MORE VIEWS OF JANE AUSTEN.
An Author who shall kindle into enthusiasm critics so diverse in character as Sir Walter Scott, Sir James Mackintosh, Archbishop Whately, and Lord Macaulay, must—in a literary sense—be in possession of the philosopher's stone. Such an author was the gifted woman whose name appears at the head of this article. Like Shakespeare, she took, as it were, the common dross of humanity, and by her wonderful power of literary alchemy, turned it into pure gold. yet she was apparently unconscious of her strength, and in the long roll of writers who have adorned our noble literature there is probably not one so devoid of pedantry or affectation, so delightfully self-repressive, or so free from egotism, as Jane Austen. Her life passed calmly and smoothly, resembling some translucent stream which meanders through our English meadows, and is never lashed into anger by treacherous rocks or violent currents. The lover of books, who turns from the rush and strife of existence in quest of intellectual solace and recreation, will discover in this writer a perennial spring of enjoyment and satisfaction.
Miss Austen was the daughter of the Rev. George Austen, Rector of Steventon, in Hampshire; but the family was of Kentish origin, and had bene established for upwards of a century and a half before the future novelist's birth in the neighbourhood of Sevenoaks. Like many of the anicent families in the Weald of Kent—some of whose descendants have become large landed proprietors, while others have been ennobled—the Austens were clothiers. To these clothiers was given the generic designation of the Gray Coats of Kent. Miss Austen's father having become an orphan at the age of nine, he was adopted by a wealthy uncle, and received a liberal education, proceeding from Tunbridge School to Oxford. He obtained a fellowship at St. John's College. In 1764 we find him settled in Hampshire, in possession of the joint rectories of Deane and Steventon, and united in marriage to Cassandra, the youngest daughter of the Rev. Thomas Leigh, of the well-known Warwickshire family of that name. Miss Austen's faculty of humour probably came from her immediate ancestors on the maternal side. One of the Leighs, who held the Mastership of Balliol for upwards of half a centry, was especially distinguished for his wit. Two of his jeux de mots, which were worthy of Sydney Smith in his best days, we must reproduce. A dispute having arisen among the Privy Councillors, it was reported that the Lord Chancellor struck the table with such violence that he split it. "No, no," interposed Dr. Leigh, "I can hardly persuade myself that he split the table, though I certainly believe he divided the Board!" The other incident occurred only a few days before the Master's death. Having been informed that an old acquaintance had recently married and just recovered from a long illness, the result of eating eggs, and being further told that the wits said he had been egged on to matrimony, the Doctor capped the joke by the double pun, "Then may the yoke sit easy on him!" From which we perceive that there is no necessary divorce between humour and divinity.
A very entertaining Memoir of Jane Austen was given to the world some years ago by her nephew, the Rev. J. E. Austen Leigh. It is stated in this biography that to Mr. George Austen and his wife was committed the charge of the infant son of the celebrated Warren Hastings. The child, however, did not live long, but at his death Mrs. Austen mourned for him as though he had been her own son. Mr. Austen Leigh furnishes us with a glimpse of rural life in the South of England a century ago. It seems scarcely possible that so short a space of time should have made such a difference, both as regards the enlightenment of the inner and the softening of the rugged and outer aspects of life in the rural districts. We read that, so lately as towards the close of the last century, "a neighbouring squire, a man of many acres," referred the following difficulty to Mr. Austen's decision. "You know all about these sort of things. Do tell us. Is Paris in France, or France in Paris? for my wife has been disputing with me about it." If such was the condition of the tolerably well-to-do, we may form some idea of the ignorance and degradation of the labouring classes. Many of these were totally unacquainted with the names of the most conspicuous figures in history; they knew nothing of God or the Bible; a few had heard of "Billy Pitt"; a rather larger number of "Boney"; but all knew of the existence of the Devil, though serious doubts have recently been thrown upon his personality. Altogether the life of a country parson in the very secluded districts, where the best man of his acquaintance was only the average squire, could not have been of the most desirable and elevating character. Both Mr. and Mrs. Austen, however, were possessed of no ordinary mental parts, though it was from the latter (who lived to the great age of eighty-eight, dying only in 1827) that Jane Austen derived the genius which was destined to gain her high literary distinction. Yet the other members of the family were also far above the average in ability. The eldest son, James, had more than a passable career at Oxford, where he manifested considerable literary talent; while the two youngest, Francis and Charles, after a successful career in the navy, rose to the rank of admiral. The former lived until the year 1865, dying in his ninety-third year, G.C.B. and Senior Admiral of the Fleet. Charles Austen commanded the "Bellerophon" at the bombardment of St. Jean d'Acre in 1840. He was an especial favourite with all with whom he came into contact, and his death was a great grief to the whole fleet. Strong men Wept when they heard of it. In disposition he is said to have greatly resembled his sister Jane. Her knowledge of seafaring matters and men is thus readily traced to its source, and some of the happiest passages in her novels are those in which she delineates and individualises naval character. Happily Jane Austen was not left to the ordinary rural society we have already depicted. There was the refinement of her own home, and to her mother and elder sister Cassandra—women of intellectual power and high and pure tone—Miss Austen was deeply attached. But, besides these home sources of culture and improvement as well as enjoyment, she found in the neighbourhood, as her biographer observes, "persons of good taste and cultivated minds. Her acquaintance, in fact, constituted the very class from which she took her imaginary characters, ranging from the member of Parliament or large landed proprietor to the young curate or younger midshipman of equally good family; and I think that the influence of these early associations may be traced in her writings, especially in two particulars. First, that she is entirely free from the vulgarity which is so offensive in some novels, of dwelling on the outward appendages of wealth or rank as if they were things to which the writer was unaccustomed; and, secondly, that she deals as little with very low as with very high stations in life." There is great justice in these observations. Miss Austen did not strive for success through the questionable and meretricious means adopted by many writers; she had no unhealthy sensationalism on the one hand or esstntial vulgarity on the other. The greatest tribute to the innate strength of her literary powers is that, taking character as she found it, and without forcing or straining her means in the slightest degree, she achieved so much and preserved through all a consummate ease and naturalness.
It does, in truth, seem almost marvellous that one who for twenty-five years led so retired an existence should have developed in her books such a deep knowledge of human life. But the ways of genius are mysterious and profound. It assimilates knowledge under apparently insuperable difficulties, and while the ordinary mind is dead and inert it is silently working with sleepless energy. Who can account for the universality of that greatest of all minds—the mind of Shakespeare—or trace the accumulation of its wealth ? As in the blind the senses of hearing and of touch are apparently developed to a preternatural degree, so there seems to be given to men of genius a second range of powers whose action is beyond our comprehension, as their results are beyond our achievement. The quiet hedgerows, the rustic shrubberies and gardens, the little rural church, and the lanes and meadows of Steventon—such were the early teachers of Jane Austen. But she possessed that without which neither poet, artist, nor novelist has yet been able to communicate to others knowledge which was worth the having—viz., a keenly observant eye, which emBraced everything within its vision. To minds so endowed there is neither small nor great, the mighty does not overshadow the minute, nor is there anything so small or mean in nature as to be viewed with contempt or dismissed with contumely. Genius is ever learning, and not infrequently the humblest sources furnish its loftiest inspirations.
At a very early age the cacoëthes scribendi came upon Jane Austen; but, unlike so many subsequent writers, she modestly concealed her efforts. Her compositions were only intended to amuse the family circle, and within this range they were strictly confined. Mr. Austen Leigh reprints a scene from an unfinished comedy, "The Mystery," which his relative wrote for the transitory amusement of the family party. It exhibits liveliness and vivacity, but nothing to show that its writer was possessed of original power. Yet this habit of early composition was not a useless one, and it was shortly to bear its legitimate fruit. As we give no thought to the scaffolding when some noble building is being reared, sq we dismiss the preliminary processes by which an author first exercises and develops his faculties. Still, some of Miss Austen's most successful writing "was composed at such an early age as to make it surprising that so young a woman could have acquired the insight into character, and the nice observation of manners, which her novels display." It is stated that "Pride and Prejudice," considered by many persons the most brilliant of her novels, was begun in 1796, before she was twenty-one years of age, and completed in about ten months. Genius generally accomplishes its work early and rapidly, while talent develops its results slowly and laboriously. Sir Walter Scott wrote one of his finest novels in three months. It is one of the characteristics of genius to manifest itself under the most disadvantageous circumstances, and it is distinguished by an eternal irrepressibility. Certainly, it is not a little remarkable that Jane Austen should have produced one of her most finished works in her twenty-first year. But the groundwork of "Sense and Sensibility" was composed even earlier than this, while "Northanger Abbey" was first written in 1798. In less than the brief space of three years, therefore, and while the author was between her twentieth and her twenty-third year, this trinity of novels, all exhibiting first-class power, was conceived and executed.
The well-known antiquary, Sir Egerton Brydges, has left a sketch of Jane Austen, whom he knew as a little child. "I never suspected," he says, "that she was an authoress; but my eyes told me that she was fair and handsome, slight and elegant, but with cheeks a little too full." In character, she appears to have been all that might be predicated from a close acquaintance with her works. On this point her biographer observes: "Many may care to know whether the moral rectitude, the correct taste, and the warm affections with which she invested her ideal characters were really existing in the native source whence those ideas flowed, and were actually exhibited by her in the various relations of life. I can indeed bear witness that there was scarcely a charm in her most delightful characters that was not a true reflection of her own sweet temper and loving heart. I was young when we lost her; but the impressions made on the young are deep, and though in the course of fifty years I have forgotten much, I have not forgotten that Aunt Jane was the delight of all her nephews and nieces. We did not think of her as being clever, still less as being famous; but we valued her as one always kind, sympathising, and amusing." Readers who delight in tracing the course of love—and how many human hearts are there utterly insensible to the sentiment!—will find considerable space devoted to it in Miss Austen's works. It is but natural, perhaps, that this fact should have led to the query in what degree these numerous passages concerning tender attachments were due to the imagination, or whether they were not the actual reflection of experience. Indeed, a writer in the Quarterly Review half a century ago, referring to the passion of Fanny Price for Edmund Bertram, and the silence with which it was cherished, remarked how that "the slender hopes and enjoyments by which it is fed, the restlessness and jealousy with which it fills a mind naturally active, contented, and unsuspicious, the manner in which it tinges every event and every reflection, are painted with a vividness and a detail of which we can scarcely conceive any one but a female, and, we should almost add, a female writing from recollection, capable." For this conjecture, Mr. Austen Leigh does not believe that any substantial basis exists; but he adds an autobiographic incident in connection with Jane Austen, which certainly shows that the assumption 'of the reviewer was by no means an impossible or an unreasonable one. Touching this passage of romance in the novelist's history, "Many years after her death, some circumstances induced her sister Cassandra to break through her habitual reticence and to speak of it. She said that, while staying at some seaside place, they 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. I believe that, if Jane ever loved, it was this unnamed gentleman; but the acquaintance had been short, and I am unable to say whether her feelings were of such a nature as to affect her happiness." Length of acquaintance is no test of passion, and it is possible that during this brief friendship Jane Austen, who had declined at an earlier period a most eligible parti—eligible, that is, as regards individual character and social position—had fallen a victim to the darts of Cupid. Wordsworth says that "poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity;" and we are aware that many authors have translated into the most vivid language—prose equally with verse—the overmastering emotions and sentiments which at some previous period in their career have held sway over them. We do not affirm that this is so with Miss Austen, but there are many passages in "Mansfield Park" which forbid the supposition from being dismissed as wholly improbable.
In the year 1801 the Austens removed to Bath, where "The Watsons," a story never concluded by the author, was written. Four years later, the Rev. George Austen died, and was buried at Walcot Church. Shortly after this event, Mrs. Austen and her daughters went to reside in Southampton. The residence in Bath had not been without its uses to the novelist, as many scenes in her works abundantly testify. She was, however, acquainted with the fashionable city of the West before it became the residence of her family. Their stay at Southampton was not of long duration, as in 1809, through the kindness of Mr. Knight, of Steventon, they were able to take up their abode at Chawton, in Hampshire. Chawton is described as the second as well as the last home of Jane Austen. The village stands about a mile from Alton, where the road to Winchester branches off from that to Gosport. At this place Miss Austen resumed the habits of literary activity which had suffered a temporary check during her residence in Bath and Southampton. She now produced in rapid succession, and between the years 1811 and 1816, the three novels "Mansfield Park," "Emma," and "Persuasion." She delighted in working unsuspected by others, and wrote upon small sheets of paper which could readily be put away or covered over on the approach of intruders. It seems that the profits of the four novels which had been printed up to the time of her death did not amount to quite seven hundred pounds—a sum not equal to that which several living novelists now receive for each of their fictions. She did not affect the indifference which many authors profess to feel over the reception of their works. Writing to her sister with respect to "Pride and Prejudice," she observed "Upon the whole, I am quite vain enough and well satisfied enough. The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn, specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story; an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Bonaparte, or something that would form a contrast, and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and epigrammatism of the style." Mr. Austen Leigh shows how different her life was from that of other authors who are thrown into literary society, and become "the observed of all observers." Miss Austen "lived in entire seclusion from the literary world; neither by correspondence nor by personal intercourse was she known to any contemporary authors. It is probable that she never was in company with any person whose talents or whose celebrity equalled her own ; so that her powers never could have been sharpened by collision with superior intellects, nor her imagination aided by their casual suggestions." Her retired lot is contrasted with that of Madame d'Arblay, who was introduced by Dr. Johnson to Sir Joshua Reynolds and other celebrities of the time. Crabbe, also, was received at Holland House, and on One occasion was Sir Walter Scott's guest at Edinburgh; and even Charlotte Brontë, who spent her life on the Yorkshire moors, was greatly sought after upon her visit to London. The fame of Jane Austen was very largely posthumous, and one anecdote is told illustrative of this. Not long ago, a gentleman visiting Winchester Cathedral desired to be shown the grave of the author of" Pride and Prejudice." The verger, in pointing it out, inquired, "Pray, sir, can you tell me whether there was anything particular about that lady; so many people want to know where she was buried?" Nor need we be surprised at this, for is there not a rhyme upon a greater than Jane Austen, which says—
Seven Eastern cities claim great Homer dead,
Through which the living Homer begged his bread.
Miss Austen's novels were greatly admired by the Prince Regent, who, it seems, read them often, and kept a set in every one of his residences. Their author received an invitation to Carlton House, and her next novel was dedicated to the royal patron, whose literary taste in this instance was sound and true. The Prince's librarian, Mr. Clarke, writing to Miss Austen at the time of the approaching marriage of Prince Leopold to the Princess Charlotte, suggested that "an historical romance illustrative of the august House of Cobourg would just now be very interesting," and might very properly be dedicated to Prince Leopold. To this obliging recommendation, Miss Austen replied in terms which implied that she could not write to order. "I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable to me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter." Mr. Clarke's was a well-meaning though ludicrous attempt to transfer a round peg into one of the square holes of literature. Miss Austen composed in the natural and only rational manner described by Charlotte Brontë in a letter to a critic who had suggested that she should follow the elder novelist's style. "When authors write best," said the author of "Jane Eyre," "or, at least, when they write most fluently, an influence seems to waken in them which becomes their master—which will have its way—putting out of view all behests but its own, dictating certain words, and insisting on their being used, whether vehement or measured in their nature, new moulding characters, giving unthought-of turns to incidents, rejecting carefully elaborated old ideas, and suddenly creating and adopting new ones. Is it not so? And should we try to counteract this influence? Can we, indeed, counteract it?" The answer is emphatically No. Genius is like the free wind of heaven; it bloweth where it listeth, and no man knows its processes, its going and its coming. How could its noblest results be accomplished if it were not thus perfectly unfettered?
It has been matter of frequent remark that works which are now held in high esteem by the world at large absolutely went begging amongst the publishers. Thackeray, for example, is said to have carried his "Vanity Fair" from house to house, being unsuccessful on no fewer than sixteen or seventeen occasions; and other instances of a like character might be cited. James and Horace Smith's "Rejected Addresses" were refused by a publisher who afterwards purchased the work at thirty times the price he might have had it for in the outset. Success gilds many things. Cadell, the well-known publisher, declined by return of post to give any encouragement to the publication of Miss Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," or even to entertain the proposition to publish the work at the author's risk. "Northanger Abbey" was sold in 1803 to a publisher in Bath for 10l.; but so little enamoured was he of the story that he chose to abide by his first loss rather than risk further expense by publishing such a work. The author herself considered that when she -received 150l. from the sale of "Sense and Sensibility," it was a prodigious recompense for that which had cost her little or nothing. Yet, with her strong judgment and critical faculty, she cannot but have felt astonishment sometimes at the success which attended work inferior to her own. Amongst the enthusiastic admirers of these novels by Miss Austen, which were little regarded by the public generally—were Southey, who held them to be more true to nature than any writings of the age—Coleridge—who described them as perfectly genuine and individual productions—and Miss Mitford, who said that she could almost have cut off one of her hands if it would have enabled her to write like Miss Austen with the other. M. Guizot declared that "Miss Austen, Miss Ferrier, &c., form a school which, in the excellence and profusion of its productions, resembles the cloud of dramatic poets of the great Athenian age." The Earl of Carlisle, the noble writer of agreeable verse, referred to her as the "all-perfect Austen." The opinions of other distinguished literary men of much greater weight and power have been alluded to in the outset of this article. One of the best tributes paid to these admirable novels, however, is the picture of Lord Holland lying ill in his bed, with his sister Miss Fox reading aloud to him, as she always did on these occasions, some one of Miss Austen's stories, of which he was never wearied. "I well recollect the time,l" says Sir Henry Holland, who furnishes the above reminiscence, "when these charming novels, almost unique in their style of humour, burst suddenly on the world. It was sad that their writer did not live to witness the growth of her fame." It is a singular fact that many philosophers have developed a strong predilection for fiction; and the celebrated Whewell (who once wearied of his stay at Carnarvon because lie had read the circulating library twice through) is also to be numbered amongst the warmest admirers of Miss Austen.
In her later years this gifted writer suffered from some internal malady, whose progress was probably hastened by certain family troubles which arose in the year 1816. Her spirits, however, were usually cheerful and buoyant, and the occasions were rare in which she indulged in complaints, or fell into listlessness and mental depression. As the body decayed, indeed, the mind seemed to acquire greater strength. By the beginning of March 1817 it was seen that she was seriously ill. The 17th was the last date upon which she engaged in literary labour. In May she removed to Winchester for the purpose of securing skilful medical advice and attention; but Mr. Lyford, a practitioner of great eminence, seems to have had little hope of her recovery from the first. It was hard to be cut off at the moment when success was crowning her labours, and when her genius had become a source of the purest joy and satisfaction to her. But she did not repine at the prospect of death, any more than she feared it. Here is a testimony to her worth and character, as well as an account of her last moments:—"She was a humble believing Christian. Her life had been passed in the performance of home duties and the cultivation of domestic affections, without any self-seeking or craving after applause. She had always sought, as it were by instinct, to promote the happiness of all who came within her influence, and doubtless she had her reward in the peace of mind which was granted her in her last days. Her sweetness of temper never failed. She was ever considerate and grateful to those who attended on her. At times when she felt rather better, her playfulness of spirit revived, and she amused them even in their sadness. Once, when she thought herself near her end, she said what she imagined might be her last words to those around her, and particularly thanked her sister-in-law for being with her, saying: 'You have always been a kind sister to me, Mary.' When the end at last came, she sank rapidly, and on being asked by her attendants whether there was anything that she wanted, her reply was, 'Nothing but death.' These were her last words. In quietness and peace she breathed her last on the morning of July 18, 1817." Jane Austen was thus only in her forty-second year at the time of her death. She was laid to rest in Winchester Cathedral, almost opposite to the tomb of William of Wykeham. By all whom she left behind she was regarded with the tenderest affection, mingled with feelings of profound esteem for those talents which were now so clearly demonstrated, and so conspicuous to the world at large. Her life was but a brief span, and had it been prolonged, a riper experience might have still further expanded powers which were justly the theme of unfeighed admiration on the part of all who accurately gauged their extent and character.
Nothing, probably, is more entertaining than details affecting the life and personal characteristics of distinguished authors; and fortunately we are not without some, record of this nature in regard to Miss Austen. Her nephew says she was not highly accomplished according to the present standard, yet she read French with facility and knew something of Italian. She delighted in music, and was sufficiently proficient in it to sing, to her own accompaniment, many simple old songs now never heard. She had read much history, and even in her youth held strong political opinions, especially about the affairs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. She vehemently defended Charles I., but rather, as Mr. Leigh thinks, from an impulse of feeling than from any inquiry into the evidences by which he and other characters with whom she sympathised must be condemned or acquitted. With regard to the politics of her own day, she took but little active interest in them, though "she probably shared the feeling of moderate Toryism which prevailed in her family." The Spectator and all the old periodicals were very familiar to her, and she was au courant with Richardson's novels down to the minutest detail. Cowper, Crabbe, and Johnson were her favourite authors, and she also derived great pleasure from the poetry of Sir Walter Scott An account is given by one of her nieces of her treatment of children. "Her first charm to children was great sweetness of manner. She seemed to love you, and you loved her in return. This, as well as I can now recollect, 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." Miss Austen had a keen sense of the ridiculous, which led her to play with all the commonplaces of everyday life, whether as regarded persons or things; but her emotions were too deep to allow her to make sport of life's serious duties or responsibilities, nor did she ever turn individuals into ridicule. Her fun was harmless and really amusing, never severely censorious, or, what is still harder to bear, given to abuse by contemptuous ridicule. Two epigrams are preserved, which show that she could occasionally throw off her pleasantry in verse. Reading in the newspapers, on one occasion, of the marriage of a Mr. Gell to a Miss Gill, of Eastbourne, she wrote down the following impromptu :—
At Eastbourne Mr. Gell, from being perfectly well,
Became dreadfully ill, for love of Miss Gill.
So he said, with some sighs, I'm the slave of your iis;
Oh, restore, if you please, by accepting my ees.
A better impromptu still, perhaps, was the succeeding one on the marriage of a middle-aged flirt with a Mr. Wake, whom, it was supposed, she would scarcely have accepted in her youth:—
Maria, good-humoured, and handsome, and tall,
For a husband was at her last stake;
And having in vain danced at many a ball,
Is now happy to jump at a Wake.
Having seen the very popular Miss O'Neil as "Isabella," Miss Austen wrote to a friend: "I do not think she was quite equal to my expectation. I fancy I want something more than can be Acting seldom satisfies me. I took two pocket-handkerchiefs, but had very little occasion for either. She is an elegant creature, however, and hugs Mr. Young delightfully." The woman who could laugh and jest with the light-hearted was equally ready to comfort the unhappy or to nurse the sick. Ladies will be glad to know something of her appearance and dress. Mr. Austen Leigh reports that "in person she was 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. If not so regularly handsome as her sister, yet her countenance had a peculiar charm of its own to the eyes of most beholders. At the time of which I am now writing she never was seen, either morning or evening, without a cap; I believe that she and her sister were generally thought to have taken to the garb of middle age earlier than their years or their looks required; and that, though remarkably neat in their dress as in all their ways, they were scarcely sumciently regardful of the fashionable or the becoming." The portrait prefixed to the collected edition of Miss Austen's works, recently issued, exactly bears out this descriptipn. Except through the eye, however, the intellect of this great writer is scarcely indicated in the portrait; and ladies of the present day, in observing the style of dress, will be apt to think that they have improved vastly, as regards grace and beauty, upon the costume in vogue with their grandmothers.
The "Letters of Jane Austen," recently edited by Lord Brabourne, add very little knowledge of a personal character to that we already enjoyed. Nor are the letters themselves valuable from the literary point of view, and if Jane Austen were now living she would probably be extremely angry at their publication. If anything could damage the fame of a writer already well established it would be the issue of such works of supererogation as that undertaken by Lord Brabourne. There are, perhaps, twenty pages in the two volumes issued by his lordship which are either amusing or valuable, as illustrating Jane Austen's character and epistolary skill; but as the world is so very busy, and has so many important things to attend to, it could well have spared the remainder.
But it is now time that we gave a taste of the quality of Jane Austen's writings. Several allusions have already been made to their humour, and we will endeavour to justify them by a quotation from "Emma." It concerns that very voluble lady, Miss Bates, and is in its way as excellent a bit of comedy as could well be found:—
Miss Bates and Miss Fairfax, escorted by the two gentlemen, walked into the room; and Mrs. Elton seemed to think it as much her duty as Mrs. Weston's to receive them. Her gestures and movements might be understood by any one who looked on like Emma; but her words, everybody's words, were soon lost under the incessant flow of Miss Bates, who came in talking, and had not finished her peech under many minutes after her being admitted into the circle at the fire. As the door opened she was heard—
"So very obliging of you!—no rain at all. Nothing to signify. I do not care for myself. Quite thick shoes. And Jane declares—Well!" (as soon as she was within the door), "Well! this is brilliant, indeed! This is admirable! Excellently contrived, upon my word. Nothing wanting. Could not have imagined it. So well lighted up! Jane, Jane, look! did you ever see anything? Oh! Mr. Weston, you must really have had Aladdin's lamp. Good Mrs. Stokes would not know her own room again. I saw her as I came in; she was standing in the entrance. 'Oh, Mrs. Stokes,' said I, but I had not time for more."
She was now met by Mrs. Weston.
"Very well, I thank you, ma'am. I hope you are quite well. Very happy to hear it. So afraid you might have a headache! seeing you pass by so often, and knowing how much trouble you must have. Delighted to hear it, indeed! Ah! dear Mrs. Elton, so obliged to you for the carriage; excellent time; Jane and I quite ready. Did not keep the horses a moment. Most comfortable carriage. Oh! and I am sure our thanks are due to you, Mrs. Weston, on that score, Mrs. Elton had most kindly sent Jane a pote, or we should have been. But two such offers in one day! Never were such neighbours. I said to my mother, 'Upon my word, ma'am.' Thank you, my mother is remarkably well. Gone to Mr. Woodhouse's. I made her take her shawl—for the evenings are not warm—her large new shawl, Mrs. Dixon's wedding present. So kind of her, to think of my mother! Bought at Weymouth, you know; Mr. Dixon's choice. There were three others, Jane says, which they hesitated about some time. Colonel Campbell rather preferred, an olive.—My dear Jane, are you sure you did not wet your feet? It was but a drop or two, but I am so afraid; but Mr. Frank Churchill was so extremely—and there was a mat to step upon. I shall never forget his extreme politeness. Oh! Mr. Frank Churchill, I must tell you my mother's spectacles have never been in fault since ; the rivet never came out again. My mother often talks of your good-nature: does not she, Jane? Do not we often talk of Mr. Frank Churchill? Ah! here's Miss Woodhouse. Dear Miss Woodhouse, how do you do? Very Well; I thank you, quite well. This is meeting quite in Fairyland. Such a transformation! Must not compliment, I know" (eyeing Emma most complacently)—"that would be rude; but upon my word, Miss Woodhouse, you do look—how do you like Jane's hair? You are a judge. She did it all herself. Quite wonderful how she does her hair! No hairdresser from London, I think, could—Ah! Dr. Hughes, I declare—and Mrs. Hughes. Must go and speak to Dr. and Mrs. Hughes for a moment. How do you do,? How do you do? Very well, I thank you. This is delightful, is it not? Where is dear Mr. Richard? Oh, there he is. Don't disturb him. Much better employed talking to the young ladies. how do you do, Mr. Richard? I saw you the other day as you rode through the town. Mrs. Otway, I protest! and good Mr. Otway, and Miss Otway, and Miss Caroline. Such a host of friends! And Mr. George and Mr. Arthur! How do you do? How do you all do? Quite well, I am much obliged to you. Never better. Don't I hear another carriage? Who can this be? Very likely the worthy Coles. Upon my word, this is charming, to be standing about among such friends! And such a noble fire! I am quite roasted. No coffee, I thank you, for me; never take coffee. A little tea, if you please, sir, by-and-by. No hurry. Oh here it comes. Everything so good!"
This scene occurred at a ball. When supper was announced, Miss Bates resumed her inconsequent eloquence, and it continued without interruption until her being seated at table and taking up her spoon.
"Jane, Jane, my dear Jane, where are you? Here is your tippet. Mrs. Weston begs you to put on your tippet. She says she is afraid there will be draughts in the passage, though everything has been done—one door nailed up—quantities of matting—my dear Jane, indeed you must. Mr. Churchill, oh! you are too obliging! How well you put it on!—so gratified! Excellent dancing, indeed !—Yes, my dear, I ran home, as I said I should, to help grandmamma to bed, and, got back again, and nobody missed me. I set off without saying a word, just as I told you. Grandmamma was quite well, had a charming evening with Mr. Woodhouse, a vast deal of chat, and backgammon. Tea was made downstairs, biscuits and baked apples and wine before she came away: amazing luck in some of her throws: and she inquired a great deal about you, how you were amused, and who were your partners. 'Oh!' said I, 'I shall not forestall Jane; I left her dancing with Mr. George Otway; she will love to tell you about it herself to-morrow; her first partner was Mr. Elton; I do not know who will ask her next, perhaps Mr. William Cox.' My dear sir, you are too obliging. Is there nobody you would not rather?—I am not helpless. Sir, you are most kind. Upon my word, Jane on one arm, and me on the other! Stop, stop, let us stand a little back, Mrs. Elton is going; dear Mrs. Elton, how elegant she looks!—beautiful lace!—now we all follow in her train. Quite the queen of the evening!—Well, here we are at the passage. Two steps, Jane, take care of the two steps. Oh! no, there is but one. Well, I was persuaded there were two. How very odd! I was convinced there were two, and there is but one. I never saw anything equal to the comfort and style—candles everywhere. I was telling you of your grandmamma, Jane—there was a little disappointment. The baked apples and biscuits. Excellent in their way, you know; but there was a delicate fricassee of sweetbread and some asparagus brought in at first, and good Mr. Woodhouse, not thinking the asparagus quite boiled enough, sent it all out again. Now, there is nothing grandmamma loves better than sweetbread and asparagus, so she was rather disappointed; but we agreed we would not speak of it to anybody, for fear of its getting, round to dear Miss Woodhouse, who would be so very much concerned! Well, this is brilliant!—I am all amazement!—Could not have supposed anything!—such elegance and profusion! I have seen nothing like it since—Well, where shall we sit? Where shall we sit? Anywhere, so that Jane is not in a draught. Where I sit is of no coUsequence. Oh! do you recommend this side? Well, I am sure, Mr. Churchill—only it seems too good—but just as you please. What you direct in this house cannot be wrong. Dear Jane, how shall we ever recollect half the dishes for grandmamma? Soup, too! Bless me! I should not be helped so soon, but it smells most excellent, and I cannot help beginning."
Miss Austen is one of those writers who suffer when we attempt to represent their talent through the medium of detached passages. She neither strains after the hysterics of emotion, nor high-sounding descriptions. Her works must be judged of in the whole, and then it will be seen how natural, and therefore how powerful, are her delineations of character. She individualises without effort, and her various personages grow upon us silently, and yet with penetrating force. It has been said that our author never descends to the vulgar —a just remark—though there is a soupçon of vulgarity about the character of Thorpe, in "Northanger Abbey." Her drawing of real English gentlemen is most successful—and she has given us a whole gallery of characters whom we may find typified in Bertram and Knightley. As she does not depend upon plot or striking situations for effect, we are unable to extract from her novels passages illustrative of her best qualities, as is the case with most other writers. This sketch of John Thorpe, however—with his touch of braggadocio and snobbery, yet jovial and good-humoured withal—is graphically done, and seems to bring the very man himself before us:—
John Thorpe, who, in the meantime, had been giving orders about the horses, soon joined the ladies, and from him she (Catherine) directly received the amends which were her due; for while he slightly and carelessly touched the hand of Isabella, on her he bestowed a whole scrape and half a short bow. He was a stout young man, of middling height, who, with a plain face and ungraceful form, seemed fearful of being too handsome, unless he wore the dress of a groom, and too much like a gentleman unless he were easy where he ought to be civil, and impudent where he might be allowed to be easy. He took out his watch: "How long do you think we have been running it from Tetbury, Miss Morland?"
"I do not know the distance." Her brother told her that it was twenty-three miles.
"Three-and-twenty," cried Thorpe; "five-and-twenty if it is an inch." Morland remonstrated, pleaded the authority of road books, innkeepers, and milestones; but his friend disregarded them all; he had a surer test of distance. "I know it must be five-and-twenty," said he, "by the time we have been doing it. It is now half after one; we drove out of the inn yard at Tetbury as the town clock struck eleven; and I defy any man in England to make my horse go less than ten miles an hour in harness ; that makes it exactly twenty-five."
"You have lost an hour," said Morland; "it was only ten o'clock when we came from Tetbury."
"Ten o'clock! It was eleven, upon my soul! I counted every stroke. This brother of yours would persuade me out of my senses, Miss Morland; do but look at my horse; did you ever see an animal so made for speed in your life?" (The servant had just mounted the carriage, and was driving off.) "Such true blood! Three hours and a half, indeed, coming only three-and-twenty miles! look at that creature, and suppose it possible, if you can."
"He does look very hot, to be sure."
"Hot! he had not turned a hair till we came to Walcot Church: but look at his forehand; look at his loins; only see how he moves; that horse cannot go less than ten miles an hour; tie his legs, and he will get on. What do you think of my gig, Miss Morland? a neat one, is it not? Well hung; town built; I have not had it a month. It was built for a Christchurch man, a friend of mine, a very good sort of fellow; he ran it a few weeks till, I believe, it was convenient to have done with it. I happened just then to be looking out for some light thing of the kind, though I had pretty well determined on a curricle too; but I chanced to meet him on Magdalen Bridge, as he was driving intO Oxford last term: 'Ah'! Thorpe,' said he, 'do you happen to want such a little thing as this? It is a capital one of the kind, but I am cursed tired of it.' 'Oh! d— it,' said I, 'I am your man; what do you ask?' And how much do you think he did, Miss Morland?"
"I am sure I cannot guess, at all."
"Curricle-hung, you see; seat, trunk, sword-case, splashing-board, lamps, silver moulding—all, you see, complete; the ironwork as good as new, or better. He asked fifty guineas: I closed with him directly, threw down the money, and the carriage was mine."
"And I am sure," said Catherine, "I know so little of such things, that I cannot judge whether it was cheap or dear."
"Neither one nor t'other; I might have got it for less, I dare say; but I hate haggling, and poor Freeman wanted cash."
"That was very good-natured of you," said Catherine, quite pleased.
"Oh! d— it, when one has the means of doing a kind thing by a friend, I hate to be pitiful."
An admirable sentiment, if somewhat emphatically expressed. But this extract well shows the whole style and character of the man.
How comes it that of all the old novels, so few have survived to our own day? Where twenty have perished, only one lives to be read and remembered. We have Fielding, Smollett, Richardson, Goldsmith, and Jane Austen; but the works of other novelists, for which immortality was predicted at the beginning of the century, have sunk beyond revival in the waters of oblivion. There must be some secret power, some salt of the intellect, which preserves alive those works which have reached us, and which seem as fresh and entertaining to us as they appeared to the contemporaries of their various authors. Macaulay indicated some of the reasons for the popularity of Miss Austen in defining the chief qualities of her novels; and at the risk of repeating a passage already familiar to the reader, we will cite this eminent writer's criticism:—"Shakespeare has had 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, a woman of whom England is justly proud. She has given us a multitude of characters, all, in a certain sense, commonplace—all such as we meet every day. Yet they are all as perfectly discriminated from each other as if they were the most eccentric of human beings. There are, for example, four clergymen, none of whom we should be surprised to find in any parsonage in the kingdom: Mr. Edward Ferrars, Mr. Henry Tilney, Mr. Edmund Bertram, and Mr. Elton. They are all specimens of the upper part of the middle class. They have all been liberally educated. They all lie under the restraints of the same sacred profession; they are all young; they are all in love. Not one of them has any hobby-horse, to use the phrase of Sterne; not one has a ruling passion, such as we read of in Pope. Who would not have expected them to be insipid likenesses of each other? No such thing. Harpagon is not more unlike to Jourdain, Joseph Surface is not more unlike to Sir Lucius O'Trigger, than every one of Miss Austen's young divines to all his reverend brethren. And almost all this is done by touches so delicate, that they elude analysis, that they defy the powers of description, and that we know them to exist only by the general effect to which they have contributed." In the last sentence, Macaulay has happily described the general impression left upon the mind by the writings of Miss Austen. Her quiet and unobtrusive power produced a similar effect uppn Sir Walter Scott. In his diary these words appear, dated March 14, 1826: "Read again, for the third time at least, Miss Austen's finely-written novel of 'Pride and Prejudice.' That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I 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." It is certainly not a little remarkable that an author whose "books contain nothing more exciting than a village ball or the gossip of a village spinster's tea-table; nothing more tragic than the overturning of a chaise in a soft ditch, or a party being caught in a shower of rain going to church," should thus have extracted eulogies from the finest spirits of the age.
A recent critic has quarrelled with her on the ground that her clergymen are not such clergymen as would satisfy us if they were thus drawn in stories written at the present time. This may be so; she has drawn the clergy of her own day; and they were not in the habit of obtruding the cloth, neither did they claim to be æsthetic as the word is now understood. Many of the clergymen Miss Austen has drawn are fine manly fellows; but in mingling in society they do not make everybody else uncomfortable by continually insisting upon the nature of their profession. Yet it must be admitted that some of them fail in rising to a true conception of the sacred and dignified nature of the office of a parish priest. Since Miss Austen's time, conscience has been quickened in the Church. There is now an earnestness abroad to which the clergy were formerly comparative strangers.
In commenting upon the character of Miss Austen's novels, another writer, who until quite recently was in our midst, deposed that he found little humour in them. This is an extraordinary and almost incredible mistake. There is very considerable humour in the novels, but it is a humour very difficult to define. It does not consist in the observations of the author so much, but radiates from the characters themselves—a result due to their truthful delineation. Miss Austen has invented many persons who cannot be said to talk wittily, or who give expression to isolated jeux d'esprit, and yet every one recognises them and classifies them as distinctly humorous characters. As a penetrating critic has well said: "Like Shakespeare, she shows as admirable a discrimination in the character of fools as of people of sense; a merit which is far from common. To invent indeed a conversation full of wisdom or of wit, requires that the writer should himself possess ability; but the converse does not hold good, it is no fool that can describe fools well; and many who have succeeded pretty well in painting superior characters, have failed in giving individuality to those weaker ones which it is necessary to introduce in order to give a faithful representation of real life. They exhibit to us mere folly in the abstract, forgetting that to the eye of the skilful naturalist the insects on a leaf present as wide differences as exist between the lion and the elephant. Slender, and Shallow, and Aguecheek, as Shakespeare has painted them, though equally fools, resemble one another no more than Richard, and Macbeth, and Julius Cæsar; and Miss Austen's Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Rushworth, and Miss Bates are no more alike than her Darcy, Knightley, and Edmund Bertram." The faculty of humour was, in fact, very strongly developed in Jane Austen, but she was fastidious in the use of it. Her minuteness of detail has been objected to; but while on the part of a tyro this would undoubtedly become wearisome, the same cannot be said with regard to the author of "Pride and Prejudice." Dutch painting may be high art, notwithstanding its minutiæ; and faithfully to depict the trivial may require a genius equal to that which shall adequately describe the magnificent and the sublime.
The principal reasons, therefore, for Miss Austen's hold upon the reading public—a hold which we may reasonably believe will be constant and enduring—are not far to seek. Adopting a totally different course from Mrs. Radcliffe and her school, she substituted reality for excitement The change was agreeable and refreshing. It has been observed that, although novels are supposed to give a false picture of life and manners, this is not necessarily so. As eregards many novelists, unquestionably the accusation is true, but no one can really feel its applicability to the works of Jane Austen. Her characters are not unnatural, neither are her incidents in the least degree improbable. She too thoroughly understands human nature to exaggerate its sentiments beyond recognition. Miss Austen is also a moral writer in the highest sense—that is, there is a high tone pervading all her works; this is no more than the natural outcome of her own life and character. But she has also great literary claims. Besides her capacity for minute detail as affecting her dramatis personæ, already insisted upon, she has vivid powers of description, all the more effective, perhaps, because they are held in check by a sound judgment and a well-balanced imagination. She never exhausts a scene by what is called word-painting. She indicates its main features, and describes the general effect it produces upon the spectator, rather than recapitulates the size, weight, and colour of its various component elements. To say that she has a strong insight into female character is almost superfluous. George Eliot does not enter more deeply into the workings of the female mind and heart than she does. Add to all these claims that our author's novels are perfectly unexceptionable from every point of view, and that they combine rational amuSement with no small degree of instruction, and we have advanced tolerably sufficient grounds for the continuous favour with which they have been and are still regarded.
The critic who said that these novels added a new pleasure to existence was not wide of the mark. In Miss Austen's later books, the most exacting may discover a maturity of thought and a felicity of expression seldom attained by members of her craft; and these augured still greater achievements in the future had her life been spared. In no instance is it possible to sum up the claims and characteristics of a writer of the first rank in a single phrase; but if it were demanded that we should attempt this in the case of Jane Austen, we should aver that her writings have not become obsolete, and never will become obsolete, because they are just and faithful transcripts of human nature. It is in this important respect that she is able to touch the hand of Shakespeare.
G. BARNETT SMITH.
Smith, George Barnett. "More Views of Jane Austen." The Gentleman's Magazine 258 (1895), 26-45. [Gilson M159]