Introduction to Sense and Sensibility

Mr. Austen-Leigh declares in his memoir that "there was scarcely a charm in Jane Austen's most delightful characters that was not a true reflection of her own sweet temper and loving heart," and when we think of the two eldest Miss Bennets, of Emma and "poor Miss Taylor," of Elinor Dashwood, Fanny Price, Anne Elliot, and the "unheroic" Catherine Morland, we realise the comprehensiveness of the compliment.

Although few authors have shown a less obtrusive personality, it is true that we can study her nature most fitly in her books. From the women in them whom she intends us to admire we may perceive her correct but sincere sentiments, her limited but deep sympathies, her warm affections, and her sprightly mind. From the characters she ridicules we discover her keen observation, her love of satire, and her slightly fastidious refinement, for few have combined so much good nature and absence of cynicism with an equal severity towards vulgarity. To the conception of Jane Austen which we may gain from her novels, however, the memoir by her nephew, Mr. Austen-Leigh, and the correspondence edited by Lord Brabourne have added something beyond the mere pleasure which the last news of a favourite author must afford.

Her nephew has given an enthusiastic description of her appearance, from which we picture her as a vivacious brunette, with bright hazel eyes and round cheeks, which Sir Egerton Brydges called a little too full. She had good features, and dressed neatly, but her chief charm arose Irom the character which animated her face and her actions.

The description of Anne Elliot's wise devotion to her sister's children, and several other sympathetic references to young people, may prepare us to find that Miss Austen was a great favourite with her nephews and nieces, and used to hold them spell-bound by delightfully endless stories of fairies and fairyland, which were unlike anything that they had ever read. The art of understanding children was not generally cultivated in those days, and in her case sprang from a sympathetic and tinselfish sweetness of nature, which had its basis in genuine religious faith.

It seems to me, however, that in his affectionate loyalty Mr. Austen-Leigh has laid too great a stress on the sweetness of her character as opposed to its strong individuality. Her letters show that she could speak as sarcastically of her acquaintances as of the creatures of her imagination, though she would have scorned to frighten or hurt anyone by her cleverness. Elizabeth Bennet's remark to Darcy may be accepted as her creator's apologia. "I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can." For her family she loved to point an epigram or improve an anecdote, and she would often raise a laugh by describing her friends in imaginary situations, and then making fun of the actions she had invented for them. In her letters, almost all of which were written to her sister, and therefore should not be judged as if they had been intended for publication, it is not always easy to tell when the sharp sayings are to be taken seriously, though they would never have been misunderstood by her correspondent. These letters have been often, but perhaps too hastily, dismissed as disappointing. They are treated as if--to use her own expression--she had been merely "ringing the changes of the glads and sorrys" throughout. But, though not revelations like the novels, they are bright and well written, and give very much the same impression that she once formulated to her sister, "I have been talking to you as fast as I could through the whole of this letter." They show that in many ways she resembled her heroines, being firmly attached to her family, and given to neighbourly charity, but not averse to dancing, flirting, match-making, and forming new acquaintances. It appears further that she was an admirable needle-woman, and had an eye for dress. Like Elizabeth Bennet, she was a fast and energetic walker.

The letters contain many satiric passages as piquant as those in the novels, and only less interesting to us because they refer to persons of whom we know nothing. The effect produced by her writings upon one of her contemporaries is shown by the following passage from the biographical notice prefixed to M. Hyacinthe de F.'s French translation of Norfhanger Abbey: "Son talent pour créer des caractéres était naturel et infini. Le style de sa correspondance était le même que celui de ses nouvelles. Tout ce que sa plume traçait était parfait; elle avait des ideés claires sur chaque sujet, ses expressions étaient toujours bien choisies, et je crois ne rien hasarder en assurant qu'elle n'a nen écrit, ni lettre, ni billet, qui ne fût digne de l'impression." This is obviously an exaggeration, but, from a French writer, it is a striking tribute to Miss Austen's powers of style. It was written in 1824, and must therefore, so far as it concerns her correspondence, have been founded on the few letters that were printed in the original preface to Northanger Abbey.

Something of her character has been revealed, but of the events of her life there is little to know. She was born on December 16, 1775, in the pretty little country parsonage of Steventon, in Hampshire, where she spent the first twenty-six years of her life. In 1801 her father gave up his parochial duties to his son, and went with his family to Bath, where they remained till his death in February 1805. The mother and daughters then lived for awhile at Southampton, but in 1809 settled into what her nephew has fitly called Jane's second home at Chawton, near Winchester, on the estate which her brother Edward inherited from Mr. Knight of Godmersham Park, who had adopted him. It was here that during the year 1816 her last illness laid its hold upon her. She did not quickly give way to it, and, indeed, suffered comparatively little, but those who uatched her saw with alarm how steadily her weakness increased, and in May 1817 she was persuaded to move to Winchester to consult a Mr. Lyford--a surgeon of some reputation. In that city she died on July I8th, 1817, having at the end told her attendants that she wanted "nothing but death." She was buried in Winchester Cathedral.

Of the persons among whom this quiet life was spent Mr. Austen-Leigh has told us something. Her father, called at Oxford "the handsome proctor," and her mother, the great niece of old Dr. Theophilus Leigh, sometime master of Balliol, were not ordinary people, the former being distinguished for his charm of manner and sanguine temperament, the latter for her strong common-sense and lively imagination. Jane's five brothers were all upright and agreeable men, apparently sharing her affection in equal proportions, though the fact of the two youngest having been sailors accounts for the enthusiasm for the profession which is shown in some of her novels, and the eldest is said to have directed her early reading. But the member of the family v.ith whom she had the closest bond was her sister Cassandra, the "amiable Miss Austen," as she calls her. Being three years Jane's senior, she was treated as a sort of confessor, and she was eminently fitted for the position by her sympathetic and well-balanced nature, which had been matured by an unembittering disappointment in love. It was to her that Jane's letters were nearly all written, and they prove her to have been an ideal elder sister. She was probably not an intellectual w omen, but she was accomplished according to the standard of her circle, and her portrait of her sister, reproduced at the beginning of Mr. Austen-Leigh's life, is not without merit.

Cassandra and Jane received their education together, at a school to which the famihar passage in Emma might probably be applied. [1] "Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a school--not a seminary, or an establishment, or anything which professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality, upon new principles and new systems--and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity--but a real, honest, old-fashioned boarding school, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way, and scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies." They would have been neither able nor anxious to indulge in the Miss Bertrams' childish boasts. "'How long ago it is, aunt, since we used to repeat the chronological order of the Kings of England, with the dates of their accession, and most of the principal events of their reigns.' 'Yes,' added the other, 'and of the Roman emperors as low as Severus; besides a great deal of the heathen mythology, and all the metals, semi-metals, plants, and distinguished philosophers.' "

Jane Austen had, however, a decided talent for music, and shared with her family the taste for reading aloud to which she so often gives expression in her books. She also acquired what was for those days a very good knowledge of the French language from a cousin who came to live with them after her husband, the Comte de Feuillade, had been guillotined, and who ultimately married Henry Austen. This lady had adopted a good many French habits and tastes, and it was this perhaps that led her to take a leading part in the private theatricals, which the family were accustomed to get up vvhen Jane was a girl, and which are supposed to have given her material for the episode in Mansfield Park, when Edmund Bertram forsakes his principles to appear on the boards.

Beyond her family were also many friends and relatives who came and went across the path of her life, stirring her to various degrees of affection. But of acquaintances formed by literary fame she had practically none. Though her books were published anonymously, the secret of their authorship was not very rigorously kept; but no one seems to have sought out the young novelist, and she never thought of trying to enter any society beyond her family circle. It is said that she refused to be introduced as the author of Pride and Prejudice, and she once declared that she was rather frightened by hearing that some one wished to make her acquaintance:--" If I am a kind of wild beast I cannot help it. It is not my own fault." In marked contrast to such writers as Miss Burney and George Eliot she worked all her life without the stimulus of the intellectual companionship and conversation of literary men. It is a most remarkable fact that she never alluded to this want, of which she cannot have been entirely unconscious. She did not regard the possession of genius as any excuse for losing her interest in the passing concerns of those around her, or even allowing it to slacken. Her correspondence shows her to have been "one who, among women of letters, was almost alone in her freedom from a lettered vanity ," [2]--a freedom which has indeed been seldom equalled by authors of her critic's sex. She wrote to amuse her correspondents, and seldom referred to her books. We should have been disposed to regret the large share of her time and attention which was given to the affairs of everyday life if her work appeared to have suffered from it. But her whole development was thoroughly healthy and well-balanced. The self-respect of true genius led her to take pride and delight in the exercise and perfecting of her powers, and prevented her from yielding to false ideals of self-sacrifice.

She began to write at an early age, and the specimen which Mr. Austen-Leigh gives of her childish compositions is certainly clever. Some idea of its date may be get' ered from her letter of advice to a niece, in which she recommends her to cease writing till the age of sixteen on the ground that "she had herself often wished she had read more and written less in the corresponding years of her life." These first nonsensical pieces were followed by burlesques of the style of romance which was then fashionable. It seems to me probable that Lady Susan was written soon after these, since it is certainly inferior to her other work, and was generally believed by her family to be a youthful composition. Moreover, it is in the form of letters, like the first draft of Sense and Sensibility.

Her first period of serious composition began early, and was of brief duration. Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey were all written at Steventon between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-three. During the eight years she spent at Bath and Southampton she produced nothing but the fragment of The Watsons, with which she was evidently dissatisfied, and which she never attempted to finish. When she had settled in Chawton she revised the three former novels for the press, and also wrote Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion between the ages of thirty-six and forty-one. It is generally admitted that she produced one masterpiece during each of the two periods. At the time of her death she was engaged upon a novel, of which a few extracts have been published, but we have not suffficient material to judge even of its promise.

We are told that she wrote always on little slips of paper in the family sitting-room, and never resented interruptions, her friends, indeed, not being generally aware of what she was doing. As Mr Goldwin Smith has suggested, she was probably enabled to work thus only after a good deal of thought, and much may have been elaborated in her mind before the business of transcribing began. Although she wrote entirely about the class in which she mixed, her characters were never exact portraits. She considered the drawing from individuals to be an "invasion of social proprieties," and added that she was "too proud of her gentlemen to admit that they were only Mr. A. and Colonel B." She did not find her inspiration in books, though the correctness and finish of her style must have been partly due to her reading. We do not hear that she had any wide acquaintance with literature, but she was familiar with the works of Richardson and Miss Burney, while she loved Dr. Johnson and Crabbe, especially the latter, and declared that "if ever she married at all, she could fancy being Mrs. Crabbe." It is fortunate, however, that she did not attempt to imitate any of them in her writings.

A curious correspondence has been published, and often commented upon, between Jane Austen and the Prince Regent's worthy librarian, Mr. Clarke. The Prince is said to have admired her novels, and, on hearing that she was visiting town, commissioned Mr. Clarke to show her his library, and give her leave to dedicate a future novel to his Royal Highness. She was shown every attention, and the librarian, we presume on his own authority, afterwards proposed to her two subjects on which she might suitably employ her genius--the life of a model and cultivated clergyman, and the history of the House of Coburg. Miss Austen, of course, declined the offer with all the demure propnety of which she was mistress. It was this incident in part, no doubt, that suggested the spirited Plan of a Novel according to Hints from Various Quarters, in which she touches off the conventional British hero of frank and noble masculinity, and the heroine of the sweet ivy type in the midst of a world of irredeemable villains.

With singular self-insight Jane Austen spoke once of the "little bit of ivory two inches wide, on which she worked with a brush so fine as to produce little effect after much labour." She gives us a further glimpse of her methods in the following comments on a young relative's attempts in the art of novel writing:--"You are now collecting your people delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life. Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on, and I hope you will do a great deal more, and make full use of them, while they are so favourably arranged." On the "two-inch bit of ivory" of a country village she drew her finished miniatures, and took every advantage of the "favourable arrangement." Moreover, there is a sense in which she produced little effect after much labour. Her novels are practically without plot or passion, and treat only of a limited class during a particular period. The country life of the upper middle class at the beginning of the century is her theme, and she makes no effort to vary it. It is moreover in the course of their daily life that her characters betray themselves, on those trivial occasions when humanity does not take the trouble to act a part. With the supreme moments of misery or exaltation she has seldom concerned herself.

The well-known entry in Sir Walter Scott's journal, under March 14, 1826, contains an allusion to the same characteristics. "Read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen's very finely written novel, Pride and Prejudice. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements 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." This is a genial appreciation, more judicious perhaps than his article in the Quarterly for 1818. Not even the authority of Sir Walter Scott can convince us that Elizabeth Bennet was induced to accept Darcy by the sight of his fine estate, or that Mr. Woodhouse and Mlss Bates are "too often brought forward, and too long dwelt upon." His conclusion is interesting, however. Upon the whole, the tone of this author's novels bears the same relation to that of the sentimental and romantic cast, that cornficlds and cottages and meadows bear to the highly adorned grounds of a show mansion or the rugged sublimities of a mountain landscape. It is neither so captivating as the one, nor so grand as the other, but it affords to those who frequent it a pleasure nearly allied with the experience of their own social habits."

In 182l Archbishop Whately reviewed her novels for the Quarterly in a more enthusiastic style, pronouncing Persuasion to be "one of the most elegant fictions of common life we ever remember to have met with."

There is abundant internal evidence of Miss Austen's keen interest in her work, which is also disclosed in her letters. Northanger Abbey contains a protest against the conventional abuse of novels, in which she describes incidentally her own ideal. She complains that novelists join the public in "slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them," and will not suffer their heroines to degrade themselves by the perusal of "some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language."

Such was Miss Austen's notion of what her art should be, and the application of the words to her own writings would hardly be an exaggeration.

She had not perhaps the most complete knowledge of human nature, but within her range she succeeded in producing a marvellous variety. Lord Macaulay has emphasised this point with his accustomed generosity of treatment in his essay on Fanny gurney. "Highest of those who have exhibited human nature by means of dialogue stands Shakespeare. His variety is like the variety of nature, endless diversity, scarcely any monstrosity. . . . Shakespeare has neither equal nor second. But among the writers who, in the point which we have noticed, have approached nearest to the manner of the great master, we have no hesitation in placing Jane Austen, a woman of whom England is justly proud. She has given us a multitude of characters, all, in a certain sense, commonplace, aH such as we meet every day. Yet they are all as perfectly discriminated from each other as if they were the most eccentric of human beings. There are, for example, four clergymen, none of whom we should be surprised to find in any parsonage in the kingdom--Mr. Edward Ferrars, Mr. Henry Tilney, Mr. Edmund Bertram, and Mr. Elton. They are all specimens of the upper part of the middle class. They have all been liberally educated. They all lie under the restraints of the same sacred profession. They are aH young. They are all in love. Not one of them has any hobby-horse, to use the phrase of Sterne. Not one has a ruling passion, such as we read of in Pope. Who would not have expected them to be insipid likenesses of each other? No such thing. Harpagon is not more unlike to Jourdain, Joseph Surface is not more unlike to Sir Lucius O' Trigger, than every one of Miss Austen's young divines is to all his reverend brethren. And almost all this is done by touches so delicate that they elude analysis, that they defy the powers of description, and that we know them to exist only by the general effect to which they have contributed."

Lord Macaulay might, perhaps, have chosen a more fortunate set of examples, for it would scarcely be rash to say that the first three young clergymen could often have changed places without doing much violence to their characters. But it would be diffficult to find any other persons in Miss Austen's novels to whom the process could be applied, and the truth of his general statement remains unshaken. Where he has hesitated to analyse the touches of differentiation, we may safely say that they are almost indescribable.

Individuality is naturally most marked in her heroines, in whom she took an especial pride. Elizabeth Bennet was her own favourite, and merits the distinction. She had the feminine capacity for making up her mind at once on any subject, and was generally in the right. She expressed her opinions, moreover, with wit and decision. But when reason and a clearer knowledge of the facts proved her to be in the wrong, she was magnanimous enough to acknowledge her mistake, and conquered her own prejudices while she disarmed her lover's pride. To a critical and independent mind, and a strong sense of justice, she united an affectionate and sympathetic heart. Her good sense deserted her but once in her life, when she let Lydia go to Brighton without telling her father something of Wickham's character. The exigencies of the plot may require the blunder to be made, but cannot really excuse it. And we must feel that--with the exception of a few exaggerations, perhaps allowable in satiric sketches such as Lady Catherine or Mr. Collins, and a few ungentlemanly exhibitions of Darcy's arrogance--it is the only blot on this most brilliant novel of character.

There are many of Miss Austen's admirers who find Emma more attractive than Elizabeth:--"Such an eye!--the true hazel eye--and so brilliant! regular features, open countenance, with a complexion! oh, what a bloom of full health, and such a pretty height and size! such a firm and upright figure! There is health not merely in her bloom, but in her air, her head, her glance. One hears something of a child being the 'picture of health'; now, Emma always gives me the idea of being the complete picture of grown-up health. She is loveliness itself. Mr. Knightley, is not she?" cries Mrs. Weston, and the reader is earned away by her enthusiasm. Emma is impulsive also, but her ruling passion is a love of making plans and managing people. "Ah! my dear, I wish you would not make matches and foretell things, for whatever you say always comes to pass," remarks her old father, with the most unintentional sarcasm.

Emma, however, learns wisdom by the failure of her schemes while she loses none of the courageous vivacity which led her to disregard the possible criticisms of her neighbours. In this story Miss Austen seems to advocate the theory that a man and woman may venture to judge of each other's susceptibilities, and may cultivate a friend. ship without the danger of raising expectations which they are not prepared to fulfil. Emma has aufficient acuteness to measure the extent of Frank Churchill's interest in her. She deliberately chooses his society without wishing to attach him, and permits his marked gallantry without yielding her heart. They understand each other perfectly well, and are only put into a false position by his unjustifiable manner of keeping the secret of his engagement, for which his temporary discomfiture is scarcely a suffficient punishment.

It seems to me that these are Miss Austen's great conceptions. Her other heroines but play their part, though it be a leading one, in the stories they adorn, and cannot stand alone. They were created to fill the centre of a preconceived plot, as Emma and Pride and Prejudice were written to illustrate the characters of their heroines. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood exist only to draw out each other; Fanny Price preserves her innocence amidst worldly frivolity, Anne Elliot's sweet temper and resignation is contrasted with the selfish pride of her family; and Catherine Morland stands for young enthusiasm, steeped in romance and destined to learn that life is different from Mrs. Radcliffe's novels. Each possesses an individual character carefully maintained, but she does not by any means absorb the reader's interest and attention.

Miss Austen's agreeable women do not transgress the limits of a somewhat narrow ideal of feminine excellence, in which the main ingredients are strong affections, constancy, a love of nature and books, good looks, good temper, and good breeding. Greater laxity is allowed the men. Darcy is without the openness of disposition that charms in Wickham and Willoughby; while Bingley, Wentworth, and Edward Ferrars have none of that proper masculine obstinacy and self-confidence which compel our respect for Darcy and Mr. Knightley, and Edmund Bertram and Henry Tilney are prigs, respectively solemn and vivacious.

And while the conception of a gentleman is less definite, the women are sometimes unable to distinguish between the reality and the imitation. One is surprised to find Mr. Knightley and Wickham, Darcy and Mr. Elton, included by their acquaintances in the same category. Miss Austen is, of course, aware of the differences, and lets her reader into the secret; but she does not scruple to describe her heroines as partially deceived, in spite of their natural refinement. This assumption of an uncritical attitude on the part of women belongs to her unaggressive conventionalism and conservatism. Mr. Goldwin Smith has detected ' a flash of Radical sympathy with the oppressed governess," in the treatment of "poor Miss Taylor"; but on the subject of marriage, with which her novels are mainly concerned, she adopted the principles of the more rational and high-minded portion of her conservative contemporaries, only applying them with an unusual width of judgment.

She has held up to ridicule the follies and evils of matchmaking in Mrs. Bennet, Mrs. Norris, and Emma, but, in her own refined way, she was herself a match-maker at heart. She had a personal affection for the daughters of her pen, and delighted in getting them good husbands; regarding marriage as woman's vocation, and a second attachment as "the only thoroughly natural, happy and sufficient cure" for an early disappointment in love though theoretically, as Emma tells the wondering Harriet "it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman with a very narrow income must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman of good fortune is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else! And the distinction is not quite so much against the candour and common-sense of the world as appears at first; for a very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind, and sour the temper. Those who can barely live, and who live perforce in a very small and generally very inferior, society, may well be illiberal and cross."

This firm and not unreasonable belief in the desirableness of a competency tinges the matrimonial views of Miss Austen's heroines, who, it must be admitted, have a tendency to fall in love "very suitably." But apart from her treatment of Willoughby and Lucy Steele, she has Stlown her contempt for mercenary marriages in the caustic sentence passed on Maria Bertram--" In all the important preparations of the mind she was complete: being prepared for matrimony by a hatred of home, restraint, and tranquillity; by the misery of disappointed affection, and contempt of the man she was to marry"; as well as in the whole story of Charlotte Lucas's marriage. She named an early day because " the stupidity with which [Mr. Collins] was favoured by nature must guard his courtship from any charm that could make a woman wish for its continuance," and when they were married she encouraged his taste for gardening and chose for herself a back sittmgroom that he might be less often tempted to disturb her. Elizabeth visited her friend and found that Charlotte--

Like a well-conducted person,
Went on cutting bread and butter
and filling her mind entirely with domestic concerns. She had "to acknowledge that it was all done very well," but there was a heavy price to pay, and Charlotte's life must have been a poor one.

Miss Austen's heroines expect to derive instruction, as well as a competency, from their husbands. Here, again, she ridicules the extreme form of a convention, while tacitly assuming its correctness in moderation. The commonplace masculine attitude towards women has seldom been so severely handled as in the following passage from the description of one of Catherine Morland's early conversations with Henry Tilney--" She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance-a misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

"The advantages of natural folly in a beautiful girl have been already set forth by the capital pen of a sister author, and to her treatment of the subject I will only add, in justice to men, that though, to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of therm too reasonable, and too well-informed themselves, to desire anything more in a woman than ignorance."

Even Mr. Knightley and Darcy, however, cannot entirely avoid a didactic tone towards the women they admire, who are indeed comparatively uninformed, not having the patience to perfect themselves in any accomplishments, but yet are characterised inteUectually by quick intuitions, sympathetic receptivity, and a power of apt expression. The Miss Dashwoods and Fanny Price take more interest in literary pursuits, but they also illustrate the familiar truth on the acceptance of which the novelist's popularity must ordinarily depend: that "the proper study of mankind is man."

The preponderance of human interest in her novels is shown also in the strong family affections she depicts. It was the unity of her own family, and especially her affection for her only sister, which led her to make this feature so prominent and produced the two delightful pairs of sisters that adorn her earliest novels. But though Jane and Elinor, and Elizabeth and Marianne may slightly resemble Cassandra and Jane Austen respectively, it is obvious that they are not portraits.

Such are some of the characteristics of Miss Austen's heroes and heroines, and of the society in which they move. But this by no means exhausts the interest of her novels, in which the minor characters play an important part. Though she had a strong natural distaste for pictures of guilt and misery, she has drawn us some villains who wear sheep's clothing for a considerable period, and seriously interfere with the course of true love. Wickham belongs to a somewhat commonplace type, being cool, selfish, and calculating, pleasing in his address and a skilful liar. Willoughby's unaffected sensibility is a more original conception, which is well sustained. But the superior members of this class are the Crawfords. They must be called villains, inasmuch as they play the part of evil genius to hero and heroine respectively; but they are the cleverest and most attractive people in Mansfield Park. Miss Austen seems to have yielded to a sort of retributive conscientiousness, when she allowed Henry Crawford to come to a bad end after permitting him so much regeneration. It is the only one of her novels in wilich one regrets the climax of the plot. Henry's tactful geniality and self-confidence would have developed Fanny, as much as Mary's spirits and good sense would have awakened Edmund; and the actual Edmund Bertrams must have been a prodigiously dull couple.

The development of the story often depends in part on the singular stupidity of the parents and guardians. With the exception of the Gardiners, the Westons, and Lady RusseU, they are either too feeble-minded or too eccentric to guide the young people under their charge, and seldom show any uneasiness on account of the fact. The inefficiency of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and of Lady Bertram is described with peculiar humour, while at the head of Miss Austen's marveUous gallery of satiric portraits, surpassing even Mr. Collins and Miss Bates, looms the pompous person of Lady Catherine de Burgh, who constitutes herself director-general to humanity, and effects no more than the annihilation of her daughter's individuality. Mrs. Norris has something of the same spirit, but, being without Lady Catherine's supreme self-satisfaction is altogether a less successful conception.

In these characters Miss Austen realises another part of her definition of the perfect novel which should contain "the liveliest effusions of wit and humour,"--two qualities which are not in fact generaUy found together. There is wit in her compact, pithy style and spirited conversations, humour in many a subtle suggestion, situation, and delicate piece of character drawing. Elizabeth Bennet, for instance, is witty, her father humorous. Again, Mrs. Norris is a creation of wit, Lady Bertram of humour, and other examples of both might be given. But the laugh is never bitter, the gaiety rings true. The cheerfulness and even high spirits of her tone seem the more remarkable when we consider the somewhat monotonous tenor of her own life, and the same temperament is conspicuous in her heroines.

And finally, says the definition, the knowledge and skill of the novelist should be "conveyed to the world in the best chosen language." It is clear that Miss Austen took great pains to perfect her style, and no one will quarrel with the result. Her phrases are evidently polished with care, and words are chosen both for their sound and sense. One may almost say that the most effective word is always found. And yet, apart from the grammatical inaccuracies which belonged to her period, she was sometimes reckless about details, such as the use of pronouns, and, if she could express an idea clearly and satisfy herself as to the balance of a sentence, she did not always take much trouble over its construction. She says of Pride and Prejudice:--" There are a few typical errors. A 'said he' or 'said she' would sometimes make the dialogue more immediately clear; but 'I do not write for such dull elves' as have not a great deal of ingenuity in themselves." Familiarity with her books, as well as a certain delicacy of perception, is necessary for their full enjoyment, but her phrases, when once appreciated, remain in the memory from their exquisite appropriateness. She can touch off a character in a sentence, or fill in the first sketch by a marveUously minute elaboration of that which the reader had supposed already perfect.

Her favourite device of giving the full gist of conversations without actually retailing them, may perhaps be mentioned here. She omits no detail, however trivial, that can amuse the reader or illustrate character, and yet avoids the prolixity of a verbatim report. Mrs. Elton is saved from dulness by this method, and a striking example of it occurs in Sense and Sensibility, where a large party are expressing their opinions as to the relative heights of two boys in the presence of one of them. There are the relations of each to flatter, and everyone's civility is put to the test.--" Lucy, who was hardly less anxious to please one parent than the other, thought the boys were both remarkably tall for their age, and could not conceive that there could be the smallest difference in the world between them; and Miss Steele, with yet greater address, gave it, as fast she could, in favour of each."

Perhaps the best epitome of Miss Austen's style is to be found in her own account of her impressions on hearing Pride and Prejudice read aloud, which also illustrates the pleasure she took in applying humorous criticism to herself:--" Upon the whole, however, I am quite vain enough and well satisfied enough. The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade, it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story, an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparte, or something that would form a contrast, and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfu ness and epigrammaticism of the general style."

Reginald Brimley Johnson.


[1] As indeed Mr. Goldwin-Smith has surmised.

[2] Andrew Lang to Jane Austen. Letters to Dead Authors.

Johnson, Reginald Brimley. The Novels of Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility). London & Toronto: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd.; New York, E.P. Dutton & Co., 1922. [Gilson E147]

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.