Friday, April 22, 2016

The Genius of Jane Austen by Carl Holliday 1912

The Genius of Jane Austen by Carl Holliday 1912

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It requires genuine genius to make the commonplace interesting. Jane Austen (1775-1817), possessing just such genius, did more; she showed the superlative importance of the commonplace. We all have heard Scott's hearty praise of her work: "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." This is a true criticism. Hers is the calm, attentive, delicate work of a diamond cutter. With keen photographic observation she put before the English people their own undeniably "average" middle classes with all their adoration for the conventional, their primness, their divine belief in blue blood, their veneration for tradition. No violent upheavals enter into these pictures of rural life; scarcely ever is there any height of passion; the plots progress with a quietness eminently befitting the quiet souls that move so primly through them. This is indeed the beginning of nineteenth-century English realism.

Jane Austen's father was a clergyman in Southern England, and her view of the world scarcely ever went beyond the narrow confines of that section. She knew little of the larger movements and wilder excitements of the life of city or Continent; she herself was so modest and retiring as to object to having her name on the title pages of her books; the greed for gain was so utterly absent from her nature that she was satisfied with exceedingly small payments; altogether extremeness in anything—except modesty—seems to have been disgusting to her. Perhaps, after all, her greatest message to the nineteenth century is the message of common sense. That she belongs to the century at all is due to her lack of that very impulsiveness and haste which was so characteristic of the period; for her books, written years before their publication, belong, properly, to the period closing with 1800. Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, was written probably in 1796; Sense and Sensibility, appearing in 1811, was written in 1797; Northanger Abbey, printed in 1817, was written as early as 1798. But we must date a novel's influence from the day of its appearance in type, and the influence of Jane Austen's work belongs distinctly to the nineteenth century.

The novelists of the century may be pretty clearly divided into romanticists and realists. Scott undoubtedly fathered the former, and Jane Austen "mothered" the latter. Her Northanger Abbey is a mild protest, almost in the form of a burlesque, against the romantic fiction of her young days—the fiction of the Gothic type. Catherine Morland, the heroine, is simply an average girl who, after reading many weird accounts of ghostly, romantic castles, goes on a visit to Northanger Abbey, which, to her disappointment, she finds a very pleasant and convenient home. There is a delicate, subtle, and quiet irony in such a story—an irony that is present in almost every page of Jane Austen's work. She may have felt as keenly as Charles Dickens; but restraint was bred in her blood, and both his broad, bitter portrayals and Scott's huge sympathy were foreign to her well-schooled nature.

Sense and Sensibility is just as quietly ironical. Of the two sisters dealt with in this story, one is thoroughly sane and guided by sensible reflections; the other fondles pain and misery, and possesses all that "romantic temperament" so characteristic of Gothic heroines. And lo! Jane Austen thoroughly cures her by causing her to be jilted and then marries her off to a man old enough to be her father. Casting aside the hysterics of the later eighteenth-century novelists, abjuring the lengthy moralizing of Richardson, despising the open coarseness of Smollett and the dirty suggestiveness of Sterne, this author, telling of nothing wonderful, and describing people that might be seen along any byway, became, nevertheless, a social critic of such astuteness that her equals in the succeeding hundred years have been but rarely found.

Buy - What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan

Of course intensity of action is not to be expected; indeed to many readers intensity of interest is lacking. To those, however, who read between the lines there is revealed a story of the inner life told by means of the outer manners. Here are people tyrannized by respectability. They have the happy faculty of having nothing to do. With some little money and some quantity of thin "blue blood," they dare not undertake the original, but spend their days in drinking weak tea, going to church, and sewing for the poor, whom, fortunately, they have with them always. Scarcely ever do they deviate into crime and misery; when perchance they do, their villainy is quickly covered over and silenced lest a stain be placed upon the "respectability" of the family name. Certain British middle-class ideals are upheld with quiet but persistent reverence: a woman ought to marry a man with an income; nobody should let a hobby run away with him; the upper classes should not become so lazy as to neglect their estates; train the young for a certain rank, and they will be happy in it; let every man or woman attend to his or her own business.

With a touch of sarcasm, with an almost perfect technique, with a smooth and never turbulent art, these lessons are impressed—but never pressed—upon the reader. Some of Scott's novels bear a resemblance to the huge tragedies of Shakespeare; Jane Austen's stories of social manners easily lend themselves to a comparison with some of the lighter comedies of the great master. This woman pioneer in realism may bring a couple together, create misunderstandings between them, arouse in them a positive dislike for each other, and then, at the proper moment, bring them together again for the disillusioning, the gradual destruction of prejudice, and the growth of mutual understanding, admiration, and love. Such a course of events requires for adequate exposition a genius for analysis and introspection. It is doubtful whether any other English novelist before her day, with the possible exception of Richardson, equaled her in such genius. To some readers it all may seem like describing an ant-hill with laborious minuteness; it may seem, too, that all the poetry and romance of life are brushed aside in such a process; this sticking so closely to the common rounds of daily life may seem at times positively earthy. More than traces of these taints may be found in the work of Jane Austen. Her dry, caustic irony often-times conceals what might have been romance. She does not often touch the sublime and the beautiful. She does shut out much of heaven with a little earth. But, then, art, if it desires, has a perfect right to show the truth, the unvarnished truth, and nothing but the truth, and this right Jane Austen has chosen to assume.

There is a certain inevitableness about much of her fiction. Indeed we can almost discern a fixed formula. If A meets B under certain conditions A and B will apparently not agree; but if A and B meet after certain changes A and B will agree and fall in love. Miss Austen manipulates the environments, and the characters do the rest. After all, how vivid these characters become, and with how few descriptive touches! They drink tea and play cards and go to church and meet at receptions and talk—talk a great deal—and in a short time we come to know them intimately. They are not pushed upon us; they grow gradually into our ken. Scott, Dickens, and even George Eliot often awkwardly shove their new figures into our company; Jane Austen comes much closer to the French conception of allowing these beings to grow before us and show themselves through themselves.

In her later works, Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816), and Persuasion (1818), we find a deeper tone, more moralizing and reflections on the mysteries of life, more noting of the effect of scenery, more introductions of outside characters brought forward simply for the sake of making the picture more lifelike. In short, her view of life was slowly broadening; her inbred restraint was breaking down. But had she lived a hundred years, and had she written scores of novels, she could not have set herself free from that early training, modesty, aristocratic reserve, and slightly condescending cynicism.

As has been intimated, conversation is a most convenient vehicle for her plots. Every conversation throws some new ray of light on a character or a situation, and almost without our notice, affairs move right along. Her style exhibits the sort of skill expected of such a woman. Word economy—a sort of economy unknown to eighteenth-century novelists—gives her sentences a precision and a snap not to be found in Scott. Again, unlike Richardson, Fielding, Scott, and Dickens, she refuses to be tempted aside for long by any call to preach, philosophize, or grow sentimental over scenery or old-time customs. She is as much afraid of the violently pathetic as of the boisterously humorous. Like a true realist, she calculates with nicety the true valuation and effect of every item, and with her, exaggeration is impossible.

What did this remarkable woman teach the novelists of her century? She showed more emphatically than any other writer since Richardson the potential importance of the passing thought, the barely suggested hint, the petty deed. She displayed a masterly power in revealing the inner being by the every-day doings of the outer being. She set forth clearly the theory that the realist, by his very truthfulness, becomes something of a social critic. She attacked petty prejudice, artificial distinctions, the tyranny of tradition, the selfishness of certain types of humanity, and the worldliness of others, with a mild irony fully as irritating as the bold pictures of Dickens or the keen satire of Thackeray. She lacked what all realists are in danger of lacking— a comprehension of the poetry that actually exists amidst the sordidness of humanity, and which, after all, redeems life and keeps the soul sweet and sane.

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