With this may profitably be read the account, by another niece, of Miss Austen’s method of composition in later years, at Godmersham: —
“I remember that when aunt Jane came to us at Godmersham she used to bring the MS of whatever novel she was writing with her, and would shut herself up with my elder sisters in one of the bedrooms to read them aloud. I and the younger ones used to hear peals of laughter through the door, and thought it very hard that we should be shut out from what was so delightful. I also remember how aunt Jane would sit quietly working beside the fire in the library, saying nothing for a good while, and then would suddenly burst out laughing, jump up and run across the room to a table where pens and paper were lying, write something down, and then come back to the fire and go on quietly working as before.”
Stories like this at first make more marvelous, and then serve to explain, Jane Austen’s chief literary virtue, her unique and never adequately to be praised power of imaginative realization, — the faculty of idealization in the strictest sense. How great this was is not hard to realize; one has but to think of any feigned character whatsoever, outside of Shakespeare, and then to think of Elizabeth Bennet, — one feels that he knows the very sound of her voice. Not long ago, Mr. W. J. Courthope, sometime professor of poetry at Oxford, and a careful and unemotional critic, was so moved by such a comparison as to cry, in paraphrase of the praise of Menander, “O Nature and Jane Austen, which of you has copied from the other?”
There is much in Miss Hill’s book, as I have hinted, to explain this rare power. The life of Jane Austen, excluding incidents and considering essentials, is seen to be very like the life of her heroines. She knew intimately the scenes and the people whereof she wrote. She once advised a niece who was meditating a novel, “Three of four families in a country village is the very thing to work on;” and her own practice conformed to this precept closely. Mr. Pollock transcribes from a paper by his father the notable observation that Jane Austen never reports a conversation among men only, — a striking indication of cautious restraint of her imaginative powers. Indeed, Miss Austen’s best characters are always her heroines: gentle Fanny Price, independent Emma Woodhouse (me judice the “college woman” of her age), and Elizabeth Bennet, the inimitable and altogether delightful. Despite the conscientious objectivity of Jane Austen’s work, one fancies that when she would portray such girls as these she had but to “look in her heart and write.”
But this imaginative faculty implies much more than faithful self-expression, or accurate transcription of the life which her brown eyes observed. Miss Jane Austen, the life of her family and a conspicuous ornament at village assemblies, possessed at twenty-one absolute, un-relative artistic vision of the highest order. There is much in Miss Hill’s book to exhibit this. We have stories of how she would relate to her family doings of her characters quite apart from the events in her manuscript, and how at exhibitions she would discover portraits of the people of her brain. A single reference to one of her novels may show how such a vivifying imagination shaped her art. In Mansfield Park a duly qualified reader will discern an instance of the differentiation of character by environment nothing less than Shakespearean in its subtle reality. Lady Bertram, Mrs. Norris, and Mrs. Price are sisters. One is led to believe that as children they were as like as three sisters could well be. One has married Sir Thomas Bertram, and attained a life of affluence and ease. Another has been wedded to the rather self-centred Rev. Dr. Norris, and within sight of her more fortunate sister has lived upon a less sufficient income. The third has become the wife of a poor and too genial seaman. As we know them in middle age, Lady Bertram is indolent, good-hearted, and a little silly. Mrs. Price is reluctantly industrious, good-hearted, and likewise a little silly. Mrs. Norris, one of the most complete comic characters in literature, shows a wider perversion of the same traits. She has become an arrogant and self-satisfied martyr to housework; envy has soured her disposition, and meannesses and petty spites have grown in her heart. Through all these vital distinctions of character is shot a certain family resemblance, which never permits us to forget that the three women are children of the same parents. It is hard to conceive a more luminous instance of creative vision in the use of plot and characterization as typical experiments in life.