THE IMPRESSION of the condition of the Church of England in the eighteenth century which is conveyed by the character and writings of Laurence Sterne receives some necessary modification from a study of the life and works of Jane Austen. Her father, the Reverend George Austen, held the two rectories of Deane and Steventon in Hampshire, having been appointed to them by the favor of a cousin and an uncle. He thus belonged to the gentry, and it seems likely that he entered the church more as a profession than a vocation. He considered that he fulfilled his functions by preaching once a week and administering the sacraments; and though he does not seem to have been a man of spiritual gifts, the decent and dignified performance of these formal duties earned him the reputation of a model pastor. His abundant leisure he occupied in farming the rectory acres, educating his children, and sharing the social life of his class. The environment of refined worldliness and good breeding thus indicated was that in which his daughter lived, and which she pictured in her books.
Jane Austen was born at Steventon on December 16, 1775, the youngest of seven children. She received her educationscanty enough, by modern standardsat home. Besides the usual elementary subjects, she learned French and some Italian, sang a little, and became an expert needle-woman. Her reading extended little beyond the literature of the eighteenth century, and within that period she seems to have cared most for the novels of Richardson and Miss Burney, and the poems of Cowper and Crabbe. Dr. Johnson, too, she admired, and later was delighted with both the poetry and prose of Scott. The first twenty-five years of her life she spent at Steventon; in 1801 she moved with her family to Bath, then a great center of fashion; after the death of her father in 1805, she lived with her mother and sister, first at Southampton and then at Chawton; finally she took lodgings at Winchester to be near a doctor, and there she died on July 18, 1817, and was buried in the cathedral. Apart from a few visits to friends in London and elsewhere, and the vague report of a love affair with a gentleman who died suddenly, there is little else to chronicle in this quiet and uneventful life.
But quiet and uneventful though her life was, it yet supplied her with material for half a dozen novels as perfect of their kind as any in the language. While still a young girl she had experimented with various styles of writing, and when she completed Pride and Prejudice at the age of twenty-two, it was clear that she had found her appropriate form. This novel, which in many respects she never surpassed, was followed a year later by Northanger Abbey, a satire on the Gothic romances then in vogue; and in 1809 she finished Sense and Sensibility, begun a dozen years before. So far she had not succeeded in having any of her works printed; but in 1811 Sense and Sensibility appeared in London and won enough recognition to make easy the publication of the others. Success gave stimulus, and between 1811 and 1816, she completed Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion. The last of these and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously.
The most remarkable characteristic of Jane Austen as a novelist is her recognition of the limits of her knowledge of life and her determination never to go beyond these limits in her books. She describes her own class, in the part of the country with which she was acquainted; and both the types of character and the events are such as she knew from first-hand observation and experience. But to the portrayal of these she brought an extraordinary power of delicate and subtle delineation, a gift of lively dialogue, and a peculiar detachment. She abounds in humor, but it is always quiet and controlled; and though one feels that she sees through the affectations and petty hypocrisies of her circle, she seldom becomes openly satirical. The fineness of her workmanship, unexcelled in the English novel, makes possible the discrimination of characters who have outwardly little or nothing to distinguish them; and the analysis of the states of mind and feeling of ordinary people is done so faithfully and vividly as to compensate for the lack of passion and adventure. She herself speaks of the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work, and, in contrast with the broad canvases of Fielding or Scott, her stories have the exquisiteness of a fine miniature.