Jane Austen’s world is as merry as it is good. All the novels are perfect comedies—mirthful throughout and happy in outcome. Despite their brightness and lightness, these novels are in no way trivial—they are simply not concerned with those terrific follies presented to the scourge of public laughter in classical comic drama…
Since this lecture is a labor of love, I shall not scruple to enhance its legitimacy by adducing documentary proof that there exists an old tradition of offering transatlantic tributes to Jane Austen. In 1852, a female member of the distinguished Quincy family of Boston wrote as follows to one of Jane Austen’s naval brothers, Sir Francis Austen:
Since high critical authority has pronounced the delineations of character in the works of Jane Austen second only to those of Shakespeare, transatlantic admiration appears superfluous; yet it may not be uninteresting to her family to receive an assurance that the influence of her genius is extensively recognized in the American Republic, even by the highest judicial authorities. The late Chief Justice Marshall of the Supreme Court of the United States, and his associate Mr. Justice Story, highly estimated and admired Miss Austen, and to them we owe our introduction to her society.
Jane Austen would have loved this manifesto, and she would have declaimed it joyfully to her family. I am much afraid she would have done the same to this lecture.
The American letter is taken From the Memoir of Jane Austen, which was written in old age by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh. Since he had actually known his aunt as a boy, his memoir is the leading account of her life, while its main source is the collection of letters she herself wrote to members of the family, particularly to her sister Cassandra. Cassandra Austen was the only person to whom Jane revealed the plots of her novels before publication, at least until late in her life, when her favorite niece Fanny Knight was inducted into that merry conspiracy. These writings and others have been woven into a tactful, perceptive and, therefore, profitable biography by Elizabeth Jenkins. Beyond that, the study of Jane Austen’s life is a pleasantly interminable but superfluous labor, because so much and yet so little is known.
This is what we do know: that she admitted no torments of the soul, was not afflicted with epileptic seizures, extruded no devils, committed not sins of the flesh, and undertook no expiations of the spirit (I mention these negative occurrences because they appear to have been of importance in the lives of other novelists). Instead, she confesses in a letter of Monday night, December 24, 1798, that “there were twenty dances and I danced them all.” On Wednesday, May 6, 1801, she writes:
Mrs. Mussell has got my gown, and I will endeavor to explain what her intentions are. It is to be a round gown, with a jacket and a frock front, like Cath. Bigg’s, to open at the side. The jacket is all in one body and comes as far as the pocket holes….
This description continues, too expertly for my comprehension, over a page.
The family griefs, on the other hand, are not dwelled on so extensively in her letters—they are to be borne with an effort to be “tranquil and resigned.” Nor does her novel-writing add much external incident to her life. She appeared on the title page of her novels merely as “a Lady” and preserved her anonymity as long as the proud London brother, who acted as her agent, would permit it. Not that she considered her writing a mere avocation—she repeatedly referred to a novel in progress as her child, her “darling child.” She simply shunned publicity, preferring with wicked glee to collect the candid reviews aired by unsuspecting neighbors. She steadfastly abstained from entering the literary circles of London and even refused an invitation to meet Madame de Stael. In the portentous sense of the word, she had no “Life.”
This view agrees with the judgment made by her nephew in a postscript to his Memoir. He says:
The grave closed over my aunt fifty-two years ago; and during that long period no idea of writing her life had been entertained by any of her family. Her nearest relations, far from making provisions for such a purpose, had actually destroyed many of the letters and papers by which it might have been facilitated. They were influenced, I believe, partly by an extreme dislike to publishing private details, and partly by never having assumed that the world would take so strong and abiding an interest in her works as to claim her name as public property. It was therefore necessary for me to draw upon recollections rather than on written documents for my materials; while the subject itself supplied me with nothing striking or prominent with which to arrest the attention of the reader. It has been said that the happiest individuals, like nations during the happiest period, have no history. In the case of my aunt, it was not only that the course of her life was unvaried, but that her own disposition was remarkably calm and even. There was in her nothing eccentric or angular; no ruggedness of temper; no singularity of manner; none of the marked sensibility or exaggeration of feeling, which not infrequently accompanies great talents, to be worked up into a picture. Hers was a mind well-balanced on a basis of good sense, sweetened by an affectionate heart, and regulated by fixed principles; so that she was to be distinguished from many other amiable and sensible women only by that peculiar genius which shines out clearly enough in her works, but of which a biographer can make little use.
A deeply gratifying item in this summary is the news of the destruction by Cassandra Austen, the person always closest to Jane Austen, of all that part of the correspondence which we might term “really interesting” and to which we would claim access in the interests of historical research and the public’s right to know. By destroying, without asking anyone’s leave or advice, all the letters to herself touching intimate matters, Cassandra Austen has drawn a noble and fitting moat of silence about her sister’s life, incidentally teaching her readers also to make a proper distinction between their writer’s private affairs and her intentionally public works.
That distinction is particularly called for by Jane Austen’s own private delicacy and literary discretion. She would, of course, never have had so unfeelingly profiteering a heart as to write a sister’s suicide (had such a thing occurred) into a novel—a thing done by a German novelist of this century—for she did not even use innocuous incidents in an unaltered form. The only clearly identifiable actual occurrence I know of is the present of an amber cross which midshipman William Price makes to his sister Fanny in Mansfield Park. Jane Austen’s own young naval brother, Lieutenant Charles, had once generously laid out part of some prize-money in a topaz cross for each sister, and he had even added a gold chain, which extravagance William cannot match—a circumstance important to the story.
So much the more are the important incidents of her life either subverted or muted or transmuted. It is known that she was once engaged over-night to a very respectable gentleman and that she broke off the engagement after a brief agony. No such occasion occurs in the novels. It is known that she herself was devout, but references to faith in her works are rare and measured. And finally, it is known, from a brief break in Cassandra Austen’s reserve, occasioned by the sudden death of a young man who had reawakened the episode for her, that there had once been a suitor whom Jane Austen would have accepted had he not suddenly died. But in exactly what way such a loss might make itself felt in the novels is a matter on which it is as futile to present public conjectures as it is natural to entertain private certainties.
Without denying for a moment that her views and her situation inform her novels most felicitously, I conclude that they contain nothing strictly “autobiographical.” I, therefore, pass on to the works themselves.
Jane Austen wrote a perfect number of perfect novels. In the probable order of her last attention to them these six are: Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion. Their perfection, which I shall treat as given, presents at once an invitation and a difficulty. Devoted novel readers know that their attention is ever divided between the tale and their delight in its telling. And so, while reading, I find myself continually forming the question: Just what is so wonderful here? What is the essence of this perfection? But here arises the difficulty: It appears to be the nature of perfect works that they have no crevices by which to force an entry. Ordinarily, in dealing with an ostensibly truth-telling text, we bustle into it, we expound, expose, penetrate to something carefully secreted, decently hidden, unintended, or false. I wonder whether such burrowing is ever quite in harmony with the author’s hopes, except perhaps in the case of the Platonic dialogues. At any rate, confronted with these novels and ashamed to force unseemly entries, I am driven to the thought that their kind of perfection is impenetrable and has no obscure depth; that it presents a smooth, continuous plane, which is not a surface because it has no bidden center. These works repel the interpretative assault, whether it is attempted through a long siege of cyclical reading or in a straight dash through the six. And yet there is no escaping the insistent desire to lay hold of the essence of those novels, a desire which is really the wish to capture and fix their pleasure by an adequate reflection on its cause. But since a penetration of the novels seems to be a doomed undertaking—their essence apparently being that they have none—I thought I might satisfy myself by attempting merely to articulate and itemize the various perfections and felicities which make the novels what they are.
Before I begin this attempt, I would like to present two negative results. Perfection is sometimes said to consist in a certain complete rightness for the purpose, in a totally unaccidental and unique appropriateness.
Now the names in Jane Austen’s novels are frequently felt to be perfect, but Jane Austen often found them by accident and never simply invented them. Wickham and Willoughby, for instance, the two wicked-sounding villains of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, and the hard little Lucy Steele are named from tombstones and a marriage announcement that happened to have come to the author’s notice. She never permits herself an explicit “speaking name,” such as the “Lydia Languish” or “Mrs. Malaprop” of Sheridan’s Rivals (a popular play in the Austen household). At most there are place-names like “Merytown,” where the gay red-coats are quartered in Pride and Prejudice, and “Donwell Abbey” as well as “Hartfield” in Emma. The latter is a true punning name (the only one of which I know in all the novels), for Emma says of her home that
there does seem to be something in the air of Hartfield which gives love exactly the right direction…
Furthermore, practically all the names of her heroines—Emma, Fanny, Catherine—already occur in her early works attached to quite different characters. So also do her male surnames, while the first names are often indiscriminately borrowed from her brothers—Edmund, Henry, James, Charles. Therefore, whatever it may be that makes her names so right, it is not that they are uniquely appropriate, but rather the same thing that makes our own names so rightly ours.
My second negative conclusion is that the understanding of what is perfect as that which could not be otherwise cannot apply. My evidence is the case of the last chapter of Jane Austen’s last book, Persuasion. She had gone to bed one night dissatisfied to the point of depression with the climactic tenth chapter. On the next day, she found herself able to write anew the crucial scene in which Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot finally resume their long-interrupted intimacy. The canceled chapter was preserved and is reprinted in the Memoir. Retrospectively, nothing is more obvious than the superiority of her second resolution. Captain Wentworth now approaches Anne not as the result of a gratuitous intervention on the part of a really nice man, but because he has overheard a conversation between Anne and a brother officer on the very question of the book—whether in constancy and the ability to sustain long-lived love, women in fact excel men. Furthermore, Anne now undergoes the “revolution” in her condition not in comfortable privacy but under the intensifying restraint of a hotel room swarming with friends. Yet I must reckon with the likelihood that, had I known only the first version, I would have thought it all it ought to be. I must conclude that it is not part of the perfection of Jane Austen’s writing that it could not be otherwise, but only that we can think of no way to improve it, just as are the arrangements of nature beyond our own invention.
Let me, then, go on to the enumeration of her perfections. It will include some items concerned with her matter and others with her form, and cutting across this distinction, some items dealing with what she is given and others with what she herself makes.
It is, of course, this very harmonious fitting of setting and talent, matter and form, which distinguishes her novels. The felicity of the fit is displayed in the irrelevance to Jane Austen of the romantic pair “conventional-unconventional”—neither are in the least appropriate to her accepting detachment from society.
Surely here, if anywhere, is repeated the case of Themistocles as told in the Republic: He was abused by a nobody from Seriphus, who claimed that Themistocles had become illustrious not thanks to himself but to his city; Themistocles replied that, had he been from Seriphus, he would indeed have failed to make a name for himself and had his critic been from Athens he would have remained equally obscure. So also with Jane Austen and her setting, the English countryside. But this story and its application point to a great puzzle which I have not come near enough to resolving in the observations that follow: How is it that a result which requires so happy a concourse of circumstances should yet appear as a standard of excellence?
The first of my articulable felicities is the circumstance that there is one and only one outcome for all the novels: marriage. Not that courtship and marriage are the theme of the novels; properly speaking, they do not have “themes,” since they are not about notions but about people, albeit people with characters. Of the three novels whose titles might appear to show otherwise, one, Pride and Prejudice, was an irresistible phrase borrowed from Jane Austen’s predecessor, Fanny Burney; the second, Sense and Sensibility, was originally named after the heroines, “Elinor and Marianne,” and Persuasion was named posthumously by her brother.
What I mean is rather that each novel, in fact, ends in one, two, or three marriages, not to speak of the under-heroines’ alliances which occur on the way, or those catastrophic counterparts of legitimate unions, forced marriages after the elopement.
This singleness of story is a source of perfection first because it excludes all exotic scents or violent action. Instead, it fixes our interest on the course, in all its subtle possibilities, of a small but essential part of human affairs—on the settling of a woman for life. It stands to reason that the perfection of subtlety requires a standard plot concerning an unspectacular but crucial human event.
A second happy aspect of this choice of matter is that under Jane Austen’s management, it causes every novel to end happily. For example, here is the ending of Emma; Mrs. Elton, an ill-disposed commentator, begins:
‘Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business! . . .’—But in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidences, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.
Jane Austen never, except in fun, entertained the romantic notion that the pleasure of the reader or the gravity of the novel could be increased by providing a spuriously disastrous conclusion, such as Charlotte Brontë gave her novel Villette. That otherwise wonderful work ends with a doom-laden paragraph strongly suggesting that Lucy Snowe’s husband-to-be is lost at sea, leaving her with the chilly consolation of a going girls’ school. Jane Austen, on the other hand, knows what the angels know—that happiness is more worthy of note than unhappiness. And since she has it in her novelist’s power to make a second world, she chooses, with golden rationality, to make it a happy world, and, with sparkling invention, an absorbing one. Of course, she presupposes a sensible reader—I mean one who knows enough of happiness to prefer it to other states.
But there is also a more strictly novelistic, I hesitate to say, compositional, reason for her choice of this one universal ending.
All the novels are essentially about young women. The youngest heroine, Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, comes on the scene when she is ten, though she does not stay ten for long, since, as Jane Austen observed in a letter, “One does not care for girls till they are grown up.” The oldest is Anne Elliot of Persuasion, who passes from a faded twenty-seven to a blooming, engaged twenty-eight in the course of the novel. Except for Emma, whose whole behavior marks her as having no sibling, all the women bear themselves very much as sisters—their characters are formed by and displayed in sisterly affection. These young women develop an attachment to a man; it is reciprocated. Internal and external difficulties intervene; there is demonstrative or silent suffering fully reported, the former with somewhat checked sympathy, the latter with warm admiration. (It should be noted here that this authoress never pretends to describe the inner life of the men as she does that of her women.) Then, shortly before the close of the story, the young woman briefly vanishes, usually into the spacious seclusion of a shrubbery or a promenade. For crucial declarations are made and received in privacy, and though the woman’s response is shaped by her breeding, it is not a part of social intercourse. Her answer is therefore at most reported indirectly, as in Emma:
What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does—she said enough to show there need not be despair—and to invite him to say more himself.
Consequently, in an opus entirely about the coming together of women with men, no one ever quite enunciates the words “I love you.”
The engagement is announced, loose ends are tied up, the union is brought about, and with a prognostication of their future happiness, explicitly including the continuation of the sisterly bond, the heroines are finally dismissed from view.
This pattern follows from the facts of life, as well as from the demands of fiction. The getting or foregoing of a husband is the great hazard in a woman’s life, the greatest occasion for an exercise of sensibility and an exertion of sense. The early twenties, the very period in life, according to Jane Austen, “for the strongest attachments to be formed,” therefore contain the moment when she is most alive—when she most has the principle of motion within herself.
That is by no means to say that life is over when the era of courtship ends—a very unlikely view for an unmarried woman who regarded the single woman’s “dreadful propensity for being poor” as among the strongest arguments for matrimony, and who allows her Emma this rejoinder to a young friend who exclaims:
`you will be an old maid, and that’s so dreadful!’
`Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid, and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public!’
On the contrary, the busy tranquility and solid comfort which constitute continuous happiness begin exactly when a woman is settled, one way or another, for life, There are in the novels numerous satisfying descriptions of sedate marital existences and comfortably confirmed spinsterhoods. Later life has lost just one property, which is clearly described in a letter farm Austen wrote to Fanny Knight:
Ah! what a loss it will be when you are married. You are too agreeable in your single state, too agreeable as a Neice. I shall hate you when your delicious play of mind is all settled down into conjugal and maternal affections.
What is lost is the inner motion of the girl. “Marriage is a great improver,” Jane Austen drily liveliness observes in a letter, because it fixes the feelings and makes fast the character. (The confirmation of her view is to be found in the fifty pages which constitute the “peace” part of War and Peace, in the dowdy bliss of the miraculous “First Epilogue.”)
Now a person whose inner motion has been damped, who displays a settled mind and steady sentiments, is a comic character, in the six novels, and in life. The young heroines are sometimes themselves witty, and often provoke an affectionate smile, but they are not comic, while all the old married couples and spinsters are, for all their virtues, or even because of them, comic—I mean, comical. What makes them so is that they are quite literally, “creatures of habit.” For their nature is not so much a spring of fresh life as a source of self-reproduction. (A view of the comic as a “mechanical inelasticity” and “fundamental absentmindedness” of the living soul, which almost fits the case, is to be found in Henri Bergson’s essay “Laughter.”) They (I could say “we”) seem to mimic their own settled selves; all their activity has turned into “behavior,” a kind of deliciously petrified self-expression. They have practiced being themselves so long that it comes by habit. They live through a recognizable ritual which feeds the human delight in identifying images. By so escaping their own notice such beings particularly invite fascinated observation; their well-bred absurdities embellish the world like elegant arabesques.
A prime example of this mode of being is found in the most happily married of all the married couples, Admiral and Mrs. Croft in Persuasion. They are out driving their gig, comfortably conversing the while, and such is the old sailor’s handling of the craft that Mrs. Croft has to intervene:
‘My dear admiral, that post!—we shall certainly take that post!’
But by coolly giving the reins a better direction herself, they happily passed the danger; and by once afterwards judiciously putting out her hand, they neither fell into a rut, nor ran foul of a dung-cart; and Anne, with some amusement at their style of driving, which she imagined no bad representation of the general guidance of their affairs, found herself safely deposited by them at the cottage.
The happy consequence, then, of the arrangement by which the heroines pass out of view with marriage, is that each novel has a foreground of liveliness against a background of life; each novel contains two perfectly perspicuous kinds of imitation, one of living character and the other of completed “characters.” However, it should be noted that these “characters” too have a dignity, which derives from the intimations we are given that their lives have roots and ramifications not properly included in a novel.
Nothing can be clearer than this: The novels are themselves imitations of life and contain imitations of human beings, especially of human beings in society, conversing. No symbols, metaphors, patterns, or levels of abstraction are to be found in them nor do the figures in them “exist only within the context of the work.” Certainly, there are revelations, correspondences, significances. But nothing is ever there for mere form’s sake or to suggest or stand for something else—which is why the novels so repel literary criticism.
The evidence for the latter claim, that the novels contain near-animate humans, is in the after-life her creatures were allowed to lead. Her family knew things about her people which were not in the books, and this shows that their lives extended beyond their published stories. They knew that the “considerable sum” given by the horrible Mrs. Norris to William Price was all of one pound, that Kitty Bennet married a clergyman near Pembedy, and that the inconvenient Mr. Woodhouse died two years after Emma’s marriage. In a letter to her sister, Jane Austen pretends that she saw a portrait of Mrs. Bingley, the Former Jane Bennet, at a London exhibition of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ paintings, and that Mr. Darcy would not let his wife Elizabeth’s likeness be exposed to the public eye.
The Pygmalion-like fondness she has for her own girls again shows how near alive they are: Her sudden reference to “My Fanny” in the last chapter of Mansfield Park, her fear that no one will like Emma but herself, her appreciation of Elizabeth Bennet, of whom she writes in a letter that
I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least I do not know.
That the novels are indeed intended to be accurate imitations of English life is shown by Jane Austen’s meticulous correctness concerning details. For example, she writes to her sister about a passage in Mansfield Park:
I have learned from Sir J. Carr that there is no Government House at Gibraltar. I must alter it to the Commissioner’s.
What is apparently the only real error of fact in her works was caught by her farming brother who writes:
I should like to know, Jane, where you get those apple trees of yours to blossom in July?
And her careful criticisms of her writing nieces’ early attempts almost always turn about matters of accuracy, probability, and consistency. So she writes:
A woman, going with two girls just growing up, into a Neighborhood where she knows nobody but one Man, of not very good character, is an awkwardness which so prudent a woman as Mrs. F. would not be likely to fall into. Remember, she is very prudent; you must not let her act inconsistently.
and I have scratched out Sir Tho: from walking with the other Men to the Stables, etc. the very day after his breaking his arm—for though I find that your papa did walk out immediately after his arm was set, I think it can be so little usual as to appear unnatural in a book.
In this requirement of “nature and probability” she exactly catches Aristotle’s distinction between history and poetry—the former tells what did and the latter what might believably happen.
While the young women are very much her creatures—because they are both most her own inventions and yet most their own women—her older characters are much more apt to be imitations of types living about her. It is a wonder that this extraordinary woman could observe, without interfering in the least, the settled idiosyncrasies of her very ordinary neighbours. But, in fact, many of her own epistolary accounts of local society could go straight into a novel, as for example this passage:
Poor Mrs. Stent: It has been her lot to be always in the way; but we must be merciful, for perhaps in time we may come to be Mrs. Stents ourselves, unequal to anything and unwelcome to everybody.
Or this description of a difficult brother’s visit:
I am sorry and angry that his visits should not give more pleasure; the company of so good and so clever a Man ought to be gratifying in itself; but his chat seems all forced, his Opinions on many points too much copied from his wife’s and his time here is spent I think in walking about the House and banging the doors, or ringing the bell for a glass of water.
What she does for the comic characters she finds about her is to accord them the saving grace of a merciful screening, by means of which she filters out the infuriating aspects of those incessant performances, like continual door-banging and ineffectual fussing, to which creatures of habit are given. So is an irritating fact transformed into delicious fiction, and the lovableness of fully fixed humankind acknowledged.
A luxurious license of selection, or rather of exclusion, is in fact close to the essence of Jane Austen’s imitative art. Let me give a survey of the omissions which define her copy of the world.
First, the large universe and its embroilments are not allowed to intrude into it. There is no place in her world for foreign parts or big cities, although her information was by no means parochial. Italy and France are only mentioned as the romantic setting for the gothic novels she loved to caricature; Ireland is a comic place of exile, London a way station for elopement, Politics is utterly absent although the Austen household was by no means isolated—no one talks politics in the novels, partly because merely male conversation is rare. The only reference to a burning issue occurs in the following preposterous form in Emma. In warding off the officious exertions Mrs. Elton insists on making through her connection, Mr. Suckling, Jane Fairfax, who finds herself obliged to seek a position as a governess, says:
‘There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something. Offices for sale—not quite of human flesh—but of human intellect!’
‘Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave trade; I assure you, Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition!’
Nor is there any mention of the French Revolution, although a close relation had lost her husband in the Terror; nor of the Napoleonic Wars, although she had brothers who were line officers in the British navy; nor of the War of 1812, although she reports in her letters this grimly intelligent assessment of that conflict by one of her brothers:
His view, and the view of those he mixes with, of Politics, is not chearful—with regard to the American war I mean; We are to make them good sailors and soldiers and gain nothing ourselves.
Music and poetry, on the other hand, both of which she both appreciated and herself plied, do play a role in the novels, albeit a most peculiar one, because displays of art appreciation are always slightly funny and references in works of art to works of art slightly doubtful. Jane Austen had her reservations about the cultivation or display of fine sensibilities. So music is celebrated chiefly in the social function of masking conversation. In Sense and Sensibility, embarrassing confidences are imparted to Elinor by Lucy Steele, while Marianne was giving them the powerful protection of a very magnificent concerto.
And poetry in large doses is regarded as mildly deplorable—it is slyly said of Captain Benwick, a romantic young man in Persuasion, who grieves for his dead bride with more sensibility than constancy, that
He was evidently a young man of considerable taste in reading, though principally poetry….
so that Anne ventured
to hope that he does not always read only poetry; and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely…
Nor do the novels contain anything but mock descriptions of history, criticism or morality. She exuberantly wrote to her sister of Pride and Prejudice:
The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story; an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or a history of Buonaparté, or anything that would form a contrast and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and epigrammatism of the general style. I doubt your quite agreeing with me here. I know your starched notions.
And it goes without saying that the novels are devoid of any reference to philosophy; it is among Jane Austen’s perfections that she foists no inquiries into being on her characters—a ridiculous task for images to undertake, except in rare cases.
She herself explained these omissions in her novels on an occasion which clearly caused her unholy joy. The Regent, an admirer of her novels, had asked his librarian, the Reverend J.S. Clarke, to invite her to inspect his library. A correspondence ensued. Mr. Clarke had suggested that she should write a novel about an English clergyman, including a disquisition on the benefits of taking away tithes (of which he himself was ardently persuaded), and a description of the clergyman having to bury his own mother because the High Priest of the parish failed to pay her remains the proper respect (which had been his very experience). Miss Austen’s response was the hilarious “Plan of a Novel, according to hints from various quarters,” in which the heroine’s father is indeed involved.
in many interesting situations, concluding with his opinion of the Benefits to result from Tythes being done away, and his having buried his own mother. . .etc.
This plan was a wicked performance which she kept to herself. Instead, she wrote the man a very forbearing letter declining the charge laid on her with the following explanation:
The comic part of the character I might be equal to, but not the good, the enthusiastic, the literary. Such a man’s conversation must at times be on subjects of science and philosophy, of which I know nothing; or at least be occasionally abundant in quotations and allusions which a woman, who like me, knows only her mother tongue, and has read very little in that, would be totally without power of giving. A classical education or at any rate, a very extensive acquaintance with English literature, ancient and modern, appears to me quite indispensable for the person who would do justice to your clergyman. And I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned female who ever dared to be an authoress.
Now, this is very much exaggerated—she read French and Italian and had read extensively in English. But it shows her scrupulous demand for the verity which comes from first-hand knowledge. The very criticism of the poets which Socrates makes in the Ion, that they never, beyond hearsay, really know whereof they sing, is emphatically refuted in her novels—she knew her world; she had constructed it in accordance with her limitations and aversions. This is the exclusionary aspect of her scale.
But as she omits what is alien, so she elects what is close, and with relish. In a letter to one of her young writing nephews, she refers to two mysteriously missing chapters of the novel he is currently composing and defends herself against any suspicion of having purloined them:
What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow. How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labor.
This bit of banter shows how deliberate her choice of scale is; a letter to a writing niece shows how happy she is in that confinement:
You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life. 3 or 4 families in a country village is the very thing to work on.
A thoroughly known, small closed setting is the source of delight.
Now, this small world is a distillation of her own surroundings, the countryside and its families, “nature” and human beings.
Jane Austen loved landscapes; a lovely landscape she thought was like a paradise. But in her novels, landscapes make very peculiar paradises. One of the Austen family’s favorite poets was Cowper, from whose poem “The Sofa” came these applicable lines:
God made the country, and man made the town.
In the novels, God’s work is carried through by gentlemen who own and improve estates. For all her landscapes are prospects of improved estates. For instance, in Emma, the sight of Mr. Knightley’s Donwell Abbey and his tenant farmer’s Abbey Mill, both well-managed places, makes her exclaim:
It was a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort…
Neither are her vistas the enchanted idyllic pastorals of, say, Tom Jones (incidentally, a favorite with the Austens), nor does she endow unimproved mere nature with sentiment. So Elinor squelches Marianne’s laments about having no one with whom to share her autumnal transports by the brisk observation that
It is not every one . . . who has your passion for dead leaves.
On only three occasions, I believe, is English verdure replaced by English water: at the sea resort of Lyme Regis in Persuasion, at Sanditon spa, the setting of her last unfinished novel, and in the Portsmouth scene of Mansfield Park. I have often wondered what might be the continual source of the exhilaration in this last setting, which is as sordid as anything in the novels can be, with its stifling sickly town sun serving only to bring out the stains left on the wall by Mr. Price’s head. When Fanny Price arrives to visit her own family after an absence of a decade, the house is in more than its usual disorder; no one attends to her, everyone is hallooing the news that her brother’s ship “the Thrush has gone out of harbour,” until she nearly faints. But in compensation there is a description of the harbour to make the heart, especially a sailing heart, leap:
The day was uncommonly lovely. It was really March; but it was April in its mild air, brisk soft wind, and bright sun, occasionally clouded for a minute; and everything looked so beautiful under the influence of such a sky, the effects of the shadows pursuing each other, on the ships at Spithead and the island beyond, with the ever-varying hues of the sea now at high water, dancing in its glee and dashing against the ramparts with so fine a sound, produced altogether such a combination of charms for Fanny, as made her gradually almost careless of the circumstances under which she felt them.
But I think the real reason for the acute charm of Portsmouth is Mansfield Park itself. There is significance in the fact that Mansfield Park is the only novel Jane Austen herself named after a place. Behind the indoor squalor and the naval beauty of Portsmouth, there is the secure tranquility of Fanny’s real and longed-for home, the park, at whose still, almost torpid, center sits Lady Bertram on her sofa, a sort of serene English version of Oblomov, the Russian hero who never leaves his couch. The exhilaration of Fanny’s temporary place of exile, is, like most contented excitement, grounded in the ever-present recollection of a well-ordered home.
This very gleeful sobriety by which a lovely landscape appears simultaneously as a profitable property is to me the most delicious of Jane Austen’s felicities. The scandalous fact of the matter is that a number of heroines first see their future husbands in the light of eligibility while viewing their estates. It is true of Emma, of Fanny, of Catherine, and, most candidly, of Elizabeth, whose pride and prejudice against Darcy are shaken by her visit to his estate:
She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or whose natural beauty had been so little counter-acted by an awkward taste…at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberly might be something.
And she playfully asserts to her sister that her love for Darcy dates from her first seeing his beautiful grounds.
This perfect identity of romance and real estate, this unembarrassed transition from sentiment to sober assessment which the young women are permitted to display in the novels, as any sensible young women would in life, is the essence of what causes content in them: the perfect coincidence of sense and sensibility.
In the same spirit, money plays a great role. Jane Austen’s fervent conviction, expressed to her favorite niece Fanny who repeatedly consulted her modest and understanding aunt on marital questions, was that:
Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection.
Nonetheless, the presence of money determines the possibility and confirms the rightness of a projected marriage; a decent competence is its minimal requirement, while a good fortune is very desirable. What everyone “has” is the frequent object of notice and speculation—whether it is an insufficient pittance of 350 pounds, such as neither Edmund nor Elinor are “quite enough in love” to think “would supply them with the comforts of life,” or a fine fortune of 30,000 pounds yielding 2,500 a year, Jane Austen displays the same sobriety in life when she writes about her books:
People are more ready to borrow and praise than to buy—which I cannot wonder at; but tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls pewter too.
Giddy and showy people may care about carriages, as does silly Mrs. Elton who manages to introduce into one short conversation four references to the barouche-landau (the Cadillac of carriages) owned by her relations. But solid, trustworthy people, in the novels as in life, require a sufficiency of money, and the ending of no novel leaves me so comfortable as the cool conclusion of Mansfield Park:
With so much true merit and true love, and no want of fortune or friends, the happiness of the cousins must appear as secure as earthly happiness can be.—Equally formed for domestic life and attached to country pleasures, their home was the home of affection and comfort; and to complete the picture of good, the acquisition of Mansfield living by the death of Mr. Grant, occurred just after they had been married long enough to begin to want an increase of income….
The comedy of the novels is well complemented by a practicality which admits that the death of an unloved character may serve to complete “the picture of good.”
From her external world let me pass to the moral world she imitates, the world to whose conduct and virtue, manners and morals, she and her sister and her family and her neighbourhood were bred. We must be grateful to it for being a dignified and shapely world, whose favorite epithets convey a sense of clarity concerning what is worthy and unworthy—a world in which the words “comfort” and “consequence” and “connections,” in all their sedate rationality, have a clear reference; where a well-considered outing is termed an “eligible scheme”; where considerate people act “upon a system”; a quiet evening spent in talk is “conversible”; and “the rational pleasures of an elegant society” are highly valued. Although the novels are devoid of even the slightest didactic taint, they do teach—if nothing else the shape and ways of one integral world.
To keep this world plausible she exercises her most admirable restraints. She admits nothing very vicious and nothing very violent, for most novel-reader’s lives are not directly determined by such things, whatever hyperbolic spirits may claim. Her unpublished and unfinished works are, to be sure, significantly more pungent than those she released. Her very early sketches contain burlesque murders, the heroine of a short later novel which she withheld from publication, Lady Susan, is unprincipled, hypocritical, scheming, crude, and cruel, and the fragmentary novel The Watsons may have remained so precisely because it promised to become too sordid. But her published works deal only with domesticated vices and with venial sins whose punishment is simply exile from her world—witness the beginning of the last chapter in Mansfield Park:
Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly at fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, arid to have done with the rest.
Nonetheless, within her scope, there is clear wrong as well as right, and a diction to match—lucidly determined in condemning and sweetly reasonable in condoning. And since it is the most universal and necessary of social activities to pass judgement on others, while she thinks too much of her characters not to judge their actions as she would her own, they are all disapproved or approved. She never withholds judgement from her own creatures since she knows firmly what romantic ironists later obscured: that in fiction vices not condemned are celebrated. But it should be said that she always assigns to her people some saving graces, and, more importantly, some saving flaws—for she writes to her niece:
pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked.
Now the chief flaws of manner, disposition and principle which she admits are reserve (that is, a mean lack of openness), ill-breeding, love of change and restlessness (said to be the consequence of vanity and extravagance) and its attendant irregularity of life, unfeeling cold-heartedness, inconsiderateness, indelicacy and finally, irrationality.
The virtues are, of course, everything opposite. For them, there is a vocabulary of excellence which wins at least my deepest accord. It contains terms like integrity and candour (meaning a well-disposed receptivity) and clusters like “goodnatured, useful, considerate, or benevolent.” It expects that a woman knows how to govern her feelings and be “acquainted with herself” (that is, that she have self-control and self-knowledge), and first and last, that she be “rational;” that is, in accord with her principles. In sum, it requires her to be at once amiable and well-principled, terms which in conjunction curiously well describe the womanly English equivalent of the Creek kalos kagathos, the generous and upright man.
“Amiable,” which is in Emma contrasted with French “aimable,” agreeable, is defined there as an “English delicacy towards the feelings of other people,” uncondescending graciousness. As for principles, “active principles”—these are the common maxims of moral action, and not in want of articulation, certainly not in a novel, which is no place for an inquiry into virtue, There are moments, as in the following passage from Mansfield Park, when Jane Austen comes close to enunciating them, only to glide away after all:
Henry Crawford had too much sense not to feel the worth of good principles in a wife, though he was too little accustomed to serious reflection to know them by their proper name, but when he talked of her as having such a steadiness and regularity of conduct, such a high notion of honor, and such an observance of decorum as might warrant any man in the fullest dependence on her faith and integrity, he expressed what was inspired by the knowledge of her being well-principled and religious.
The ladies and gentlemen of her novels do not reflect on principles within them, and neither does she.
Nonetheless, although unarticulated, they are the basis of all active excellence. Those who are good by mere disposition or habit are slightly comical, like the kind-hearted, fluttery Miss Bates, or the ever-cheerful, arthritic Mrs. Smith, whose “disposition to be comforted” is termed “the choicest gift of Heaven” with the same slight irony that a similar phrase always has in Socrates’ mouth. Such a disposition is quite distinct from that principled resignation in the face of unavoidable sorrows which gives her young women such dignity.
The acquisition of good principles requires both the faculty Jane Austen calls “understanding” and “instruction:
Nature gave you understanding:—Miss Taylor gave you principles.
Mr. Knightly says in praise of Emma.
The question whether people are good by nature or by nurture is raised in Mansfield Park. Fanny has silently determined that Mary Crawford’s transgressions are a consequence of what she is; Edmund, who thinks he is in love with her, considers that her faults, which are
faults of principle,…of blunted delicacy and a corrupted, vitiated mind,
are the consequence of ignorance resulting from a perverse upbringing. But I think Jane Austen finally sides with Fanny. The indelicacy or moral obtuseness which permits Mary Crawford to scorn the profession of a clergyman, to wish a young man about to be ordained to play opposite her in a Kotzebue comedy called “Lover’s Vows,” and to expect him to gloss over his sister’s adultery comes from a coarse nature. Jane Austen once refers to the projected Mansfield Park as a novel about ordination, a curious description until one recalls that Edmund’s ordination is indeed the touchstone of the two women’s nature and understanding.
It is, therefore, clear that Jane Austen is completely in accord with Socrates in thinking that virtue is knowledge, and that to know the good is to do it. Understanding is the sole condition of moral excellence, while ignorance of the real wrong that is being done accompanies all transgressions. At least it is so for the women—men are sometimes weak enough to possess a mere “moral taste,” a connoisseur’s knowledge of virtue, without efficacy. Indeed, it is the women’s moral world which is the testing ground and even the corrective of the men’s virtues—within it the loftiest pride is taught to smile and the most active valour to admit an equal.
Again, try as one will, there is nothing ominous or subversive to be found lurking within this lucid moral world in which people may indeed do dreadful, but never dubious deeds. (In fact, it seems to me plain naughty to go looking for such dark spots.) But there is something behind this world which supports it without ever making an explicit appearance. There is a perfectly plain, unflinching, ungenteel knowledge of the facts of life: The letters speak bluntly of the aspect of corpses, baldly of the wear and tear of child-bearing, coolly of gentlemen taking mistresses, ribaldly of obvious cures for fertility. And on the other hand, there is settled orthodoxy, steady devoutness, and the fear of death overcome. I am thinking of Jane Austen’s last letters, written when she was already an invalid in 1817, which show a serene faith, albeit still gilded by some of the old wickedness—the very last lines of her last surviving letter cast aspersions on the length of some acquaintances’ petticoats.
Jane Austen’s world is as merry as it is good. All the novels are perfect comedies—mirthful throughout and happy in outcome. Despite their brightness and lightness, these novels are in no way trivial—they are simply not concerned with those terrific follies presented to the scourge of public laughter in classical comic drama.
Her humour has none of the hell-bent strenuousness of Sterne’s (whose books she knew). He, it seems to me, tries to tickle his reader with a club, so that after a while it becomes hard even to arrange a grin, but she usually elicits what she calls for, be it smile, chuckle or loud laughter—on the seventh reading as on the first.
A pleasant way, and the least foolish, to approach this perfection of hers is simply to give samples of some of the fun she can think up.
Sometimes it is dignified nonsense, like the axiomatic beginning of Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
Sometimes it is a pert critique, like that of education, in Emma:
Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a school—not of a seminary, or an establishment, or anything which professed in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality upon new principles and new systems—where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity—but a real, honest, old-fashioned Boarding School, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way and scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies.
Sometimes it is an evanescently devastating stroke, like the observation made of that insufferable philistine Mr. Elton in the same novel:
He had caught both substance and shadow—both fortune and affection, and was just the happy man he ought to be…
Each novel also has its own pervasive humorous mode. The juvenile works of her middle teens are spirited and distinctly ungenteel burlesques, whose heroines introduce themselves by reporting that their “Mother was the natural Daughter of a Scotch peer by an Italian opera-girl”, and who perish from having performed too many fainting spells on the wet grass, or coolly begin letters as follows:
I murdered my father at a very early period of my life, I have since murdered my mother and I am now going to murder my sister.
The prevailing mode of her first published novel, on the other hand, is epigrammatic, chiefly because two of its people, Elizabeth Bennet and her father, are themselves witty. For instance, Elizabeth drily observes concerning the great commotion in the Collins household caused by a visit of their noble patroness:
And is that all? I expected at least that the pigs were got into the garden, and here it is nothing but Lady Catherine and her daughter.
Or she formulates this diagnostic test:
Is not general incivility the very essence of love?
I have often wondered why Mansfield Park makes me continually smile, although its two young people are so very good and are allowed to prose on and on about it. Edward only too truly observes of himself that:
You need not hurry when the object is only to prevent my saying a bon-mot, for there is not the least wit in my nature. I am a very matter-of-fact, plain spoken being, and may blunder on the borders of a repartee for half an hour together without striking it out.
A general silence ensued.
While Fanny, by way of spirit, at most manages a gentle line of poetry or an exclamation like:
The evergreen! How beautiful, how welcome, how wonderful the evergreen!’
Fanny is, as Edward says,
of all creatures the one over whom habit had most power…
But that is just it, the clue to the humour: The future Reverend and Mrs. Bertram are incipient comic figures; they are the elderly comic background of another novel in the making.
Emma, finally, is a comedy of errors: Emma is mistaken about Mr. Elton, Mr. Knightly, Harriet Smith, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, while Frank Churchill, Elton, Knightly, and Harriet Smith are mistaken about Emma; Mr. and Mrs. Weston are mistaken about Frank Churchill and Emma and Harriet Smith is mistaken about Mr. Knightly and Jane Fairfax, while Miss Bates and Mr. Woodhouse live in a gentle fog of general misapprehension.
The light and unstrained effect of all her humor has everything to do with its being not a laborious construction but an immediate way of seeing the world: she simply lets her people be. Her moving principle is not a detached ironical motor, but a spring of disinterested love, or better, acute fondness, for her world. I would say that it is to the theatre of appearance what theory is to the world of being.
Now, I would like to turn to a group of perfections associated more with her craft than her content.
There is, first, her remarkable logical, or better, dialectical force—her ability to discern distinctions, to divide at the joints, to collect with completeness, in short to articulate the world in words, ready for reflection. For example, in defining an empty life she speaks of “the sameness and the elegance, the prosperity and the nothingness” of its scene. Or, setting out the cures for a painful remembrance, she says that “it shall be checked by religion, by reason, by constant employment.”
No wonder that Justice Marshall, whose opinions give pleasure to the reader precisely because they display this kind of discernment, esteemed her.
There is next the lucid yet unobtrusive symmetry of her tales. Their bare plots all have the kind of formal shape which might make a pretty diagram. She rigorously follows the rule of writing, cited in her novel about novels, Northanger Abbey, which prohibits loose ends and dangling characters. And yet her tales are so flowing that they appear to have no isolated episodes—in fact she never used title headings, which are a sure sign of episodic composition.
This formal symmetry is complemented by a subtly palpable balance of substance. For instance, I have always wondered wherein lies the peculiar feeling of satisfaction given by Lady de Bourgh’s impertinent descent on Elizabeth, intended to force the latter to reject Darcy. It is not only that the invasion is most staunchly repelled, but also that an imbalance is righted: Elizabeth has her immortally silly mother to be ashamed of—now Darcy turns out to have a meddling, insufferable relation as well; the union will be blessed by a balance of troublesome in-laws.
I should add under this heading that all the novels are just the right length—a remarkable fact in any novel when one considers that a tale which has no absolute need to begin really has no natural place to close.
Finally, there is the felicity of her language. Everyone recognizes it, and I would give much to discover its essence. But that irresistible effort never gets much beyond a mere description—which is, therefore, the best I can do.
Her style is to literature what the classical style is to music: perfectly agreeable without being cloying, perfectly flowing and yet pithy, perfectly correct while alive with novelty.
Partly it is shaped by avoidances. She advises her niece to delete “cant phrases” like “vortex of dissipation.” She herself introduces them very sparingly—just enough to expose the limp mind of the speaker: “Sad, sad girl,” a silly young woman will exclaim. She never allows her under-bred people more than a hint of wrongness in writing. Lucy Steele’s letters in Sense and Sensibility contain a few intentional howlers, but I know of no others. She avoids learned or obtrusively latinate diction; she would not have written my favorite sentence from the much-loved Jane Eyre, where that strict-judging young governess (“eyre” signifies “court”), having climbed on her Mr. Rochester’s knee (unthinkable for an Austenian woman!) is apostrophised as follows:
Why do you remain pertinaciously perched upon my knee when I have given you notice to quit?
Nonetheless, she could write like that, as is shown by the burlesque speech of a pompous enthusiast in her last fragment Sanditon:
The Corruscations of Talent, elicited by impassioned feeling in the breast of Man, are perhaps incompatible with some of the prosaic Decencies of Life;…nor can any Woman be a fair Judge of what a Man may be propelled to say, write or do by the sovereign impulses of illimitable Ardour.
But in the published novels she avoids all contortions; Miss Catherine of Northanger Abbey says innocently:
I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.
And she approves of “unaffected gentlemanlike English” in her men.
Part of the pleasure of her discourse comes from the very insidiousness of her well-turned phrases. They glide neatly by and snap in retrospect. So, for example, Marianne accepts Colonel Brandon, although he seeks “the constitutional safe-guard of a flannel waistcoat.” Or she assigns to a character “a person and face of strong, natural, sterling insignificance.”
She can, furthermore, build up a paragraph to perfection. Mr. Knightly has just successfully proposed to Emma, who, he thought, had been jilted by Frank Churchill:
He found her agitated and low—Frank Churchill was a villain.—He heard her declare that she had never loved him. Frank Churchill’s character was not desperate.—She was his own Emma, by heart and work, when they returned into the house; and if he could have thought of Frank Churchill then, he might have deemed him a very good sort of fellow.
But what is best is as normal as it is inimitable—her natural imitation of blessedly uncorrupted speech, page after page: Her best people discourse with a sweet, unpompous formality which reflects the dignity of their society, while the authoress supplies the agreeable alternation of short brisk sentences with very long constructions full of connectives and subordinate clauses—all equally Iucid. She evidently had the ability to hear and hold on to the whole conversation even while she was writing it down; she is said to have written speedily and surely, and her revisions consisted mostly of “lopping and cropping.”
And then, last and most felicitous, there is her knowledge of the human heart.
Again it begins in an aversion, her aversion to “sensibility,” that is, to systematic emoting and the romantic stance. The exemplar of this error of disposition is Marianne of Sense and Sensibility who shows little consideration, less tact and—although much heard of both in ecstasy and in despair—not the very deepest feeling. That is reserved to Elizabeth, who has exerted her good sense to suppress her unhappiness, until in an unguarded moment it appears suddenly on her face.
This aversion to displays of passion was resented by Charlotte Brontë (and most ungratefully too, since Jane Austen’s quiet women are the fore-runners of her own mousily formidable girls who triumph helpfully at their lovers’ debacles). She writes (herself, it appears to me, giving an example of romantic insensitivity):
The passions are perfectly unknown to her…. Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with human eyes, mouths, hands, and feet.
She is right insofar as Jane Austen is much concerned with surfaces and appearances—but how often precisely because they conceal the heart! Concealed feeling and silent suffering win her deepest sympathy—in their presence, she is always serious.
The novel most fragrant with feeling is her last, Persuasion. The heroine, Anne Elliot, is, to begin with, walking proof of Jane Austen’ s dictum concerning losses in love:
it is no creed of mine, you must be well aware, that such sort of Disappointments kill anybody.
She is alive, but in her patient resignation “almost too good” for her authoress, as she declares to her niece. A little of this impatience shows in the gentle irony with which Anne’s happiest hour is treated:
Prettier musings of high wrought love and eternal constancy, could never have passed along the streets of Bath, than Anne was sporting with from Camden-place to Westgate-buildings. It was almost enough to spread purification and perfume all the way.
Nonetheless, Persuasion is the novel in which the greatest things are most frankly at stake. When Anne finally holds in her hands a letter from Captain Wentworth, the man whom she had eight years before dutifully refused, yielding to the well-meant but narrow-minded persuasions of Lady Russell, she feels that
On the contents of this letter depended all which the world could do for her.
The impression that this story is in earnest as no other is aided by a peculiar device, the presence of real dates, which occur in this work alone. Anne was born on August 9, 1787, and is a faded twenty-seven at the time the novel takes place, about 1814. The wars of those years are the tense, invisible, remote backdrop beyond the story. But the immediate setting within which Anne subdues and nurses her long-carried feeling is a delicious swirl of cross-currents: the shame-faced desire for establishment, natural preference derailed by envy, interfering ambition thwarted with counter-designs. Quietly, amidst these comic machinations, Anne passes through the stations of her love: a walk in the company of the irreconciled Wentworth, when “Her pleasure must arise from the exercise and the day”; a shy but articulate disquisition on the intensification of feeling resulting from the confinement of a woman’s life; the agitations of the clay of mutual understanding; and finally—the most quietly rhapsodic description of “high-wrought felicity” I know of—that evening party and its undercurrent of secret bliss, where Anne moves about in “delicious consciousness” snaking conversation with her friends, “and with Captain Wentworth, some moments of communication continually occurring, and always the hope of more, and always the knowledge of his being there.”
Having articulated as well as I am able the perfections which belong to Jane Austen’s novels, I need probably add nothing concerning the mere delight which comes from reading them—especially aloud among friends, as was the habit of the Austen household. But there is something more to be said about their peculiar efficacy.
Novels are started for many reasons: to fulfill a promise to an enthusiastic friend, to get on with the project of having read everything, to abide a while in pleasurable passivity. But they are generally finished because they become absorbing. The question is whether this absorption is good for the soul. Jane Austen herself mounts a comic defense of any novel written with “genius, wit and taste” in Northanger Abbey:
I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolite custom so common among novel writers of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust….
Yet I think there is also a serious apology to be proposed for these six novels, and for these alone. I am anxious to make it because I have myself experienced an efficacy of theirs often attested to in literature: their ability to re-collect the soul whenever it finds itself in places diffuse, dreary, enormous or savage.
In the Republic, Socrates speaks of “a certain ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” in which philosophy can be said to charge fiction-makers with a double crime: first the shameless fabrication of images which insidiously obstruct the search for being, and then the reckless vivification of these shades by means of a lurid singularity—so that the more brilliant the fiction, the greater the blame. Jane Austen side-steps the first charge by being so candidly imitative and yet so careful to refrain from touching the last things as to offer not the least impediment to philosophy, while she meets the second by conforming all her fictions to a serenely normal pattern —she never even invents an authoress. The wonder is that figures so carefully middling in stature are nonetheless so absorbing: Sir Walter Scott caught the essence of her excellence when he observed that she “renders ordinary, commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment.”
But if Jane Austen’s prosaic poetry is neither false nor egregious and her six novels give delight and hurt not, then that “ancient quarrel” is here for once composed, and these fictions, at least, can be loved rationally.
In conclusion, let me once more reckon up the perfections and felicities which invite this rational love.
Jane Austen’s novels celebrate that middling class of mankind to which it is, after all, most feasible and most fitting to belong. They reform the dispersed soul and inculcate respect for the concealed heart. They afford the example of a correct and uncorrupted tongue, and they encourage us to know ourselves and to judge others rightly.
They recall to us the possibility of an integral and well-formed world by presenting a straight imitation of English country society, sifted and spruced up, to be sure, but unsullied by imported significance. This copy, the product of a coolly loving contemplation, is made not for penetration but for observation. Its foreground is peopled by growing girls on the brink of being settled in life, while in the background finished humankind carries on its unconscious comedy. And the whole breathes a serene hilarity whose source is the reason and the faith of the authoress.
This essay was originally published here in June, 2012, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. Republished with gracious permission from The College (Volume 27, No. 1, 1975).
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