In many ways, Jane Austen must be considered singularly blessed. The manner in which from generation to generation her descendants respect her memory is, we imagine, precisely that which she would have chosen for herself – and she would have been hard to please. In 1870 the Memoir by her nephew gave us not only the facts of her life but reproduced the atmosphere in which that life was lived so instinctively that his book can never be superseded, and now once more the son and grandson of that nephew show themselves possessed to the full of the family taste and modesty. In this final biography, for surely no other will be possible, they have brought together all that is known about Jane Austen, basing their narrative, of course, upon the original memoir but completing it with the letters which appeared in Lord Brabourne’s two volumes, and adding certain other letters, traditions and family histories. By doing so they have given depth and perspective to the figure which we see in our mind’s eye; to say that they have told us anything fresh about her would not be true. Miss Cassandra Austen put that effectively beyond their power. To her alone did Jane Austen write freely and impulsively; to her she must have expressed the hopes and, if the rumour is true, the one keen disappointment of her life; but when Miss Cassandra Austen grow old and suspected that a time might come when strangers would be curious about her sister’s private affairs, she burnt, at great cost to herself, every letter which could gratify their curiosity. The letters which remain exist simply because she thought that no one; not even the nephews and nieces, would be sufficiently interested in Jane Austen to disturb them. Had she guessed that they would not only be read but published, that many thousands would enjoy the wit and ransack every sentence for revelations, we may be sure that she would have flung them also on to the flames with one sweep of her arm.
This being so, we are aware that it is a confession which is made when we say that we are sufficiently interested in Jane Austen to wish to know everything that it is possible to know about her. We are grateful to little Philadelphia Austen, who describes Jane as “not at all pretty and very prim, unlike a girl of twelve . . . . Jane is whimsical and affected”; and to old Mrs Mitford, who remembered the Austen’s as girls and knew Jane as “the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers”, and to Miss Mitford’s properly anonymous friend
who visits her now [and] says that she has stiffened into the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece of “single blessedness” that ever existed, and that, until Pride and Prejudice showed what a precious gem was hidden in that unbending case, she was no more regarded in society than a poker or a firescreen . . . . The case is very different now; she is still a poker – but a poker of whom everybody is afraid . . . . A wit [the good lady exclaims, and we cannot help hoping with more reason than she knew of at the time], a delineator of character, who does not talk, is terrific indeed!
Of course, these critics are wrong, but it is amusing to see as clearly as we do why they went wrong. Finally we are ready to bless Marianne Knight perpetually for having recalled not very many years ago how “Aunt Jane would sit very quietly at work beside the fire in the Godmersham library, then suddenly burst out laughing, jump up, cross the room to a distant table with papers lying on it, write something down, return presently and sit down quietly to her work again”. Was it then that Mrs Norris gave William “something considerable”, or Lady Bertram had the happy idea of sending Chapman to help Miss Fanny? We are grateful for trifles, in short, for it is by means of such trifles that we draw a little closer to the charm, the brilliance, the strength and sincerity of character that lay behind the novels. For the rest, we cannot grudge Jane and Cassandra the glance of satisfaction which they must cast at each other as after fresh scrutiny of that serene and smiling face we turn away baffled, and they know that their secrets are their own forever. We need not be surprised that even the jealous Cassandra had no inkling of the curiosity of the generations to come. So lately as 1870 there was only one complete edition of the novels, and the taste for them was a gift that ran in families and was a mark of a rather peculiar culture. Today things have changed so far that the present biography is the third work about Jane Austen that has been published in the course of the year. One, by Miss Brinton. takes the original form of continuing the fortunes of the characters and devising marriages between them – a work of great love and great ingenuity which, if taken not as fiction but as talk about Jane Austen’s characters, will please that select public which is never tired of discussing them.
But the time has come, surely, when there is no need to bring witnesses to prove Jane Austen’s fame. Arrange the great English novelists as one will, it does not seem possible to bring them out in any order where she is not first, or second, or third, whoever her companions may be. Unlike other great writers in almost every way, she is unlike them, too, in the very slow and very steady rise of her reputation; it has been steady because there is probably no novelist of the nineteenth century who requires us to make so little excuse for her, and it has been slow because she has limitations of a kind particularly likely to cramp a writer’s popularity. The mere sight of her six neat volumes suggests something of the reason, for when we look at them we do not remember any page or passage which so burnt itself into our minds when we read it first that from time to time we take the book down, read that sentence again, and are again exalted. We doubt whether one of her novels was over a long toil and stumble to any reader with a splendid view at the end. She was never a revolution to the young, a stern comrade, a brilliant and extravagantly admired friend, a writer whose sentences sang in one’s brain and were half absorbed into one’s blood. And directly one has set down any of the above phrases one is conscious of the irony with which she would have disclaimed any such wish or intention. We can hear it in the words addressed to the nephew who had lost two chapters of his novel. “How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”; and again in the famous, “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can”.
But however modest and conscious of her own defects she may be, the defects are there and must be recognized by readers who are as candid as Jane Austen herself would wish them to be. The chief reason why she does not appeal to us as some inferior writers do is that she has too little of the rebel in her composition, too little discontent, and of the vision which is the cause and the reward of discontent. She seems at times to have accepted life too calmly as she found it, and to anyone who reads her biography or letters it is plain that life showed her a great deal that was smug, commonplace, and, in a bad sense of the word, artificial. It showed her a world made up of big houses and little houses, of gentry inhabiting them who were keenly conscious of their grades of gentility, while life itself consisted of an interchange of tea parties, picnics and dances, which eventually, if the connexion was respectable and the income on each side satisfactory, led to a thoroughly suitable marriage. It happens very seldom, but still it does happen, that we feel that the play of her spirit has been hampered by such obstacles; that she believes in them as well as laughs at them, and that she is debarred from the most profound insight into human nature by the respect which she pays to some unnatural convention. There are characters such as the characters of Elinor Dashwood and Fanny Price which bore us frankly; there are pages which, though written in excellent English, have to be skipped; and those defects are due to the fact that she is content to take it for granted that such characters and conduct are good without trying to see them in a fresh light for herself.
But the chief damage which this conservative spirit has inflicted on her art is that it tied her hands together when she dealt with men. Her heroes were less the equals of her heroines that should have been the case, making allowance for the fact that so it must always be when a woman writes of men or a man of women. It is where the power of the man has to be conveyed that her novels are always at their weakest, and the heroines themselves lose something of their life because in moments of crisis they have for partners men who are inferior to them in vitality and character. A clergyman’s daughter in those days was, no doubt, very carefully brought up, and in no other age, we imagine, were men and woman less at their ease together; still, it rests with the novelists to break down the barriers; it is they who should imagine what they cannot know even at the risk of making themselves superbly ridiculous. Miss Austen, however, was so fastidious, so conscious of her own limitations, that when she found out that hedges do not grow in Northamptonshire she eliminated her hedge rather than run the risk of inventing one which could not exist. This is the more annoying because we are inclined to think that she could have run almost all the risks and triumphed. In proof of this we might quote two passages from Mansfield Park (the first is quoted by Professor Bradley in his lecture to the English Association), where, forsaking her usual method, she suddenly hazards herself in a strange new atmosphere and breathes into her work a spirit of beauty and romance. Fanny Price standing at a window with Edmund breaks into a strange rhapsody, which begins, “Here’s harmony! here’s repose! here’s what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe!” &c. And, again, she throws a curious atmosphere of symbolism over the whole scene where Maria and Henry Crawford refuse to wait for Rushworth, who is bringing the key of the gate. “But unluckily”, Maria exclaims, “that iron gate, that ha-ha gives me a feeling of restraint and hardship, I cannot get out, as the starling said.”
But those limitations are noticeable only when Jane Austen is committing herself to saying seriously that such things and such people are good, which in the works of any writer is a dangerous moment, leading us to hold our breath; when she is pointing out where they are bad, weak, faulty, exquisitely absurd she is winged and unapproachable. Her heroes may be insipid, but think of her fools! Think of Mr Collins, Mr Woodhouse, Miss Bates, Mrs Norris, Mrs Bennet, and in a lesser degree of Mrs Allen, Lady Bertram, Sir William Lucas! What a light the thought of them will cast on the wettest day! How various and individual is their folly! For they are no more consistently foolish than people in real life. It is only that they have a peculiar point of view, and that when health, or economy, or ladies of title are mentioned, as must frequently happen in the world we live in, they give vent to their views to our eternal delight; but there are a great many circumstances in which they do not behave foolishly at all. Indeed, we are inclined to think that the most painful incident in any of the novels is when Miss Bates’s feelings are hurt at the picnic, and, turning to Mr Knightley, she says, “I must have made myself very disagreeable or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend”. Again, when they are discussing the study of human nature and Darcy remarks, “But people themselves alter so much that there is something to be observed in them forever”, Mrs Bennet’s reply is surely a stroke of genius. “‘Yes, indeed’, cried Mrs Bennet, offended by his manner of mentioning a country neighbourhood, ‘I assure you there is quite as much of that going on in the country as in town.’” Such is the light it throws upon the muddled vacuity of the poor lady’s mind that she ceases to be ridiculous and becomes almost tragic in her folly.
It came so naturally to Jane Austen to describe people by means of their faults that had there been a drop of bitterness in her spirit her novels would have given us the most consistently satirical picture of life that exists. Open them where you will, you are almost certain to light upon some passage exquisitely satirising the absurdities of life – satirizing them, but without bitterness, partly no doubt because she was happy in her life, partly because she had no wish that things should be other than they are. People could never be too absurd, life never too full of humour and singularities for her taste, and as for telling people how they ought to live, which is the satiric motive, she would have held up her hands in amazement at the thought. Life itself – that was the object of her love, of her absorbed study; that was the pursuit which filled those unrecorded years and drew out the “quiet intensity of her nature”, making her appear to the outer world a little critical and aloof, and “at times very grave”. More than any other novelist she fills every inch of her canvas with observation, fashions every sentence into meaning, stuffs up every chink and cranny of the fabric until each novel is a little living world, from which you cannot break off a scene or even a sentence without bleeding it of some of its life. Her characters are so rounded and substantial that they have the power to move out of the scenes in which she placed them into other moods and circumstances. Thus, if someone begins to talk about Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet voices from different parts of the room begin, saying which they prefer and why, and how they differ, and how they might have acted if one had been at Box Hill and the other at Rosings, and where they live, and how their houses are disposed, as if they were living people. It is a world, in short, with houses, roads, carriages, hedgerows, copses, and with human beings.
All this was done by a quiet maiden lady who had merely paper and ink at her disposal; all this is conveyed by little sentences between inverted commas and smooth paragraphs of print. Only those who have realized for themselves the ridiculous inadequacy of a straight stick dipped in ink when brought in contact with the rich and tumultuous glow of life can appreciate to the full the wonder of her achievement, the imagination, the penetration, the insight, the courage, the sincerity which are required to bring before us one of those perfectly normal and simple incidents of average human life. Besides all these gifts and more wonderful than any of them, for without it they are apt to run to waste, she possessed in a greater degree perhaps than any other English woman the sense of the significance of life apart from any personal liking or disliking; of the beauty and continuity which underlies its trivial stream. A little aloof, a little inscrutable and mysterious, she will always remain, but serene and beautiful also because of her greatness as an artist.
from The Times Literary Supplement