Criticisms and Interpretations V. By Goldwin Smith
AS we should expect from such a life, Jane Austens view of the world is genial, kindly, and, we repeat, free from anything like cynicism. It is that of a clear-sighted and somewhat satirical onlooker, loving what deserves love, and amusing herself with the foibles, the self-deceptions, the affectations of humanity. Refined almost to fastidiousness, she is hard upon vulgarity; not, however, on good-natured vulgarity, such as that of Mrs. Jennings in Sense and Sensibility, but on vulgarity like that of Miss Steele, in the same novel, combined at once with effrontery and with meanness of soul .
To sentimentality Jane Austen was a foe. Antipathy to it runs through her works. She had encountered it in the romances of the day, such as the works of Mrs. Radcliffe and in people who had fed on them. What she would have said if she had encountered it in the form of Rousseauism we can only guess. The solid foundation of her own character was good sense, and her type of excellence as displayed in her heroines is a woman full of feeling, but with her feelings thoroughly under control. Genuine sensibility, however, even when too little under control, she can regard as lovable. Marianne in Sense and Sensibility is an object of sympathy, because her emotions, though they are ungoverned and lead her into folly, are genuine, and are matched in intensity by her sisterly affection. But affected sentiment gets no quarter .
Jane Austen had, as she was sure to have, a feeling for the beauties of nature. She paints in glowing language the scenery of Lyme. She speaks almost with rapture of a view which she calls thoroughly English, though never having been out of England she could hardly judge of its scenery by contrast. She was deeply impressed by the sea, on which, she says, all must linger and gaze, on their first return to it, who ever deserves to look on it at all. But admiration of the picturesque had become a mere jargon, from which Jane Austen recoiled. One of her characters is made to say that he likes a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles; that he prefers tall and flourishing trees to those which are crooked and blasted; neat to ruined cottages, snug farmhouses to watchtowers, and a troop of tidy, happy villagers to the finest banditti in the world .
Jane Austen held the mirror up to her time, or at least to a certain class of the people of her time; and her time was two generations and more before ours. We are reminded of this as we read her works by a number of little touches of manners and customs belonging to the early part of the century, and anterior to the rush of discovery and development which the century has brought with it. There are no railroads, and no lucifer matches. It takes you two days and a half, even when you are flying on the wings of love or remorse, to get from Somersetshire to London. A young lady who has snuffed her candle out has to go to bed in the dark. The watchman calls the hours of the night. Magnates go about in chariots and four with outriders, their coachmen wearing wigs. People dine at five, and instead of spending the evening in brilliant conversation as we do they spend it in an unintellectual rubber of whist, or a round game. Life is unelectric, untelegraphic; it is spent more quietly and it is spent at home. If you are capable of enjoying tranquillity, at least by way of occasional contrast to the stir and stress of the present age, you will find in these tales the tranquillity of a rural neighborhood and a little country town in England a century ago .
That Jane Austen held up the mirror to her time must be remembered when she is charged with want of delicacy in dealing with the relations between the sexes, and especially in speaking of the views of women with regard to matrimony. Women in those days evidently did consider a happy marriage as the best thing that destiny could have in store for them. They desired it for themselves and they sought it for their daughters. Other views had not opened out to them; they had not thought of professions or public life, nor had it entered into the mind of any of them that maternity was not the highest duty and the crown of womanhood. Apparently they also confessed their aims to themselves and to each other with a frankness which would be deemed indelicate in our time. The more worldly and ambitious of them sought in marriage rank and money, and avowed that they did, whereas they would not avow it at the present day. Gossip and speculation on these subjects were common and more unrefined than they are now, and they naturally formed a large part of the amusement of the opulent and idle class from which Jane Austens characters were drawn. Often, too, she is ironical; the love of irony is a feature of her mind, and for this also allowance must be made. She does not approve or reward matchmaking or husband-hunting. Mrs. Jennings, the great matchmaker in Sense and Sensibilty, is also a paragon of vulgarity. Mrs. Norriss matchmaking in Mansfield Park leads to the most calamitous results. Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice, who unblushingly avows that her object is a husband with a good income, gets what she sought, but you are made to see that she has bought it dear .
The life which Jane Austen painted retains its leading features, and is recognized by the reader at the present day with little effort of the imagination. It is a life of opulent quiet and rather dull enjoyment, physically and morally healthy compared with that of a French aristocracy, though without much of the salt of duty; a life uneventful, exempt from arduous struggles and devoid of heroism, a life presenting no materials for tragedy and hardly an element of pathos, a life of which matrimony is the chief incident, and the most interesting objects are the hereditary estate and the heir.
Such a life could evidently furnish no material for romance. It could furnish materials only for that class of novel which corresponds to sentimental comedy. To that class all Jane Austens novels belong.From Life of Jane Austen, in Great Writers, 1890.