A Celebration of Jane Austen, article in Fortnightly Review 1917
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AS a callow undergraduate I remember being roused out of an apathetic stupor while attending a lecture on the history of the English novel by these startling words on the subject of Jane Austen’s readers: “Rabbits cannot be expected to take an interest or see anything humorous in the sight of other rabbits performing their ludicrous antics.”
Was the reason that I had failed to appreciate the subtlety and charm of Jane Austen solely due to the fact that I was dull of mind and of as commonplace a character as some of the dramatis persona; of her works, and therefore unable to see the comic side of her delineation? I returned home determined to find out exactly where her power lay, what claims she really had to be called the feminine counterpart to Shakespeare.
I found that the mistake I had made was not entirely due to my own ineptitude, but that I had read her too fast. I had hurried over page after page in order to reach the story, to get the hang of the plot, to find some exciting incident, for all the world as if I expected some lurid "film" drama. I had to revise my method of reading. I had to learn the hard lesson that Jane Austen was not "Aunt Jane" of the crinoline era moving stiffly in an artificial, circumscribed area, speaking correctly in an old-fashioned, effete, precise English, but a genial, kindly, yet caustic genius who wrote with her tongue in her cheek, and, like Chaucer, was not averse from pulling her readers’ "legs" unless they exercised care. Instead of a "bookish blue-stocking" I found a woman with an almost uncanny depth of insight into human character, one who realised that although life was far more important than literature, yet the true novelist exercised the function of displaying the greatest powers of the mind, and that novels are works in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.
In other words, I found that new, hitherto undreamt-of, vistas were being opened up to me, vistas which helped me to understand this complex, intricate tangle which we call the art of living. As a result of my re-reading I first felt a sense of shame at having allowed myself to be so blind to her greatness, and then a sense of mystery as to how a woman who lived so simple and secluded a life could ever have achieved so stupendous a task.
Here was a girl who only lived for forty-two years, the daughter of a country parson, who never went abroad, to London but rarely, whose greatest excitement was a visit to Bath or Lyme Regis, who may or may not have suffered disappointment in love, but certainly had no grand passion, who lived through the French Revolution, Waterloo, and Trafalgar and yet makes no mention of those stirring times, leaving behind her a sequence of novels which within their own limitations are unapproachably perfect. She lived for the most part in the depths of the country at a time when rural society was even more vacuous than it is to-day. Small-talk, knitting, filigree-work, and backgammon occupied the leisure hours of her sex, while men shot and hunted in moderation, but were always ready to accompany the ladies on their shopping excursions or to a local dance.
This is the life that Jane Austen set out to describe, knowing no other. That she succeeded in imbuing this with eternal interest makes one wistfully regret that she had not Fanny Burney’s chances, of mixing with the great men and women of her time, and yet . . . we have her own word for it that she could not have undertaken to deal with any other type of men and women than those among whom her lot was cast.
“I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit down seriously to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself and other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter."
When the Prince Regent’s librarian suggested that she should delineate the habits of life of a clergyman, she replied:
“The comic part of the character I might be equal to, but not the good, the enthusiastic, the literary. Such a man's conversation must at times be on subjects of science—philosophy, of which I know nothing; or at least be occasionally abundant in quotations and allusions which a woman, who, like me, knows only her mother tongue, and has read little in that, would be totally without the power of giving. A classical education, or at any rate a very extensive acquaintance with English literature, ancient and modern, appears to me quite indispensable for the person who would do any justice to your clergyman; and I think I may boost myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress."
It is not surprising in the light of this to find that she has nothing in common with a great moral teacher like Dostoievsky; her religion never obtrudes itself into her writings; she had no formal gospel to propagate.
She was neither Pantheist, Monotheist, Agnostic, nor Transcendentalist; that she hated Evangelicalism while recognising its good points we know. Heartlessness is the only crime that she finds it in her heart to condemn unsparingly.
We do not go to Jane Austen for descriptions of natural beauty; she has neither Hardy’s nor Wordsworth’s passion for scenery; she does not use hedgerow delights nor grim mountain peaks as a background for her characters, any more than she treats of man in his relation to his environment. In other words, she has no poetry; she avoids the heroic, the romantic, and the ideal.
She does not probe the human soul for motives, nor does she seek to illuminate or display them as later novelists have done; as Mr. Warre Cornish says, she has no need to construct her characters, for they are there before her, like Mozart's music, only waiting to be written down.
She does not use her narrative power as Fielding did to tell a story and create situations, but simply as a means to an end, the unfolding of character. That is, she belongs to the school of Richardson rather than to any other of her predecessors, the school which has received such an impetus in our own day in the work of Arnold Bennett.
She paints in every detail with meticulous care; with the true artistic temperament she refuses to pass any tendency to the slovenly, but with deliberation and exactitude sketches in every trait which will help to make the portrait life-like.
Like all geniuses she recognised both where her true metier lay and how she achieved her self-imposed task. Everyone remembers her phrase about "the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour."
Her pellucid vision gave her two eminent characteristics which at first sight would seem to be contradictory: her capability for seeing through all pretentiousness led her to denounce all false romanticism, as we see in her counterblast to The Mysteries of Udolpho. Northanger Abbey gave the death-blow to the hysteria caused by Mrs. Ann Radcliffe; her irony seems almost at times to descend to acerbity . . . and yet at the same time her collateral sense of humour made her kindly disposed and magnanimous in her sympathies to creatures whom other artists would have condemned without mercy. That is, she seems to combine, as Andrew Lang said, gentleness with a certain hardness of heart, which are difficult to reconcile until we have made a close study of her methods.
No greater mistake could possibly be made than to imagine her as a soured old maid, though the bust erected to her memory in the Pump Room at Bath goes a long way to give that impression.
On the contrary, she was distinctly pretty, sunny natured, gay even to frivolity, an accomplished conversationalist, a singer and a musician, possessed of a natural aptitude for and skill in games, extraordinarily well-balanced and sane in her outlook . . . an ideal wife, one would suppose, for any cultured man of the world. It is only by understanding these facts about her that we realise the meaning of what Professor Saintsbury calls the “livingness” of her work. She writes as one who has, as Lady Ritchie puts it, “a natural genius for life.” That she enjoyed her forty-two years to the full we cannot doubt. She was no Shelley, a genius of moods, alternately in heaven or hell; she pursued an even path of placidity and content, not troubling herself overmuch with the perplexities that obsess the mind of the social reformer, nor harassed with religious doubts.
Suffering does not make her suicidal, nor has she any of that divine discontent which we usually associate with our best writers. How many of our famous men of letters were able to work in the midst of domestic interruption and make no sign of impatience? It is a small point, but quite an illuminating one.
She had no private study. As she worked with the others in the common sitting-room she would sometimes burst out laughing, go to her desk and write something down, and then go back to her work again and say nothing.
It is worthy of notice that her geniality was not of that vapid sort that proceeds from ignorance or wilful blindness to human fatuity and vice, that sings to the shallow, optimistic tune that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” It is to her everlasting credit that although she was under no delusions as to the state of humanity, she neither condemned it nor sneered at it; she had nothing of the cynic in her temperament. There have, of course, been critics who have appended that libellous label to her, but they belong to the same category which stigmatises Thackeray and Swift as possessing the same trait. How anyone with her genius for laughter and affection, her interest in mankind, or her clear-sightedness could be accused of cynicism, which is a property of the owl and bat and donkey in humanity, I do not understand. She is a master of irony and satire it is true; but these are incompatible with misanthropy, the touchstone of cynicism; of this she had not a trace. She is not of those who were disillusioned by the fever and the weariness and the fret of life. She was no pessimistic Teuton philosopher; she was too busy taking notes on the people with whom she came into contact to spend time in moralising. She was essentially of a happy nature, and kept a strong curb on her emotions; that she felt deeply is probable, that she ever gave full vent to her feelings we instinctively known to be untrue. Her love tragedy, if she had one, was not allowed to spoil her life; she may very well have passed through the depths, but she emerged from the conflict victorious, having battered down the forces of darkness, and continued to irradiate sweetness and light in her books and her life.
Other authors might easily have been discomfited by the reception given to their work by publishers if a first manuscript had been rejected by return of post as hers was in the case of Pride and Prejudice. Not so Jane Austen; she continued to write until almost the day of her death, sure of the verdict of posterity, the only judgment upon which genius really relies. She knew that her appeal was universal and not liable to grow dim with the passage of years. Her satire and humour are as fresh to-day as ever they were, and as an antidote to the horrors of our time no other author can compare with her.
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