Not Among the Greatest of the Novelists
Jane Austen occupies a high rank among English novelists, though she is certainly not one of the greatest of them. Her chief characteristics as a novelist are as follows:
She is a realist who draws her materials from actual life as she sees it. Her stories are perfectly credible and convincing. There is nothing fantastic, fanciful, or far-fetched in them. She depicts the social life of her time and is thus a practitioner of the domestic novel or the novel of manners. Realism is the keynote of her novels whether they are considered from the point of view of story, characters, or setting.
Matrimony, Her Principal Theme
The principal theme of her novels is matrimony. She is pre-occupied with the business of making matches for her heroines. Generally, the heroine, after a few false starts, meets the right man, and a series of misunderstandings and frustrations occur to delay but never to prevent their union. Morning calls, dinner parties, dances, shopping expeditions, weddings, etc., are the principal ingredients of her stories.
Her Humour and Irony
Jane Austen is a humorist whose favourite weapon is irony. Irony is her forte and most of the humour proceeds from her use of it. Her novels are all comedies in which she exposes the absurdities and failings of her characters. She has a comedian’s attitude to life, and her vision is ironical and satirical. However, her humour is not of the boisterous type; it is a mild and subdued kind of humour. It may be noted also that there is little malice in her attitude, though a note of bitterness occasionally creeps into it. Her humour has been compared to that of Shakespeare, but that is an exaggeration.
She gives us an abundance of character-portraits. She shows an acute grasp of the human mind and human motives, and reveals these with great skill. She is not only concerned with the externals of character, but also with a psychological portrayal of it. Her studies of women are more successful than those of men. Another noteworthy feature about these novels is that there are neither any perfect or idealized characters nor any thorough villains in them.
Few Dramatic or Melodramatic Incidents
There are few dramatic or melodramatic incidents in her stories. Her exquisite touch renders commonplace things and characters interesting by virtue of the truth of description and the truth of sentiment. She is not interested in the paraphernalia of the “romantic” novel. Nor does she show any capacity to depict “passion”. There are no fiery outbursts in her stories, and no dwelling upon the passion of love. Nor do we have many tragic or heart-rending or deeply poignant situations to grieve us. She deals principally with the comic side of life, not its painful side.
Her narration shows a remarkable detachment or objectivity on her part. She does not interrupt her stories with her personal comments (as Thackeray and George Eliot often do). She does not obtrude herself on the reader’s attention, and her novels are free from intrusions by her. Nor is there any moralizing in her stories. A moral purpose is certainly there, but the reader is allowed to reach it by his own effort.
Her Limited Range
As her stories are based on her personal experience and an observation of the life around her, her range is extremely limited. She deals with a narrow mode of existence, and does not even show much interest in external nature. She excludes much of human life from her novels, because she does not have imagination enough to carry her beyond her own observation. But within her narrow range she is supreme. Her characters are true to life, and all her work has the perfection of a miniature painting.
LOUIS CAZAMIAN’S VIEW OF JANE AUSTEN
A Limited Outlook
The novels of Jane Austen deal almost wholly with the restricted circle of home life, and round it all social interests are gathered. The atmosphere is one of provincial calm with a very limited outlook, where the extremes of wealth and poverty are unknown. We find ourselves in a small world of country gentry, clergymen, and middle-class people, where social intercourse is smooth and simple. There are few incidents which can be called dramatic, although our attention is focused on shades of character. Jane Austen’s realism is more truly psychological than that of Richardson, for it is free from the tragic obsessions of a moral conscience. There is an extraordinary degree of truth in her pictures of reality. Each of her novels depicts a group of human beings, their relations with one another, their clashes and affinities, their mutual influences, and their conversations.
Her Understanding of the Human Character
Jane Austen shows an intuitive understanding of human character. Her intuition is so natural and supple that it appears absolutely simple. She reads the inner minds of her characters as if those minds were transparent. She seizes them in their depths. The secret complexities of self-love, the many vanities, the imperceptible quiverings of selfishness, are all indicated or suggested so calmly and with so sober a touch that the author’s personal reaction is reduced to a minimum. Her stories are perfectly objective and show a spirit of gentle tolerance, though a subtle suggestion of irony hovers over every page and reveals a sharpness of vision that could be extremely severe.
The Spirit of Classicism
There is little sentimentality in her novels which show a delicacy of touch, a sense of balance, and a serene reasonableness. These novels reflect the spirit of classicism in its highest form and in its most essential quality. They show a safe, orderly harmony in the writer’s mind, a harmony where the intellect is supreme. So classical is her method that we are strongly reminded of the art of the great French analysts. She writes in a manner that shows her aloofness from the Romanticism which had spread its power around her. One of her first novels, Northanger Abbey, is a most penetrating criticism of the self- deception practised by those whose souls are intoxicated with the spell of artificial fear. Her attitude towards Romanticism became less critical with the passing of time. In Mansfield Park and Persuasion there is a warming of the thought, a greater tenderness of feeling, and an easier reconciliation with the spirit of her times. She is not in complete agreement with the hierarchy of the social order, but she does not give any signs of revolt. Her moral teaching is characterized by a wisdom which is free from all illusions. Her moral teaching is the fruit of a perfectly healthy heart and mind.
The Delineation of Women
Her novels contain a wealth of character studies. These character studies are not all equally good. Her studies of women are more searching and more life-like than those of men. She has delineated character from the inside with the full and finished touch of the great masters; and she can also sketch figures with so sure and suggestive a pen that they stand out on a strong and unforgettable ground. Her power of perception is keen and fresh. She immediately grasps the individual traits, the odd as well as the comic. Her work represents in an original way the internal comedy of life with all its whims and fancies. Reality awakens in her a spirit of amusement without bitterness. Her grasp of character does not destroy the concrete sense of faces, gestures, and acts. She abundantly possesses the implicit eloquence of humour.
A Unique Charm
Her range of effects is wonderfully varied. Pride and Prejudice shows a piquant, youthful gaiety. Her art here is almost perfect. Her last novels show a mellow maturity, though a less sure art. They are less free from lengthy or weak passages, but are richer in moral significance. But all the novels possess a unique charm associated with a most sober distinction of technique and style.
SOME OTHER OPINIONS ABOUT JANE AUSTEN
1. The Truth of the Description and the
Sentiment in Her Novels
Sentiment in Her Novels
“That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements, feelings, and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful thing I have ever met with. The big bow-wow I can do myself like anyone going, but the exquisite touch which renders commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied me.—Sir Walter Scott.
2. Unequalled Within Her Own Field
Very few English writers ever had so narrow a field of work as Jane Austen. Like the French novelists, whose success seems to lie in choosing the tiny field that they know best, her works have an exquisite perfection that is lacking in most of our writers of fiction. With the exception of an occasional visit to the watering-place of Bath, her whole life was spent in small country parishes, whose simple country people became the characters of her novels. Her brothers were in the navy, and so naval officers furnished the only exciting element in her stories; but even these alleged heroes lay aside their imposing martial ways and act like themselves and other people. Such was her literary field, in which the chief duties were of the household, the chief pleasures in country gatherings, and the chief interests in matrimony. Life, with its mighty interests, its passions, ambitions, and tragic struggles swept by like a great river; while the secluded interests of a country parish went round and round quietly. We can easily understand, therefore, the limitations of Jane Austen; but within her own field she is unequalled. Her characters are absolutely true to life, and all her work has the perfection of a miniature painting. The most widely read of her novels is Pride and Prejudice: but three others, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Mansfield Park, have slowly won their way to the front rank of fiction. From a literary view-point Northanger Abbey is perhaps the best; for in it we find that touch of humour and delicate satire with which this gentle little woman combated the grotesque popular novels of the Udolpho type.—William J. Long.
3. Her Realism
The area of experience with which she could deal was naturally determined by her own life. She has been said to hold a mirror up to life and it is apparent to any reader of her letters that she mirrors the life she knew. The family names –Marianne, Anne, Henry; the family professions — the church, the militia, the navy, landowning; the family gatherings, journeys, walks; the countryside she knew; the streets of Bath and Lyme; the conventions and the manners of her time are all recorded. But we must remember that the mirror is not a true one — it is deflected by her own outlook as moralist and ironist.
Her interest is in human motive, the reactions of individuals to each other; and therefore a narrow social setting was ideal material for her. The small area of experience allowed closer analysis of recurring situations and types; she could deal with them with absolute accuracy by never stepping beyond the limits of her personal knowledge.
No Strong Passions
Charlotte Bronte said that the passions were perfectly unknown to Jane Austen. Certainly the surface of the novels does not immediately suggest strong passions. Jane Austen, in choosing to delineate as accurately as possible the life she knew, recognized that life was not likely to include mad wives, French mistresses, orphans and the rest of the paraphernalia of the romantic novel. Her prime belief that one should come to terms with the reality of life, that one should deal only with what was probable, is as much part of her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, as it is of Emma. And since her settings are the drawing-rooms, ball-rooms, parks and gardens of a civilized, leisured class, she was unlikely to introduce lunatics, villains, or ghostly figures.
As a novelist, Jane Austen works within strict limitations. This is often put forward as a criticism of her work. It has been said, for example, that she had only one plot, that her subject- matter is limited, superficial, repetitive, and without any real seriousness or relevance to life. Certain limitations were imposed upon her by the conventions of the romantic novel, whose plot demanded that she should deal with the courtship and marriage of her heroine. But she herself claimed that she worked on a “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory”. She was conscious of her limitations, worked strictly within them, and turned them to her adavntage.– Norman Sherry
4. The Comic Spirit
Two-thirds of her dramatis personae are regular comic character- parts. And even those figures with whom she is most in sympathy, even her heroines, are almost all touched with the comic spirit. Two of them, Emma and Elizabeth Bennet, are a great deal cleverer than most heroines of fiction; one of them, Anne Elliot, is very good. But all three are flesh and blood workaday creatures, able to laugh, if not to be laughed at.
She possesses in the highest degree the one essential gift of a novelist, the power to create living characters. It is true that she only draws them in their private aspect, but this is not a superficial aspect. A man’s relation to his wife and children is at least as important a part of his life as his relation to his beliefs and career, and reveals him as fundamentally. Indeed, it reveals his moral side more fundamentally. If we want to know about a man’s talents, we should see him in society; if we want to know about his temper, we should see him at home. Furthermore, Jane Austen shows man as a rule not in moments of crisis but in the trivial incidents of every day. After all, life is made up of little things, and human nature reveals itself in them as fully as in big ones. A picnic shows up selfishness, kindness, vanity, sincerity, as much as a battle. Only we must have the faculty to perceive them. Jane Austen had this faculty. Not Dickens himself can visualise outward idiosyncrasies of his creatures more vividly, their manner, their charm, their tricks of speech. But she does not have to present man involved in major catastrophes. However, if her plot demands it, she shows adequate capacity for portraying her characters in moments of serious crisis. Lousia Musgrove, skipping down the steps of the Cobb at Lyme, stumbles and falls apparently lifeless. With acute insight Jane Austen illustrates the way the rest of the party react to this disaster: how the egotistic Mary Musgrove is absorbed in her egotistic agitation, how the unrestrained Henrietta collapses, how Wentworth’s sympathetic imagination pictures at once the effect of the news on Louisa’s parents, how Anne alone, unselfish, self-controlled, keeps her presence of mind. But though we admire Jane Austen’s insight, it tells us nothing new about these people. The uneventful walks and dinner-parties where we have already seen them have already revealed their temperaments and natures to us.
— Lord David Cecil
5. Her Finely Etched Pictures of Social Life
In the daily routine of visits, shopping, sewing, gossip, and other trivial matters which are regarded with an easy liveliness in her letters, Jane Austen found the raw material of her novels. The world which her books present to us is essentially an eighteenth-century world in its habits, tastes, and appearance. She wrote just before the Industrial Revolution changed for the worse so much of the face of England, and the clean stillness of her country-towns, the unspoiled beauty of her countryside with its well-kept estates and cheerful farms, provide a perfect background to her finely etched pictures of social life. There is a luminous clarity about her style as well as about the scenes she portrays. She was describing, though she did not know it, the last generation of Englishmen and Englishwomen who could face life with cheerfulness, decorum, and determination to go through the appropriate motions with grace, elegance, and enjoyment. This is neither romanticism nor sentimentality but she shows a remarkable insight into the relation between social convention and individual temperament.
Her Deliberately Restricted Scope
It has often been remarked that, although the Napoleonic Wars were going on throughout Jane Austen’s writing career, she keeps mention of them out of her novels, in which soldiers appear only as attractions for the girls or in some similar social capacity. This is a tribute not to her narrowness, but to the calm accuracy with which she saw her subject. In the days when wars were fought by small professional armies, the impact of the fighting on the daily life of people living in small country-towns was negligible, and it would have unrealistic as well as artistically inappropriate for Jane Austen to have expanded her horizon to include discussions of world-affairs which were not relevant to the situations she was presenting. She worked deftly and wittily, and restricted her scope deliberately because her intention was—miscrocosmic—to create a world in little, perfectly proportioned and shown in the liveliest detail, and an accurate model of the total social world of which this was only a small part. — David Daiches
6. Vicious Men in her Novels
Jane Austen knew that vicious men existed, and frequently flourished. Wick-ham, Willoughby, and Crawford are all seducers, but she warns us that we must not look for the satisfaction of seeing them ruined. Of Willoughby she expressly says: “That he was for ever inconsolable, that he fled from society, or contracted a habitual gloom of temper, or died of a broken heart, must not be depended on, for he did neither. He lived to exert, and frequently to enjoy himself.” Each had at some stage a prospect of gaining the heroine’s affections, and each failed: Elizabeth looked first for Wickham at Netherfield ball; Fanny was softening towards a reformed Crawford; Willoughby held Marianne’s heart in his hand. Their real crime is that they do not know a good thing when they see it, and their punishment is that they miss their chance. And they do not care a bit. Frank Churchill, prepared to risk Emma’s happiness to provide cover for his own, is let off with mere strictures; and Mr. Woodhouse, gentlest of rebukers, sums him up as “not quite the thing”. Mr. Woodhouse may not be formidable, but his disapproval is.
7. The Reputation of Jane Austen
Jane Austen’s literary reputation established itself unobtrusively but steadily. Within her own generation she obtained recognition. Scott was among her earliest and most spontaneous admirers; but, to the generation that followed, her novels necessarily appeared old-fashioned: the very language belonged to the past century. Macaulay’s enthusiasm, when he likened her to Shakespeare and Moliere, was premature, and perhaps unguarded. Other writers, from Southey to Henry James, have been content to cherish a private appreciation of her art. General approbation grew, however, until in 1910 E.V. Lucas called her “an English classic”. Since A.C. Bradley recalled critical attention to the peculiar quality of her genius (in 1911), her standing as a novelist has not been seriously challenged; detraction has fastened on her character, alleging that her apprehension was dull, her temperament cold, her mind and heart narrow — despite the contrary witness of biographical accounts based on personal recollection or family tradition. Appreciation of the moral sensibility and seriousness discoverable in her novels has lately advanced, at some cost to the enjoyment of her wit. — Mary Lascelles