STYLE AND MISS AUSTEN.
From the Macmillan's Magazine.
By this publication of a newly discovered collection of Miss Austen's letters, Miss Austen's great-nephew has done her as ill a turn as it is in anybody's power to do to the author of "Pride and Prejudice." The name of one of the nimblest, quickest, and least tiresome of mortals has been perforce associated with two volumes of half-edited matter, with letters of which she herself would never have authorized the publication, with family pedigrees of which she would have been the first person to feel the boredom and the incongruity, and literary criticisms of a kind to have set that keen wit of hers moving in its most trenchant fashion. When Lord Brabourne came into possession of those bundles of his great-aunt's letters which Mr. Austen Leigh, her first biographer, believed to have been lost, the temptation to make use of them in some way was no doubt irresistible. The virtue of literary reticence is fast becoming extinct; we have almost indeed forgotten that it is a virtue at all. To be able to persuade oneself that the world could possibly do without information which it is in one's power to give it, implies now a strength of mind so abnormal and so rare, that a modern instance of it is scarcely to be found. And the old distinction between public and private life, which still held firmly in the days when Jane Austen and Miss Ferrier refused to give their names to any production of their pens — the old personal reserve, which still forms part of the Continental idea of the typical Englishman — have been so rapidly swept away during the last generation, that it would be absurd nowadays to expect of any inheritor of a great writer's correspondence that he should form the same sort of strict judgment on its claims to publication which would have been natural and possible a hundred or even fifty years ago. Taste is laxer, the public easier to please, and book-making more profitable. A modern editor of unpublished documents, by the nature of things, approaches his task in a more prodigal frame of mind. The whole mood of the present day is one of greater indulgence towards what may be called the personal side of letters than used to be the case with our grandfathers; and the seven volumes which Mr. Froude has devoted to the Carlyles, and which, under all the circumstances, would have been a scandal in the days of Southey and Scott, will perhaps be accepted later on as marking the highest point of a tendency which has been long gathering strength and may not improbably soon have to fight against reaction.
Lord Brabourne, then, hardly deserves serious blame for not deciding as Mr. Austen Leigh would have probably decided twenty years ago, that the newly discovered correspondence threw practically no fresh light on Miss Austen's personality, and, with half-a-dozen exceptions, which might have seen the light in a review, had therefore better be reserved for that family use for which it was originally intended; but he might at least have set some bounds to his confidence in the public. One small volume of these letters, carefully chosen and skilfully edited, would have been pleasant reading enough. They might have been used as illustrations of the novels, of the country society or the class relations of eighty years ago, and a few short explanations of the identity of the persons most frequently mentioned in them would have made them sufficiently intelligible to the general reader. As it is, the letters of the last fifteen years of Jane Austen's life dull the edge of whatever gentle enjoyment the reader may have derived from the sprightliness of the earlier ones, while the one literary merit which the collection possesses, its lightness and airiness of tone, is lost in the ponderous effect of the introductory chapters, with their endless strings of names and wandering criticisms on the novels. Such editorial performance as this makes one sigh once more for a more peremptory critical standard than any we possess in England. What English belles-lettres of the present day want more than anything else is a more widely diffused sense of obligation among the cultivators of them—obligation, if one must put it pedantically, to do the best a man can with his material, and to work in the presence of the highest ideals and achievements of his profession.
There are, however, in these volumes a few letters which were worth printing, and which do help to complete the picture already existing of Jane Austen. These are the letters written between 1796 and 1799, that is to say, during the period which witnessed the composition of "Pride and Prejudice," "Sense and Sensibility," and "Northanger Abbey." Jane Austen at the time was a pretty, lively girl, very fond of dancing, deeply interested in dress, and full of the same naïf interest in the other sex with which Catherine Morland started on her Bath travels. The whole tone indeed of this early correspondence with her sister reminds one of an older and shrewder Catherine, and the ways of seeing and describing to which they bear witness are exactly those to which we owe the unflagging liveliness and gaiety of the two famous books in which the adventures of Catherine and of Elizabeth Bennett are set forth. "Northanger Abbey" especially, gay, sparkling, and rapid as it is from beginning to end, is the book in which the bright energy of Jane Austen's youth finds its gayest and freshest expression. "Pride and Prejudice" is witty and sparkling too, but it probably went through many a heightening and polishing process during the fifteen years which elapsed between the time when it was written and the time when it appeared in print; and although a great deal of it may represent the young Jane Austen, the style as a whole bears marks certainly of a fuller maturity than had been reached by the writer of "Northanger Abbey." It is in the story of Catherine Morland that we get the inimitable literary expression of that exuberant girlish wit, which expressed itself in letters and talk and harmless flirtations before it took to itself literary shape, and it is pleasant to turn from the high spirits of that delightful book to some of the first letters in this collection, and so to realize afresh, by means of such records of the woman, the perfect spontaneity of the writer. Any one who has ever interested himself in the impulsive little heroine, who was as nearly plain as any heroine dared to be before Jane Eyre, but whose perfect good-humor and frankness won the heart of her Henry, will feel that in one or two of these newly printed letters he comes very near to the secret of Catherine's manufacture.
Here, for instance, is a picture, pieced together from passages of different dates, of Jane Austen in a frame of mind which has something of Catherine Morland and something of Elizabeth Bennett in it, though it is a little too satirical and conscious for the one, and perhaps a trifle too frivolous for the other. Tom Lefroy, the hero of the little episode, lived to be chief justice of Ireland, and only died in 1854. The first extract occurs in a letter written from Steventon in January, 1796:—
"You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behave. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself, however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanly, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy a few days ago. . . .
"After I had written the above, we received a visit from Mr. Tom Lefroy and his cousin George. The latter is really very well-behaved now; and as for the other he has but one fault, which time will, I trust, entirely remove — it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light. He is a very great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same colored clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded. . . . Our party to Ashe tomorrow night will consist of Edward Cooper, James (for a ball is nothing without him), Buller, who is now staying with us, and I. I look forward with great impatience to it, as I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening.
"I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white coat. . . . Tell Mary that I make over Mr. Heartley and all his estate to her for her sole use and benefit in future, and not only him, but all my other admirers into the bargain, wherever she can find them, even the kiss which C. Powlett wanted to give me, as I mean to confine myself in future to Mr. Tom Lefroy, for whom I don't care sixpence. Assure her also as a last and indubitable proof of Warren's indifference to me that he actually drew that gentleman's picture for me, and delivered it to me without a sigh.
"Friday (the day of the Ashe ball). At length the day has come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea."
Slight, however, as the relation was, it seems to have been more durable than the signs of frail vitality about it would have led one to expect. It is not till two years later that Jane Austen herself gives it its coup de grace in her light characteristic way. She describes a visit paid by Tom Lefroy's aunt to Steventon, in which the nephew's name was never once mentioned to Jane herself, "and I was too proud to make any inquiries; but on my father's asking where he was, I learnt that he was gone back to London, on his way to Ireland, where he is called to the bar, and means to practise." And then — alas! for the faithfulness of woman — she flies off to describe the position in which things are with regard to an unnamed friend of Mr. Lefroy's, who had evidently taken his place in her thoughts, and was rapidly succeeding to that full measure of indifference which appears to have been the ultimate portion of all Jane's admirers. "There is less love and more sense in it than sometimes appeared before," she says provokingly, describing a letter from this unknown aspirant— "and I am very well satisfied. It will all go on exceedingly well, and decline away in a very reasonable manner."
There are a good many other touches in these girlish letters that give one glimpses, as it were, into the workshop which produced the novels. "Mr. Richard Harvey," she says on one occasion, "is going to be married; but as it is a great secret, and only known to half the neighborhood, you must not mention it. The lady's name is Musgrave." Again, "We have been very gay since I wrote last, dining at Hackington, returning by moonlight and everything quite in style, including Mr. Claringbould's funeral which we saw go by on Sunday." Or, "If you should ever see Lucy, you may tell her that I scolded Miss Fletcher for her negligence in writing, as she desired me to do, but without being able to bring her to any proper sense of shame; that Miss Fletcher says in her defence, that as everybody whom Lucy knew when she was in Canterbury has now left it, she has nothing at all to write to her about. By everybody, I suppose Miss Fletcher means that a new set of officers has arrived there. But this is a note of my own." Or again, with mocking reference to some of those pomposities of authorship which she ridicules in "Northanger Abbey" — "I am very much flattered by your commendation of my last letter, for I write only for fame, and without any view to pecuniary emolument." Her lively pen touches everybody in turn. One feels there may have been something formidable in a daughter who could put together with a few strokes so suggestive an outline as this: "My mother continues hearty; her appetite and nights are very good, but she sometimes complains of an asthma, a dropsy, water in her chest, and a liver disorder." And it is characteristic that even her letters of grief, after the death of a favorite sister-in law, are broken within the first fortnight by some flashes of terse satire on the affairs of the neighborhood.
Some little pleasure and entertainment then may be gleaned, by those who already know their Miss Austen, from the first dozen letters or so of this collection. They fill up a gap in Mr. Austen Leigh's book. The turn of phrase is generally light and happy; and they enable us to realize something of that buoyant and yet critical enjoyment of life, of which the six novels were the direct outcome. But after all, there is very little personal or literary distinction in them; the judgment of an unfriendly Frenchman would probably find that note of "commonness" in them which Madame de Sta&eum;l insisted in attributing to "Pride and Prejudice."
And commonness indeed there is, using the word, that is to say, not in any strong or disagreeable sense, but simply as opposed to distinction, charm, aroma, or any of those various words by which one tries to express that magical personal quality of which Madame de Sévigné is the typical representative in literature. And even the gaiety and moderate felicity of phrase which beguiled one through the earlier letters disappears from the later correspondence. The writer of it indeed is the same kindly, blameless, and gentle humorous person as the Jane Austen of 1796, but whereas at twenty-one Jane Austen's letters were like her novels, and therefore may be said to possess some slight claim to belong to literature, by thirty-one they had become the mere ordinary chit-chat of the ordinary gentlewoman, with no claims whatever to publication or remembrance beyond the family circle. Lord Brabourne's book indeed only impresses upon us with fresh force what was already fairly well known — that broadly speaking, the whole yield of Jane Austen's individuality is to be found in her novels. There are a certain number of facts about her which help to explain her books, and which are of use to the student of the psychological side of letters, but these were already within everybody's reach, so that the collection printed by Lord Brabourne is as a whole neither amusing, nor sufficiently instructive to make in worth publication.
The triviality of the letters is easily explained. No circumstances were ever less favorable than Jane Austen's to good letter-writing. She possessed one literary instrument which she used with extraordinary skill and delicacy —the instrument of critical observation as applied to the commoner types and relations of human life. Within the limits fixed for her by temperament and circumstances she brought it to bear with unrivalled success, success which has placed her amongst English classics. But she was practically a stranger to what one may call, without pedantry, the world of ideas, The intellectual and moral framework of her books is of the simplest and most conventional kind. The author of "Corinne," placed as she was in the very centre of the European stress and tumult, might well think them too tame and commonplace to be read. Great interests, great questions, were life and breath to Madame de Sta&eum;l as they were to her successor George Sand. She realized the continuity of human history, the great fundamental laws and necessities underlying all the outward tangle and complication. And it was this insight, this far-reaching symyathy, which gave her such power over her time, and made her personality and her thoughts "incalculably diffusive." Meanwhile Jane Austen, in her Hampshire home, seems to have lived through the stormiest period of modern European history without being touched by any of the large fears and hopes, or even strongly impressed by any of the dramatic characters or careers in which it abounded. Though the letters extended from 1796 to 1817, there is barely a mention of politics in them, except in some small personal connection, and of the literary forces of the time — Goethe, Byron, Wordsworth — there is hardly a trace. Even when she comes to London, though we have an occasional bare record of a visit to a theatre, we still hear of nothing except sisters, cousins, neighbors, the price of "Irish," and the new fashions in caps. And for the rest, Kent and Hampshire, with their county families, their marryings and christenings, their dancings and charities, are the only world she knows or cares to know. She never seems to have had a literary acquaintance, or to have desired to make one. While Miss Ferrier's wits were quickened by the give and take of Edinburgh society in its best days, and Miss Edgeworth found herself welcomed with extravagant flattery on the Continent as the representative of English culture, all the literary influence that Jane Austen ever experienced was due to her father, and all the literary influence she ever personally exerted was brought to bear upon a novel-writing niece. No doubt if she had lived a little longer things would have been different. When she died, at the age of forty-one, her books had already brought her some fame, and friends would have followed. As it was, her circle of interests, both intellectual and personal, was a narrower one than that of any other writer we can remember with the same literary position. In spite, however, of her narrow Weltanschauung, and her dearth of literary relationships, Jane Austen is a classic, and "Pride and Prejudice" will probably be read when "Corinne," though not its author, is forgotten. Her life is a striking proof that a great novelist may live without a philosophy, and die without ever having belonged to a literary coterie. But out of the stuff of which the life was composed it was impossible to make a good letter-writer. To be a good letter-writer a man or woman must either have ideas, or sentiments strong enough to take the place of ideas, or knowledge of and contact with what is intrinsically interesting and important. Jane Austen had none of these. The graphic portraiture of men and women seen from the outside, in which she excelled, was not possible in letters. It required more freedom, more elbow-room than letters could give. Jane Austen, in describing real people, found herself limited by the natural scruples of an aimable and gentle nature. There was a short time when the exuberance of her talent overflowed a little into her correspondence. But it soon came to an end, and for the rest of her life Jane Austen's letters were below rather than above the average in interest, point, and charm.
Miss Austen's novels are a well-worn subject. We have all read her, or ought to have read her; we all know what Macaulay and what Scott thought of her and the qualities of her humor, the extent of her range, have been pointed out again and again. Perhaps, after all, however, it may be still worth while to try and face the question which these disappointing letters bring home to one. How was it that, with all her lack of knowledge and of ideas, and with her comparative lack of passion, which so often supplies the place of both, Jane Austen accomplished work so permanent and so admirable? What is it, in a word, which makes "Pride and Prejudice" and "Northanger Abbey" English classics, while the books of her contemporaries, Miss Ferrier and Miss Edgeworth, have practically lost their hold upon our sympathies, and are retreating year by year into a dimmer background? There are two kinds of qualities which go to the making of a classic. There are the qualities of expansion and the qualities of concentration. The great books of the world are rich in both. if you compare Chaucer's and Gower's treatment of the same theme — the subject of "The Man of Lawes Tale," for instance — you will see not only that Chaucer's treatment is light and rapid where Gower's is heavy and prolix, but that Chaucer knew where, as the French would say, to "lean," where to dwell, where to expand. You may trace this poetic expansion at work in all the great moments or crises of the story. Gower plods on through the trial of Constance for the murder of Dame Hermengild, and through the various incidents which accompany it, with no variation of tone or pace. Chaucer, when he has brought Constance face to face with her enemies, pauses, as any true poet would, and lets the tragedy of the situation penetrate himself and his readers.
Have ye not seyn sometyme a palë faceAnd a little further on there is a still more striking instance of it, in the exquisite scene between Constance and her child before she is turned adrift on the Northumbrian coast. As for the qualities of condensation they may be traced in the "Troilus and Cressid" as compared with the "Filostrato," and in the Knightes Tale, and elsewhere. But the qualities of expansion develop first in the literary history of the world; those of concentration come later, and the human mind takes longer to fashion the instruments which fit and display them. Although a great writer will have both in some measure, the proportion in which he possesses them will depend upon his date. The progress of literary expression during the last two hundred years has on the whole, and making due allowance for the vast stores of new material which have found their way into literature since Rousseau, been a progress towards concentration. Literature tends more and more to become a kind of shorthand. The great writers of this generation take more for granted than the great writers of the last, and the struggle to avoid commonplace and repetition becomes more and more diffused. The mind of the modern writer is on the whole most anxiously concerned with this perpetual necessity for omission, for compression. It will never describe if it can suggest, or argue if it can imply. The first condition of success in letters is nowadays to avoid vaporing, and to wage war upon those platitudes we all submit to with so much cheerful admiration in our Richardson or our "Spectator."
Among a prees, of him that hath be lad
Toward his deth, wher as him gat no grace,
And swich a color in his face hath had,
Men mightë knowe his face, that was bistad
Amongès alle the faces in that route:
So stant Custance, and looketh hir aboute.
O queenës, lyuinge in prosperitee
Duchesses, and ladyës euerich one
Haueth some rewthe on hir aduersitee;
An emperourës doughter stant allone;
She bath no wight to whom to make hir mone.
O blood roial! that stondest in this drede,
Fer ben thy frendës at thy gretë nede!
It was her possession of the qualities of condensation that made Jane Austen what she was. Condensation in literary matters means an exquisite power of choice and discrimination — a capacity for isolating from the vast mass of detail which goes to make up human life just those details and no others which will produce a desired effect and blend into one clear and harmonious whole. It implies the dete~mination to avoid everything cheap and easy — cheapness in sentiment, in description, in caricature. In matters of mere language it means the perpetual effort to be content with one word rather than two, the perpetual impulse to clip and prune rather than expand and lengthen. And if to this temper of self-restraint you add the imagination which seizes at once upon the most effective image or detail and realizes at a glance how it will strike a reader, and a spontaneous interest in men and women as such, you have arrived at the component parts of such a gift as Jane Austen's. Nothing impresses them more strongly upon the reader than a comparison of her work with that of her slightly younger contemporary, Miss Ferrier. Miss Ferrier had a great deal of humor, some observation, and a store of natural vigor which made her novels welcome to the generation of Scott and Byron. Stronger expressions of praise were used to her and about her than ever seem to have suggested themselves to any contemporary admirer of Miss Austen, and the author of "Marriage "was encouraged to believe that her work would rank with that of Scott as a representation of Scottish life and manners. But we who read Miss Ferrier with an interval of fifty years between us and her can judge the proportions of things more clearly. Miss Ferrier is scarcely read now, except for the sake of satisfying a literary curiosity, and will gradually drop more and more out of reading. And it is very easy to understand why, if one does but approach her books with these qualities of expansion and concentration which go to make up a classic in one's mind. She has little or no faculty of choice, nothing is refused that presents itself; reflections, love-making, incident, are all superabundant and second-rate. Everything is done to death, whether it is Miss Pratt's bustle, or Lady Juliana's finery, or Mr. McDow's brutality, and as for the sentiment — these reflections from the first volume of the "Inheritance" are a fair average specimen of it.
"'Ah,' thought Gertrude, 'how willingly would I renounce all the pomp of greatness to dwell here in lowly affection with one who would love me and whom I could love in return. How strange that I, who could cherish the very Worm that crawls beneath my feet, have no one being to whom I could utter the thoughts of my heart, no one on whom I could bestow its best affections!' She raised her eyes, swimming in tears to heaven, but it was in the poetic enthusiasm of feeling, not in the calm spirit of devotion!"
There is no parlicular reason why writing of this kind should ever stop; there is nothing intimate and living in it, none of that wrestle of the artist with experience which is the source of all the labors and all the trials of art; it is all conventional, traditional, hearsay in fact. The qualities of concentration are altogether wanting. But now, put side by side with Gertrude's sentiment or Mrs. Sinclair's remorse, some of the mental history of Jane Austen's dramatis personæ, and the gulf which this marvellous choosing faculty digs between one writer and another will be plain at once. Anne Eliot, in "Persuasion," has arrived at the critical moment of her fate. The man whom she had rejected seven years before has reappeared upon the scene, and as soon as she is brought in contact with him all lesser affections and inclinations, which had been filling up the time of his absence, disappear. Others might have had a chance if he had remained away, but his return, his neighborhood, rouses a feeling which sweeps all before it. This is the situation. We may imagine, if Miss Ferrier had had to deal with it, how she would have spun it out; with what raptures, what despairs, what appeals to heaven she would have embroidered it! But Jane Austen at once seizes upon the vital points of it, and puts them before us, at first with a sober truth, and then with a little rise into poetry, which is a triumph of style.
"There was much regret," she says, in her analysis of Anne's feelings towards the man she had resolved to sacrifice to her old lover. "How she might have felt had there been no Captain Wentworth in the case is not worth inquiring; for there was a Captain Wentworth, and be the conclusion of the present suspense good or bad, her affection would be his forever. Their union, she believed, could not divide her more from other men than their final separation. Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy could never have passed along the streets of Bath than Anne was sporting with from Camden Place to Westgate Buildings. It was almost enough to spread purification and perfume all the way." How terse it is, how suggestive, how free from vulgarity and commonplace!
Another striking instance of this choosing instinct of hers is the description of Darcey's place, Pemberley, in "Pride and Prejudice." There, although there is scarcely any description at all, every stroke of the pen is so managed that any reader with ordinary attention may realize, if he pleases, the whole lie of the park, the look of the house, as Elizabeth surveyed it from the opposite side of the ravine above which it stood, the relative positions of the lawns, stables, and woods. Anybody with a turn that way could sketch it with ease, and yet there is no effort, no intention to describe, nothing but a clear and vivid imagination working with that self-restraint, that concentration, which is the larger half of style. This self-restraint indeed is her important, her determining quality. In other ways she has great deficiencies. For fine instances of the qualities of expansion we must go elsewhere than to Jane Austen. Emotion, inspiration, glow, and passion are not hers; she is a small, thin classic. But classic she is; for her work is a typical English embodiment of those drier and more bracing elements of style in which French literature has always been rich, and our own perhaps comparatively poor.
Mary Augusta Ward. "Style and Miss Austen," originally from Macmillans Magazine (1884), reprinted in Littell's Living Age 164 (1885), pages 58-64. [Gilson G1 reviews].