From the New Monthly Magazine.
GIVEN a subject of composition like the novel, it is reasonable to expect a goodly proportion of what Monkbarns called "womankind" among the compositors. The subject is at active to those tastes, and within the scope of those faculties, which are, generally speaking, characteristic of the fairer sex. Perhaps, indeed—and some critics would substitute" unquestionably" for "perhaps"—none but a man, of first-rate powers withal, can produce a first-rate novel; and, if so, it may be alleged that a woman of corresponding genius (quâ woman) can only produce one of a second-rate order. However that may be—and leaving the definition of what is first-rate and what second-rate to critics of a subtler vein and weightier calibre than we shall ever attain to—proofs there are, enough and to spare, in the literature of our land, that clever women can write, and have written, very clever novels; that this is a department where they feel and show themselves at home; that, in the symmetry of a complicated plot, the elaboration of varied character, and the filling-in of artistic touches and imaginative details, they can design and accomplish works which go down to posterity not very far behind those of certain Titanic lords of creation. As it was reasonable to predicate an abundance of female novelists, so is it evident, by every circulating library and every advertising journal, that such abundance exists. Almost the earliest pieces of prose fictions in our language are from the pen of a woman—not the most exemplary of her sex—Mistress Aphra Beha, the "Astræa" of Charles the Second's days. After the novel, more properly so called, had acquired a local habitation and a name amongst us, by the performances of Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett, we find, during the past century, an imposing array of "womankind" successfully cultivating these "pastures new." Clara Reeve wrote several tales of the "Otranto" type, all marked, in the judgment of Sir Walter Scott, by excellent good sense, pure morality, and a competent command of those qualities which constitute a good romance. If the Minerva Press deluged the town with its springtide of fluent nonsense, much of it the billowy froth of feminine as well as effeminate "Persons of Quality," there soon uprose to stem the current a succession of ladies who could cope better with its surges than Mrs. Partington with those of the Atlantic. Mrs. Radcliffe is by no means the beau-ideal of a novelist; yet even her atrocities were an improvement upon, and instrumentally fatal to, the squeamish woes of that maudlin clique. Then, too, came Charlotte Smith, of "Old Manor House" celebrity; and little Fanny Burney, with her Evelinas and Cecilias and Camillas; and the sisters Lee, with their "Canterbury Tales;" and the sisters Porter, of whom Anna Maria alone published half a century of volumes; and Mrs. Brunton, the still popular authoress of "Self-Control;" and Miss Edgeworth, whose gift it was to "dispense common sense to her readers, and to bring them within the precincts of real life and natural feeling." As we approach more closely to our own times, the name of the fair company becomes legion. Mrs. Shelley appears:
And Shelley, four-famed—for her parents, her lord,"Frankenstein," to wit—a romance classed by Moore with those original conceptions that take hold of the public mind at once and forever. Miss Ferrier is a foremost reaper of what Scott called the large harvest of Scottish characters and fiction, a harvest in which recent laborers (witness "Mrs. Margaret Maitland," &c.) have found new sheaves for their sickle. Lady Morgan presents us with a "Wild Irish Girl" and "Florence Macarthy." Mrs. Trollope is seen in the plethora of exhaustless authorship, surpassed therein only by Mrs. Gore, with her
And the poor, lone, impossible monster abhorred—
Heaps of "Polite Conversation," so trueAnd who will not be ready to name Mary Russell Mitford, one of England's truest autochthonai? and Mrs. S.C. Hall, that kindly and wise-hearted limner of the lights and shadows of Irish life? and Mrs. Bray, of Tavistock, the accomplished delineator of Devonshire characters and submissions? and Lady Blessington, whose writings often beam, like her face in the golden age of Gore House, (before the entrée of Soyer and the Symposium,) with "enjoyment, and judgment, and wit, and good-nature?" and Mrs. Marsh, the powerful as well as industrious authoress of many an impressive fiction? and Currer Bell, one of the few who have lately excited a real "sensation?" and Mrs. Crowe, with her melodramatic points and supernatural adjuncts, some of which make even utilitarians and materialists look transcendental for the nonce? and Mrs. Gaskill, whose "mission" is as benevolent and practical as her manner is clear and forcible? The catalogue might be lengthened out with many other well-known titles, such as Landon, Martineau, Hoffland, Pardoe, Bowles, Pickering, Norton, Howitt, Johnstone, Ellis, Kavanagh, &c., &c.
That one cannot but wish the three volumes were two;
But not when she dwells upon daughters or mothers—;
Oh, then the three make us quite long for three others!
In her own line of things, Jane Austen is surpassed, perhaps equalled by none of this pleasant and numerous family. She is perfect mistress of all she touches, and certainly nil tetigit quod non ornavit—if not with the embellishments of idealism and romance, at least with the fresh strokes of nature. She fascinates you with common-place people. She effectually interests you in the "small-beer chronicles" of every-day household life. She secures your attention to a group of walking gentlemen, who have not even the
Start theatric practised at the glass,to attract admiration, and of unremarkable ladies, who, shocking as it may seem to seasoned novel-readers, are
Not too bright or goodYou have actually met all her heroes and heroines before—not in novels, but in most unromantic and prosaic circumstances; you have talked with them, and never seen anything in them—anything, at least, worthy of three volumes, at half-a-guinea a volume. How could such folks find their way into a printed book? That is a marvel, a paradox, a practical solecism. But a greater marvel remains behind, and that is, how comes at that such folks, having got into the book, make it so interesting? Take, reader, that quiet, unassuming gentleman with whom you exchanged a few mercurial trivialities in the omnibus this morning, touching the weather and the adjourned debate; take that elderly burgess who called on you about some railway shares, and left you without having said (never mind whether he heard) one smart thing in the course of twenty minutes' unbroken conversation—at which absence of piquancy and Attic salt neither you were surprised nor he a whit ashamed: take that semi-sleepy clergyman, whose homily you listened to yesterday morning with such phlegmatic politeness, and who (it is your infallible conviction) is guiltless of the power to say or do auything clever, original, or even unusual; take that provincial attorney, who bores you so with his pedantries and platitudes whenever you are vegetating in a midland bounty with your country cousins; take, also, that well-intentioned, loquacious old maid with whom you walked home yesterday from morning service, and who discoursed so glibly and so illogically about an infinity of very finite things; and take those good-natured, unexceptionable misses, with whom and their mamma you drink tea this evening, without any fear of the consequences;—take these, and as many more as you please of a similar fabric—people who never astonished you, never electrified you with revelations of strange experiences, never made your each particular hair to stand on end by unfolding a tale of personal mystery, never affected the róle of Wandering Jews, or Sorrowing Werters, or Justifiable Homicides, or Mysterious Strangers, or Black-veiled Nuns; take, we say, a quantum suff. of these worthy prosaists, and set up in type their words and actions of this current day, and you have a fair specimen of the sort of figures and scenes pictured on Miss Austen's canvass. The charm is, that they are so exquisitely real; they are transcripts of actual life; their features, gestures, gossip, sympathies, antipathies, virtues, foibles, are all true, unexaggerated, uncolored, yet singularly entertaining. We do not mean that we, or you, reader, or even that professed and successful novelists now living, could produce the same result with the same means, or elicit from the given terms an equivalent remainder. Herein, on the contrary, lies the unique power of Jane Austen, that where every one else is nearly sure of failing, she invariably and unequivocally triumphs. What, in other hands, would be a flat, insipid, intolerable piece of impertinent dulness, becomes, at her bidding, a sprightly, versatile, never-flagging chapter of realities. She knows how far to go in describing a character, and where to stop, never allowing that character to soar into romance or to sink into mere twaddle. She is a thorough artist in the management of nature. Her sketches from nature are not profusely huddled together in crude and ill-assorted heaps—the indiscriminate riches of a crowded portfolio, into which genius has recklessly tossed its manifold essays, all clever, but not all in place; but they are selected and arranged with the practised skill of a disciplined judgment, and challenge the scrutiny of tasteful students of design.
For human nature's daily food.
Miss Austen has not even yet, we submit, reaped her rightful share of public homage. Both Sir Walter Scott and Archbishop Whately—the one in 1815, the other in l821—saw and proclaimed her distinguished merits in the pages of the "Quarterly Review." Sir Walter observes, that, keeping close to common incidents, and to such characters as occupy the ordinary walks of life, she has produced sketches of such spirit and originality that we never miss the excitation which depends upon a narrative of uncommon events, arising from the consideration of minds, manners, and sentiments greatly above our own. She "confines herself chiefly to the middling classes of society. Her most distinguished characters do not rise greatly above well-bred country gentlemen and ladies; and those which are sketched with most originality and precision belong to a class rather below that standard. The narrative of all her novels is composed of such common occurrences as may have fallen under the observation of most folks, and her dramatis personæ conduct themselves upon the motives and principles which the readers may recognize as ruling their own and that of most of their acquaintances." So wrote the unknown novelist who had just given to the world "Waverley" and "Guy Mannering." Eleven years of personal and unparalleled triumph found Sir Walter confirmed in his admiration of Jane Austen; for, in 1826—that is, after he had composed "Rob Roy," and the "Tales of my Landlord," and "Ivanhoe," and " Quentin Durward," and while he was busy at "Woodstock"—we find the following characteristic entry in his diary, or "gurnal," as he loved to style it: "Read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen's very finely-written novel of 'Pride and Prejudice.' That young lady had a talent for describing the involvments, and feelings, and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. 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 to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!" An Edinburgh Reviewer justly remarks, that ordinary readers have been apt to judge of her as Partridge judged of Garrick's acting. He could not see the merit of a man behaving on the stage as anybody might be expected to behave under similar circumstances in real life. He infinitely preferred the "robustious, periwig-pated fellow," who flourished his arms like a windmill, and ranted with the voice of three. Even thus is Miss Austen too natural for superficial readers. "It seems to them as if there can be very little merit in making characters talk and act so exactly like the people whom they see around them every day. They do not consider that the highest triumph of art consists in its concealment; and here the art is so little perceptible that they believe there is none." Meanwhile, readers of more refined taste and critical acumen feel something like dissatisfaction with almost every other domestic novelist, after they have once appreciated Miss Austen. After her unaffected good-sense, her shrewd insight, her felicitous irony, and the fruitful harvest of her quiet eye, they are palled by the labored unrealities of her competitors. Certainly, the consummate ease with which this gifted lady filled up her designs and harmonized her colors is of a kind vouchsafed unto the fewest, and, we apprehend, to no one else in an equal degree. She is never at a loss—never has occasion for the "big bow-wow style" to which others have such frequent recourse,
To point their moral and adorn their tale.She walks without irons to keep her in shape, or stilts to exalt her. Her diction is innocent of sesquipedalia verba; her manners and deportment were learnt under no Gallic dancing-master. If she occasionally dons a piece of bijouterie, be assured that it is no paste jewellery, and that Birmingham was not its birthplace. The fresh bloom upon her cheek comes from fresh air and sound health, not from the rouge-pot or any cognate source. Between this novel-writer and the conventional novel-wright, what a gulf profound! Alike, but oh, how different!
Fault has been found with Miss Austen, and with considerable show of justice, on account of the prodigious amount of love-making in her tales. Love is the beginning, middle, and end of each and all. Page the first and page the last are occupied with the conjugation of the verb amo. Every new chapter is like a new tense, every volume a mood, of that all-absorbing verb. She plunges at once in medias res, (see, for example, the first sentence in "Pride and Prejudice,") and confines herself to the working out the proposed equation with wonderful singleness of purpose. Now, where this topic is so uniformly and protractedly debated— where this one string is so incessantly harped on, it becomes a question whether, with all her admirable qualities freely recognized, Miss Austen's writings are of that healthy type which is calculated to benefit the world. We may well admit, with one of the authors of "Guesses at Truth," that ordinary novels, which string a number of incidents and a few commonplace pasteboard characters around a love-story, teaching people to fancy that the main business of life is to make love, and to be made love to, and that, when it is made, all is over, are little or nothing else than mischievous; since it is most hurtful to be wishing to act a romance of this kind in real life—most hurtful to fancy that the interest of life lies in its pleasures and passions, not in its duties. But then Miss Austen's are not ordinary novels; hers are not pasteboard characters; and, with all her devotion to the task of delineating this master-principle, she, too, teaches that it is not the main business of life—she, too, contends that duty is before pleasure and passion, sense before sensibility. If languishing demoiselles appear in her works whose pantheism is made up of wedding-prophecies marriage-bells, and bride-cake, it is only that they may he roundly ridiculed—tarred and feathered, as a warning to their sisterhood—nailed up as scarecrows, with every attendant circumstance of derision. Miss Austen's estimate of love in its true form is as far as can be from that of sickly sentimentalism or flighty schoolgirlishness. She honors it only when invested with the dignity, intensity, and equable constancy of its higher manifestations—where it comprehends and fulfils its wide circle of duties, and is as self-denying as it is self-respecting. There is a righteous intolerance of the mawkish trash which constitutes the staple of so many love-tales, and one cannot but admire Horace Walpole, for once, when he stops unpatiently at the fourth volume of "Sir Charles Grandison," and confesses: "I am so tired of sets of people getting together, and saying, 'Pray, miss, with whom are you in love!' &c., &c." And we grant that Miss Austen is a little too prodigal of scenes of love-making and preparations for match-making; but let us at the same time insist upon the marked difference between her descriptions and those of the common herd of novelists, with whom she is unjustly confounded; the fact being, that her most caustic passages, and the hardest hits and keenest thrusts of her satire, are directed against them and their miss-in-her-teens' extravaganzas. Mr. Thackeray himself is not more sarcastic against snobbism, than is Miss Austen against whatever is affected or perverted, or merely sentimental, in the province of love.
Plot she has little or none. If you only enjoy a labyrinthine nexus of events, an imbroglio of accidents, an atmosphere of mystery, you will probably toss aside her volumes as "desperately slow." Yet, in the careful, artist-like management of her story, in the skilful evolution of its processes, in the tactics of a gradually-wrought dénouement, in the truthful and natural adaptation of means to ends, she is almost, if not quite, unrivalled. Nothing can be more judicious than her use of suggestions and intimations of what is to follow. And all is conducted with a quiet grace that is, or seems to be inimitable.
Writing, as she invariably does, "with a purpose," she yet avoids with peculiar success the manner of a sententious teacher, which very frequently ruffles and disgusts those who are to be taught. She spares us the infliction of sage aphorisms and doctrinal appeals; compassing her end by the simple narration of her stories, and the natural intercourse of her characters. The variety of those characters is another remarkable point. But we become intimate with, and interested in, them all. It has been said that the effect of reading Richardson's novels is, to acquire a vast accession of near relations. The same holds good of Miss Austen's. In the earliest of her works, "Northanger Abbey"—which, however, did not appear until after her death, in 1817*—we have a capital illustration of a girl who designs to be very romantic, and to find a Castle of Udolpho in every possible locality, but whose natural good sense and excellent heart work a speedy and radical cure. Another lifelike figure is that of General Tilney, so painfully polite, so distressingly punctilious, so uncivilly attentive, so despotically selfish; and then there are the motley visitors at Bath, all hit off à merveille, especially the Thorpe family. "Persuasion," also published after the writer's decease, teems with individuality; Sir Walter Elliott, whose one book is the "Baronetage," where he finds occupation for his idle hours, and consolation in his distressed ones; Mrs. Clay, clever, manœuvring, and unprincipled; Captain Wentworth, so intelligent, spirited, and generously high-minded; Anne Elliott, the self-sacrificing and noble-hearted victim of undue persuasion; her sister Mary, so prone to add to every other trouble that of fancying herself neglected and ill-used; Admiral and Mrs. Croft, a naval couple of the "first water," so frank, hearty, and constitutionally good-natured. Then again, in "Mansfield Park," what a bewitching "little body" is Fanny Price—what finish in the portraits of Crawford and his sister—what Dutch-school accuracy of detail in the home-pictures at Portsmouth, and what fine truth in the moral of the tale! In "Pride and Prejudice" we are introduced to five sisters, each possessing a marked idiosyncrasy: Jane, tender, confiding, and mildly contemplative; Lizzy, acute, impulsive, enthusiastic, and strong-minded; Mary, who, being the only plain one in the family, has worked hard for knowledge and accomplishments, and is always impatient for display; and the two youngest, Lydia and Kitty, who are mad after red coats and balls, both vulgar hoydens, the one leading and the other led, active and passive voices of the same irregular verb. Their mother, Mrs. Bennett, is done to the life—a sort of Mrs. Nickleby, without the caricature. Mr. Collins; the prim, soft-headed, tuft-hunting clergyman (by the way, excepting Edmund Bertram, what a goodly fellowship Miss Austen's clergymen are!); Lady de Bourgh, his insolent, coarse-mannered patroness; Mr. Darcy, the heart-sound representative of pride and prejudice; the Bingley sisters, shallow, purse-proud, intriguing; Wickham, the artful, double-faced adventurer—profligate, impudent, and perennially smiling; and Mr. Bennett himself, that strange compound of the amiable and disagreeable, with that supreme talent of his for ironical humor; all these are models of drawing. In "Sense and Sensibility" there are exact representatives of vulgar good-temper and vulgar selfishness, in Mrs. Jennings and Lucy Steele respectively; and of good sense and sensitiveness, in the sisters Elinor and Marianne. But if we must give the precedence to any one of Miss Austen's novels, we incline to name "Emma," notwithstanding a little inconsistency in the character of the delightful heroine. The people we there consort with, please us mightily. It were hard to excel the humor with which Miss Bates is portrayed—that irresistible spinster, and eternal but most inoffensive gossip; or nervous, invalid, coddling Mr. Woodhouse; or that intolerably silly piece of egotism, Mr. Elton; and equally rare are the observation and delicacy employed in characterizing Jane Fairfax and Mr. Knigistley. The tale abounds in high feeling, sterling wisdom, and exquisite touches of art.
If this paper has sometbing of the rechauffé odor of a "retrospective" review, it is written not without a "prospective" purpose; the writer being persuaded that Jane Austen needs but to be more widely known, to be more justly appreciated, and accordingly using this opportunity "by way of remembrance." If the Wizard of the North felt her
Weave a circle round him thrice,and acknowledged at the "third reading" a yet more potent spell than at the first, surely, to know that so many living novel readers by wholesale are uninitiated in her doctrine, is a thing to be classed under Pepys' favorite comment— "which did vex me."
*Miss Austen was born the same year as Charles Lamb (1775)—the daughter of a Hampshire rector. She resided chiefly at Southampton and the village of Chawton, where her tales were written. In the spring of 1817 she removed to Winchester, for the benefit of medical aid, and died there in the July of that year. In person, as well as mind, she was an object of real admiration.
Anonymous. "Female Novelists," originally from the New Monthly Magazine, reprinted in Littell's Living Age 33 (April, May, June) 1852, pages 477-480. [Gilson M89].