Jane Austen As a Novelist

The literary historian will note that the nineteenth century was to produce work of fiction of far greater significance than the “terror” tales.

Seldom has the English novel been conceived with such deliberate and successful art as in the novels of Jane Austen (1775-1817), daughter of the Rector of Stevenson. She had one sister, the heroically-named Cassandra, and five brothers, two of whom became distinguished admirals. She was taught by her father, and lived quietly at various homes in Hampshire and in Bath. She did not travel, went to London merely as a visitor, saw nothing of “high life”, and after a long period of bad health, died at Winchester in her forty- second year. She made no pretension to be a literary lady, but wrote in the common sitting-room of her family, sharing some of her secrets with her beloved sister. She read the ordinary English classics of her time and she enjoyed Fanny Burney, but shrewdly recognized the places where Fanny was writing beyond her means. She read the current “Gothic” romances with amused contempt. Her inborn sense of comedy was aroused very early by the absurdities of sentimental novels, and some juvenile literary efforts, not printed till 1922, take the form of burlesques in Richardsonian epistles, which reproduce with impish gravity and humorous restraint the arbours of passionate lovers.

Love and Friendship (so spelt), dated 1790, was evidently written for domestic entertainment and it contains potentially nearly every quality the writer was to show in her mature works. The sweepings and sudden deaths are managed with immense comic effect. The transition from these juvenilia to her first published books can be found in the fragment of an epistolary novel Lady Susan, first printed in 1871. It was written about 1794, and a little later Elinor and Marianne, a first sketch for Sense and Sensibility, was written in letters. The writer did not offer it for publication, and never afterwards attempted the epistolary form of novel. Actually, the first of her published novels to be written was Pride and Prejudice, which, under the title First Impressions, was composed during 1796-97. Her father offered it to Cadel, who refused it. First Impressions had been completed some three months when the young author began to rewrite Elinor and Marianne as Sense and Sensibility. But this did not appear till 1811. It thus became her first published book, and its success was immediate. In 1798, she began to write Susan, the first draft of Northanger Abbey, and this she sold to a publisher, who however, failed to issue it, and Jane did not recover her manuscript till 1816. It was posthumously published in 1818 as Northanger Abbey, perhaps with some revision and apologies. In 1803 or 1804, she began a story which was never finished, and which was first published as The Watsons in 1871, with some other fragments, in the second edition of J. E. Austen-Leigh’s Memoir. After 1803, there came a gap of several years in Jane Austen’s literary work. The rejected First Impressions was triumphantly revised, and appeared as Pride and Prejudice (1813)-her second publication.

In 1812 she began Mansfield Park which was published in 1814, Emma was begun in January 1814, finished in March 1815, and published in 1816. Persuasion, last of her regularly published stories, was begun in 1815 and finished in July 1816. The manuscript was still in her hands at her death, and it was published posthumously with Northanger Abbey in 1818. It is important to note here that all her books appeared anonymously, but her name was given in the short biographical notice prefixed to the volumes of 1818. In January 1817 she had started to write a new novel, but after the middle of March could work no more.

This unavoidably tangled tale of Jane Austen’s literary activities has been narrated only to make ourselves conscious of the fact that the dates on which her books were published tell us very little about the dates on which they were actually composed. Moreover, it becomes clear that Jane Austen was, after all, a careful craftsman, prepared to give long consideration to her tasks. In fact, her clear-sighted eyes read through the inner minds of those who lived around her, or of the beings whom she invented and animated, just as if those minds were transparent. She seized them in their depths, although at first we do not get this impression, nor does she claim to give it.

From the first, she seems to have realized the scene which she could portray, and nothing could tempt her outside. For the past she seemed to have no curiosity, and the events which stirred the Europe of her day left no impression on her pages. She was completely detached and impersonal. With complete verisimilitude she gave us commonplace persons, not types, and they revealed themselves completely and consistently in narrative and conversation of almost extraordinary ordinariness. Jane Austen’s poise and self-control, her perfect fitting of her quiet utterance to her quiet purpose, were clearly the marks of a creative genius.

Moreover, she subtly detached herself from the weaknesses of her predecessors. To the “terror” tale she presented the direct assault in Northanger Abbey, and she combined with her satire of the “Gothic” school a deeply studied picture of imaginary horror working in the human mind. The moral outlook of Richardson seemed to have left her unimpressed, and her art was the more detached for its absence. Sentimentalism found her equally unmoved. More than anyone since Fielding, she considered the novel to be a form of art which required a close and exacting discipline. The resulting narratives thus became so inevitable in their movement, so precise in their realism, that they gave the impression of ease, but the facility is a gift to the reader, exacted from the fundamental brain-work of the author.

The earliest stratum of her work, as we have it, is represented by Northanger Abbey which, apparently, was allowed to retain most of its first form. A quietly humorous, observant girl with a gift for writing would naturally want to ridicule the passion of women, old and young, for grotesque and exorbitant romances. Catherine, the simple heroine, has native charm, and is in character, though not in years, much younger than the more critically studied Marianne Dashwood and Fanny Price.

Sense and Sensibility represents the next stage. It was written from little experience, and is weaker in character and control than any of the other novels. It presents two contrasted characters, and there is a skill in the structure of the plot. But the contemporary flavour of this novel makes it less universal in appeal. Pride and Prejudice, which comes next, is one of Jane Austen’s masterpieces, for it has the Shakespearean (and Dickensian) quality of describing absurd and disagreeable people delightfully. The characters are all familiarly known to a wide circle of readers: Mrs. Bennet, the match- making mother, Collins, the sycophantic clergyman, and the imperious ‘great lady’ Catherine de Bourgh, and Elizabeth, the gay, clever young woman whose Prejudice is matched with the Pride of Darcy, the aristocrat who conceals a good heart beneath a naughty manner.

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Jane Austen’s next novel Mansfield Park is less brilliant than Pride and Prejudice. But it is widest in scope of the six, for the development of Fanny Price, from the shy, little girl into the woman who marries Edmund Bertram, is one of Jane Austen’s finest achievements in the exposition of character. This novel shows the Influence of Richardson.

Emma was written rapidly and confidently after the success of its predecessors. That Emma is loved for her faults as well as for her virtues is testimony to the fineness of Jane Austen’s art. In texture, it is hardly less light and bright and sparkling than Pride and Prejudice and its craftsmanship is partly manifest, partly well below the surface. Emma proves to be a much more complex and subtle work of art than Pride and Prejudice. It is not a Cinderella romance, but a completely realistic, consistent, and searching novel of character and personal relations, in which the heroine ultimately marries an old and familiar friend. The heroine, who thinks a little too well of herself, attains clear knowledge of herself and other people, and becomes in the process a decidedly better and more likeable person.

Persuasion, written when the novelist’s physical powers were failing, is a quiet story, rich in character and sparing of incident. There is absolutely no sign of mental failure. One can discern in this novel a warming of the thought, a greater tenderness of feeling, and easier reconciliation with the tone of the epoch. Jane Austen allows it to be seen that she is not in complete agreement with the hierarchy of social order. To the end, her vision of life remains primarily clear, though not dry. The power of facts, and the material conditions of happiness are accepted with a simplicity far removed from the slightest hint of revolt.

In fact, Jane Austen is something more than a miniature painter. For the most part, she explores human nature and human conduct, and does not act as a shepherd directly commanding the readers. She is interested in those problems about human nature and conduct in which the philosophers are also interested. She brings out the precise kinds of the sensibility exhibited by her central characters by her wine-taster’s technique of matching them not only against one another, but also against nearly all other characters in their little world. Her ethic, however, can be described as secular, as opposed to religious. Although she is personally the dutiful daughter of a clergyman and is genuinely pious, we can hardly note even a whisper of piety entering into the most serious and most anguished meditations of her heroines.



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