Jane Austen - Natural Historian
( Originally Published 1919 )
JANE AUSTEN has often been praised as a natural historian. She is a naturalist among tame animals. She does not study man (as Dostoevsky does) in his wild state before he has been domesticated. Her men and women are essentially men and women of the fireside.
Nor is Jane Austen entirely a realist in her treatment even of these. She idealizes them to the point of making most of them good-looking, and she hates poverty to such a degree that she seldom can endure to write about anybody who is poor. She is not happy in the company of a character who has not at least a thousand pounds. " People get so horridly poor and economical in this part of the world," she writes on one .occasion, " that I have no patience with them. Kent is the only place for happiness ; everybody is rich there." Her novels do not introduce us to the most exalted levels of the aristocracy. They provide us, however, with a natural history of county people and of people who are just below the level of county people and live in the eager hope of being taken notice of by them. There is more caste snobbishness, I think, in Jane Austen's novels than in any other fiction of equal genius. She, far more than Thackeray, is the novelist of snobs.
How far Jane Austen herself shared the social prejudices of her characters it is not easy to say. Unquestionably, she satirized them. At the same time, she imputes the sense of superior rank not only to her butts, but to her heroes and heroines, as no other novelist has ever done. Emma Woodhouse lamented the deficiency of this sense in Frank Churchill. " His indifference to a confusion of rank," she thought, " bordered too much on inelegance of mind." Mr. Darcy, again, even when he melts so far as to become an avowed lover, neither forgets his social position, nor omits to talk about it. " His sense of her inferiority, of its being a degradation . . was dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend-his suit.,'' On discovering, to his amazement, that Elizabeth is offended rather than overwhelmed by his condescension, he defends himself warmly. " Disguise of every sort," he declares, " is my abhorrence. Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related. They were natural and just. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own? "
It is perfectly true that Darcy and Emma Woodhouse are the butts of Miss Austen as well as being among her heroes and heroines. She mocks them—Darcy especially—no less than she admires. She loves to let her wit play about the egoism of social caste. She is quite merciless in deriding it when it becomes over-bearing, as in Lady Catherine de Bourgh, or when it produces flunkeyish reactions, as in Mr. Collins. But I fancy she liked a modest measure of it. Most people do. Jane Austen, in writing so much about the sense of family and position, chose as her theme one of the most widespread passions of civilized human nature.
She was herself a clergyman's daughter. She was the seventh of a family of eight, born in the parsonage at Steventon, in Hampshire. Her life seems to have been far from exciting. Her father, like the clergy in her novels, was a man of leisure—of so much leisure, as Mr. Cornish reminds us, that he was able to read out Cowper to his family in the mornings. Jane was brought up to be a young lady of leisure. She learned French and Italian and sewing : she was " especially great in satin-stitch." She excelled at the game of spillikins.
She must have begun to write at an early age. In later life, she urges an ambitious niece, aged twelve, to give up writing till she is sixteen, adding that " she had herself often wished she had read more and written less in the corresponding years of her life." She was only twenty when she began to write First Impressions, the perfect book which was not published till seventeen years later with the title altered to Pride and Prejudice. She wrote secretly for many years. Her family knew of it, but the world did not not even the servants or the visitors to the house. She used to hide the little sheets of paper on which she was writing when any one approached. She had not, apparently, a room to herself, and must have written under constant threat of interruption. She objected to having a creaking door mended on one occasion, because she knew by it when any one was coming.
She got little encouragement to write. Pride and Prejudice was offered to a publisher in 1797 ; he would not even read it. Northanger Abbey was written in the next two years. It was not accepted by a publisher, however, till 1803 ; and he, having paid ten pounds for it, refused to publish it. One of Miss Austen's brothers bought back the manuscript at the price at which it had been sold twelve or thirteen years later ; but even then it was not published till 1818, when the author was dead.
The first of her books to appear was Sense and Sensibility. She had begun to write it immediately after finishing Pride and Prejudice. It was published in 1811, a good many years later, when Miss Austen was thirty-six years old. The title-page merely said that it was written " By a Lady." The author never put her name to any of her books. For an anonymous first novel, it must be admitted, Sense and Sensibility was not unsuccessful. It brought Miss Austen £150—" a prodigious recompense," she thought, " for that which had cost her nothing." The fact, however, that she had not earned more than £700 from her novels by the time of her death shows that she never became a really popular author in her lifetime.
She was rewarded as poorly in credit as in cash, though the Prince Regent became an enthusiastic admirer of her books, and kept a set of them in each of his residences. It was the Prince Regent's librarian, the Rev. J. S. Clarke, who, on becoming chaplain to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, made the suggestion to her that " an historical romance, illustrative of the history of the august House of Coburg, would just now be very interesting." Mr. Collins, had he been able to wean himself from Fordyce's Sermons so far as to allow himself to take an interest in fiction, could hardly have made a proposal more exquisitely grotesque. One is glad the proposal was made, however, not only for its own sake, but because it drew an admirable reply from Miss Austen on the nature of her genius. " I could not sit seriously down," she declared, " to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and, if it were indispensable for me to keep it up, and never relax into laughing at myself or at other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter."
Jane Austen knew herself for what she was, an inveterate laugher. She belonged essentially to the eighteenth century—the century of the wits. She enjoyed the spectacle of men and women making fools of themselves, and she did not hide her enjoyment under a pretence of unobservant good-nature. She observed with malice. It is tolerably certain that Miss Mitford was wrong in accepting the description of her in private life as " perpendicular, precise, taciturn, a poker of whom every one is afraid." Miss Austen, one is sure, was a lady of good-humour, as well as a novelist of good-humour ; but the good-humour had a flavour. It was the good-humour of the satirist, not of the sentimentalizer. One can imagine Jane Austen herself speaking as Elizabeth Bennet once spoke to her monotonously soft-worded sister. " That is the most unforgiving speech," she said, " that I ever heard you utter. Good girl I "
Miss Austen has even been accused of irreverence, and we occasionally find her in her letters as irreverent in the presence of death as Mr. Shaw. " Only think," she writes in one letter—a remark she works into a chapter of Emma, by the way—" of Mrs. Holder being dead 1 Poor woman, she has done the only thing in the world she could possibly do to make one cease to abuse her." And on another occasion she writes : " Mrs. Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband." It is possible that Miss Austen's sense of the comic ran away with her at times as Emma Woodhouse's did. I do not know of any similar instance of cruelty in conversation on the part of a likeable person so unpardonable as Emma Woodhouse's witticism at the expense of Miss Bates at the Box Hill picnic. Miss Austen makes Emma ashamed of her witticism, however, after Mr. Knightley has lectured her for it. She sets a limit to the rights of wit, again, in Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth defends her sharp tongue against Darcy.
The wisest and best of men," . . he protests, "may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke." " I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good," says Elizabeth in the course of her answer. " Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can." The six novels that Jane Austen has left us might be described as the record of the diversions of a clergyman's daughter.
The diversions of Jane Austen were, beyond those of most novelists, the diversions of a spectator. (That is what Scott and Macaulay meant by comparing her to Shakespeare.) Or, rather, they were the diversions of a listener. She observed with her ears rather than with her eyes. With her, conversation was three-fourths of life. Her stories are stories of people who reveal them-selves almost exclusively in talk. She wastes no time in telling us what people and places looked like. She will dismiss a man or a house or a view or a dinner with an adjective such as " handsome." There is more description of persons and places in Mr. Shaw's stage-directions than in all Miss Austen's novels. She cuts the 'osses and comes to the cackle as no other English novelist of the same eminence has ever done. If we know anything of the setting or character or even the appearance of her men and women it is due far more to what they say than to anything that is said about them. And yet how perfect is her gallery of portraits t One can guess the very angle of Mr. Collins's toes.
One seems, too, to be able to follow her characters through the trivial round of the day's idleness as closely as if one were pursuing them under the guidance of a modern realist. They are the most unoccupied people, I think, who ever lived in literature. They are people in whose lives a slight fall of snow is an event. Louisa Musgrave's jump on the Cobb at Lyme Regis produces more commotion in the Jane Austen world than murder and arson do in an ordinary novel. Her people do not even seem, for the most part, to be interested in any-thing but their opinions of each other. They have few passions beyond match-making. They are unconcerned about any of the great events of their time. Almost the only reference in the novels to the Napoleonic Wars is a mention of the prize-money of naval officers. " Many a noble fortune," says Mr. Shepherd in Persuasion, " has been made during the war." Miss Austen's principal use of the Navy outside Mansfield Park is as a means of portraying the exquisite vanity of Sir Walter Elliott—his inimitable manner of emphasizing the importance of both rank and good looks in the make-up of a gentleman. " The profession has its utility," he says of the Navy, " but I should be sorry to see any friend of mine belonging to it." He goes on to explain his reasons :
It is in two points offensive to me ; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of ; and, secondly, as it cuts up a man's youth and vigour most terribly ; a sailor grows older sooner than any other man.
Sir Walter complains that he had once had' to give place at dinner to Lord St. Ives, the son of a curate, and " a certain Admiral Baldwin, the most deplorable-looking personage you can imagine : his face the colour, of mahogany, rough and rugged to the last degree, all lines and wrinkles, nine grey hairs of a side, and nothing but a dab of powder at top ":
" In, the name of heaven, who is that old fellow ? " said I to a friend of mine who was standing near (Sir Basil Morley). " Old fellow ! " cried Sir Basil, " it is Admiral Baldwin. What do you take his age to be ? " " Sixty," said I, " or perhaps sixty-two." "Forty," replied Sir Basil, "forty, and no more." Picture to your-selves my amazement ; I shall not easily forget Admiral Baldwin. I never saw quite so wretched an example of what a sea-faring life an do ; but to a degree, I know, it is the same with them all ; they are all knocked about, and exposed to every climate and every weather, till they are not fit to be seen. It is a pity they are not knocked on the head at once, before they reach Admiral Baldwin's age.
That, I think, is an excellent example of Miss Austen's genius for making her characters talk'. Luckily, conversation was still formal in her day, and it was as possible for her as for Congreve to make middling men and women talk first-rate prose. She did more than this, however. She was the first English novelist before Meredith to portray charming women with free personalities. Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse have an independence (rare in English fiction) of the accident of being fallen in love with. Elizabeth is a delightful prose counterpart of Beatrice.
Miss Austen has another point of resemblance to Meredith besides that which I have mentioned. She loves to portray men puffed up with self-approval. She, too, is a satirist of the male egoist. Her books are the most finished social satires in English fiction. They are so perfect in the delicacy of their raillery as to be charming. One is conscious in them, indeed, of the presence of a sparkling spirit. Miss Austen comes as near being a star as it is possible to come in eighteenth-century conversational prose. She used to say that, if ever she should marry, she would fancy being Mrs. Crabbe. She had much of Crabbe's realism, indeed ; but what a dance she led realism with the mocking light of her wit !
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