/*bootstrap*/ My Maugham Collection Concordance Library: Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice
Newly Added: The Razor's Edge

Follow by Email

Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice

Non-Fiction > Ten Novels and Their Authors >


(1)

The events of Jane Austen’s life can be told very briefly. The Austens were an old family whose fortunes, like those of many of the greatest families in England, had been founded on the wool trade, which was at one time the country’s staple industry; and having made money, again like others of greater importance, they had bought land and so, in course of time, joined the ranks of the landed gentry. But the branch of the family to which Jane Austen belonged seems to have inherited very little of such wealth as its other members possessed. It had come down in the world. Jane’s father, George Austen, was the son of William Austen, a surgeon of Tonbridge, a profession which at the beginning of the eighteenth century was regarded no more highly than the attorney’s; and, as we know from Persuasion, even in Jane Austen’s day an attorney was a person of no social consequence. It shocks Lady Russell, ‘the widow only of a knight’, that Miss Elliot, the daughter of a baronet, should have social relations with Mrs. Clay, daughter of an attorney, ‘who ought to have been nothing to her but the object of distant civility.’ William Austen, the surgeon, died early, and his brother, Francis Austen, sent the orphaned boy to Tonbridge School and afterwards to St. John’s College, Oxford. These facts I learn from Dr. R. W. Chapman’s Clark Lectures, which he has published under the title Jane Austen Facts and Problems. For all that follows I am indebted to this admirable book.

George Austen became a Fellow of his college and, on taking orders, was presented with the living of Steventon, in Hampshire, by a kinsman, Thomas Knight of Godmersham. Two years later, George Austen’s uncle bought him the near-by living of Deane. Since we are told nothing of this generous man, we may surmise that, like Mr. Gardner in Pride and Prejudice, he was in trade.

The Rev. George Austen married Cassandra Leigh, the daughter of Thomas Leigh, a Fellow of All Souls and incumbent of the living of Harpsden near Henley. She was what was known in my youth as well-connected; that is to say, like the Hares of Hurstmonceux, she was distinctly related to members of the landed gentry and the aristocracy. It was a step up for the surgeon’s son. Eight children were born of the marriage: two daughters, Cassandra and Jane, and six sons. To add to his income, the rector of Steventon took pupils, and his sons were educated at home. Two went to St. John’s College, Oxford, because through their mother they were founder’s Kin; of one, George by name, nothing is known, and Dr. Chapman suggests that he was deaf and dumb; two others entered the Navy and had careers of distinction: the lucky one was Edward, who was adopted by Thomas Knight and inherited his estates in Kent and Hampshire.

Jane, Mrs. Austen’s younger daughter, was born in 1775. When she was twenty-six, her father resigned his living in favour of his eldest son, who had taken orders, and moved to Bath. He died in 1805, and some months later his widow and daughters settled in Southampton. It was while there that, after paying a call with her mother, Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra: ‘We found only Mrs. Lance at home, and whether she boasts any offspring besides a grand pianoforte did not appear … They live in a handsome style and are rich, and she seems to like to be rich; we gave her to understand that we were far from being so; she will soon feel that we are not worth her acquaintance.’ Mrs. Austen was indeed left badly off, but her sons added enough to her income to enable her to live in tolerable comfort. Edward, after making the Grand Tour, married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Brook Bridges, Bart., of Goodnestone; and three years after Thomas Knight’s death in 1794, his widow made over to him Godmersham and Chawton and retired to Canterbury with an annuity. A good many years later, Edward offered his mother a house on either of his estates; she chose Chawton; and there, with occasional visits, sometimes lasting for many weeks, to friends and relations, Jane lived till illness obliged her to go to Winchester in order to put herself in the hands of better doctors than could be found in the country. At Winchester in 1817 she died. She was buried in the Cathedral.

(2)

Jane Austen is said to have been in person very attractive: ‘Her figure was rather tall and slender, her step light and firm, and her whole appearance expressive of health and animation. In complexion she was a clear brunette with a rich colour; she had full round cheeks with mouth and nose small and well-formed, bright hazel eyes, and brown hair forming natural curls close round her face.’ The only portrait of her I have seen shows a fat-faced young woman with undistinguished features, large round eyes and an obtrusive bust; but it may be that the artist did her less than justice.

Jane was greatly attached to her sister. As girls and women they were very much together and, indeed, shared the same bedroom till Jane’s death. When Cassandra was sent to school, Jane went with her because, though too young to profit by such instruction as the seminary for young ladies provided, she would have been wretched without her. ‘If Cassandra were going to have her head cut off,’ said her mother, ‘Jane would insist on sharing her fate.’ ‘Cassandra was handsomer than Jane, of a colder and calmer disposition, less demonstrative and of a less sunny nature; but she had the merit of always having her temper under command, but Jane had the happiness of a temper that never required to be commanded.’ Most of Jane’s letters that have remained were written to Cassandra when one or other of the sisters was staying away. Many of her warmest admirers have found them paltry, and have thought they showed that she was cold and unfeeling and that her interests were trivial. I am surprised. They are very natural. Jane Austen never imagined that anyone but Cassandra would read them, and she told her just the sort of things that she knew would interest her. She told her what people were wearing, and how much she had paid for the flowered muslin she had bought, what acquaintances she had made, what old friends she had met and what gossip she had heard.

Of late years, several collections of letters by eminent authors have been published, and for my part, when I read them, I am now and then disposed to suspect that the writers had at the back of their minds the notion that one day they might find their way into print. And when I learn that they had kept copies of their letters, the suspicion is changed into certainty. When André Gide wished to publish his correspondence with Claudel, and Claudel, who perhaps didn’t wish it to be published, told him that Gide’s letters had been destroyed, Gide answered that it was no matter as he had kept copies of them. André Gide has told us himself that when he discovered that his wife had burned his love letters to her, he cried for a week, since he had looked upon them as the summit of his literary achievement and his chief claim on the attention of posterity. Whenever Dickens went on a journey, he wrote long letters to his friends in which he described eloquently the sights he had seen; and which, as John Forster, his first biographer, justly observes, might well have been printed without the alteration of a single word. People were more patient in those days; still, one would have thought it a disappointment to receive a letter from your friend, who gave you word pictures of mountains and monuments when you would have been glad to know whether he had run across anyone of interest, what parties he had been to and whether he had been able to get you the books, neck-clothes or handkerchiefs you had asked him to bring home.

In one of her letters to Cassandra, Jane said: ‘I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth. I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter.’ Of course she was quite right; that is the art of letter-writing. She attained it with consummate ease, and since she says that her conversation was exactly like her letters, and her letters are full of witty, ironical and malicious remarks, we may be pretty sure that her conversation was delightful. She hardly ever wrote a letter that had not a smile or a laugh in it, and for the delectation of the reader I will give some examples of her manner:

‘Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.’

‘Only think of Mrs. Holder being dead! Poor woman, she has done the only thing in the world she could possibly do to make one cease to abuse her.’

‘Mrs. Hale, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.’

‘The death of Mrs. W. K. we had seen. I had no idea that anybody liked her, and therefore felt nothing for any survivor, but I am now feeling away on her husband’s account and think he had better marry Miss Sharpe.’

‘I respect Mrs. Chamberlayne for doing her hair well, but cannot feel a more tender sentiment. Miss Langley is like any other short girl with a broad nose and wide mouth, fashionable dress and exposed bosom. Admiral Stanhope is a gentlemanlike man, but then his legs are too short and his tail too long.’

‘Eliza has seen Lord Craven at Barton, and probably by this time at Kentbury, where he was expected for one day this week. She found his manners very pleasing indeed. The little flaw of having a mistress now living with him at Ashdown Park seems to be the only unpleasing circumstance about him.’

‘Mr. W. is about five or six and twenty, not ill-looking and not agreeable. He is certainly no addition. A sort of cool, gentlemanlike manner, but very silent. They say his name is Henry, a proof how unequally the gifts of fortune are bestowed. I have seen many a John and Thomas much more agreeable.’

‘Mrs. Richard Harvey is going to be married, but as it is a great secret, and only known to half the neighbourhood, you must not mention it.’

‘Dr. Hale is in such very deep mourning that either his mother, his wife or himself must be dead.’

Miss Austen was fond of dancing and she gave Cassandra an account of the balls she went to:

‘There were only twelve dances, of which I danced nine, and was merely prevented from dancing the rest by want of a partner.’

‘There was one gentleman, an officer of the Cheshire, a very good-looking young man, who, I was told, wanted very much to be introduced to me; but as he did not want it quite enough to take much trouble in effecting it, we never could bring it about.’

‘There were few beauties, and such as there were, were not very handsome. Miss Iremonger did not look well and Mrs. Blunt was the only one much admired. She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband and fat neck.’

‘Charles Powlett gave a dance on Thursday to the great disturbance of all his neighbours, of course, who you know take a most lively interest in the state of his finances, and live in hopes of his being soon ruined. His wife is discovered to be everything that the neighbourhood would wish her to be, silly and cross as well as extravagant.’

A relation of the Austens seems to have given occasion to gossip owing to the behaviour of a certain Dr. Mant, behaviour such that his wife retired to her mother’s, whereupon Jane wrote: ‘But as Dr. M. is a clergyman their attachment, however immoral, has a decorous air.’

Miss Austen had a sharp tongue and a prodigious sense of humour. She liked to laugh, and she liked to make others laugh. It is asking too much of the humorist to expect him – or her – to keep a good thing to himself when he thinks of it. And, heaven knows, it is hard to be funny without being sometimes a little malicious. There is not much kick in the milk of human kindness. Jane had a keen appreciation of the absurdity of others, their pretensions, their affectations and their insincerities; and it is to her credit that they amused rather than annoyed her. She was too amiable to say things to people that would pain them, but she certainly saw no harm in amusing herself at their expense with Cassandra. I see no ill-nature even in the most biting of her remarks; her humour was based, as humour should be, on observation and mother-wit. But when there was occasion for it, Miss Austen could be serious. Though Edward Austen inherited from Thomas Knight estates in Kent and in Hampshire, he lived for the most part at Godmersham Park, near Canterbury, and here Cassandra and Jane came in turn to stay, sometimes for as long as three months. His eldest daughter, Fanny, was Jane’s favourite niece. She eventually married Sir Edward Knatchbull, whose son was raised to the peerage and assumed the title of Lord Brabourne. It was he who first published Jane Austen’s letters. There are two which she wrote to Fanny, when that young person was considering how to cope with the attentions of a young man who wanted to marry her. They are admirable both for their cool sense and their tenderness.

It was a shock to Jane Austen’s many admirers when, a few years ago, Mr. Peter Quennell published in The Cornhill a letter which Fanny, by this time Lady Knatchbull, many years later wrote to her younger sister, Mrs. Rice, in which she spoke of her famous aunt. It is so surprising, but so characteristic of the period, that, having received permission from the late Lord Brabourne to do so, I here reprint it. The italics mark the words the writer underlined. Since Edward Austen in 1812 changed his name to Knight, it may be worth while to point out that the Mrs. Knight Lady Knatchbull refers to is the widow of Thomas Knight. From the way the letter begins, it is evident that Mrs. Rice was uneasy about some things she had heard that reflected on her Aunt Jane’s gentility, and had written to enquire whether they were by any frightful chance true. Lady Knatchbull replied as follows:

‘Yes my love it is very true that Aunt Jane from various circumstances was not so refined as she ought to have been from her talent, and if she had lived fifty years later she would have been in many respects more suitable to our more refined tastes. They were not rich & the people around with whom they chiefly mixed, were not at all high bred, or in short anything more than mediocre & they of course tho’ superior in mental powers & cultivation were on the same level as far as refinement goes – but I think in later life their intercourse with Mrs. Knight (who was very fond & kind to them) improved them both & Aunt Jane was too clever not to put aside all possible signs of “commonness” (if such an expression is allowable) & teach herself to be more refined at least in intercourse with people in general. Both the aunts (Cassandra and Jane) were brought up in the most complete ignorance of the World & its ways (I mean as to fashion etc.) & if it had not been for Papa’s marriage which brought them into Kent, & the kindness of Mrs. Knight, who used often to have one or other of the sisters staying with her, they would have been, tho’ not less clever and agreeable in themselves, very much below par as to good society and its ways. If you hate all this I beg yr’ pardon, but I felt it at my pen’s end & it chose to come along & speak the truth. It is now nearly dressing time …

‘… I am ever beloved Sister yours most affec.

‘F.C.K.’

This letter has excited the indignation of Jane’s devotees, and they have claimed that Lady Knatchbull was senile when she wrote it. There is nothing in the letter to suggest that; nor, surely, would Mrs. Rice have written to make the enquiry had she thought her sister in no condition to answer it. It has seemed to the devotees dreadfully ungrateful that Fanny, whom Jane doted on, should have expressed herself in such terms. There they show themselves ingenuous. It is regrettable, but it is a fact, that children do not look upon their parents, or their relations belonging to another generation, with the same degree of affection as their parents, or relations look upon them. Parents and relations are very unwise to expect it. Jane, as we know, never married, and she gave Fanny something of the mother-love she would, had she married, have bestowed on her own children. She was fond of children, and was a favourite with them; they liked her playful ways and the long circumstantial stories she told them. She and Fanny became fast friends. Fanny could talk to her in a way that perhaps she couldn’t with her father, occupied with the pursuits of the country squire that he had become, or with her mother, who was continuously giving birth to offspring. But children have sharp eyes, and are apt to judge cruelly. When Edward Austen inherited Godmersham and Chawton, he rose in the world, and his marriage allied him with the best families of the County. We know nothing of what Jane and Cassandra thought of his wife. Dr. Chapman tolerantly suggests that it was her loss which made Edward feel ‘that he ought to do more for his mother and sisters, and induced him to offer them a cottage on one or other of his estates’. He had been in possession of them for twelve years. It seems to me more likely that his wife thought they did enough for the members of his family if they were asked at intervals to pay them visits, and did not welcome the notion of having them permanently settled on her doorstep; and it was her death that freed him to do what he liked with his own property. If this were so, it cannot have escaped Jane’s sharp eyes, and may well have suggested those passages in Sense and Sensibility in which she describes John Dashwood’s treatment of his stepmother and her daughters. Jane and Cassandra were poor relations. If they were asked to spend long periods with their rich brother and his wife, with Mrs. Knight at Canterbury, with Lady Bridges, Elizabeth Knight’s mother, at Goodnestone, it was a kindness of which their hosts were not improbably conscious. Few of us are so well constituted that we can do others a good turn without taking some credit to ourselves. When Jane went to stay with the elder Mrs. Knight, she always gave her a ‘tip’ at the end of her visit, which Jane accepted with alacrity, and in one of her letters to Cassandra she tells her that her brother Edward had given Fanny and her a present of five pounds. Quite a nice little present to give to a young daughter, kindly to give to a governess, but only patronising to give to a sister.

I am sure that Mrs. Knight, Lady Bridges, Edward and his wife, were very kind to Jane, and liked her, as how could they fail to, but it is not unreasonable to suppose that they thought the two sisters not quite up to the mark. They were provincial. There was still in the eighteenth century a good deal of difference between the people who lived for at least part of the year in London and those who never left the country. The difference provided the writers of comedy with their most fruitful material. Bingley’s sisters in Pride and Prejudice despised the Misses Bennet for their want of style, and Elizabeth Bennet on the other hand had little patience for what she considered their affectations. The Misses Bennet were a step higher in the social scale than the Misses Austen, because Mr. Bennet was a landed proprietor, though not a rich one, whereas the Rev. George Austen was a poor country parson.

It would not be strange if, with her upbringing, Jane was a trifle wanting in the elegances valued by the ladies of Kent; and if that were so, and it had escaped the sharp eyes of Fanny, we may be sure that her mother would have remarked on it. Jane was frank and outspoken, and I daresay often indulged in a blunt humour which those humourless females failed to appreciate. We can imagine their embarrassment if she said to them what she wrote to Cassandra, that she had a good eye for an adultress. She was born in 1775. That is only twenty-five years after the publication of Tom Jones, and there is no reason to suppose that in the interval the manners of the country had greatly changed. Jane’s may well have been such as Lady Knatchbull, fifty years later, considered, ‘below par as to good society and its ways.’ When Jane went to stay with Mrs. Knight at Canterbury, it is probable, from what Lady Knatchbull says, that the elder lady gave her hints on behaviour which made her more ‘refined’. It may be on that account that in her novels she lays so much stress on good breeding. A novelist to-day, writing of the same class as she did, would take that for granted. For my part, I can see nothing to blame in Lady Knatchbull’s letter. Her pen’s end ‘chose to come along and speak the truth’. And what of it? It does not offend me in the least to guess that Jane spoke with a Hampshire accent, that her manners lacked a certain polish, and that her home-made dresses were in bad taste. We know, indeed, from Caroline Austen’s Memoir, that the family were agreed that the sisters, notwithstanding their interest in clothes, did not dress well; but whether dowdily or unsuitably is not stated. The members of the family who have written about Jane Austen have been at pains to give it greater social consequence than in point of fact belonged to it. This was unnecessary. The Austens were nice, honest, worthy people, belonging to the fringe of the upper-middle class, and they were perhaps a little more conscious of their position than if it had been more assured. The sisters were at ease, as Lady Knatchbull observed, with the people with whom they chiefly consorted, and they, according to her, were not at all high-bred. When they were confronted with persons of somewhat higher station, like Bingley’s sisters, women of fashion, they were apt to protect themselves by being critical. Of the Rev. George Austen we know nothing. His wife seems to have been a good, rather silly woman, who was constantly troubled with ailments which her daughters appear to have treated with kindness not unmingled with irony. She lived to hard upon ninety. The boys, till they went out into the world, presumably indulged in such sport as the country provided and, when they could borrow a horse, rode to hounds.

Austen Leigh was Jane’s first biographer. There is a passage in his book from which, by the exercise of a little imagination, we can get some idea of the sort of life she led during the long quiet years she spent in Hampshire. ‘It may be asserted as a general truth,’ he writes, ‘that less was left to the charge and discretion of servants, and more was done, or superintended by the masters and mistresses. With regard to the mistresses, it is, I believe, generally understood that … they took a personal part in the higher branches of cookery, as well as in the concoction of home-made wines, and distilling of herbs for domestic medicine … Ladies did not disdain to spin thread out of which the household linen was woven. Some ladies liked to wash with their own hands their choice china after breakfast and tea.’ From the letters one gathers that sometimes the Austens were without a servant at all, and at others had to make do with a slip of a girl who knew nothing. Cassandra did the cooking, not because ladies ‘left less to the charge and discretion of servants’, but because there was no servant to do it. The Austens were neither poor nor rich. Mrs. Austen and her daughters made most of their own clothes, and the girls made their brothers’ shirts. They made their mead at home, and Mrs. Austen cured the household hams. Pleasures were simple and the great excitement was a ball given by one of the more affluent neighbours. There were in England, in that long-past time, hundreds of families who lived such quiet, humdrum and decent lives: is it not strange that one of them, without rhyme or reason, should have produced a greatly gifted novelist?

(3)

Jane was very human. In her youth she loved dancing and flirting and theatricals. She liked young men to be good-looking. She took a healthy interest in gowns, bonnets and scarves. She was a fine needlewoman, ‘both plain and ornamental’ and this must have stood her in good stead when she was making over an old gown and using part of a discarded skirt to fashion a new cap. Her brother Henry in his Memoir says: ‘Jane Austen was successful in everything that she attempted with her fingers. None of us could throw spilikins in so perfect a circle, or take them off with so steady a hand. Her performances with cup and ball were marvellous. The one used at Chawton was an easy one, and she has been known to catch it on the point a hundred times in succession, till her hand was weary. She sometimes found a resource in that simple game, when unable, from weakness in her eyes, to read or write long together.’

It is a charming picture.

No one could describe Jane Austen as a blue-stocking, a type with which she had no sympathy, but it is plain that she was far from being an uncultivated woman. She was, in fact, as well instructed as any woman of her time and station. Dr. Champman, the great authority on her novels, has made a list of the books she is known to have read. It is an imposing one. Of course she read novels, the novels of Fanny Burney, Miss Edgeworth and those of Mrs. Radcliffe (of The Mysteries of Udolpho); and she read novels translated from French and German (among others, Goethe’s Sorrows of Werther); and whatever novels she could get from the circulating library at Bath or Southampton. But she was interested not only in fiction. She knew her Shakespeare well and, among the moderns, she read Scott and Byron, but her favourite poet seems to have been Cowper. It is natural that his cool, elegant and sensible verse should have appealed to her. She read Johnson and Boswell, and a good deal of history, besides miscellaneous literature of various kinds. She was fond of reading aloud, and is said to have had a pleasant voice.

She read sermons, and was particularly fond of Sherlock’s, a divine born in the seventeenth century. That is not so surprising as at first sight appears. In my early youth I lived in a country vicarage, and in the study several shelves were closely packed with handsomely-bound collections of sermons. If they were published, it was presumably because they sold; and if they sold, it was because people read them. Jane Austen was pious without being devout. Of course she went to church on Sundays, and partook of communion; and doubtless both at Steventon and Godmersham family prayers were read morning and evening. But, as Dr. Chapman says: ‘It was admittedly not an age of religious ferment.’ Just as we take a bath every day and wash our teeth morning and evening, and only feel at ease if we have done so; so, I should think, Miss Austen, like most others of her generation, having with proper unction performed her religious duties, put away the matters with which religion is concerned, as one puts away an article of clothing one does not for the moment want, and, for the rest of the day and week, gave her whole mind with an untroubled conscience to secular affairs. ‘The evangelists were not yet.’ A gentleman’s younger son was properly provided for by taking orders and being given a family living. It was unnecessary that he should have a vocation, but desirable that the house he was to live in should be commodious and the income adequate. But, taking orders, it was only right that he should perform the duties of his profession. Jane Austen certainly believed that a clergyman should ‘live among his parishioners and prove himself by constant attention their well-wisher and friend’. That is what her brother Henry had done; he was witty and gay, the most brilliant of her brothers; he went into business and for some years greatly prospered; eventually, however, he went bankrupt. He then took orders, and was an exemplary parish priest.

Jane Austen shared the opinions common in her day and, so far as one can tell from her books and letters, was satisfied with the conditions that prevailed. She had no doubt that social distinctions were of importance, and she found it natural that there should be rich and poor. Young men, as was right and proper, obtained advancement in the service of the King by the influence of powerful friends. A woman’s business was to marry, for love certainly, but in satisfactory conditions. This was in the order of things, and there is no sign that Miss Austen saw anything in it to object to. In one of her letters to Cassandra she remarks: ‘Carlo and his wife live in the most private manner imaginable at Portsmouth, without keeping a servant of any kind. What a prodigious amount of virtue she must have to marry under such circumstances.’ The vulgar squalor in which Fanny Price’s family lived, owing to her mother’s imprudent marriage, was an object-lesson to show how careful a young woman should be.

(4)

Jane Austen’s novels are pure entertainment. If you happen to believe that to entertain should be the novelist’s main endeavour, you must put her in a class by herself. Greater novels than hers have been written, War and Peace, for example, and the Brothers Karamazov; but you must be fresh and alert to read them with profit. No matter if you are tired and dispirited, Jane Austen’s enchant.

At the time she wrote, it was thought far from ladylike for a woman to do so. Monk Lewis observed: ‘I have an aversion, a pity and contempt for all female scribblers. The needle, not the pen, is the instrument they should handle, and the only one they ever use dexterously.’ The novel was a form held in scant esteem, and Miss Austen was herself not a little perturbed that Sir Walter Scott, a poet, should write fiction. She was ‘careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants, or visitors, or any person beyond her family party. She wrote upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper. There was between the front door and the offices, a swing door which creaked when it was opened; but she objected to having this little inconvenience remedied, because it gave her notice when anyone was coming.’ Her eldest brother, James never even told his son, then a boy at school, that the books he read with delight were by his Aunt Jane; and her brother Henry in his Memoir states: ‘No accumulation of fame would have induced her, had she lived, to affix her name to any productions of her pen,’ So her first book to be published, Sense and Sensibility, was described on the title pages as ‘by a Lady’.

It was not the first she completed. That was a novel called First Impressions. Her father wrote to a publisher offering for publication, at the author’s expense or otherwise, a ‘manuscript novel, comprising three volumes; about the length of Miss Burney’s Evelina’. The offer was refused by return of post. First Impressions was begun during the winter of 1796 and finished in August 1797; it is generally supposed to have been substantially the same book as sixteen years later was issued as Pride and Prejudice. Then, in quick succession she wrote Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey, but had no better luck with them, though after five years a Mr. Richard Crosby bought the latter, then called Susan, for ten pounds. He never published it, and eventually sold it back for what he had paid: since Miss Austen’s novels were published anonymously, he had no notion that the book with which he had parted for so small a sum was by the successful and popular author of Pride and Prejudice. She seems to have written little but a fragment, The Watsons, between 1798, when she finished Northanger Abbey, and 1809. It is a long time for a writer of such creative power to remain silent, and it has been suggested that the cause was a love affair that occupied her to the exclusion of other interests. We are told that, when staying with her mother and sister at a seaside resort in Devonshire, ‘she became acquainted with a gentleman, whose charm of person, mind and manners was such that Cassandra thought him worthy to possess and likely to win her sister’s love. When they parted he expressed his intention of soon seeing them again; and Cassandra felt no doubt as to his motives. But they never again met. Within a short time, they heard of his sudden death.’ The acquaintance was short, and the author of the Memoir adds that he is unable to say ‘whether her feelings were of such a nature as to affect her happiness’. I do not for my part think they were. I do not believe that Miss Austen was capable of being very much in love. If she had been, she would surely have attributed to her heroines a greater warmth of emotion than in fact she did. There is no passion in their love. Their inclinations are tempered with prudence and controlled by common sense. Real love has no truck with these estimable qualities. Take Persuasion: Jane states that Anne Elliot and Wentworth fell deeply in love with one another. There, I think, she deceived herself and deceives her readers. On Wentworth’s side it was certainly what Stendhal called amour passion, but on Anne’s no more than what he called amour goût. They became engaged. Anne allows herself to be persuaded by that interfering snob, Lady Russell, that it would be imprudent to marry a poor man, a naval officer, who might be killed in the war. If she had been deeply in love with Wentworth, she would surely have taken the risk. It was not a very great one, for on her marriage she was to receive her share of her mother’s fortune; this share amounted to rather more than three thousand pounds, equivalent now to over twelve thousand; so in any case she would not have been penniless. She might very well, like Captain Benwick and Miss Hargreaves, have remained engaged to Wentworth till he got his command and so was able to marry her. Anne Elliot broke off her engagement because Lady Russell persuaded her that she might make a better match if she waited, and it was not till no suitor, whom she was prepared to marry, presented himself that she discovered how much she loved Wentworth. We may be pretty sure that Jane Austen thought her behaviour natural and reasonable.

The most plausible explanation of her long silence is that she was discouraged by her inability to find a publisher. Her close relations, to whom she read her novels, were charmed by them, but she was as sensible as she was modest, and she may well have decided that their appeal was only to persons who were fond of her, and had, perhaps, a shrewd idea who the models of her characters were. The author of the Memoir rejects emphatically that she had such models, and Dr. Chapman seems to agree with him. They are claiming for Jane Austen a power of invention which is frankly incredible. All the greatest novelists, Stendhal and Balzac, Tolstoy and Turgenev, Dickens and Thackeray, have had models from whom they created their characters. It is true that Jane said: ‘I am too proud of my gentlemen to admit that they were only Mr. A, or Colonel B.’ There the significant word is only. As with every other novelist, by the time her imagination had worked on the person who had suggested the character, he was to all intents and purposes her own creation; but that is not to say that he was not evolved from an original Mr. A. or Colonel B.

Be that as it may, in 1809, in which year Jane settled with her mother and sister in the quiet of Chawton, she set about revising her old manuscripts, and in 1811 Sense and Sensibility at last appeared. By then it was no longer outrageous for a woman to write. Professor Spurgeon, in a lecture on Jane Austen delivered to the Royal Society of Literature, quotes a preface to Original Letters from India by Eliza Fay. This lady had been urged to publish them in 1792, but public opinion was so averse ‘to female authorship’ that she declined. But writing in 1816, she said: ‘Since then a considerable change has gradually taken place in public sentiment, and its development; we have now not only as in former days a number of women who do honour to their sex as literary characters, but many unpretending females, who fearless of the critical perils that once attended the voyage, venture to launch their little barks on the vast ocean through which amusement or instruction is conveyed to a reading public.’

Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813. Jane Austen sold the copyright for one hundred and ten pounds.

Besides the three novels already mentioned, she wrote three more, Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. On these few books her fame rests, and her fame is secure. She had to wait a long time to get a book published, but she no sooner did then her charming gifts were recognised. Since then, the most eminent persons have agreed to praise her. I will only quote what Sir Walter Scott had to say; it is characteristically generous: ‘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 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 to me.’

It is odd that Sir Walter should have omitted to make mention of the young lady’s most precious talent: her observation was searching and her sentiment edifying, but it was her humour that gave point to her observation and a prim liveliness to her sentiment. Her range was narrow. She wrote very much the same sort of story in all her books, and there is no great variety in her characters. They are very much the same persons, seen from a somewhat different point of view. She had common sense in a high degree, and no one knew better than she her limitations. Her experience of life was confined to a small circle of provincial society, and that is what she was content to deal with. She wrote only of what she knew. As was first pointed out by Dr. Chapman, she never attempted to reproduce a conversation of men when by themselves, which in the nature of things she could never have heard.

It has been noticed that though she lived through some of the most stirring events of the world’s history, the French Revolution, the Terror, the rise and fall of Napoleon, she made no reference to them in her novels. She has on this account been blamed for an undue detachment. It should be remembered that in her day it was not polite for women to occupy themselves with politics, that was a matter for men to deal with; few women even read the newspapers; but there is no reason to suppose that, because she did not write about these events, she was not affected by them. She was fond of her family, two of her brothers were in the Navy, often enough in danger, and her letters show that they were much on her mind. But did she not display her good sense in not writing about such matters? She was too modest to suppose that her novels would be read long after her death; but if that had been her aim, she could not have acted more wisely than she did in avoiding to deal with affairs which from the literary standpoint were of passing interest. Already the novels concerned with the Second World War that have been written in the last few years are as dead as mutton. They were as ephemeral as the newspapers that day by day told us what was happening.

Most novelists have their ups and downs. Miss Austen is the only exception I know to prove the rule that only the mediocre maintain an equal level, a level of mediocrity. She is never more than a little below her best. Even in Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, in which there is much to cavil at, there is more to delight. Each of the others has its devoted, and even fanatic, admirers. Macaulay thought Mansfield Park her greatest achievement; other readers, equally illustrious, have preferred Emma; Disraeli read Pride and Prejudice seventeen times; to-day many look upon Persuasion as her most finished work. The great mass of readers, I believe, has accepted Pride and Prejudice as her masterpiece, and in such a case I think it well to accept their judgment. What makes a classic is not that it is praised by critics, expounded by professors and studied in schools, but that large numbers of readers, generation after generation, have found pleasure and spiritual profit in reading it.

I myself think that Pride and Prejudice is on the whole the most satisfactory of all the novels. Its first sentence puts you in good humour: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ It sets the note, and the good humour it induces remains with you till, with regret, you have reached the last page. Emma is the only one of Miss Austen’s novels that I find long-winded. I can take no great interest in the love affair of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax; and, though Miss Bates is immensely amusing, don’t we get a little too much of her? The heroine is a snob, and the way she patronises those whom she looks upon as her social inferiors is repulsive. But we must not blame Miss Austen for that: we must remember that we of to-day do not read the same novel that was read by the readers of her day. Changes in manners and customs have wrought change in our outlook; in some ways we are narrower than our forebears, in others more liberal; an attitude which even a hundred years ago was general now affects us with malaise. We judge the books we read by our own prepossessions and our own standards of behaviour. That is unfair, but inevitable. In Mansfield Park the hero and heroine, Fanny and Edmund, are intolerable prigs; and all my sympathies go out to the unscrupulous, sprightly and charming Henry and Mary Crawford. I cannot understand why Sir Thomas Bertram should have been enraged when, on his return from overseas, he found his family amusing themselves with private theatricals. Since Jane herself thoroughly enjoyed them, one cannot see why she found his anger justifiable. Persuasion has a rare charm, and though one may wish that Anne were a little less matter-of-fact, a little more disinterested, a little more impulsive – in fact a little less old-maidish – except for the incident on the Cobb at Lyme Regis, I should be forced to look upon it as the most perfect of the six. Jane Austen had no particular gift for inventing incident of an unusual character, and this one seems to me a very clumsy contrivance. Louisa Musgrove runs up some steep steps, and is ‘jumped down’ by her admirer, Captain Wentworth. He misses her, she falls on her head and is stunned. If he were going to give her his hands, as we are told he had been in the habit of doing in ‘jumping her off’ a stile, even if the Cobb then were twice as high as it is now, she could not have been more than six feet from the ground and, as she was jumping down, it is impossible that she should have fallen on her head. In any case, she would have fallen against the stalwart sailor and, though perhaps shaken and frightened, could hardly have hurt herself. Anyhow, she was unconscious, and the fuss that ensued is unbelievable. Captain Wentworth, who has seen action and made a fortune from prize-money, is paralysed with horror. The immediately subsequent behaviour of all concerned is so idiotic that I find it hard to believe that Miss Austen, who was able to take the illnesses and death of her friends and relations with quiet fortitude, did not look upon it as uncommonly foolish.

Professor Garrod, a learned and witty critic, has said that Jane Austen was incapable of writing a story, by which, he explains, he means a sequence of happenings, either romantic or uncommon. But that is not what Jane Austen had a talent for, and not what she tried to do. She had too much sense, and too sprightly a humour, to be romantic, and she was interested not in the uncommon, but in the common. She made it uncommon by the keenness of her observation, her irony and her playful wit. By a story most of us mean a connected and coherent narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. Pride and Prejudice begins in the right place, with the arrival on the scene of the two young men whose love for Elizabeth Bennet and her sister Jane provide the novel with its plot, and it ends in the right place with their marriage. It is the traditional happy ending. This kind of ending has excited the scorn of the sophisticated, and of course it is true that many, perhaps most, marriages are not happy, and, further, that marriage concludes nothing; it is merely an introduction to another order of experience. Many authors have in consequence started their novels with marriage and dealt with its outcome. It is their right. But there is something to be said for the simple people who look upon marriage as a satisfactory conclusion to a work of fiction. They do so because they have an instinctive feeling that, by mating, a man and a woman have fulfilled their biological function; the interest which it is natural to feel in the steps that have led to this consummation, the birth of love, the obstacles, the misunderstandings, the avowals, now yields to its result, their issue, which is the generation that will succeed them. To nature, each couple is but a link in a chain, and the only importance of the link is that another link may be added to it. This is the novelist’s justification for the happy ending. In Pride and Prejudice, the reader’s satisfaction is considerably enhanced by the knowledge that the bridegroom has a substantial income and will take his bride to a fine house, surrounded by a park, and furnished throughout with expensive and elegant furniture.

Pride and Prejudice is a very well-constructed book. The incidents follow one another naturally, and one’s sense of probability is nowhere outraged. It is, perhaps, odd that Elizabeth and Jane should be well-bred and well-behaved, whereas their mother and their three younger sisters should be, as Lady Knatchbull put it, ‘very much below par as to good society and its ways’; but that this should be so was essential to the story. I have allowed myself to wonder that Miss Austen did not avoid this tumbling-block by making Elizabeth and Jane the daughters of a first marriage of Mr. Bennet and making the Mrs. Bennet of the novel his second wife and the mother of the three younger daughters. She liked Elizabeth best of all her heroines. ‘I must confess,’ she wrote, ‘that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print.’ If, as some have thought, she was herself the original for her portrait of Elizabeth – and she has certainly given her her own gaiety, high spirit and courage, wit and readiness, good sense and right feeling – it is perhaps not rash to suppose that when she drew the placid, kindly and beautiful Jane Bennet she had in mind her sister Cassandra. Darcy has been generally regarded as a fearful cad. His first offence was his disinclination to dance with people he didn’t know, and didn’t want to know, at a public ball to which he had gone with a party. Not a very heinous one. It was unfortunate that Elizabeth should overhear the derogatory terms in which he spoke of her to Bingley, but he could not know that she was listening, and his excuse might have been that his friend was badgering him to do what he had no wish to. It is true that when Darcy proposes to Elizabeth it is with an unpardonable insolence, but pride, pride of birth and position, was the predominant trait of his character, and without it there would have been no story to tell, the manner of his proposal, moreover, gave Jane Austen opportunity for the most dramatic scene in the book; it is conceivable that, with the experience she gained later, she might have been able to indicate Darcy’s feelings, very natural and comprehensible feelings, in such a way as to antagonize Elizabeth, without putting into his mouth speeches so outrageous as to shock the reader. There is, perhaps, some exaggeration in the drawing of Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins, but to my mind little more than comedy allows. Comedy sees life in a light more sparkling, but colder, than that of common day, and a touch of exaggeration, that is, of farce, is often no disadvantage. A discreet admixture of farce, like a sprinkle of sugar on strawberries, may well make comedy more palatable. With regard to Lady Catherine, one must remember that in Miss Austen’s day rank gave its possessors a sense of immense superiority over persons of inferior station; and they not only expected to be treated by them with the utmost deference, but were. In my own youth I knew great ladies whose sense of importance, though not quite so blatant, was not far removed from Lady Catherine’s. And as for Mr. Collins, who has not known, even to-day, men with that combination of obsequiousness and pomposity? That they have learnt to screen it with a front of geniality only makes it more odious.

Jane Austen was not a great stylist, but she wrote plainly and without affection. I think the influence of Dr. Johnson may be discerned in the structure of her sentences. She is apt to use the word of Latin origin, rather than the homely English one. It gives her phrase a slight formality which is far from unpleasant; indeed, it often adds point to a witty remark, and a demure savour to a malicious one. Her dialogue is probably as natural as dialogue could then be. To us it may seem somewhat stilted. Jane Bennet, speaking of her lover’s sisters, says: ‘They were certainly no friends to his acquaintance with me, which I cannot wonder at, since he might have chosen so much more advantageously in many respects.’ It may, of course, be that these were the very words she uttered; I think it unlikely. It is obviously not how a modern novelist would phrase the same remark. To set down on paper speech exactly as it is spoken is very tedious, and some arrangement of it is certainly necessary. It is only of late years, comparatively, that novelists, striving for verisimilitude, have been at pains to make their dialogue as colloquial as possible: I suspect that it was a convention of the past to cause persons of education to express themselves with a balance, and with a grammatical correctness, which cannot commonly have been at their command, and I presume readers accepted it as natural.

Allowing, then, for the slight formality of Miss Austen’s dialogue, we must admit that she invariably made the person of her stories speak in character. I have only noticed one occasion upon which she slipped up: ‘Anne smiled and said, “My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation, that is what I call good company.” “You are mistaken,” said he gently, “that is not good company that is the best.”’

Mr. Elliot had faults of character; but if he was capable of making so admirable a reply to Anne’s remark, he must have had qualities with which his creator did not see fit to acquaint us. For my part, I am so charmed with it that I would have been content to see her marry him rather than the stodgy Captain Wentworth. It is true that Mr. Elliot had married a woman ‘of inferior station’ for her money, and neglected her; and his treatment of Mrs. Smith was ungenerous; but, after all, we only have her side of the story, and it may be that, had we been given a chance to hear his, we should have found his conduct pardonable.

There is one merit which Miss Austen has and which I have almost omitted to mention. She is wonderfully readable – more readable than some greater and more famous novelists. She deals, as Walter Scott said, with commonplace things, ‘the involvements, feelings and characters of ordinary life’; nothing very much happens in her books, and yet, when you come to the bottom of a page, you eagerly turn it to learn what will happen next. Nothing very much does and again you eagerly turn the page. The novelist who has the power to achieve this has the most precious gift a novelist can possess.

+-mymaughamcollection.blogspot.com-+
|                 |                |
|                \|/               |
|               \~|~/              |
|       ,#####\/  | ,\/§§§§        |
|       #  #\./#__|_§_\./          |
|       #  \./ # _|_§  \./         |
|       #  #/  #  | §   \          |
|       #  #   #  | `~§§§§§        |
+--------mmccl.blogspot.com--------+