Her first biographer humbly wished her to be placed beside such novelists as Fanny Burney and Maria Edgewerth and no more. But about 1890 the tide of appreciation and popularity markedly turned in her favour and, correspondingly, against her contemporary, Sir Walter Scott. Today she needs no advocate as she has made a secure niche in the temple of fame from where she cannot possibly be dislodged-at least for many years to come. In the twentieth century she has been made the object of numerous biographies and appreciations. Almost every piece of her writing has been carefully and lovingly edited and commented upon; almost every aspect of her singularly uneventful life has been brought out and sympathetically examined. Her works in their entirety have been vastly read and extolled, and she has been characterised as the greatest female novelist of England and one of the best of all novelists. F. R. Leavis gives her a sort of five-star rating by including her in the “Great Tradition.” Let us quote here a modern representative opinion-that of David Daiches: “The greatests of all the novelists of manners of this orany other period and one who raised the whole genre to a new level of art was Jane Austen (1775-1817). With no exhibitionist critical apparatus, such as Fielding’s theory of the comic epic, no pretentiously moral purpose such as Richardson kept repeating, and indeed with no apparent awareness that she was doing more than essaying some novels in an established social mode, this unpretentious daughter of a Hampshire rector, with her quietly penetrating vision of man as a social animal, her ironic awareness of the tensions between spontaneity and convention and between the claims of personal morality and those of social and economic propriety, her polished and controlled wit. and beneath all her steady moral apprehension of the human relationships, produced some of the greatest novels in English.” Jane Austen wrote no more than six novels, but each of them is a masterpiece in its own right.
The correct evaluation of Jane Austen as a novelist has come only recently. Her genius was not recognised by her contemporaries or even her successors. None of her books saw a second edition in her lifetime. The collected edition of her works which was brought out in 1833 could not be sold for about half a century.
Considered strictly as an artist, Jane Austen is superior to most of her predecessors as also successors. Most English novelists have had the fault of carelessness. Scott, for example, never revised a line of his own, simply because he had no time for it. In the novels of Dickens also we come across passages which could have been easily improved with a little care. Jane Austen was, by contrast, extremely careful and painstaking. For months together, after finishing a novel, she would go on revising it till she found it incapable of further improvement. Her meticulous artistic concern for form, presentation, and style cannot be exaggerated. “It is”, observes Diana Neill, “not, therefore, surprising that the final versions of her novels had a formal perfection-no loose ends, no padding, no characterization for its own sake, and a flawlessly consistent idiom suited to the person who used it.” What is remarkable about Jane Austen, therefore, is the flawlessness of her art. Everything in her novels is carefully conceived and exquisitely executed.
Her Range and Themes:
Jane Austen’s art as a novelist has stringently set limits which she seldom oversteps. She was amazingly aware which side her genius lay and she exploited it accordingly without any false notions of her capabilities or limitations. As Lord David Cecil points out, she very wisely stayed “within the range of her imaginative inspiration.” Her “imaginative inspiration” was as severely limited as, for example, Hardy’s or Arnold Bennett’s. Her themes, her characters, her moral vision, her observation-everything has a well-etched range within which she works, and works most exquisitely. Let us now glance at the territories of her art and achievement.
(i) All her novels have for their scene of action South England where she lived and which she knew so well. However, her novels cannot be called “regional novels” in a category with, say, Hardy’s Wessex novels, because she does not particularly concern herself with the landscape and other peculiar features of the region she deals with. She is, as has been said by Robert Liddell, a “pure novelist” whose concern and study are “human beings and their mutual relations.” Regionalism as such is unknown to her.
(ii) She deals only with one peculiar mode of existence. Her novels are all about the upper middle classes and their (mostly trivial) activities. Moody and Lovett observe: “The chief business of these people, as Miss Austen saw them, was attention to social duties; their chief interest was matrimony. This world Miss Austen represents in her novels; outside of which she never steps.” The same critics observe: “Unlike Maria Edgeworth, whose novels represented a considerable range of social experience, Miss Austen exploited with unrivalled expertness the potentialities of a seemingly narrow mode of existence.”
(iii) Jane Austen had an eye for the minutiae of life. Theatricals, tea parties, and balls were the most important events in the placid life of her own family and her neighbourhood. These very things are given the pride of place in her novels. The most “thrilling” events are nothing more than an elopement or a runaway marriage. In her novels there are no storms-except those in tea cups.
(iv) There is thus no adventure, no passion, and no “romance” in her novels. There are no deeply stirring tempests either literal or psychic, such as we find, for example, in the novels of the Bronte sisters. Charlotte Bronte herself was constrained to observe about Jane Austen: “She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her : she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood.”
(v) She was not a romantic novelist of the kind of either the Brontes or Scott. Temperamentally she belonged more to the eighteenth century than her own age which was then being swept over by a strong current of the Romantic Revival. Once when she was invited to write a romance of the kind of Scott’s novels, her reply was perfectly clear: “I am fully sensible that [such a romance] might be more to the purpose, profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could no more write a romance than an epic poem…No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way: and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.”
(vi) Jane Austen limits herself strictly to the depiction of personal relations. Now a man can be considered with reference to several kinds of relations such as :
(a) His relation to himself.
(b) His relation to other men and to his social environment.
(c) His relation to his country.
(d) His relation to Nature.
(e) His relation to God.
Except the second listed, Jane Austen neglects all other kinds of relations. David Cecil observes in this connection: “Man in relation to God, to politics, to abstract ideas, passed by her: it was only when she saw him with his family and his neighbours that her creative impulse began to stir to activity.”
(vii) Jane Austen refuses to deal with the seamy aspects of life. There are no murders or gory crimes in her novels. She shuts her eye even on financial matters, which are a major driving force in real life. Samuel C. Chew rightly complains that she knew nothing about finance.
Her Realism and Depiction of Social Manners:
These limitations of range should not be treated as so many imperfections. On the contrary, her awareness of these limitations is what exactly makes her a great novelist. Within her voluntarily demarcated range she never bungles. Her essentially anti-romantic temper made her a realist. She did what Scott did not. Cross observes: “She was a realist. She gave anew to the novel an art and a style, which it once had, particularly in Fielding, but which it had since lost.” She did not have Fielding’s range, and she also eschewed his masculine coarseness. She feminized Fielding. Even Scott admitted Jane Austen’s excellence-in her own field- He wrote in his diary about her: “That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements, feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I have ever met with. The big bow-wow I can do myself sets any one going, but the exquisite touch which renders commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of description and the sentiments is denied me.” Whether you consider Fanny’s visit to her parents’ home after an absence of more than ten years, or Darcy’s proposal to Elizabeth and its rejection, or the union of Emma with her lover after many many years, or such trivial incidents as a tea party, an evening-walk, a ball or a theatrical you are always struck by Jane Austen’s fidelity to life. For a novelist to be realistic what is required is not only a sense of intuition but also a very minute and searching observation. And this Jane Austen has as her forte. It is not surprising that her favourite poet happened to be Crabbe-that unswerving realist. Her range is limited, but within that she never fails. From a study of her novels, we can easily buil up an authentic picture of the life of middle classes of South England in the early nineteenth century.
Her Characterisation and Plot-construction:
Jane Austen is one of those novelists in whose works characters cannot be considered apart from plot. Characterisation and the building of plot go hand in hand in them, and quite often the two are interchangeable too. Her psychological insight into her characters, like her minute observation, needs no elaboration. Most of them are “round” characters and have an organic development in most cases, from self-deception to self-knowledge and self-realisation. Her female characters are certainly more complex and engaging than her men who have a certain softness about them. Her characters are all highly individualized and yet they have something of the universal about them. They reveal themselves not in moments of crisis but during their engagement in the trivial activities of social life. Jane Austen herself was so convinced of the reality of her fictive characters that, as Chew puts it, “she would narrate to her family incidents in their lives which do not occur in the book.”
One of Jane Austen’s achievements and merits is her excellence at plot-construction. Very few English novelists have given as well integrated plots as she has. All the characters in a Jane Austen novel are essential to its plot; even the very minor ones cannot be justifiably separated from it on the ground of being superfluous or supernumerary. She has something like the architectonic ability of a dramatist. Numerous of her novels have been split by critics into so many acts of a drama. About the structure of Pride and Prejudice Cross observes: “The marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy is not merely a possible solution of the plot, it is as inevitable as the conclusion of a properly contructed syllogism or geometrical demonstration. For a parallel to workmanship of this high order one can only look to Shakespeare, to such a comedy as ‘Much Ado about Nothing.’ Mostly, Jane Austen keeps herself, like a dramatist, behind the stage, and lets her characters unfold themselves through their own action and dialogue. She rarely introduces them like Fielding, Meredith, or Thackeray, or offers to comment upon what they are doing. Her own impressions and opinions are delivered not as regular interpolations but in the record of action and dialogue.
Humour, Satire, and Irony:
This detachment from her characters is, mostly, ironic in nature. Her irony, like her humour and comedy, is of the quiet, unobtrusive kind. As Cecil puts it, “humour was an integral part of her creative process.” She laughs at the social aberrations and irrationalities of her characters. She is a satirist but shows no evidence of holding a lash in readiness. She paints more the follies of manners than morals. “Her province,” says Samuel C.Chew, “is not that of sombre delinquency but of venial error. The faults in her characters are mostly due to bad training or want of training in youth. In older people these are often beyond repair; but in young, especially the young lovers, they are purged and done away through tribulations which are nonetheless poignant for being generally misunderstandings. Each book is thus a history of self-education and self-correction.” “Jane Austen”, observes Compton-Rickett, “never lashed our follies, she faintly arched her eyebrows and passed on.” She constantly considered decorum, grace, tolerance, sympathy and self-respect with their opposites like ill-breeding, coarseness, intolerance, selfishness, and self-humiliation. However, she is never harsh, and she never arrogates to herself any pontifical dignity. She is convinced of the ordinariness of life and all its appurtenances. Her tolerance as a moralist places her beside Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Fielding.
A word now about her style which is a monument of grace, lucidity, intelligence, perception and a kind of “feminine” charm. “There are,” says Samuel C. Chew, “qualities of Miss Austen’s style-the delicate precision, the nice balance, the seeming simplicity-which remind many readers of Congreve’s comedies.” As examples of her typical ironic wit consider the following sentences:
(a) It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
Pride and Prejudice
(b) Her father was a clergyman without being neglected or poor, and a very respectable man though his name was Richard and he had never been handsome.
(c) When Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice laments that after her husband’s death she will become destitute, he consoles her:
“My dear,” [says her husband] “do not give way to such gloomy thoughts. Let us hope for better things. Let us flatter ourselves that I may be the survivor.”