inherent ability. Jane says, "We are reading Clarentine and are surprised to find how foolish it is. I remember liking it much less on a second reading than at the first, and it does not bear a third at all. It is full of unnatural conduct and forced difliculties, without striking merit of any kind."

But these impressions of long-forgotten books are hardly worth recording, except as specimens of the quantities ofworthless novels to be had at the libraries then.

Samuel Rogers says, "Lane made a large fortune by the immense quantity of trashy novels which he sent forth from the Minerva press. I perfectly well remember the splendid carriage in which he used to ride, and his footmen with their cockades and gold-headed canes. Now-a-days as soon as a novel has had its run, and is beginning to be forgotten, out comes an edition of it as a standard novel."

In Miss Mitford's Life is given a list of the books which she had from the circulating library in a month, and which she presumably read, when she was a girl just back from school. It is here quoted as, with one or two exceptions, the titles tell the style of work in vogue.

"St. Margaret's Cave; St. Claire of the Isles; Scourge of Conscience; Emma Corbett; Poetical Miscellany; Vincenza; A Sailor's Friendship and a Sailor's Love; The Castles of Athlin and Dumbayn; Polycratia; Travels in Africa; Novice of St. Dominick; Clarentina; Leonora; Count de Valmont; Letters of a Hindu Rajah; Fourth Vol. of Canterbury Tales; The Citizen's Quarter; Amazement; Midnight Weddings; Robert and Adela; The Three Spaniards; Dr Clifford."

In his History of Eighteenth Century Literature Edmund Gosse says:"The flourishing period of the eighteenth century novel lasted exactly twenty-five years, during which time we have to record the publication of no less than fifteen eminent works of fiction. The fifteen are naturally divided into three groups. The first contains Pamela, Joseph Andrews, David Simple, (Sarah Fielding) and Jonathan Wild. In these books the art is still somewhat crude, and the science of fiction incompletely understood. After a silence of five years we reach the second and greatest section of this central period, during which there appeared in quick succession, Clarissa, Roderick Random, Tom Jones, Peregrine Pickle, Amelia and Sir Charles Grandison . . . there followed another silence of five years, and then were issued each on the heels of the other, Shandy, Rasselas, Chrysal, The Castle of Otranto and The Vicar of Wakefield--five years later still--Humphrey Clinker, and then, with one or two such exceptions as Evelina and Caleb Williams, no great novel appeared again in England for forty years until in 1811 the new school of fiction was inaugurated by Sense and Sensibility."

Though we may not agree entirely with Mr. Gosse's classification, this paragraph is suggestive.

As we have seen in her brother's record, Jane's favourites in prose and poetry respectively were Johnson and Cowper. These two are mentioned in one sentence of hers: "We have got Boswell's Tour to the Hebrides, and are to have his Life of Johnson; and as some money will yet remain in Burden's hands, it is to be laid out in the purchase of Cowper's works."

She warmly admired Cowper, which is hardly wonderful, for, with some manifest differences, Cowper was trying to do in poetry what she did in prose. He was utterly lacking, of course, in her light vivacity of touch and sense of humour, but he did genuinely try to describe what he saw, not what he merely knew by hearing. The green fields and full rivers of the Olney country are depicted with fidelity to detail and clearness of line. Cowper was born in 1731, but his first volume of verse was not published until 1782, and it was not until The Task appeared a year or two later, with John Gilpin in the same volume, that he really came to his own.

Domestic Happiness

Domestic Happiness

In 1798, Jane writes: "My father reads Cowper to us in the morning to which I listen when I can." This implies no disparagement of the poet, but merely that her numerous household duties did not always allow her time to listen. In Morland's picture, "Domestic Happiness," we have a scene which helps us to realise the family group at these readings. The mother and daughter in their caps, with elbow-sleeves and white kerchiefs, are dressed as lane and her mother must have been, and the plain simplicity of the part of the room shown is quite in accordance with the rectory environment.

Another of Jane's favourite poets was Crabbe. Crabbe and Cowper are both rather heavy reading, and of both it may be said that their poetry is not poetical, but they are honestly seeking after truth and thus they attracted lane Austen. They were amongst the earliest of the natural school which used the method of realism. Crabbe had a bitter struggle to obtain a hearing, but his struggle was over before 1796. Burke had taken him up, and in those days much depended on a patron. In 1781 he had published The Library, two years after The Village, and two years later again came The Newspaper and then he did not bring out anything more until 1807.

It is, of course, very difficult to give any picture of contemporary literature in Jane Austen's time without degenerating into mere strings of names. The fact that she herself came in contact with no one of the first rank in literature prevents any of the characters from being woven into her life. The books she mentions as having read are a mere drop in the ocean compared with the books which came out in her time, and which she probably, in some cases almost certainly, read. It was a brilliant age as regards writing. Perhaps the best way to give some general idea of those writers not already mentioned will be to divide the time into three sections; and, without any attempt at being exhaustive, to mention generally the leading names among the writers who lived on into her epoch, but whose best work had been published before her time; those who actually were contemporary in the sense that their books, by which their names are known, were published in her lifetime; and those whose names had not begun to be known when she died, though the owners were born in her epoch.



First, then, those whose work was done; foremost among these was Johnson, who has already been mentioned.

Walpole was considerably past middle-age at her birth, and died in 1797; Wesley's collected Works came out in 1771, and he died in 1791 ; Adam Smith preceded him by a year.

The seventies in the eighteenth century produced numerous brilliant men and women whose names still live; besides Jane Austen herself, we have Sir Walter Scott, Hazlitt, Sydney Smith, Lamb, Sir Humphry Davy, Coleridge, Southey, Wordsworth, Hogg, Thomas Moore, and Thomas Campbell, who were all born in this decade, though, as the development of a writer differs enormously in growth, some of them were much later in making their appearance in print than others. Among the better known names of women novelists not already mentioned we have Miss Edgeworth, Jane Austen's senior by eight years, whose first novel, Castle Rackrent, was published anonymously in 1800. That Jane knew and admired her work is obvious from the fact that she sent her a copy of Emma for a present on its publication. Mrs. Inchbald, born in 1753, Was at first known as an actress, her Simple Story, by which she is best remembered, was published in 1791. Mrs. Radcliffe, whose romances induced Jane Austen to write Northanger Abbey in mockery, was very busy between 1789 and 1797, during which time she published five novels, including her famous Mysteries of Udolpho in 1794. Joanna Baillie published a volume of verse in 1790, and her first volume of plays in 1798; though almost forgotten now, she was taken very seriously in her time, and her play De Montfort was produced at Drury Lane in 1800 by Mrs. Siddons and Kemble. Anna Seward, who was born in 1747, lived to 1809; she, like Hannah More, was far more praised and valued than any of her poor little productions warranted.

Sheridan brought out his famous play The Rivals in the year of Jane's birth; it was at first a dead failure, but, nothing daunted, hzcut it about and altered it, and when reproduced two years subsequently it attained success at once. The same year saw The School for Scandal, and the following one The Critic. In this year also the first volume of Gibbon's great History appeared.

Burns, who had written some of his best work while Jane was still a child, died in 1796, and the brilliant Burke the succeeding year.

Just to give some general idea of the wonderful fruitfulness of this epoch it may also be mentioned that Samuel Rogers' Pleasures of Memory came out in 1792; Lyrical Ballads, including Coleridge's Ancient Mariner and some of Wordsworth's poems, in 1798; Campbell's Pleasures of Hope in 1799.

Byron was thirteen years younger than Jane, yet his precocity was so great that his first book, Hours of Idleness,was produced in 1807. The first two cantos of Childe Harold followed in 1812 but the whole poem was not completed until Jane was in her grave; the Giaour, Corsair, etc., she must have known as new books a year or two before her death.

Southey's Thalaba came out in the first year of the new century, and Thomas Moore published the first of his Irish Melodies in 1807.

Scott's literary career began with the publication of a translation of Burger's "Lenore" in 1799, between that date and 1814 his poems appeared at intervals, and in 1814 his first great novel Waverley. Though it was anonymous, Jane seems to have discovered the secret of the authorship, for she writes: "Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. It is not fair. He has fame and profit enough as a poet and ought not to be taking the bread out of other people's mouths. I do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it, but I fear I must." But she was not the only one to make such a conjecture, for Miss Mitford having read Waverley also imputes it unhesitatingly to him, she says, "If there be any belief in internal evidence it must be his." Judging by these two specimens, the secret of Scott's anonymity was not the great mystery it is generally imagined to have been.

The third period, that of the great men who were actually contemporary with Jane Austen, though she was unconscious of their existence, as they did not win their laurels until after her death, is of course much less interesting, and may be quickly dismissed, such names as those of Lingard and Hallam among historians; Mill, Hazlitt, and De Quincey belong by right of birth to an earlier epoch, though their works place them in this.

Miss Ferrier and Miss Mitford, too, were not much younger than Jane Austen, but neither had brought out anything noticeable before her death. Miss Ferrier's first novel, Marriage, made its appearance in 1818; and though Miss Mitford had written poems, her Our Village first appeared in the Lady's Magazine only in 1819. As we have seen, Miss Mitford was a scholar at the same school as Jane Austen, though many years later. She was also a native of Jane's county, Hants.

In the last decade of the eighteenth century were born among poets: Shelley, Keats, Hood, Keble, and Mrs. Hemans; among historians, Grote, Alison, Napier, Carlyle, and Thirlwall; among men of science, Faraday and Lyell; and among novelists, Marryat.

In the beginning of the nineteenth century we have a string of great names; a trio of poets: Tennyson, Longfellow, and Browning; men of science such as Darwin; historians such as Macaulay; novelists in numbers, such as Dickens, Thackeray, Charles Reade, Harrison Ainsworth, Bulwer Lytton, and Trollope; statesmen such as Gladstone and Disraeli.

Perhaps no forty years that could have been chosen at any period of English history would have covered such a variety of talent, and that of such a high order, as was aiven to the world during Jane Austen's brief life. And if she did not know personally the men whose names have lived with her own, at all events she drew from their works inspiration and knowledge, and she herself was not by any means the least among so mighty a company.

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.