A Girl's Opinion on Jane Austen
IT has been said that the literature of a nation finds a place in the heart of men proportionately as it is able to reveal the deeper meaning—the inner heart, which lies beneath the apparent trivialities of daily life.
To become a permanent inheritance, we know that it must reflect mankind simply and truly in ordinary garb and varying mood. Do the works of Jane Austen fulfil these requirements? In part, we must allow they do. Writing in an age when literature was forced and unnatural, when fiction was encumbered with the artificial mannerisms, the stilted rhetoric, the far-fetched plot and incidents of the romantic school and contaminated by the evil influence of effete French Court taste, it is to the enduring merit of three Englishwomen, Miss Ferrier, Miss Edgeworth, but above all to Miss Austen, that public taste was led into simpler and purer channels. What Wordsworth was to poetry, Miss Austen was to fiction—the pioneer of a reformation. The novel in her hands became a means of enjoyment to people of taste and intelligence; something that it was neither a shame to have written nor to have read. Miss Lydia Languish need no longer throw her book under the sofa or behind the spinnet when she heard approaching footsteps.
Walter Bagehot, in one of his literary studies, speaks of the keen enjoyment of novel-reading as the prerogative of youth. No doubt our love for many authors is a youthful and passing taste, but in the instance of Miss Austen the case seems to be reversed. Here we find a girl writing of girls, whose warmest admirers for nearly one hundred years are found, not so much among other young people, as among savants and men of letters. The youthful enthusiasms of the many are not poured out over her as over Scott and Dickens, but the constant affection of the few and cultured still keeps her in her niche of the temple of fame.
Jane Austen is known to-day as the "critic's novelist." By her purity and simplicity of style she has been capable of fascinating such men as Scott, Macaulay, Tennyson, Sydney Smith, Whately, Whewell, Coleridge, Southey, Spedding, Leslie Stephen, and many more; a style considered by Cardinal Newman to be so perfect that, to improve his own, he at one time read her works through yearly. She delights them with her perfect manner of treating commonplace matter, charms them with the descriptions of the daily lives of our great-grandmothers, whose occupations, feelings, ways, and manners are given with the "minuteness of a miniature painter"—or as they tell us, like a master of the Flemish school. The subject is ordinary enough and oft repeated, the skill lies in the wonderful accuracy of the artist's hand and eye.
Her subject-matter is derived from the slenderest sources. She never attempts descriptions of places and persons with which she is herself unfamiliar. From her country home, her sailor brothers, the Austen private theatricals, their rare visits to London or Bath, her neighbours great and small—from each trivial incident or person she draws a second life which she dexterously transplants into her progressing plot. Every occurrence is reproduced with the truthfulness of a girl who described things as she saw them, and not as they were drawn in the artificial light of her day. Our admiration is the more aroused when we consider how very young that girl was. Before we read many pages of her work, we become aware that all she describes is familiar. We have assisted at such scenes as she depicts; those small pleasures, those small mortifications of which we read, have touched the surface of our lives. We, ourselves, have taken part in drawing-room, dining-room, ball-room scenes such as she paints, we have met such people as inhabit her world repeatedly. There is the merit of much good-natured gossip, but no scandal in her pages, for hers is a wit that laughs, but does not know how to sneer; at times it is so Addisonian that we wonder she has no better word for the Spectator.
Of the strength and variety of Miss Austen's plots we cannot say much. "It is a universally acknowledged truth that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." These words commence her best novel and form the keynote of all. Had she added, "and the average mother with several daughters considers it her mission in life to fill that want," we should be possessed of the entire situation. In fact, if it were not for the bulkiness of the volume, and the size of the family party, all her characters and plots might be contained under one cover. For in these pages we meet with nothing more harrowing or exciting than the hopes and fears, the managements and heart-burnings, which arise before the music of the wedding-bells and consumption of the wedding-cake. That any other destination should await her heroine is—to Miss Austen—evidently an impossibility. Richardson may give us a Clarissa, and "make the eyes of a Scott weep and his heart ache." Miss Austen only gives us Emmas, Fannys, Elizas, all happily married in the last chapter to the most delightfully amiable and moral young men, of modest demeanour and more than modest fortune. If, by chance, Providence has happened to forget ways and means before, she now makes amends by dropping a comfortable rectory into the happy young man's lap, or, more correctly speaking, by dropping the happy young man into the comfortable rectory, where he is conspicuously fitted by his extreme youth to inspire his flock with the wisdom of his precepts, and guide them through the wealth of his inexperience.
If, however, her plots are wanting in variety they have other merits which cannot be overlooked. The extreme naturalness with which all the small complications are invested, the easy transition from incident to incident, the compactness of design, the charming way details dovetail and apparently chance remarks connect situations delight us as we watch the unfolding story. The skill with which the numerous young people are steered past shoals and quicksands into the matrimonial haven elicits our admiration and rivals in temerity that of a writer in our own day, Miss Charlotte Yonge, who brings equally large families to an equally successful anchorage.
There is a charm too in Miss Austen's opening passages. We are taken at once into the heart of the story. There is also a direct and pleasing connection between the title and the tale; in this respect they are unlike many novels of the present day, to which the remark made about the discourses of a certain Scotch divine but too often apply, that "if his sermons had scarlet fever, their texts would not catch it from contagion." We have called Miss Austen the pioneer of a reformation in novel-writing. We do not mean by this that she wrote with any conscious effort to reform. The purity and simplicity of her style and matter are the unconscious outcome of a pure and simple nature. We find no "novels of purpose" among her works, no crude theological views, no pet hobbies ventilated, no social problems made matters of speculation. Even her parables on 'Pride and Prejudice,' on 'Sense and Sensibility,' are to her a secondary consideration. She is in love with Eliza Bennet and Knightley, not with sense, humility, family affection, and the other virtues she inculcates.
In character painting she stands unrivalled. No writer has a happier knack of presenting character in so few words, so rapidly, so graphically. When she tells us that "Darcy possesses all the goodness, and Wickham all the appearance of it," the moral character of those two men is before us in a nutshell; and when we read that "two ladies and one voice approached," we know we are in the presence of Miss Bates. But, indeed, a longer description of Miss Bates so illustrates what we are saying, and at the same time gives so excellent an idea of Miss Austen's best style, that we quote it fully:—
"Miss Bates enjoyed a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, or married. She stood in the worst predicament in the world for having much of the public favour; and she had no intellectual superiority to make atonement to herself, or frighten those who might hate her, into outward respect. She had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet she was a happy woman, and a woman whom no one named without goodwill. It was her own universal goodwill and contented temper which worked such wonders. She loved everybody, was interested in everybody's happiness, quick-sighted to everybody's merits. . . . The simplicity and cheerfulness of her nature, her contented and grateful spirit, were a recommendation to everybody, and a mine of felicity to herself. She was a great talker on little matters . . . full of trivial communications and harmless gossip."
This character painting in direct words grows much less frequent in the later novels, which are not, however, without attractions of their own. If they lose in brilliancy, they gain in depth and power; though depth and power to any extent are always wanting in Jane Austen's work.
Among her heroes there are not many with whom we should fall in love to-day. For her older men, like Darcy and Knightley, we have nothing but praise. Their unobtrusive goodness of heart, their unselfishness and thought for others, delight us. But her younger heroes are the most priggish, insipid, terrible young men, who never have an idea beyond compliments and morning calls. Occasionally they drive a curricle or go out shooting. They discourse on art in platitudes, and read Cowper and Crabbe aloud to their young lady admirers. With the exception of Captain Wentworth and William Price, in the later works, there is nothing strong or manly about them. So unlike the young men of to-day are they, that we are tempted to think they must be drawn from imagination rather than observation. It is hard to believe that such types represent Englishmen of not more than a century ago. Athletics, cricket, boating, golf, steeple-chasing are unknown pastimes to her country gentlemen.
In Miss Austen's heroines, with the exception of Eliza Bennet, whom all must love, we confess we find very little to attract us. They are undoubtedly drawn from observation, not imagination; let us hope that they are overdrawn. Her elderly women, her managing mothers, her old maid (only one exists), her acid and affectionate aunts, are all excellent. We admire her women, but not her heroines. Fanny Price and Anne Elliot interest and sometimes irritate us; Marianne Dashwood and Emma are distinctly objectionable, perhaps they are intended to be so. The latter becomes bearable somewhere about Chapter Fifty, but we think, on the whole, that it was a pity Knightley didn't marry Miss Bates. We may congratulate ourselves that we live in the days when High Schools, Extension Lectures, Magazine Clubs, and lawn-tennis have superseded sentiment, sensibility, hysterics, and mutual confidences. Such Schwärmerei we now leave to our German sisters. We also hope that the young lady who could describe herself as "doatingly fond of music, and my friends say I am not devoid of taste," is as obsolete as the atrocities she committed in water-colours, and the fringe and sofa cushions she worked in worsted and beads.
Before leaving the subject of heroes and heroines, we cannot fail to notice the extraordinary method in which the love-affairs are conducted. It is curious, and we doubt if it could ever have been altogether true to nature. The precipitancy with which every one, and always the right people, fall in love is astonishing; and the unerring instinct of every one else in detecting the symptoms is still more amazing. We often wish, especially in Miss Austen's earlier works, that her young ladies possessed more reserve and delicacy. Their universal confidences are not to be admired; such candour and openness is peculiar. The girl would repel and not attract who retailed her lover's confidences and her own feelings to every chance acquaintance and every gossiping old woman. The impertinence with which young and old inquire into progressing love-affairs is surprising; but the most curious part, however, is that they are always told all they want to know. The case of Jane Churchill and Fairfax is the only exception. She, being an orphan, and mistress of her own actions, and he, fearing the refusal of his family, both keep their sensations and their engagement to themselves. But their conduct is universally condemned; and so great is the young lady's remorse for the wrongdoing of not having provided her friends with the daily weather-chart of her feelings, that she nearly worries herself into a decline.
The love scenes in the earlier works are so stilted and unnatural that they raise a smile. Crude imagination, not experience, is here at work. Though this fault never leaves her, it becomes far less marked in her later works. Force and fire are, however, always absent. Such scenes never live—they are only galvanised into a semblance of life. We hardly like to criticise, still less to censure, one who, with humility worthy of her genius, has told us "that she is the most unlearned and uninformed female who dared to be an authoress." What she does, she does well; but there is something wanting.
The lightness of her touch, her art, her repartee, the happiness of her descriptions are inimitable; but the inner heart of life lies untouched, unstirred. Miss Austen's characters have apparently no depths below the surface currents of their lives. None of those higher and better moments from which, as a rule, all our best work and purest enthusiasms spring. We must attribute the omission to a conscious feeling of inability to deal with such subjects. Never, even when she tries to do so, can she touch her reader's hearts. Her love scenes, her sick beds, her neglected children never move us. What would not Dickens or Charlotte Bronte have made out of the forlorn solitary little figure of Fanny Price? The tranquil life, which knew no passionate love, and in which the depths of sorrow were never sounded, could not produce the imagination to create, or the material to provide for the deeper feelings of life. These are wisely left alone, for no one knew her limitations better than herself; but her work unquestionably suffers by the absence.
It is to this fact that the want of appreciation shown by most younger readers must be attributed. Style cannot entirely make up for strength—"miniature painting" for the absence of life's broader touches and deeper tones. The absolute truthfulness to life of secondary characters and social environment, so thoroughly appreciated by older tastes, cannot altogether atone for a limp and lifeless hero, who makes love without passion, and in whom we feel little or no interest; for a heroine who is too fond of reducing fainting to a fine art, and "sensibility" to a science, and to love-scenes treated in an unreal and unsatisfactory a manner.
We have already said that one of Miss Austen's greatest merits lies in the skill with which she transplants the world as she sees it into her pages; but in this very facility lies her greatest danger, "La nature est bonne à imiter, mais non pas jusqu'à l'ennui" has been said in warning to novelists before. We often tire of the endless conversations of uninteresting people, especially in 'Emma' and 'Sense and Sensibility.' We feel in sympathy with Scott's old lady, who liked having 'Sir Charles Grandison' read aloud "because, if happening to fall asleep, on wakening she would be sure to find them still talking in the cedar-parlour"; only, unlike her, we dread to doze lest we should miss one of those terse epigrams, those humorous touches, which are sufficient to leaven a whole chapter of dulness.
Before leaving our subject we cannot pass unnoticed Miss Austen's merits as a contemporary, though unconscious, historian. The material is not such as Dr. Bright might use, but rather such as would delight a Macaulay. From her pages we gain a clear insight into the manners and customs of the middle-class provincial life of the last century, and gather a plain idea of the position and importance of landowners, of the state of Church and Church patronage, of class distinctions at that period. We read of days of franked letters and of a twopenny London post, of times when umbrellas were not universal, but when mail coaches and post-chaises were. Then writing was considered a fine art, then sailors were rich, and farmers and landowners prosperous. Then at balls country dances with innumerable steps were danced, and furious polkas and kitchen lancers lay undreamt of in the future ; then the card table was a nightly institution for dowagers and old gentlemen, and then people with any pretence at "elegance" or "gentility" dined at five o'clock. We learn also that managing mothers and garrison girls are not the exclusive product of the nineteenth century. But in no respect is the difference between the past and present more distinctly marked than in the position of the clergy, and in the prevailing ideas of the responsibilities of a parish priest.
The abuses of Church patronage were a hundred times greater than in the present day. A few relics of the Tushers of an earlier date existed in persons like Mr. Collins, but in most cases country squires looked on the livings in their gift as an assured provision either for younger sons or members of the family who had run through their inheritance. Miss Austen's clergymen are always immaculate, if tame; but fortune could not always have been so discriminating, Wickhams and Crawfords doubtless often obtained livings. It was not half a century since Laurence Sterne had been a pluralist. In any case, the sale of the next presentation would always realise an acceptable sum.
It was not considered in the least necessary that the holder of a living should have had any previous experience to fit him for that duty. No novitiate need be served as an East End curate before induction as a rector. As there was no parish organisation, no mission work, and no district visiting, training was considered superfluous. Crawford offers to rent Edmund Bertram's rectory on the supposition that Edmund will wish to live at home and will use the income of 700 a year for personal pleasure, considering the sum total of the sacrifice of taking orders to be a sermon at Christmas or Easter. Not that it was even necessary to write the discourse, as Blair, it is suggested, could always be made to supply original deficiencies. As there was no distinction between the dress of a clergyman and that of an ordinary gentleman, Mr. Tilney's coat with many capes was much admired by his lady friends. He spent two days a week in his parish, when not at Bath; this act was considered by them to show extreme, if not unnecessary, devotion to his calling.
The wives of such young men are young ladies of fashion and accomplishment. No fussy benevolence, no practical token of general goodwill, no mothers' meetings or superintending of soup kitchens form a part of their lives. Neither does port wine, flannel, nor beef tea find its way from the great house to the cottage. The poor are left to work out their own salvation of body and soul, and every one allows that this is as it should be. Such characters as Robert Elsmere or Charles Kingsley would be incomprehensible, we fancy, to the authoress. The sacred office, the consecrated life, the time, money, health, strength, spent on Christ's poor, as well as the cassock and collar, the daily services and advanced ritual—these are the ideas of a later age.
Edith Edlmann. "A Girl's Opinion on Jane Austen" Temple Bar 94 (1892): 343-350.