Jane Austen, and the Novel of Social Comedy

Jane Austen, born at the Rectory, Steventon, Hampshire, December 16th, 1775. Published four stories anonymously during her lifetime, viz., "Sense and Sensibility," 1811; "Pride and Prejudice," 1813; " Mansfield Park," 1814; "Emma," 1816. Died July 18th, 1817, at Winchester. "Northanger Abbey" and "Persuasion" were published in 1818, when her authorship of the whole six novels was first acknowledged.

JANE AUSTEN stands for so much in the development of English fiction that the nature of her genius and influence demands careful consideration. "Pride and Prejudice " was written when she was only one-and-twenty; her last book, "Sense and Sensibility," in 1797-8. Two of her best-known novels, "Northanger Abbey " and "Persuasion," were published after her death. Her entire literary life was comprised in the twenty-one years between 1786 and 1817.

It has often been said that an original writer has to create the taste by which he is appreciated; it may be remembered also that the original writer often unconsciously discerns an altered or a new taste in the public before the public itself is quite aware of the change. One of the most remarkable characteristics of the closing decades of the eighteenth century was the rapid change of literary taste. The tone of society had altered. Morals were perhaps not less corrupt than in the days of Defoe, but sentiment had become more refined. The common life of the time was still coarse, and abounded in the abominations which Hogarth has exposed with a truth and realism unrivalled in art; but there was also a genuine movement towards a more delicate apprehension of life. The brutality of Swift had become disgusting to the new generation; the frank realism of Defoe and even the masculine satire of Fielding were scarcely less palatable. There was room therefore for a new kind of fiction, which should be a comedy of life and manners.

Among novelists Jane Austen ranks as a supreme mistress of comedy. Macaulay has boldly compared her with Shakespeare, and Mr. Goldwin Smith has said that "the hand which drew Miss Bates, though it could not have drawn Lady Macbeth, could have drawn Dame Quickly, or the nurse in 'Romeo and Juliet.'" She brought to her task of social comedy a singular combination of rare gifts—a wit and satire of wonderful delicacy, a mind of great penetration, a style absolutely pellucid and effortless. No novelist has ever been more thoroughly an artist both in her attitude towards her own work and in her respect for her own limitations. She is so impersonal in her attitude that one may seek in vain for any trace of her own opinions or thoughts in her writings. Her respect for her own limitations is equally remarkable. "I must keep to my own style," she says, "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." Within her own limits she comes as near perfection as any human genius can, and those who object to the material and scale of her art should recollect that a dewdrop may be as perfect a creation as a star, a grass-blade may be fashioned with as high a skill as the most wonderful of tropic flowers.

In order justly to appreciate Jane Austen, the first duty of the reader is, then, quite obvious; it is to respect the limitations of her art, as she herself did. It is foolish to expect from her what she does not profess to give, such as romance, or high-flown sentiment, or the tragedy of great passions. She painted the world she knew; her claim is that she not only painted it with fidelity, but with sympathy; with a lively sense of its blemishes, and with an ever-present satire, no doubt; but also with a true insight into its redeeming pieties and virtues. It is not her fault that romance and sentiment and large passions are not found in her pages; they were not found in the world she knew.

Like the Brontës, Jane Austen was born and bred in an English parsonage, and lived in a by-road far from the main roads of life. But the Brontes had a far better opportunity than Jane Austen. They at least lived among a people in whom the primitive passions were strong and very imperfectly suppressed. The country which lay at the back of Haworth was as wild as the people, and had a primeval beauty and savageness of its own. One could conceive of great dramas, full of intense love and passion and revenge, being enacted on such a stage; there is a suggestion of the Titanic in the very scenery. But Jane Austen was born into a world of unredeemed dulness. Everything around her was prim and trim and proper. Instead of thunderscarred hills there are leafy parks and smooth lawns. The people who move across these strictly regulated Edens have the unconscious self-poise of very proper persons; they love with discretion and sobriety; they are disappointed in love, but take it calmly; and even in the very height of a successful passion are quite capable of discussing, with a suitable attention to elegance of phrase and the four per cents. (they were four in those days), their marriage settlements. What material could be less likely to provide a great novelist with the plot and movement necessary to a great novel than this tiresome mediocrity of eighteenth-century village life?

Yet it was from this material that Jane Austen has contrived to extract stories which have survived for a century, and seem likely to endure to quite unprophesied generations. The means by which this success has been achieved are quite clear to any one who will study her works with even casual attention. She had the clearest eyes that ever detected the foibles of human character. The very limitation of her range of vision explains its intensity. She accurately described her method when she spoke of herself as a miniature painter. Broad and tumultuous effects she not merely cannot achieve--she dislikes them. But she can lay touch upon touch with an infinite patience and fineness, until the finished picture is as near perfection as one can well conceive. It may perhaps be but miniaturepainting--a work of art wrought upon three inches of ivory; nevertheless, to write "Pride and Prejudice" demands as fine a genius as the production of "Ivanhoe" or "Kenilworth." This no one knew better than Sir Walter Scott, who, after reading "Pride and Prejudice" for the third time, says: "The big bow-wow strain I can do myself, like any now going; but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied me." It is this exquisite touch which Jane Austen possesses, and in a degree that is unrivalled. She has successfully contrived the apotheosis of the commonplace, and clothed dulness with distinction.

In Jane Austen it is the very naturalness of the picture which makes it seem uninteresting. Without perhaps saying it, or even analysing our thoughts so far as to express it, we all of us favour a little exaggeration in art. We do not object to emphasis; on the contrary, it attracts us. A bit of clear blue sky and grayish-blue down is not enough for us; its simplicity seems to us commonplace, and its truth foolish. And in the same way a book that is no more nor less than an exact reflection of life, which does not attempt to group people with an eye to stage-effect, or to put speeches into their mouths which invite applause, repels us by its very fidelity. Beyond doubt many readers will be similarly affected by Jane Austen. But upon reflection they will begin to discover how wonderful a gift this is, which can gaze on life with so unembarrassed an eye and report its vision with so perfect an exactitude. After a while the bit of blue sky and grey down charm us. The quiet and simple tones of colour soothe and delight us.

The genius of Jane Austen lies in this perfect and even severe simplicity. Her characters evolve themselves without anyiaid of dramatic episodes. Her plot is as natural and inevitable as a problem in mathematics. Everything is fitted together with the most delicate contrivance, with the art that effectually conceals art. From first to last the atmosphere is exquisitely lucid, the style distinct and firm, the figures, in spite of the old-fashioned stiffness of their phrase and gait, so vital that they are more real to us than many of the people we have dined with. We feel, not that we have read a book, but that we have been magically transported into the eighteenth century, and have breathed its air and lived its life.

Like all great artists, Jane Austen is thus in a sense an historian as well as an artist. Her picture of life and manners in the close of the eighteenth century is not less vivid than the picture drawn by Defoe and Fielding of the life and manners of the earlier part of the century, and as a contribution to our historical knowledge is probably much truer, because it is more widely representative. It is often deplored that professional historians, who are capable enough of describing the pageantries of a court, the contests of politicians, the sumptuous lives of the rich, or even the miserable conditions of life among the disinherited and the criminal, appear incapable of producing any accurate picture of the average kind of life lived by those distinguished by neither great wealth nor great poverty, by neither uncommon learning nor uncommon ignorance. Jane Austen gives us incidentally just the sort of details about the lives of average people which the historian omits and the sociologist demands. We can leave to the historian the Napoleonic drama which was played out amid the terror and applause of Europe in the closing years of the eighteenth century. If there is no echo of its trampling hosts in the pages of Jane Austen, there is something equally valuable to us who survey the whole period with infinite curiosity there is a picture of England itself, the England of the dull average, from whose stubborn pride was evolved the force that brought the drama to a close. Yet it is an England that seems so far away as to appear almost unrecognisable. The heroines of Jane Austen's pages travel by post-chaise, think fifty miles a prodigious journey, and an excursion to Derbyshire a serious adventure. Gracechurch Street is a locality where a wealthy merchant may fitly reside; but the proud Darcy, who has an estate in Derbyshire, would never think of penetrating so plebeian a neighbourhood. Clergymen speak with bated breath and whispering humbleness of their patrons, and livings are left by will to family favourites. People have a way'of talkinglike copybooks; and the proprieties, especially in relation to women, are defined and strict. It is looked upon as a monstrous thing that Elizabeth Bennet should walk three miles on a country road, and her critics exclaim:

To walk three miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone I What could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum. She really looked almost wild!

And how far away does that world seem which talked of this alarming indiscretion with the didactic gravity of this sentence:

I admire the activity of your benevolence, but every impulse of feeling should be guided by reason, and, in my opinion, exertion should always be in proportion to what is required.

It may perhaps be an inducement to many who profess themselves unable to read Jane Austen to be reminded that she is one of the truest humorists and keenest wits who ever handled the English language. Her pages sparkle with touches of wit and irony, so keen and just that they are a perpetual delight to any one who is even moderately equipped with the literary sense. Is there, in the whole range of English fiction, an absurder figure than Mr. Collins, in "Pride and Prejudice"? He is a clergyman, and this is how he speaks of his patroness:

Lady Catherine was reckoned proud by many people, he knew, but he had never seen anything but affability in her. She had always spoken to him as she would to any other gentleman; she made not the smallest objection to his joining in the society of the neighbourhood, nor to his leaving his parish occasionally for a week or two to visit his relations.
He expresses to Lady Catherine his regret that the delicate state of her daughter's health prevents her entering society, which event
has deprived the British Court of its brightest ornament. Her ladyship seemed pleased with the idea; and you may imagine that I am happy on every occasion to offer these delicate compliments which are always acceptable to ladies.
The denseness of Mr. Collins is as great as his snobbishness. When he is asked if these delicate little compliments which are "acceptable to ladies" proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study, he gravely replies that
they arise chiefly from what is passing at the time; and although I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such elegant little compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.
When he offers marriage to Elizabeth and is rejected, he coolly responds that she should remember that in spite of her manifold attractions it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage will be made her.
As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall choose to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.
The lady to whom he proposes three days later is by no means an "elegant female," but that is of no consequence, since he is under strict orders from Lady Catherine to marry at once, and his holiday, granted for that purpose, terminates on Saturday. This lady--Miss Lucas--
perceived him from an upper window as he walked toward the house, and instantly set out to meet him accidentally in the lane.
She is eager to marry him at once, because
the stupidity with which he was favoured by nature must guard his courtship from any charm that could make a woman wish for its continuance.
When this strange pair are married, Lady Catherine is graciously pleased to show great interest in them, and even to ask them to dinner when she has no other company. Nay, more--
now and then they are honoured with a call from her ladyship, and nothing that was passing in the room escaped her observation during these visits. She examined into their employments, looked at their work, and advised them to do it differently, found fault with the arrangement of the furniture, or detected the household in negligence; and if she accepted any refreshment, seemed to do it only for the sake of finding out that Mrs. Collins' joints of meat were too large for her family.
Surely in such pictures as these there is not merely truth and life, but that saving salt of humour which, more than anything else, preserves the literature of a past age from oblivion.

The comparison between Jane Austen and Shakespeare, suggested by both Macaulay and Mr. Goldwin Smith, is ingenious, and, within the limits drawn by these great critics, just; but Thackeray affords us a closer comparison. The spirit of Jane Austen is entirely the spirit of Thackeray.

There is the same criticism of life; the hatred of shams, and the quick irony that pierces and exposes them; the delightful turns of expression, the caustic word which is not readily forgotten, and the humour, half genial and half sardonic, by which the facts of life are illumined. The only difference is that, while Thackeray was really angry with snobs, Jane Austen is too conscious of their absurdities to be irritated over them. Thackeray can be very bitter; but Jane Austen gives her most caustic criticisms a flavour of humour which robs them of ill-nature. When it becomes a question of pathos, Thackeray out-distances Jane Austen completely; but probably that is due simply to the fact that in 1850 writers did not deem it necessary to disguise their tenderer feelings, and in 1811 they did.

A woman who carefully concealed the fact that she was a writer, and wished only to be loved and trusted for her womanliness, would not be likely to uncover the depths of her heart even in books. Jane Austen was trained in the tradition that regarded any display of deep feeling as unwomanly, and the real reticence and modesty of her nature made the expression of pathos as difficult as it was undesirable. But on her humour she put no restraint save that of kindliness, and keen as is her irony it is impossible to accuse her of cynicism. In this also she resembles Thackeray, who concealed beneath the assumed savageness of the satirist the softest and most human of hearts.

But it would be a gross error to suppose that Jane Austen is incapable of pathos or fine sentiment. Who can create a true comedy of life without at times touching those deeper springs of romance and passion that underlie even the humblest existence?

Narrow as were the limits which Jane Austen set for herself, there are, nevertheless, moments of fine intensity, when her feelings master her method--as, for example, when she speaks of the love-musings of Anne Elliot, as she walks the streets of Bath, and says that they were enough almost "to spread purification and perfume all the way." For herself, she was content to live a life that never knew the agitations of passion. Her recompense was in the steadiness and firmness of those home-ties which held her fast to the quiet hearts that loved her and knew her worth. The tenderest tinselfishness characterised her life from beginning to end. When she was very ill, and near death, she would not use the sofa--sofas in those days were rare--because she was afraid if she did so her mother might scruple to use it. She made shift with a couple of chairs, and persuaded her mother that they were more comfortable. It is a little touch, but a tender and pathetic one) and it shows the woman. In one of her last letters she says, "God bless you, my dear E--. If ever you are ill, may you be as tenderly nursed as I have been." And she goes on to say that she feels utterly unworthy of so much love. When the end came, one of her attendants asked her if she wanted anything. "Nothing but death," she replied, and these were her last words. She was buried quietly in Winchester Cathedral, and in the "Annual Register " for the year there is no mention of her death. To-day every summer brings numerous pilgrims to her grave, and her latest and most brilliant critic has said, "On her was bestowed, though in a humble form, the gift which has been bestowed on Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Scott, and a few others--the gift of creative power."

Williams James Dawson. "Jane Austen, and the Novel of Social Comedy." Chapter IV of Makers of English Fiction. Fleming H. Revell Company, 1905.

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.