AS we should expect from such a life, Jane Austen's 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
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
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 Austen's 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. Norris's 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 Austen's novels belong.—From "Life of Jane Austen," in
"Great Writers," 1890.
JANE AUSTEN needs no testimonials; her position is at this moment established
on a firmer basis than that of any of her contemporaries. She has completely
distanced Miss Edgeworth, Miss Ferrier, Fanny Burney, and Hannah More, writers
who eclipsed her modest reputation in her own day. The readers of "Evelina,"
"Ormond," "Marriage," or "Caelebs" are few; but hundreds know intimately every
character and every scene in "Pride and Prejudice." She has survived Trollope
and Mrs. Gaskell: one may almost say that she is less out of date than Currer
Bell and George Eliot. It was not always so. In 1859 a writer in "Blackwood's
Magazine" spoke of her as "being still unfamiliar in men's mouths" and "not even
now a household word."
The reason for this comparative obscurity in her own time, compared with her
fame at the present day, may in some measure be that in writing, as in other
arts, finish is now more highly prized than formerly. But conception as well as
finish is in it. The miracle in Jane Austen's writing is not only that her
presentment of each character is complete and consistent, but also that every
fact and particular situation is viewed in comprehensive proportion and relation
to the rest. Some facts and expressions which pass almost unnoticed by the
reader, and quite unnoticed by the other actors in the story, turn up later to
take their proper place. She never drops a stitch. The reason is not so much
that she took infinite trouble, though no doubt she did, as that everything was
actual to her, as in his larger historical manner everything was actual to
It is easier to feel than to estimate a genius which has no parallel. Jane
Austen's faults are obvious. She has no remarkable distinction of style. Her
plots, though worked out with microscopic delicacy, are neither original nor
striking; incident is almost absent; she repeats situations, and to some extent
even characters. She cared for story and situation only as they threw light on
character. She has little idealism, little romance, tenderness. Poetry, or
religion. All this may be conceded, and yet she stands by the side of Moliere,
unsurpassed among writers of prose and poetry, within the limits which she
imposed on herself, for clear and sympathetic vision of human character.
She sees everything in clear outline and perspective. She does not care to
analyze by logic what she knows by intuition; she does not search out the
grounds of motive like George Eliot, nor illumine them like Meredith by
search-light flashes of insight, nor like Hardy display them by irony sardonic
or pitying, nor like Henry James thread a labyrinth of indications and
intimations, repulsions and attractions right and left, all pointing to the
central temple, where sits the problem. She has no need to construct her
characters, for there they are before her, like Mozart's music, only waiting to
be written down.—From "Jane Austen" in "English Men of Letters."