Jane Austen

“The secret of her abiding charm lies in the fair balance of her temperament.”

There is in the work of Jane Austen, after Sappho the most unquestioned genius of her sex, I know not what of personal seductiveness and charm. It is hard nowadays to find any professional critic or amateur of letters who can be easy until he has publicly listed his suffrage for “Aunt Jane.” But so copiously and eloquently have her praises been sounded that many of her most devoted admirers have hesitated to attempt the difficult task of saying anything new and true in her honor. It is therefore a cause for gratulation that the publication of two excellent books affords an excuse to review her felicities and her fame. Mr. Pollock’s delightful little work1 is given up to the exhibition of Miss Austen’s preëminence in the character of Cynthia among the lesser stars, — the admirable woman novelists her contemporaries. Miss Hill’s book,2 with full and intimate knowledge, depicts the natural setting and background of Jane Austen’s life, and dwells informingly upon her relations with friends and family. Read together, attentively, the two books will help one to a more vivid realization of Miss Austen’s character and temperament. If one ponders them closely, he will come to understand better certain phases of her genius; and he may perhaps form a new appreciation of her novels, and revise a little his notion of her place in literature.

Jane Austen was a diligent reader of the best books, but she in no sense belonged to any school in literature. Except for a brief acquaintance with Clarke, librarian of the Prince Regent, she seems never to have felt the stimulus of real or known the fatuity of affected “literary society.” To the full appreciation of her work, therefore, a knowledge of her household and her natural environment is the more important.

The major part of Jane Austen’s too brief life was passed in Steventon and Chawton, inland villages like those immortalized as the habitations of the trams. Miss Hill’s writing, aided by the clever pencil of Miss Ellen Hill, gives one an engaging picture of these little towns. One sees them girt round by meadows crossed by odorous lanes, with a not infrequent “hanger” rising gracefully above. It is not necessary to go all the way with Taine and the naturalistic critics to be assured that the quiet, fragrant beauty of her early surroundings wrought upon the mind and art of Jane Austen, softly insinuating itself in her style, coloring her view of the world and its people. Such a conclusion ceases to seem fanciful when we remember that while she was resident at Chawton, Gilbert White was at Selborne, only five miles away, and Miss Mitford lived but little farther distant, likewise within the confines of Hampshire, — two writers very like Jane Austen in powers of minute observation, in quiet humor, and in the bent of their intuitions of the world. But it is important to remember, what Miss Hill’s reader will not forget, that Jane Austen, at Lyme and at Southampton, dwelt by the seashore, and that two of her brothers were mariners of England. Of Byronic or Tennysonian sea sentiment there is none in her pages, but in Mansfield Park and in Persuasion there are sway touches of description which connect her, at least remotely, with that maritime tradition, the sea spell, which has rarely been wanting in the greatest literature of the British Isles.

Miss Hill’s account of the Austen family does not add many significant facts to the information furnished us in the biographies by Mr. Austen Leigh and Mr. Adams, and by Miss Austen’s own incomparable letters, edited by Lord Brabourne. She has, however, enjoyed the advantage of seeing in manuscript certain family records, and of bringing to the observation of Jane Austen’s several homes sharp eyes and fresh interest; so she contrives to portray very vividly the vie intime of the Austen circle, with its strong affections, its graceful courtesy, its playful humor. She preserves recollections of a niece of Miss Austen concerning the room at Steventon in which her aunt wrote. In remembering the works of creative imagination which proceeded from this girlish environment, one feels the transcendence of art as strikingly as in thinking of the lyrics which, a few years earlier, lay in the drawer of Burns’s little deal table at Mossgiel.

“A sitting room was made upstairs, — ‘the dressing room,’ as they were pleased to call it, perhaps because it opened into a smaller chamber in which my two aunts slept. I remember the common-looking carpet with its chocolate ground, and the painted press with shelves above for books, and Jane’s piano, and an oval glass that hung between the windows; but the charm of the room, with its scanty furniture and cheaply papered walls, must have been, for those who were old enough to understand it, the flow of native household wit, with all the fun and nonsense of a large and clever family. Here were written the two first of my aunt Jane’s completed works, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice.”

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.

If Jane Austen had lived all her days in sequestered villages like Steventon and Chawton, it is likely that the product of her imagination would have wanted that savor of high comedy which is now one of her distinguishing charms. To the Muse of Comedy no spot can be more congenial than a fashionable watering place. Miss Austen’s life at Bath was surely very momentous. To this life Miss Hill devotes several informing chapters. The reader derives a clear notion of the gay, whimsical Bath society, in which young people might go about together, unaccompanied by the usual “steady friend,” and especially of Miss Jane Austen’s delight in it, both as participant and as observer. We have had her, in an earlier letter, writing to her sister of a ball at Deane House, at which she received great particularity of attention from a Celt, Mr. Tom Lefroy. We have been diverted to learn that she committed “everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together,” and to know that this Mr. Tom Lefroy, who was to become chief justice of Ireland, divided his admiration between the real Jane Austen and the fictitious Tom Jones, and that Miss Jane was proud so to share it. But by the time the Austens moved to Bath, in the first year of the last century, we hear no more of such young-ladylike profligacy. Jane was then twenty-five; the slipping away of her unreturning Maytime had sobered but not saddened her, and we find in her letters and in the anecdotes which Miss Hill has preserved a less naïve delight in the frequentation of balls for their own sake, and a keener interest in the study of social humors, for which such gatherings afforded her a notable opportunity.

It is scarcely necessary to observe that Jane Austen’s comedy is never the stern-browed, mordant satire which in the work of some “humorists” lies so near to tragedy. Hers is, rather, the playful humorsomeness of a wisely happy temperament. In one of the letters she writes, “I do not think it is worth while to wait for enjoyment until there is some real opportunity for it.” She took her enjoyment in the continued humorous observation of the people she knew. But with her, as with Thackeray, humor meant wit plus love, for it is always softened by a singularly sympathetic feeling with its object. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth has a speech which is certainly the expression of her author’s mind: “I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.”

From the girlish jeu d’esprit The Mystery, a satire on the prevailing school of comedy, to Persuasion, with its quiet undertones and atmosphere of afterglow, Jane Austen was essentially a comic writer. We have but to compare her Emma with Gwendolen in Daniel Deronda to know the difference between the affectionately comic and the tragic treatment of similar characters. Miss Austen could never have solved the problem of modern art, which has been to portray the human will rising superior to a new “necessity” more terrible than the “fate” the ancients knew, — a necessity which, as Walter Pater wrote, “is a magic web woven through and through us, like that magnetic system of which modern science speaks, penetrating us with a network subtler than our subtlest nerves, yet bearing in it the central forces of the world.” Such devious coverts of dismay were not for the feet of Jane Austen. There is perhaps a premonition of such things in the differentiation of the sisters in Mansfield Park, but she was born too early and too propitiously to be subject to the introspective maladies of the nineteenth century, or greatly to be affected by its larger movement of ideas. She is always the novelist of manners, but of such manners as spring most directly from character and temperament, and tend to exhibit these with the most lively reality.

An analysis of Jane Austen’s humor may be fittingly concluded by a piece of Lamb-like or Stevenson-like whimsicality in a letter to her sister Cassandra, cited by Miss Hill: —

“Your unfortunate sister was betrayed last Thursday into a situation of the utmost cruelty. I arrived at Ashe Park before the party from Deane, and was shut up in the drawing room with Mr. Holder alone for ten minutes. I had some thoughts of insisting on the housekeeper being sent for, and nothing could prevail on me to move two steps from the door, on the lock of which I kept one hand constantly fixed. We met nobody but ourselves, played at vingt-un again, and were very cross. … You express so little anxiety about my being murdered under Ashe Copse by Mrs. Hulbert’s servant that I have a great mind not to tell you whether I was or not.”

One cannot write of Jane Austen as a humorist without thinking of Northanger Abbey; and in the matter of Northanger Abbey, especially concerning the relation of it and the rest of Miss Austen’s novels to the literature of “sensibility,” there is something still to be said.

The machinery of the story of Catherine Morland’s adventures is clearly an ironic burlesque of the later eighteenth-century novel, — the novel of the delicious shudder and the facile tear. Likewise, in all Miss Austen’s other novels we find numerous pleasantries at the expense of the fiction of the school of Mackenzie, Walpole, Lewis, and occasionally at the great Richardson himself. But her first writing was done not very long after the ascendency of this school, and there is in her work much evidence to show that she was not uninfluenced by its ideals. Marianne, for instance, in Sense and Sensibility, is a romantic heroine of the deepest dye; and though her sensibility brings her to grief, yet one feels that Miss Austen had a certain ingenuous interest in her vicissitudes for their own sake. Even in Northanger Abbey, the love story of Catherine and Henry Tilney, the serious interest of the book, is told with many touches of real sensibility. In all her work, indeed, the experienced reader of old novels will recognize traces of a mild susceptibility to the shudder and the tear. Her most conventional leading men have, for the corresponding girlish protagonists, a certain charm of masculine mystery. Something of this is doubtless perennial, yet may it not be in part referred to the tradition of her predecessors? In this connection it is noteworthy that three of her six heroines marry clergymen.

There are several points in the books by Miss Hill and Mr. Pollock to sustain this judgment. We hear a good deal of Jane Austen’s admiration for Richardson, — an admiration which may be not unsuggestively likened to the high regard of Cervantes for the Amadis de Gaule. There are, too, many significant personal details reported. Thus we are edified that Miss Austen was wont to attend the play armed with two handkerchiefs; and that on one occasion, when seeing Miss O’Neil as Isabella, she was somewhat put out at having but scant use for one. In the following half-playful advice to a niece engaged in the composition of a novel there is an undercurrent of seriousness which points to the same thing: “Your aunt C. does not like desultory novels, and is rather afraid yours will be too much so. … It will not be so great an objection to me if it is. I allow much more latitude than she does, and think nature and spirit cover many sins of a wandering story. … What can you do with Egerton to increase the interest for him? I wish you could contrive something, … something to carry him mysteriously away, and then be heard of at York or Edinburgh in an old greatcoat. … Devereaux Forester’s been ruined by his vanity is extremely good, but I wish you would not let him plunge into ‘a vortex of dissipation.’ I do not object to the thing, but I cannot bear the expression; it is such thoroughly novel slang, and so old that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened.”

It is, indeed, not wholly fanciful to affirm that the relation of Jane Austen to the romance of sensibility is very much the same as that of Cervantes to the books of chivalry, or of Heine to German romanticism. She is at once its satirist and its best exponent; her work is its apotheosis and siderealization.

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The final effect of the two books under consideration, with their anecdotes of Jane Austen and long citations from the novels and letters, is to help the reader to savor more subtly her literary personality. Think of any other woman of anything like her genius, and try to realize the difference. Mary Wollstonecraft, Madame de Staël, the Brontës, George Sand, Mrs. Browning, George Eliot, — in the writings of such women we find a passionate prodigality of dietation, sometimes an exenteration of ideas, sometimes awkwardness and constraint; almost always a tendency to a certain hectic quality in form and content, and almost never the graceful pellucidity of thought, the easy felicity of diction which eternalize the writings of Jane Austen. Heine has just been mentioned; the reader will recall his summary remark: “All women write with one eye on the paper, and the other on some man, — all except the Countess Hahn-Hahn, who has only one eye.” Jane Austen, with two very excellent eyes, was another exception, and to this, doubtless, much of her preëminence is due. The secret of her abiding charm lies in the fair balance of her temperament. There was in her nature no hint of the unduly strenuous, no morbid desire. She was, in truth, the Euphues of her sex: not the precious, word-dallying hero of Lyly, but the Eύφυής of Plato, a fair nature; one in whom clear vision and lively affections are at such perfect balance as to find ready and copious expression in graceful, pliant speech.

  1. Jane Austen, her Contemporaries, and herself. An Essay in Criticism. By Walter Herries Pollock.
  2. Jane Austen, her Homes and her Friends. By Constance Hill.