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Outlines of English and American Literature
Jane Austen
by Long, William J.


The rare genius of Miss Austen (1775-1817) was as a forest flower during her lifetime. While Fanny Burney, Jane Porter and Maria Edgeworth were widely acclaimed, this little woman remained almost unknown, following no school of fiction, writing for her own pleasure, and destroying whatever did not satisfy her own sense of fitness. If she had any theory of fiction, it was simply this: to use no incident but such as had occurred before her eyes, to describe no scene that was not familiar, and to portray only such characters as she knew intimately, their speech, dress, manner, and the motives that governed their action. If unconsciously she followed any rule of expression, it was that of Cowper, who said that to touch and retouch is the secret of almost all good writing. To her theory and rule she added personal charm, intelligence, wit, genius of a high order. Neglected by her own generation, she has now an ever-widening circle of readers, and is ranked by critics among the five or six greatest writers of English fiction.

Her Life

Jane Austen's life was short and extremely placid. She was born (1775) in a little Hampshire village; she spent her entire life in one country parish or another, varying the scene by an occasional summer at the watering-place of Bath, which was not very exciting. Her father was an easy-going clergyman who read Pope, avoided politics, and left preaching to his curate. She was one of a large family of children, who were brought up to regard elegance of manner as a cardinal virtue, and vulgarity of any kind as the epitome of the seven deadly sins. Her two brothers entered the navy; hence the flutter in her books whenever a naval officer comes on a furlough to his native village. She spent her life in homely, pleasant duties, and did her writing while the chatter of family life went on around her. Her only characters were visitors who came to the rectory, or who gathered around the tea-table in a neighbor's house. They were absolutely unconscious of the keen scrutiny to which they were subjected; no one whispered to them, "A chiel's amang ye, takin' notes"; and so they had no suspicion that they were being transferred into books.

The first three of Miss Austen's novels were written at Steventon, among her innocent subjects, but her precious manuscripts went begging in vain for a publisher. [Footnote: Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility were written between 1796 and 1799, when Jane Austen had just passed her twenty-first year. Her first novel was bought by a publisher who neglected to print it. The second could not be sold till after the third was published, in 1811.] The last three, reflecting as in a glass the manners of another parish, were written at Chawton, near Winchester. Then the good work suddenly began to flag. The same disease that, a little later, was to call halt to Keats's poetry of beauty now made an end of Miss Austen's portrayal of everyday life. When she died (1817) she was only forty-two years old, and her heart was still that of a young girl. A stained-glass window in beautiful old Winchester Cathedral speaks eloquently of her life and work.

Novels and Characters

If we must recommend one of Miss Austen's novels, perhaps Pride and Prejudice is the most typical; but there is very little to justify this choice when the alternative is Northanger Abbey, or Emma, or Sense and Sensibility, or Persuasion, or Mansfield Park. All are good; the most definite stricture that one can safely make is that Mansfield Park is not so good as the others. Four of the novels are confined to country parishes; but in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion the horizon is broadened to include a watering place, whither genteel folk went "to take the air."

The characters of all these novels are: first, the members of five or six families, with their relatives, who try to escape individual boredom by gregariousness; and second, more of the same kind assembled at a local fair or sociable. Here you meet a dull country squire or two, a feeble-minded baronet, a curate laboriously upholding the burden of his dignity, a doctor trying to hide his emptiness of mind by looking occupied, an uncomfortable male person in tow of his wife, maiden aunts, fond mammas with their awkward daughters, chatterboxes, poor relations, spoiled children,--a characteristic gathering. All these, except the spoiled children, talk with perfect propriety about the weather. If in the course of a long day anything witty is said, it is an accident, a phenomenon; conversation halts, and everybody looks at the speaker as if he must have had "a rush of brains to the head."

Her Small Field

Such is Jane Austen's little field, an eddy of life revolving endlessly around small parish interests. Her subjects are not even the whole parish, but only "the quality," whom the favored ones may meet at Mrs. B's afternoon at home. They read proper novels, knit wristlets, discuss fevers and their remedies, raise their eyebrows at gossip, connive at matrimony, and take tea. The workers of the world enter not here; neither do men of ideas, nor social rebels, nor the wicked, nor the happily unworthy poor; and the parish is blessed in having no reformers.

In this barren field, hopeless to romancers like Scott, there never was such another explorer as Jane Austen. Her demure observation is marvelously keen; sometimes it is mischievous, or even a bit malicious, but always sparkling with wit or running over with good humor. Almost alone in that romantic age she had no story to tell, and needed none. She had never met any heroes or heroines. Plots, adventures, villains, persecuted innocence, skeletons in closets,--all the ordinary machinery of fiction seemed to her absurd and unnecessary. She was content to portray the life that she knew best, and found it so interesting that, a century later, we share her enthusiasm. And that is the genius of Miss Austen, to interest us not by a romantic story but by the truth of her observation and by the fidelity of her portrayal of human nature, especially of feminine nature.

Influence on English Fiction

There is one more thing to note in connection with Miss Austen's work; namely, her wholesome influence on the English novel. In Northanger Abbey and in Sense and Sensibility she satirizes the popular romances of the period, with their Byronic heroes, melodramatic horrors and perpetual harping on some pale heroine's sensibilities. Her satire is perhaps the best that has been written on the subject, so delicate, so flashing, so keen, that a critic compares it to the exploit of Saladin (in The Talisman) who could not with his sword hack through an iron mace, as Richard did, but who accomplished the more difficult feat of slicing a gossamer veil as it floated in the air.

Such satire was not lost; yet it was Miss Austen's example rather than her precept which put to shame the sentimental romances of her day, and which influenced subsequent English fiction in the direction of truth and naturalness. Young people still prefer romance and adventure as portrayed by Scott and his followers, and that is as it should be; but an increasingly large number of mature readers (especially those who are interested in human nature) find a greater charm in the novel of characters and manners, as exemplified by Jane Austen.

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