Jane Austen

“While the English language is read, the world will always be provided with souls who can enjoy the rare excellence of that rich legacy left to them by her genius.”

In the old Cathedral of Winchester stand the tombs of kings, with dates stretching back to William Rufus and Canute; here, too, are the marble effigies of queens and noble ladies, of crusaders and warriors, of priests and bishops. But our pilgrimage led us to a slab of black marble set into the pavement of the north aisle, and there, under the grand old arches, we read the name of Jane Austen. Many-colored as the light which streams through painted windows, came the memories which floated in our soul as we read the simple inscription: happy hours, gladdened by her genius, weary hours, soothed by her touch; the honored and the wise who first placed her volumes in our hand; the beloved ones who had lingered over her pages, the voices of our distant home, associated with every familiar story.

The personal history of Jane Austen belongs to the close of the last and the beginning of the present century. Her father through forty years was rector of a parish in the South of England. Mr. Austen was a man of great taste in all literary matters; from him his daughter inherited many of her gifts. He probably guided her early education and influenced the direction of her genius. Her life was passed chiefly in the country. Bath, then a fashionable watering-place, with occasional glimpses of London, must have afforded all the intercourse which she held with what is called “the world.” Her travels were limited to excursions in the vicinity of her father’s residence. Those were days of post-chaises and sedan-chairs, when the rush of the locomotive was unknown. Steam, the genie of the vapor, was yet a little household elf, singing pleasant tunes by the evening fire, at quiet hearthstones; it has since expanded into a mighty giant, whose influences are no longer domestic. The circles of fashion are changed also. Those were the days of country-dances and India muslins; the beaux and belles of “the upper rooms” at Bath knew not the whirl of the waltz, nor the ceaseless involvements of “the German.” Yet the measures of love and jealousy, of hope and fear, to which their hearts beat time, would be recognized to-night in every ballroom. Infinite sameness, infinite variety, are not more apparent in the outward than in the inward world, and the work of that writer will alone be lasting who recognizes and embodies this eternal law of the great Author.

Jane Austen possessed in a remarkable degree this rare intuition. The following passage is found in Sir Walter Scott’s journal, under date of the fourteenth of March, 1826: — “Read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s finely written novel of ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me.” This is high praise, but it is something more when we recur to the time at which Sir Walter writes this paragraph. It is amid the dreary entries in his journal of 1826, many of which make our hearts ache and our eyes overflow. He read the pages of Jane Austen on the fourteenth of March, and on the fifteenth he writes, “This morning I leave 39 Castle Street for the last time.” It was something to have written a book sought for by him at such a moment. Even at Malta, in December, 1831, when the pressure of disease, as well as of misfortune, was upon him, Sir Walter was often found with a volume of Miss Austen in his hand, and said to a friend, “There is a finishing-off in some of her scenes that is really quite above everybody else.”

Jane Austen’s life-world presented such a limited experience that it is marvelous where she could have found the models from which she studied such a variety of forms. It is only another proof that the secret lies in the genius which seizes, not in the material which is seized. We have been told by one who knew her well, that Miss Austen never intentionally drew portraits from individuals, and avoided, if possible, all sketches that could be recognized. But she was so faithful to Nature, that many of her acquaintance, whose characters had never entered her mind, were much offended, and could not be persuaded that they or their friends had not been depicted in some of her less attractive personages: a feeling which we have frequently shared; for, as the touches of her pencil brought out the light and shades very quietly, we have been startled to recognize our own portrait come gradually out on the canvas, especially since we are not equal to the courage of Cromwell, who said, “Paint me as I am.”

In the “Autobiography of Sir Egerton Brydges” we find the following passage: it is characteristic of the man: —

“I remember Jane Austen, the novelist, a little child. Her mother was a Miss Leigh, whose paternal grandmother was a sister of the first Duke of Chandos. Mr. Austen was of a Kentish family, of which several branches have been settled in the Weald, and some are still remaining there. When I knew Jane Austen, I never suspected she was an authoress; but my eyes told me that she was fair and handsome, slight and elegant, with cheeks a little too full. The last time, I think, I saw her was at Ramsgate, in 1803; perhaps she was then about twenty-seven years old. Even then I did not know that she was addicted to literary composition.”

We can readily suppose that the spheres of Jane Austen and Sir Egerston could not be very congenial; and it does not appear that he was ever tempted from the contemplation of his own performances, to read her “literary composition.” A letter from Robert Southey to Sir Egerton shows that the latter had not quite forgotten her, Southey writes, under the date of Keswick, April, 1830: —

“You mention Miss Austen; her novels are more true to Nature, and have (for my sympathies) passages of finer feeling than any others of this age. She was a person of whom I have heard so much, and think so highly, that I regret not having seen her, or ever had an opportunity of testifying to her the respect which I felt for her.”

A pleasant anecdote, told to us on good authority in England, is illustrative of Miss Austen’s power over various minds. A party of distinguished literary men met at a country-seat; among them was Macaulay, and, we believe, Hallam; at all events, they were men of high reputation. While discussing the merits of various authors, it was proposed that each should write down the name of that work of fiction which had given him the greatest pleasure. Much surprise and amusement followed; for, on opening the slips of paper, seven bore the name of “Mansfield Park,” — a coincidence of opinion most rare, and a tribute to an author unsurpassed.

Had we been of that party at the English country-house, we should have written, “The last novel by Miss Austen which we have read”; yet, forced to a selection, we should have named “Persuasion.” But we withdraw our private preference, and, yielding to the decision of seven wise men, place “Mansfield Park” at the head of the list, and leave it there without further comment.

“Persuasion” was her latest work, and bears the impress of a matured mind and perfected style. The language of Miss Austen is, in all her pages, drawn from the “wells of English undefiled.” Concise and clear, simple and vigorous, no word can be omitted that she puts down, and none can be added to heighten the effect of her sentences. In “Persuasion” there are passages whose depth and tenderness, welling up from deep fountains of feeling, impress us with the conviction that the angel of sorrow or suffering had troubled the waters, yet had left in them a healing influence, which is felt rather than revealed. Of all the heroines we have known through a long and somewhat varied experience, there is not one whose life-companionship we should so desire to secure as that of Anne Elliot. Ah! could she also forgive our faults and bear with our weaknesses, while we were animated by her sweet and noble example, existence would be, under any aspect, a blessing. This felicity was reserved for Captain Wentworth. Happy man! In “Persuasion” we also find the subtle Mr. Elliot. Here, as with Mr. Crawford in “Mansfield Park,” Miss Austen deals dexterously with the character of a man of the world, and uses a nicer discernment than is often found in the writings of women, even those who assume masculine names.

“Emma” we know to have been a favorite with the author. “I have drawn a character full of faults,” said she, “nevertheless I like her.” In Emma’s company we meet Mr. Knightley, Harriet Smith, and Frank Churchill. We sit beside good old Mr. Woodhouse, and please him by tasting his gruel. We walk through Highbury, we are patronized by Mrs. Elton, listen forbearingly to the indefatigable Miss Bates, and take an early walk to the post-office with Jane Fairfax. Once we found ourselves actually on “Box Hill,” but it did not seem half so real as when we “explored” there with the party from Highbury.

“Pride and Prejudice” is piquant in style and masterly in portraiture. We make perhaps too many disagreeable acquaintances to enjoy ourselves entirely; yet who would forego Mr. Collins, or forget Lady Catherine de Bourgh, though each in their way is more stupid and odious than any one but Miss Austen could induce us to endure. Mr. Darcy’s character is ably given; a very difficult one to sustain under all the circumstances in which he is placed. It is no small tribute to the power of the author to concede that she has so managed the workings of his real nature as to make it possible, and even probable, that a high-born, high-bred Englishman of Mr. Darcy’s stamp could become the son-in-law of Mrs. Bennet. The scene of Darcy’s declaration of love to Elizabeth, at the Hunsford Parsonage, is one of the most remarkable passages in Miss Austen’s writings, and, indeed, we remember nothing equal to it among the many writers of fiction who have endeavored to describe that culminating point of human destiny.

“Northanger Abbey” is written in a fine vein of irony, called forth, in some degree, by the romantic school of Mrs. Radcliffe and her imitators. We doubt whether Miss Austen was not over-wise with regard to these romances. Though born after the Radcliffe era, we well remember shivering through the “Mysteries of Udolpho” with as quaking a heart as beat in the bosom of Catherine Morland. If Miss Austen was not equally impressed by the power of these romances, we rejoice that they were written, as with them we should have lost “Northanger Abbey.” For ourselves, we spent one very rainy day in the streets of Bath, looking up every nook and corner familiar in the adventures of Catherine, and time, not faith, failed, for a visit to Northanger itself. Bath was also sanctified by the presence of Anne Elliot. Our inn, the “White Hart,” (made classic by the adventures of various well-remembered characters,) was hallowed by exquisite memories which connected one of the rooms (we faithfully believed it was our apartment) with the conversation of Anne Elliot and Captain Harville, as they stood by the window, while Captain Wentworth listened and wrote. In vain did we gaze at the windows of Camden Place. No Anne Elliot appeared.

“Sense and Sensibility” was the first novel published by Miss Austen. It is marked by her peculiar genius, though it may be wanting in the nicer finish which experience gave to her later writings.

The Earl of Carlisle, when Lord Morpheth, wrote a poem for some now forgotten annual, entitled “The Lady and the Novel.” The following lines occur among the verses: —

Or is it thou, all-perfect Austen? here
Let one poor wreath adorn thy early bier,
That scarce allowed thy modest worth to claim
The living portion of thy honest fame:
Oh, Mrs. Bennet, Mrs. Norris, too,
While Memory survives, she’ll dream of you;
And Mr. Woodhouse, with abstemious lip,
Must thin, but not too thin, the gruel sip;
Miss Bates, our idol, though the village bore,
And Mrs. Elton, ardent to explore;
While the clear style flows on without pretence,
With unattained purity, and unmatched sense.

If the Earl of Carlisle, in whose veins flows “the blood of all the Howards,” is willing to acknowledge so many of our friends, who are anything but aristocratic, our republican soul shrinks not from the confession that we should like to accompany good-natured Mrs. Jennings in her hospitable carriage, (so useful to our young ladies of sense and sensibility,) witness the happiness of Elinor at the parsonage, and the reward of Colonel Brandon at the manor-house of Delaford, and share with Mrs. Jennings all the charms of the mulberry-tree and the yew arbor.

An article on “Recent Novels,” in “Fraser’s Magazine” for December, 1847, written by Mr. G. H. Lewes, contains the following paragraphs: — “What we most heartily enjoy and applaud is truth in the delineations of life and character … To make our meaning precise, we would say that Fielding and Miss Austen are the greatest novelists in our language … We would rather have written ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ or ‘Tom Jones,’ than any of the ‘Waverley Novels.’ … Miss Austen has been called a prose Shakspeare, — and among others, by Macaulay. In spite of the sense of incongruity which besets us in the words prose Shakspeare, we confess the greatness of Miss Austen, her marvelous dramatic power, seems, more than anything in Scott, akin to Shakspeare.”

The conclusion of this article is devoted to a review of ‘Jane Eyre,’ and led to the correspondence between Miss Brontè and Mr. Lewes which will be found in the memoir of her life. In these letters it is apparent that Mr. Lewes wishes Miss Brontè to read and to enjoy Miss Austen’s works, as he does himself. Mr. Lewes is disappointed, and felt, doubtless, what all true lovers of Jane Austen have experienced, a surprise to find how obtuse otherwise clever people sometimes are. In this instance, however, we think Mr. Lewes expected what was impossible. Charlotte Brontè could not harmonize with Jane Austen. The luminous and familiar star which comes forth into the quiet evening sky when the sun sets amid the amber light of an autumn evening, and the comet which started into sight, unheralded and unnamed, and flamed across the midnight sky, have no affinity, except in the Divine Mind, whence both originate.

The notice of Miss Austen, by Macaulay, to which Mr. Lewes alludes, must be, we presume, the passage which occurs in Macaulay’s article on Madame D’Arblay, in the “Edinburgh Review,” for January, 1843. We do not find the phrase “prose Shakspeare,” but the meaning is the same; we give the passage as it stands before us: —

“Shakspeare has neither equal nor second; but among writers who, in the point we have noticed, have approached nearest the manner of the great master, we have no hesitation in placing Jane Austen, as a woman of whom England is justly proud. She has given us a multitude of characters, all, in a certain sense, commonplace, all such as we meet every day. Yet they are all as perfectly discriminated from each other as if they were the most eccentric of human beings. There are, for example, four clergymen, none of whom we should be surprised to find in any parsonage in the kingdom, — Mr. Edward Ferrars, Mr. Henry Tilney, Mr. Edward Bertram, and Mr. Elton. They are all specimens of the upper part of the middle class. They have been all liberally educated. They all lie under the restraints of the same sacred profession. They are all young. They are all in love. Not any one of them has any hobby-horse, to use the phrase of Sterne. Not one has any ruling passion, such as we read in Pope. Who would not have expected them to be insipid likenesses of each other? No such thing. Harpagon is not more unlike Jourdain, Joseph Surface is not more unlike Sir Lucius O’Trigger, than every one of Miss Austen’s young divines to all his reverent brethren. And almost all this is done by touches so delicate that they elude analysis, that they defy the powers of description, and that we know them to exist only by the general effect to which they have contributed.”

Dr. Whately, the Archbishop of Dublin, in the “Quarterly Review,” 1821, sums up his estimate of Miss Austen with these words: “The Eastern monarch who proclaimed a reward to him who should discover a new pleasure would have deserved well of mankind, had he stipulated it should be blameless. Those again who delight in the study of human nature may improve in the knowledge of it, and in the profitable application of that knowledge, by the perusal of such fictions. Miss Austen introduces very little of what is technically called religion into her books, yet that must be a blinded soul which does not recognize the vital essence, everywhere present in her pages, of a deep and enlightened piety.

There are but few descriptions of scenery in her novels. The figures of the piece are her care; and if she draws in a tree, a hill, or a manor-house, it is always in the background. This fact did not arise from any want of appreciation for the glories or the beauties of the outward creation, for we know that the pencil was as often in her hand as the pen. It was that unity of purpose, ever present in her mind, which never allowed her to swerve from the actual into the ideal, nor even to yield to tempting descriptions of Nature which might be near, and yet aside from the main object of her narrative. Her creations are living people, not masks behind which the author soliloquizes or lectures. These novels are impersonal; Miss Austen never herself appears; and if she ever had a lover, we cannot decide whom he resembled among the many masculine portraits she has drawn.

Very much has been said in her praise, and we, in this brief article, have summoned together witnesses to the extent of her powers, which are fit and not few. Yet we are aware that to a class of readers Miss Austen’s novels must ever remain sealed books. So be it. While the English language is read, the world will always be provided with souls who can enjoy the rare excellence of that rich legacy left to them by her genius.

Once in our lifetime we spent three delicious days in the Isle of Wight, and then crossed the water to Portsmouth. After taking a turn on the ramparts in memory of Fanny Price, and looking upon the harbor whence the Thrush went out, we drove over Portsdown Hill to visit the surviving member of that household which called Jane Austen their own.

We had been preceded by a letter, introducing us to Admiral Austen as fervent admirers of his sister’s genius, and were received by him with a gentle courtesy most winning in our heart.

In the finely-cut features of the brother, who retained at eighty years of age much of the early beauty of his youth, we fancied we must see a resemblance to his sister, of whom there exists no portrait.

It was delightful to us to hear him speak of “Jane,” and to be brought so near the actual in her daily life. Of his sister’s fame as a writer the Admiral spoke understandingly, but reservedly.

We found the old Admiral safely moored in that most delightful of havens, a quiet English country-home, with the beauty of Nature around the mansion, and the beauty of domestic love and happiness beneath its hospitable roof.

There we spent a summer day, and the passing hours seemed like the pages over which we had often lingered, written by her hand whose influence had guided us to those she loved. That day, with all its associations, has become a sacred memory, and links us to the sphere where dwells that soul whose gift of genius has rendered immortal the name of Jane Austen.