Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
Jane Austen (17751817)
[Jane Austen was the daughter of a clergyman in Hampshire, and was born in 1775. She was educated at home, where the influences were of a kind to guide her reading, limited though it might be, in the direction of sound models of taste and style. In 1801 she removed to Bath with her family, and the rest of her life was passed, with occasional visits to London, in the country or in provincial towns. She died at Winchester in 1817. Like Miss Burney, she began to write when very young. The first group of her novels was chiefly written between 1796 and 1798, and consisted of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey; the later group consisted of Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion, and was written between 1811 and 1816. The order of publication was different. Sense and Sensibility appeared in 1811; Pride and Prejudice in 1813; Mansfield Park in 1814; Emma in 1816; Northanger Abbey and Persuasion after her death in 1818.]
THERE is probably no writer of fiction of whom it can be said, with so much truth as of Jane Austen, that the taste for his or her books must almost of necessity begin as an acquired and artificial one, yet quickly becomes absorbing and invincible. It may indeed with truth be called the taste of a literary class, in the sense that those only feel it who have acquired something of literary judgment, who have patience enough to give the charm of her novels time to penetrate, whose object is not to be startled out of the common lethargy of the average reader of fiction, but to compare, to discriminate, to recall,above all, who seek in reading not excitement, but repose. It might be thought from this that Jane Austen appeals only to a select circle; that some peculiar initiation is required before the mystery of her charm is understood; and that the common-sense critic is justified in sneers at the fancied superiority of her privileged admirers. In truth, the very opposite is the case. Her genius was too great to work by any but the most simple methods. Had she been tempted to be pedantic she would have been deterred by the sarcasm which was ingrained in her own mind. Any vanity of authorship, any efflorescence of exclusiveness or of peculiarity, would have been nipt by her own inexhaustible power of ridicule. In herself she had her severest critic; restricting her rigidly to the narrowest limits of ordinary life, permitting her no extravagance of fancy, imposing upon her a monotonous uniformity of method, denying to her all bursts of passion and all attractiveness of adventure. These limitations did not crush her genius; and in spite of them she holds, and is likely to retain, the most secure place in the roll of our female novelists.
Miss Austen owed to Frances Burney not only her first inspiration, but the very title of her earliest novelPride and Prejudice. For her predecessor she felt unstinted admiration: and however she might discard some of her extravagance of sentiment, however little she followed Miss Burney in the exaggerated humours of her characters, which make them so often read like caricatures, yet she followed her closely in seeking a theme in the commonplace lives of ordinary people of the middle class, whose lives, if severely, perhaps even if truthfully, judged, are in great part made up of trifling and conventionality. Frances Burney occasionally essays tragedy, but it not unfrequently comes perilously near burlesque; and even when she makes one of her characters blow his brains out after a supper party in a London tea-garden, the reader is moved quite as much by the comic as by the tragic element in the incident. Jane Austen perceived the incongruity between tragedy and the society she describes, and she rarely makes the faintest attempt to harrow her readers feelings.
Like Miss Burney, she began by publishing anonymously, ignorant of her own powers, dreading the verdict of the world, and astonished to find that her unaided and unguided efforts attracted attention and commanded favour. But unlike Miss Burney, she never emerged from her obscurity; she refrained from entering, into that world of society and literature which her books would have opened to her; she remained within her own circle, unknowing, and unknown of, any conspicuous contemporary personages; and, born nearly a quarter of a century after Miss Burney, Jane Austen died nearly a quarter of a century before herleaving the world as yet quite unaware of the full measure of her genius. She was misled by no flattery, spoilt by no false examples, and tainted by no errors of fashion. She never deviated by one hairs-breadth from her earliest models, never changed her methods, never sought for new subjects, and never suffered any guidance or any influence to interfere with the even current of her own invention.
Her earliest novel was published in 1811, her last appeared in the year after her death (1818). Three of them were written between the years 1796 and 179S, and three between 1811 and 1816. It is difficult, if not impossible, to draw any marked contrasts between the novels of the earlier and later period. Most of her admirers would probably assign the highest places to one novel in each groupPride and Prejudice and Emma. Northanger Abbey contains more of her own literary opinions than any other, and perhaps Mansfield Park and Persuasion contain something more of deep and even passionate feeling than the novels that precede them. But, indeed, any attempt at chronological discrimination would be absurd. She began to write in her early womanhood, she died before she had reached middle age. Her genius had ample time to ripen, but her life was too short for any gradations either of development or of decay.
What strikes us chiefly in all her novels, is the slenderness of the plot; what testifies chiefly to her genius is the unbroken interest which that slender plot excites. Her characters lie within a singularly narrow circle; and over and over again she seems to test her own delicacy of manipulation and skill in discrimination, by choosing characters which in outward appearance and position seem almost identical, but which nevertheless stand out with marvellously vivid individuality. Lord Macaulay has shown this with regard to her clergymen. The same might be said of Emma, and Elinor Dashwood and Anne Elliot; of Catherine Morland and Fanny Price; of Darcy and Henry Crawford; of Wickham and Willoughby, Knightley and Colonel Brandonand the parallels might be extended over all her characters. But in spite of this apparent similarity, we feel that each is a real and actual character with his or her individuality in a society, of which each novel gives a particular group, but which is in truth the same from first to last. Not one of Miss Austens characters would have failed to know the catchwords, to enter into the feelings, to find himself understood, discussed, and intimately criticised by the members of the circle into which he would have entered, had he stepped from the stage of one novel to that of another. With no literary training, mixing in no literary society, with little reading and with no wide opportunity for studying life, Miss Austen nevertheless gauged to a nicety the range of her own genius, and never strained it to tasks for which it was unfitted. Her work was scrupulous in its delicate perfection of skill; but she never attempted to embrace any wide variety of life, to sound any profound depth of feeling, or to essay any flights of imagination. Simplicity of methodabsolute truthfulness in delineating, not the mere picture of a photographic lens, but the essential features, which her genius grouped into living realities as the result of critical observation; untiring skill in discriminationthese were her crowning qualities.
But to these she added what gives raciness and infinite zest to the whole, a power of sarcastic humour which would have been ruthless had it not been severely restrained, and which is sometimes tempted even to burst restraint.
We have some slight reminiscences, which family recollections have preserved, of Jane Austens life and character. These are not without interest. They represent her as a favourite with her nephews and nieces; as ready to join in all innocent amusements; as amiable and beloved in her family circle. All this is well so far as it goes; but it may be permissible to say that it goes a very little way. Miss Austens family was one of the highest respectability, and she no doubt found herself in surroundings that were kindly and pleasant. But it is equally clear that the family contained no members of very striking ability, and that the life at Steventon, at Bath, and in Hampshire, must have been passed amidst the most conventional of surroundings, which the most cordial family amiability could hardly have made either lively or interesting. How many Eltons and Collinses, how many a Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates, how many a Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Bennet, must poor Jane Austen have endured, before she could have given them to all time as perfect types, living for us as vividly as if we had talked to, and known, and suffered them! Miss Austen may doubtless have been as gentle and lovable in demeanour as family traditions represent her. She had her feelings too well under control, was moved by too strong a sense of duty, was too proud in her self-restraint, to allow of her being otherwise than equable in temper and demeanour. But it is surely impossible to read her books and not to feel that under the self-repression, the studied simplicity, the half-implied laughter, there runs a current of strong and impetuous feeling, of sarcasm most keen and most searching; a power of ridicule that might at times be absolutely unsparing; and, we must add, a depth of cynicism that seems sometimes to be with difficulty restrained within the bounds of conventional decorum. Instances of this will occur to any student of her books, and they are far too numerous, and often too slight, for citation. Let the last pages of Sense and Sensibility serve as a specimen; and observe in these how the fates of all the characters are dealt out to them with not a little of implied sarcasm, and with a cynicism which does not spare even those characters for whom our wannest sympathy is desired. If she does not hesitate to hint a little ridicule, even of the characters to whom she is most considerate, and to let her most respectable puppets excite an occasional smile, what must have been the anger, which avenged years of pent-up provocation under the torture of some domestic Mrs. Norris, by the concentrated sarcasm conveyed in that most consummate type of female pest?
Miss Austen owed much to Frances Burney, and had not Evelina and Cecilia been written, we might have wanted Pride and Prejudice. But she did not adopt Miss Burneys literary methods, whether at their best or their worst. The same scrupulous care and delicacy of finish which are visible in the treatment, mark also the style of her novels. Her sentences are never eloquent, and never ambitious; but they are absolutely correct, and absolutely lucid, and even when the shade of meaning is most subtle and most delicate, they never leave us with the slightest doubt as to the precise impression which they are to convey. She never is weak enough to avoid that due measure of graceful formality, which is neither forced nor obtrusive, but serves only to keep at a distance the slipshod familiarity often indistinguishable from vulgarity. She wrote when the example of our greatest prose writer was still powerful, when his authority was little questioned; and her admiration for Dr. Johnson preserved her style at once from the ponderous travesty that caricatured his language, and from the flippant carelessness which discarded its dignity and its lucidity. But she owed to Dr. Johnson more than style only. Is there any author of the day who reflected so distinctly as Miss Austen, that clearness of vision, that detestation of cant, that stern and cynical and withal playful humour, that intense interest in all the ways and characters of men, which made up the personality of Johnson? Here is a sentence which might come straight from Boswell. The distinction (between poverty and fortune) is not quite so much against the candour and commonsense 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. Or again personal size and mental sorrow have no necessary proportions. A large bulky figure has as good a right to be in deep affliction as the most graceful set of limbs in the world. But, fair or not fair, there are unbecoming conjunctions which reason will patronise in vainwhich taste cannot toleratewhich ridicule will seize. There was another who, with Johnson, shared the admiration of Jane Austen, and whose powerful and unrelenting realism deeply affected her. From Crabbes Tales she could draw neither humour, nor playfulness, nor tenderness; but his truthfulness of delineation has left its impression on her pages too deeply to be overlooked.