The Perfection of the Novel

This is an excerpt from a turn of the century textbook. I have picked out the sections dealing with Austen, and the authors of her time period. I begin with Walpole and Radcliffe, and continue through Lewis and Edgeworth ending with Austen.--C.D.*

The Romance.

Foremost in the romantic school of that day were Horace Walpole and Mrs. Radcliffe. "The Castle of Otranto," written by the former in 1765, was so far beyond the bounds of reason as to have suggested, and not unplausibly, that its author, a man of taste and leisure, had intended his production as a satire rather than a novel, we have here a tale of sights and sounds uncanny; dismal corridors echo to unearthly groans; portraits speak; underground passages form an important part of the machinery of the plot. The prominent characters of the tale disappear mysteriously, and as unexpectedly reappear. There is in the castle courtyard a gigantic helmet whose black plumes nod ominously when messengers approach the place. Such are the expedients herein employed to aid the plot of cruel persecution and innocent passion to an appropriate end. The effect is rendered more discordant than is necessary by the attempt to invest these scenes and the characters engaged in them with all the reality possible through detailed description and contemporary attributes. Had this action but been relegated to the shadowy lands where such events are presumed more credible, the story would not be the mass of ridiculous incongruity it is.

"Monk" Lewis.

Under the influence of the "Mysteries of Udolpho" written by Mrs. Radcliffe in 1794--and very neatly satirized by Jane Austen in "Northanger Abbey" not long after--Matthew Gregory Lewis wrote "The Monk." Lewis was wise enough to discard the childish bugaboos of Otranto, and to finally explain his mysteries, or at least suggest an accounting therefor in his closing chapter. "The Monk" (1796) was written before its author had attained the age of twenty; and so powerful was the impression made by it that its writer has been known as "Monk" Lewis from that day to this. Lewis was full of the German influence of his time....

The Novel of Purpose.

The moralizing school found its best exponents in Jane Austen (1775-1817) and Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849). The admirable Irish tales by the latter, as well as her "stories of fashionable life," the "popular tales" and the novels of "Leonora," "Patronage," and "Belinda," are extremely entertaining and at the same time faithful pictures of real life, freed from the sentimentalism of the one school and the romantic unrealities of the other. These stories were told with a moral purpose in view, yet that purpose was maintained unobtrusively, and the interest of the tale was paramount.

Jane Austen.

By far the most clever novelist of her day was Jane Austen (1775-1817). The life of this gifted woman was most simple and most quiet. Her home was a village rectory in Hampshire; her only dissipation an occasional stay at the fashionable watering-place, Bath. No notable incidents appear to have broken the calm current of her daily life; no serious romance is known to have absorbed her mind. Quietly as she lived she wrote: her intimate friends were hardly aware of her occupation or her power. And it is a very quiet phase of life that Jane Austen has described, although her art is such that the most commonplace scenes appear eventful and the commonest characters important. No one since Fielding and Sterne had displayed such power as was hers in the realistic touches which exhibit character; but the material which supplied Miss Austen with her creations was widely different from that which furnished the earlier novelists with theirs. The most sensational occurrence in her pages is an elopement which ends with a due respect for the proprieties. The moral purpose is strong in Jane Austen's work. "Pride and Prejudice" (1813), "Sense and Sensibility" (1811), are her two most ambitious novels, and the titles are suggestive of the lessons they inculcate. The story is always told straightforwardly, and rarely drags; the author possesses a modest knowledge of the world, and allows a frequent dash of satire to give some piquancy to her descriptions. "Northanger Abbey" (1818) is written quite in the spirit of banter, and the humorous misadventures of the romantically inclined young heroine are shafts capitally aimed against the tasteless romances of the "Udolpho" type. Miss Austen was a most minute observer: microscopic is the word to be used of her method of observation and in treatment. With painstaking accuracy each detail of every process is described. Modest she was in all things,--yes, but not mediocre. Sir Walter paid her a remarkable compliment: "That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements of 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 characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me." So far as this applies to Jane Austen, Scott's words are eminently true. Besides the works already mentioned, Miss Austen wrote also "Mansfield Park" (1814), "Emma" (1916), and "Persuasion" (1818). "Pride and Prejudice" is universally conceded to be her ablest novel. These stories were published anonymously, and although the secret of their authorship leaked out, they were never avowed by Miss Austen as her work. Their real merit was not generally appreciated until after the early death of their author, but the fame which came so tardily shows no sign of waning. Next to Scott, there is no author of that time whose works, so unlike those of the great romanticist, are so generally familiar or read with so much real appreciation to-day as quite, homely, wholesome Jane Austen.

Simonds, William Edward. Excerpts from "The Perfection of the Novel" in An Introduction to the Study of English Fiction, 1894.

*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.