The Life of Jane Austen (1775-1817) by Edwin Lillie Miller 1917
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"Shakespeare has neither equal nor second. But, among the writers who have approached nearest to the manner of the great master, we have no hesitation in placing Jane Austen."—Macaulay.
"The realism and life-likeness of Miss Austen's Dramatis Personae come nearest to those of Shakespeare."—Tennyson.
"She produced novels that come nearer to artistic perfection than any others in the English language."—Harold Child.
Jane Austen, one of the most famous and gifted of English novelists, was born December 16, 1775, at Steventon in Hampshire. Her father, George Austen, came of a good family, was a man of excellent intellect, had been left penniless at an early age, had become a fellow at Oxford, had taken orders, and had been presented by relatives with two livings, Deane and Steventon. These were within a mile and a half of each other and contained together not over 300 souls. Jane's mother, Cassandra Leigh, came from an equally good family and appears to have possessed in a large measure the wit and good nature which were preeminently characteristic of her gifted daughter. The standing of both father and mother is clearly indicated by the fact that Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of India whose reputation was destroyed by Burke and whose fame has been preserved by Macaulay, during one of his absences from England left his eldest son in their charge.
Jane was the youngest child in a family of five sons and two daughters. As was then the almost universal custom among the gentry of England and France, she was sent as soon as possible after her birth to a farmer's wife, where she was kept until she had reached such an age that her presence in her own home was not particularly inconvenient to her parents. In France parents who thus farmed out their babies often sent with them blank death certificates for their foster parents to fill up in case they died. Whether such a document did or did not accompany Jane is unknown; at all events it was not used, for she throve and in due time was returned to Steventon.
Steventon is located about seventy miles from London in a region that is sufficiently commonplace, being, as Miss Austen herself said, neither pleasant nor dreary, hilly nor flat. The society of the place was in keeping with its topography. Mr. Austen was once asked by one of his neighbors, a wealthy squire: "You know all about these things. Do tell us. 'Is Paris in France or France in Paris? For my wife has been disputing with me about it.'" Fortunately Jane was not dependent for spiritual nourishment on either the scenery or society of Steventon. In her sister Cassandra, who was her senior by four years, she found a companion whose presence speedily became so essential to her happiness that she could not bear to have her leave to go to school. Mrs. Austen used to say: "If Cassandra were going to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing her fate." The girls were taught together, chiefly at home, though in this day of higher education for women the instruction they got seems meagre enough. Jane became a first-rate needlewoman, a fair musician, and an excellent French scholar. Of Italian she learned a little, of German and Latin nothing. Even her knowledge of English literature was curiously deficient, being confined, it appears, chiefly to Crabbe, Johnson, Cowper, and Scott, among whom she preferred Crabbe; indeed, it was a standing joke in the family that she would have gladly become Mrs. Crabbe if she had personally known the poet. She was herself quite aware of the insufficiency of her mental equipment, and always stoutly maintained that she was "ignorant and uninformed " and hated solid reading.
Aside from one or two attempts to write fiction and the usual effort to produce a play which, like the measles, attacks every person of literary talent during the early teens, Jane, up to 1795, lived the simple life of a nice girl in a country parsonage. At twenty, as she herself puts it, came her turn to be grown up and have a fine complexion and wear great square muslin shawls. Two portraits which still exist show her to have been at that time fair, handsome, elegant, with beautiful eyes, full lips, a profusion of curly hair, and an expression of playful good humor that makes one wonder how she could have contrived to remain Miss Austen all her life. That she had all of the balls and beaux she wanted is certain. Among her admirers the most conspicuous appears to have been Mr. Thomas Lefroy, afterward Chief Justice of Ireland, for whom she declared she didn't care sixpence, and who, as he was three times married and lived to be about ninety, we may conclude was not inconsolable because of losing her. Probably she was too fastidious, too happy in her home, and too much engrossed in her intellectual pursuits to think seriously of matrimony.
At all events, between the ages of twenty and twenty-five she was busy with her pen. Between October, 1796, and August, 1797, she wrote a novel which is now considered by many to be her masterpiece and which is surely one of the finest compositions of its kind in any language. This story, which was then named "First Impressions" and is now known as "Pride and Prejudice," like all of Miss Austen's books, is indescribable. That is to say, no extracts or analyses can convey an adequate idea of its charm. In it, as in all of her novels, she depicts character, not by description, but by showing what her people are by their speech and actions. And they are real. They are never too bright or good for human nature's daily food. Darcy, the hero, has ten thousand pounds a year, a park, and so much adulation that, in spite of his natural good sense, he is, or appears to be, inflated with sinful Pride. Elizabeth Bennett, the heroine, conceives a violent prejudice against him on account of this superficial fault, while he takes a perfectly reasonable dislike to her mother, whose sole purpose in life is to get her daughters married. After these external causes have produced a situation which makes it apparently impossible that Elizabeth and Darcy shall ever again even so much as see each other, except by accident, mutual respect and that irresistible attraction which is called love break down all barriers and the story ends as all good stories should. One of the pleasantest features of the book is the picture of the relations of Elizabeth Bennett and her father; they are what we should now call good chums. But its greatest superiority over the works of Miss Burney and Miss Edgeworth, who were Jane Austen's chief contemporary rivals as writers of fiction, is, as Mrs. Charles Maiden says, that she ventures "to omit the moralizing which our ancestors considered necessary to counteract the baleful effects of being amused." "Their works," adds the same writer, "in consequence are little read by a generation which prefers drawing its own moral to finding it ready made."
When Jane had finished "Pride and Prejudice" she read it to her family, who pronounced it superior to "Evelina," Miss Burney's masterpiece, one of the few instances in which family pride and disinterested criticism have arrived at the same verdict. Her father seems to have been especially pleased, perhaps because he was unconsciously flattered by the portrait of Mr. Bennett. At all events, he was so impressed with the book's merits that he made to Mr. Cadell, a well-known publisher, a proposition to print it at the author's risk. But George Austen was destined never to have the happiness of witnessing his daughter's fame. By return mail Mr. Cadell refused to undertake the enterprise on any terms, and "Pride and Prejudice" remained in manuscript for sixteen years. Six years later, while living at Bath, Miss Austen had so far recovered from the mortification of this refusal that she offered "Northanger Abbey" to a local publisher, who accepted it and paid her for the copyright the munificent sum of ten pounds. He seems, however, to have regarded it as a bad bargain, for he never published the book. Thirteen years later, that is, in 1816, Jane sent her brother Henry to repurchase the manuscript, which he easily did by paying back the original ten pounds, an arrangement of which the luckless printer probably repented when the triumphant Henry allowed himself the luxury of informing him that the book was by the author of "Pride and Prejudice."
Fortunately Mr. Cadell's refusal did not discourage Jane. Three months after "Pride and Prejudice" had been finished, we find her hard at work on a new novel, or rather a revision of an old novel, "Elinor and Marianne," which she had originally written in the form of letters, after the manner of Samuel Richardson. This, when it was finished, she rechristened "Sense and Sensibility." Though inferior to "Pride and Prejudice," this work is about as well worth reading as any novel which, up to that time, had been written in the English language. There is no superfluity of tiresome description. The characters are real. Though both lovable girls, Elinor and Marianne are as imperfect and as different as sisters are apt to be in real life. Vulgar match-making Mrs. Jennings, as Austin Dobson calls her, like many a flesh and blood dowager, at first repels us by her foolish prattle and finally wins our respect by her kindness. Sir John Middleton, with his horror of being alone; Lady Middleton, with her horror of impropriety; Miss Steele, who can always be made happy by being teased about the Doctor; Lucy Steele, pretty, clever, not overfastidious in her principles, and abominably weak in her grammar; Robert Ferrars, whose airs are justly punished by his marriage to Lucy; Mrs. Ferrars, who contrives to be uniformly unamiable; Mrs. John Dashwood, fit daughter to such a mother; and Mr. John Dashwood, fit husband to such a wife—together form a gallery of portraits of which any author might be proud. The book, too, is rich in humor. Among other delightful things we read of a will which, like almost every other will, gave as much disappointment as pleasure; of a child of three, who possesses the usual charms of that age, an imperfect articulation, an earnest desire of having his own way, many cunning tricks, and a great deal of noise; of apricot marmalade applied successfully as a remedy for a bruised temple; of a company who met to eat, drink, and laugh together, to play at cards or consequences, or any other game that was sufficiently noisy; of a husband who is always making remarks which his wife considers so droll but cannot remember; of Constantia wine, which is equally good for colicky gout and broken hearts; of a face of strong natural sterling insignificance; of a girl who is pleased that a man called and still more pleased that she missed him; of a woman of few words, for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas; of a newspaper item that interested nobody except those who knew its contents before; and of a man who was perfectly the gentleman in his behavior to guests and only occasionally rude to his wife and mother-in-law. It is true that the two heroes are not very heroic, Edward Ferrars being only a curate and Colonel Brandon a poor old man of thirty-six with a flannel waistcoat, but the latter is pretty thoroughly the gentleman and the former gives up a fortune of 30,000 pounds in order to marry a girl whom he does not love, thereby furnishing, if not an example of good sense, at least an agreeable contrast to Marianne's Willoughby, who marries a girl whom he does not love in order to get the money which he is too genteel to earn. On the whole, when all is said and done, it is a wonderful book to have been written by a girl of twenty-one.
After finishing "Sense and Sensibility," Jane Austen went to work almost immediately on "Northanger Abbey," in which she essayed, not, as in all of her other novels, to hold the mirror up to nature, but to parody and burlesque those popular novels of her day in which the heroes and heroines were forced into hair-raising situations and extricated therefrom by impossible means. The heroine, Catherine Moreland, goes to Bath to live with Mrs. Allen, who is so unattractive that one wonders how any man could like her well enough to marry her. At Bath she is introduced by an acquaintance to "Udolpho," "The Castle of Wolfenbach," "Clermont," "Mysterious Warnings," "The Necromancer of the Black Forest," "The Midnight Bell," "The Orphan of the Rhine," and "Horrid Mysteries," all novels which abound in black veils and are otherwise perfectly awful. After she has supped full on these horrors, she is invited to visit Northanger Abbey, the home of Harry Tilney, with whom she is in love. She goes thither expecting to have adventures similar to those depicted in the books she has been reading, and Henry amuses himself by assuring her that she may expect plenty of horror and mystery. The result is that she makes herself very ridiculous, gets a juster notion of Mrs. Radcliffe's novels, and, after a sufficient amount of rage on the part of General Tilney, Henry's father, marries that young man.
"Northanger Abbey" was finished in 1798. In 1801, owing to the failure of his health, George Austen removed with his family from Steventon to Bath, where they resided until his death four years later. During this period Jane wrote little. Anxiety on her father's account or uncongenial surroundings were perhaps responsible. At all events, she appears to have rejoiced when the opportunity came to escape from the more or less gay health resort to the more normal atmosphere of Southampton. Here, during four more years, the Austens resided, but here, too, they failed to feel thoroughly at home; and when, in 1809, Jane's second brother, Edward, offered them Chawton Cottage on his estate in Hampshire, they gladly accepted the opportunity to escape from Southampton.
At Chawton Jane's life was enriched by frequent visits from her brother's children, one of whom tells us that, though he must have grievously interrupted her writing by his visits, she never caused him, either by open protests or repressed marks of annoyance, to feel that he was unwelcome. Another writes: "As a very little girl I was always creeping up to Aunt Jane and following her whenever I could. Her first charm to children was great sweetness of manner. She seemed to love you and you loved her in return. This was what I felt in my early days before I was old enough to be amused by her cleverness. But soon came the delight of her playful talk; she could make everything amusing to a child. Then, as I got older, when cousins came to share the entertainment, she would tell us the most delightful stories, chiefly of Fairyland, and her fairies had all characters of their own. The tale was invented, I am sure, at the moment, and was continued for two or three days if occasion served."
Under the genial influence of her new environment, Jane's literary ambition revived to such an extent that she ventured to offer "Sense and Sensibility" for publication to Egerton. He accepted it and in 1811 the book appeared anonymously. Fearful lest the venture prove a financial loss, she is said to have saved enough from her income to meet any possible deficit. The precaution, happily, proved needless. She was soon gladdened by a check for 150 pounds, which she received with the remark that it was a great deal to earn for so little trouble.
Like all of the novels that she published herself, "Sense and Sensibility" appeared without Miss Austen's name, though, unlike George Eliot, she is said never to have denied having written them. She probably dreaded the inroads on her privacy which are apt to come with successful authorship. At all events, we find Aunt Cassandra about this time writing to one of her nieces to caution her not to tell anybody that Aunt Jane is the author of "Sense and Sensibility." Aunt Jane, indeed, was very modest about her creations. She called them paintings on "little bits of ivory two inches wide," having reference no doubt to the commonplaceness of her material. Herein, however, is perhaps the truest mark of her genius. While many great writers have built grandly with grand material, she reared an immortal structure out of nothing. So narrowly confined, indeed, are her subjects to the environment in which she lived that her readers are apt to think her characters portraits of real people. But they are not. They are everlasting types. We have met them all in real life. She herself, when somebody suggested that she had been drawing likenesses, said: "Pray do not think me guilty of such an invasion of the social proprieties. I am too proud of my gentlemen to admit that they are only Mr. A. or Col. B."
Emboldened by the success of " Sense and Sensibility," in 1813 she gave " Pride and Prejudice " to the world. Though her name did not appear on the book, a great many expressions of admiration reached her, the most conspicuous person who declared himself a Jane Austen enthusiast being Warren Hastings. Her happiness was completed when Dr. Isham said he was sure that he would not like Madame D'Arblay's new novel half so well.
"Pride and Prejudice," "Sense and Sensibility," and "Northanger Abbey" are the works of a girl; in her remaining novels, "Mansfield Park," "Emma," and "Persuasion," the motives and actions of the characters are more complex, the satire gentler, the feelings more womanly. The plots in the latter group unfold more slowly and naturally. In the earlier novels, as a critic has pointed out, the really predominant passion is the love of the sisters for each other; in each of her last three and greatest novels Jane Austen has painted a woman loving sincerely and with good cause but uncertain if her love is returned.
Mansfield Park is the ancestral home of the Bertram family. Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram have two sons, Tom and Edmund, and two daughters, Maria and Julia. One of Lady Bertram's sisters, Mrs. Price, has married to disoblige her family and has succeeded so thoroughly that she has been reduced to a state of comparative poverty. To assist her, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram take her daughter, Fanny Price, into their home, to bring her up. Miss Austen tells with great skill and charm how Maria and Julia despise their poor cousin because she cannot tell the principal rivers in Russia or the chronological order of the kings of England; how Edmund, who is destined for the church, is kind to her; how, in the absence of Sir Thomas Bertram, the young people devise amateur theatricals, the rehearsals of which, depicted with admirable humor, result in a vast amount of flirtation; how Edmund thinks he is in love with Mary Crawford, a rich and hardened coquette; how Henry Crawford, her brother, first falls in love with Fanny Price and then runs away with Julia Bertram; and how, finally, Edmund discovers that he loves Fanny, who has known for a long time that she loves him, the result being a very satisfactory marriage. Fanny is a lovely girl, Edmund a typical English gentleman. The book is long, but readable from cover to cover.
"Mansfield Park" was printed in 1814; "Emma," Miss Austen's next novel, in 1816. In "Mansfield Park" Fanny is introduced to us as a poor self-effacing little girl; in "Emma," Emma Woodhouse, when we first know her, has so much leisure and luxury that, wanting occupation, she busies herself injudiciously in other people's affairs. But, though they start from opposite directions, both heroines reach the same goal; both become happy and excellent women. Emma induces Harriet Smith to reject the love of a young farmer named Martin because he is so ungenteel as to earn an honest living; and persuades her, instead, to set her cap for Mr. Elton, a silly young curate, who is not fit to tie Martin's shoe strings. Elton thinks Emma is herself in love with him, and, to her amazement, proposes, so that she has to reject him and at the same time inform Harriet that her plans have gone a-gley. Then appears Frank Churchill, who is secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax, but who, in order to conceal that fact, starts a flirtation with Emma. In this gentle art he is such an adept that Emma almost persuades herself that she loves him, but Jane becomes jealous and the true state of affairs has to be revealed. In the meantime Harriet Smith has fallen in love with Mr. Knightley, "one of the few people who could see the faults in Emma Woodhouse and the only one who ever told her of them." Knightley is a real man and, as soon as Emma learns that Harriet has dared to aspire to him, it is definitely revealed to her that she loves him herself. In the end, Emma gets Knightley; Jane, Churchill; and Harriet, Martin. "Emma" in some respects is the best of Miss Austen's novels.
While she was in London seeing it through the press, her brother fell ill and was attended by the Prince Regent's physician, whose royal master was such an enthusiastic admirer of her works that he kept duplicate copies of them at his various houses. He told the Prince that Miss Austen was in London and the latter was gracious enough to send his librarian to her with an intimation that he would not be displeased to receive the dedication of her next novel.
It is to be hoped that this mark of royal favor was gratifying to Miss Austen, for it was one of the last tributes to her genius that she received. During 1816 her health grew worse and worse, and in May, 1817, she moved with her sister to Winchester in order to be near an eminent physician. His skill, however, was unavailing, and she died July 18. She rests in Winchester Cathedral.
She left two unpublished novels, "Northanger Abbey," written 1798, and "Persuasion," which she had finished only a twelve-month before her death. Though inferior in some respects to "Emma," the latter is characterized by a beauty and tenderness found in none of her other works. It is a simple story. Anne Elliot, the second daughter of Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall, at the age of nineteen is wooed and won by a young naval officer, Frederick Wentworth, who is in every way worthy of her except that he is not titled or rich. For these reasons her relatives persuade her to break their engagement. Eight years go by, and, meeting again, they find by degrees that they are still necessary to each other's happiness. "Dear, charming Anne Elliot!" writes Mrs. Maiden. "We rejoice to feel that we are leaving her in the midst of such a tender radiant Indian summer of happiness. ..."Persuasion" is the swan song of Jane Austen's authorship, and, true to its character, the saddest and sweetest of her works."
"Persuasion" and "Northanger Abbey" were published together in 1818, being the first of her novels to appear under her own name. Since then her fame has steadily grown. In 1821 Dr. Whateley, Archbishop of Dublin, published in the "Quarterly Review " an article on her works, in which he said:
"They may be safely recommended not only as among the most unexceptionable of their class, but as combining, in an eminent degree, instruction with amusement, though without the direct effort at the former of which we have complained as sometimes defeating its object. For those who cannot or will not learn anything from productions of this kind, she has provided entertainment which entitles her to thanks."
Sir Walter Scott wrote in his Journal:
"Read again, for the third time at least, Miss Austen's finely written novel of "Pride and Prejudice." That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is, to me, the most wonderful I have ever met with. The big Bow-Wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!"
Among her other early admirers were Sydney Smith, Southey, Coleridge, Guizot, and Lord Macaulay. Trevelyan, in his biography of the last-named enthusiast, says: "Amidst the infinite variety of lighter literature with which he beguiled his leisure, " Pride and Prejudice" and the five sister novels remained without a rival in his affections. He never for a moment wavered in his allegiance to Miss Austen. In 1858 he notes in his Journal: 'If I could get materials, I really would write a short life of that wonderful woman, and raise a little money to put up a monument to her in Winchester Cathedral.'" George Henry Lewes calls her one of the greatest writers that ever lived. Tennyson read and reread her novels, on which he thus commented: "The realism and life-likeness of Miss Austen's dramatis persona come nearest to those of Shakespeare. Shakespeare, however, is a sun to which Jane Austen, though a bright and true little world, is but an asteroid." George Eliot called her "the greatest artist that has ever written, the most perfect master over the means to her end." George Saintsbury, perhaps the greatest of living critics, considers her the first of all novelists.
In spite of all this appreciation from those best fitted to judge of her powers, it was not until 1870 that the life of Jane Austen was given to the world. In that year her nephew, the Reverend J. Austen Leigh, published a biography of his gifted aunt. At the present time her fame is secure, though, like Milton, her popularity seems destined to be confined to the fit and few. Indeed, one eminent man has said, half in jest and half in earnest, that, in order to determine whether a person has or has not ability, one has only to ascertain whether he does or does not like Miss Austen's books.
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