By THOMAS E. KEBBEL.
WE ARE OFTEN TOLD at the present day that our grandfathers and grandmothers in their youth had a less uniform and monotonous existence than their degenerate posterity; that life was more full of both character and incident than it is at present; that idiosyncracies of all kinds, personal, professional, or provincial, were more strongly marked; and that among our progenitors, consequently, though much less laborious than ourselves, we find no complaints of that insipidity and sameness which are, rightly or wrongly, imputed to contemporary society. No doubt the life of England eighty years ago was rougher than it is now; and in some respects, therefore, more exciting. Doubtless, also, to us looking upon it, mellowed and moss-grown with the lapse of time, it seems more picturesque than the present. And so far it may be a more proper period than our own in which to lay the scene of a romance.
But it may be doubted, after all, whether the real actors in the life of that generation were as conscious of their own advantages as the complaint against our own times assumes them to have been. All that part of life which was rougher and more stirring than our own, lay outside of their ordinary daily experience; and it was all external and outdoor life. Posting, coaching, or riding were, let us grant, more interesting modes of travelling than our own, though any one of them could be tedious enough under circumstances of no rare occurrence; but they did not affect the ordinary routine of domestic life. The very same circumstances which lent all its charms to the “road,” kept down the number of those who were able to enjoy them. People then remained at home to an extent that would now be unendurable. So that, on the whole, we cannot avoid a shrewd suspicion that life in those days, if less insipid than in these for the higher aristocracy, was more dull for the rest of the community; that long stretches of unbroken monotony, days of worsted work and nights of satin stitch, were more common, and that if a young lady of 1870 were to find herself transferred to a country personage of 1790, she would consider herself to be buried alive.
This conjecture, which is à priori not improbable, is strengthened by the perusal of Miss Austen’s novels; and it is part of her genius that, without ever travelling out of the same dull circles of society, she has been able to construct for us tales of such enduring interest. It is still further strengthened by the contents of her biography, which presents us with a life not entirely devoid of all the exciting incidents that might happen at the present day, but passed in a contracted sphere, with limited opportunities of observation, among common-place people, who knew little variety even in their amusements. The very narrowness of her range enabled her to concentrate her intellectual vision upon the few types of character which she did meet, with an intensity for which no more extensive experience could have compensated, had it lessened this peculiar power. These are the different qualities of Miss Austen’s novels – a series of characters which, for the knowledge of human nature and the delicacy of finish displayed in them, have been compared perhaps rashly to Shakespeare’s, unfolded through a series of events which are almost as uninteresting as the Citizen’s Journal in the Spectator. This is a wonderful triumph of art. Yet it is equally clear the excellence of this kind is no passport to extensive popularity. On the whole, Jane Austen has probably been as much admired as in the nature of things it was possible she should be. Lord Macaulay and Archbishop Whatley have done for her reputation all that the most influential criticism can accomplish. And all we can expect is, that the recent biography will stimulate attention to her writings among those who admire them already, without communicating it to the general mass of novel readers.
MISS AUSTEN WAS the daughter of a country clergyman, who was rector of Steventon in Hampshire from 1764 to 1801. Her mother was a Miss Leigh, likewise the daughter of a clergyman, and a connection to the Leighs of Stoneleigh. On the father’s side, too, the family is said to have been gentle, though in the beginning of the seventeenth century its representatives were Kentish clothiers. At all events, it had good and opulent connections, and through these Mr. Austen obtained his preferment. His daughter Jane was born at Steventon on the 16th of December, 1775; and here she lived till the year 1800, when Mr. Austen, finding himself too infirm for duty, resigned his living to his son. The family retired to Bath, but only for a short time. After her father’s death, they lived a little while at Southampton, but finally settled down again in the country at Chancton, a Hampshire village about a mile from the town of Alton. “While Jane was at Bath and Southampton,” says her biographer, “she was a sojourner in a strange land;” here “she found a real home among her people.” But it is evident that, during her stay at Bath, she was watching the life of the place with a curious and observing eye, which enabled her afterwards to reproduce it with so much effect in Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Still her main sources of inspiration lay round Steventon and Chancton, among the beneficed clergy and the country families, which constituted the society of the neighbourhood. At Steventon her aunt’s family lived quite in the style of the clerical squire. The living was a family living. The patron owned the whole parish; and as he never resided there, his place in the eyes if the village was filled by the rector. Mrs. Austen had her carriage and pair. The sons shot over the manor. Dinner-parties were exchanged with the best society in the neighbourhood. And though, as Mr. Leigh points out, carriages did not then imply so high a scale of honour as they do now, still it is clear that, on the whole, the Austens were in a thoroughly good county position; and that the Bertrams, the Tilneys, and the Dashwoods, with which she was to charm the world, were the result of her personal experience. That sombre and opulent and respectable society, rich and dark like a twelfth cake, is no longer exactly what it was. But it still exists in a tolerable state of preservation, sufficient to enable any reader who was mixed in it to reproduce for himself, without any great stretch of the imaginative faculty, the drawing-room at Mansfield Park.
It was during her residence at Chancton, that is, between the years 1809 and 1817, that all her novels were published. But she had written three of them – namely, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, and Sense and Sensibility, before leaving Steventon – that is, before she was five-and-twenty. The first of these, offered to a London publisher, was declined by return of post. The second was sold to a bookseller at Bath for ten pounds, who, like poor Goldsmith with the Vicar of Wakefield, kept it by him some years without venturing to publish it, and ultimately, on receipt of her purchase-money, returned it to the lady’s brother, who had the pleasure of informing him that the rejected work was by the authoress of Pride and Prejudice. The chronological order of her works was as follows: Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811, Pride and Prejudice in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814, and Emma in 1816. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, but lately recovered from the undiscerning bibliophile, appeared after her death. This event took place in 1817, at Winchester, where she had gone for medical advice; but her nephew does not tell us to what kind of disease we are to attribute her premature decay. She had not yet completed her forty-second year when the gates closed over her; a singular exception to her three celebrated contemporaries, Miss Burney, Miss Edgeworth, and Miss Mitford, who all attained extreme longevity.
In person Miss Austen must have been at least pretty; she was brown-haired, blue-eyed, and slightly above the average height. She may be said with literal truth to have passed through life “in maiden meditation, fancy free,” though she was probably not permitted to escape the importunity of lovers. We can imagine her sometimes to have undergone much what Emma Woodhouse experienced from the attention of Mr. Elton, when that reverend gentleman had taken just enough wine to embolden without confusing him. But whatever her acquaintance with the tender passion, it is clear that she was the idol of a large family circle. “Aunt Jane” was the universal resource and referee in all domestic matters. She counselled the improvident, nursed the invalid, sympathised with the lovers and told fairy tales to the children, like a second Scheherazade. She was evidently a cheerful, good-natured, contented young woman, satisfied with life as she found it, exempt from its depressing cares, and unconscious of its deeper problems. The placidity of her temper, the soundness of her mind, and her total freedom from egotism, are shown by the fact that she wrote all her novels at a little desk in the common sitting-room of the family, exposed to constant interruption, yet never for a moment ruffled, or leading any one to suspect that she was occupied with business of importance. It is indeed not improbable that she was rewarded for her self-possession by finding that many of her morning visitors were qualified to serve as models; and that, while she seemed to be listening with ready politeness to the gossip of some village bore, she was quietly taking his likeness, and forming in her mind a Mr. Collins or a Miss Bates. In her habits and tastes she was simple, quiet, and unobtrusive. Her neat-handedness was proverbial. She was a mistress of needle-work; unrivalled at “spilikins” and cup and ball; and celebrated for her nicety in the folding and sealing of letters. Consistently with these traits, she seems to have led an indoor and rather hot-house kind of existence. We see no traces in her books, and none are supplied by the biographer, of that love of nature, and of outdoor exercise, that fondness for flowers, birds, dogs, and all kinds of domestic pets, which distinguished Miss Mitford. Aunt Jane, we should think, was one of those ladies who look a constitutional every day round the garden, wearing pattens when the ground was damp; who liked dogs very well in their places, as if any place could be too good for them; and thought a nicely set-out tea-table, with a clean hearth and a clear fire, worth all the scenery in Hampshire. In all her novels we can recall only a single passage which betrays any of that sympathy with the varying moods of nature, so abundant in the younger authoress, and which modern poetry has recently revived among us: Anne Elliot, we think it is, in Persuasion, who is sorry to leave the country in autumn because of the “pleasing sadness” with which that season of the year affects her.
NO DOUBT MISS AUSTEN belongs essentially to the eighteenth-century school of literature. There is little we should now call romance in any one of her five novels. They are good genteel-comedies. They play over the surface of life, and represent its phenomena with the most finished elegance. But they do not stir the deeper passions, or more tumultuous emotions of our nature. We should question if a single page that Miss Austen has written has ever moistened the eyelid of the most impressionable man, woman, or child who has lived since she first began to write. On the other hand, the quiet fun, the inexhaustible sly humour, the cheerful healthy tone, the exquisite purity, and the genuine goodness which are reflected in every line she wrote, carry us down the sluggish stream of her stories without either weariness or excitement, and with a constant sense of being amused, refreshed, and benefited. In these respects she has been compared to Addison. And we think the comparison a just one. If the reader will refer to Mr. Thackeray’s essay upon Addison in his Humorists of the Eighteenth Century, he will get, in our opinion, all due allowance being made for the difference of sex, age, and circumstances, no bad idea of Miss Austen. Many of her characters, too, are but country-bred editions of the flirts, and prudes, the “pretty men,” and the conceited prigs who pass before the Silent Gentleman. The social circle from which her characters are taken has already been described. She never sought to go beyond it, neither peer nor peasant ever figures among her select dramatis personae. In this particular excellence but one English novelist is her rival; and, of course, the resemblance between Miss Austen and George Eliot has been the theme of every critic who has lately written upon the subject. But it has not been sufficiently observed that the common-place people whom George Eliot turns into characters are not common-place in quite the same sense as Miss Austen’s. They may be so absolutely, but they are not relatively. A Mr. Bennet, a Mr. Woodhouse, a Mrs. Norris, or a Mrs. Allen, a Catherine Morland, an Eleanor Dashwood, are characters not only common enough in themselves, but common to the experience of all educated people. A Mrs. Poyser, a Mrs. Pullet or Mrs. Tulliver, a Mr. Macey, or Dolly Winthrop, are not. In making use of such characters as these George Eliot has all the advantage which the odd has over the familiar; the grotesque over the simple. Whether farmers, and peasants, and their wives would appreciate these characters, as we ourselves appreciate them, is a question that can never be solved. If they were sufficiently educated to appreciate such literature at all, the likeness would be lost, and the condition of the experiment be cancelled. If we allow that George Eliot is entitled to the benefit of the doubt, we must allow equally that in Miss Austen’s case there is no doubt about the matter. And the conclusion is that the interest which an educated public feels in the Poysers, the Pullets, and the Maceys, is not proved to be the result of high art as that which he feels in the Bertrams, the Bennets, and the Allens.
George Eliot can afford to make this concession to a sister novelist. Of all the ladies whose genius has enriched the highest fiction she is confessedly the first. In depth of feeling, in breadth of sympathy, and strength of imagination, she is as superior to Miss Austen as poetry is superior to prose. But the prose has merits of its own. And if Miss Austen’s “two inches of ivory” sometimes show a delicacy of touch which her great successor has not beaten, why should we grudge her the acknowledgment? To refuse her due, if it be her due, is no compliment to George Eliot, who has a thousand other claims upon our homage.
It was a necessity of Miss Austen’s method that her plots should be less interesting than her persons. In fact, of the plot regular, with a mystery, an explosion, and reconciliation, she presents no specimen; and our curiosity, we must own, is but faintly stimulated by the doubts and fears which beset her heroes and heroines en route for the altar. And it is a most remarkable circumstance that there is no other interest in her novels but what arises out of a passion to which she was herself a stranger. So many young men and so many young ladies stand up in couples as if they were going to dance a quadrille, and the various entanglements which await them form the whole action of the piece. Now one goes wrong, and now another, sometimes with serious, but oftener with comic, consequences. A few dresses are torn, and once a lady has a fall. But there are no bad hearts, and all winds up comfortably with the usual refreshments. Crime, calamity, and anguish enter not this placid sphere. Tragedy is not allowed to show even the tip of her buskin. Poverty and disgrace are hinted at, but, like murder, are excluded from the stage. In three words, the story is redolent always of the quiet respectability, the prosperous dulness, and the ignorance of passion which encircled Miss Austen’s existence, and narrowed the range of her experience. But as soon as her personages begin to talk and unfold their own characters to our gaze, we cease to care how they act, how they are situated, or what is in store for them. The exhibition of human nature, unadulterated by sensational incidents, is the purest of treats. And that is what she gives to perfection.
To those critics who would ask us what moral purpose Miss Austen proposed to herself in these delineations of common-place society, it is perhaps enough to reply that every picture of human life, however trite or conventional, must have a moral of its own if we have only eyes to see it. Without plunging into any such profound question as the ethics of art in general, we may affirm that nearly all Miss Austen’s novels have a very plain moral, and one that admits of easy application. All of them have a family likeness, and a general tendency to bring out into prominent relief the peril of being guided by appearances. The danger to which a young lady is exposed by imagining too readily that a polite gentleman is in love with her; and the danger to which a young gentleman is exposed by imagining too readily that a good-natured girl is in love with him; the misunderstandings that arise from careless conversation, from exaggerated reserve, from overrated pretensions, from all the little mistakes which create the common embarrassments of ordinary society; these are the minor mischiefs which her pen is devoted to setting in their proper light, and no man or woman turned forty will deny that such work may be of great utility, or that anybody who chooses to read her novels with a view to practical instruction may learn a great deal from them. Our space will not allow us to illustrate these remarks by examples. But we refer our readers more particularly to Emma and Persuasion in confirmation of the truth of them.
WE HAVE YET to mention two of Miss Austen’s most characteristic excellencies – her dialogue and her style. In regard to the former we must of course remember what a vast change in this respect has passed over society since she wrote. For all that, the dialogues in Miss Austen’s novels strike us as much more natural than the dialogues in Richardson’s, upon whom she had apparently endeavoured to form her own. But her genius was too strong for her. She wrote, moreover, only upon those scenes of life with which she was perfectly familiar; whereas Richardson was in total ignorance of the habits and conversation of that society which it was his ambition to describe. There is something very quaint about the conversations in Mis Austen’s novels, but we cannot help feeling certain that it was exactly what people of that class in those days would have said. When Anne Elliot, a young lady of the period, advises Captain Bennick, a young officer in the navy, who is given to quoting Byron, to go through a course of our best English moralists, she does so in perfect good faith, and without a suspicion of wrong. But how charming is the art that can make us accept this as the perfectly natural thing for her to have said on the occasion. The conversation between Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland, on the first night of their meeting in the Bath ball-rooms, is another instance of the same kind, though not so striking perhaps at the first. There is, of course, always a difficulty in placing one’s self entirely en rapport with any writer who describes the living manners of his or her own age, which is at a long distance from his own. Do what we can, we feel solitary in their company. When we read a writer of our own day who describes the manner of a hundred years ago, we feel that we have a companion in our enjoyment. That cannot be felt by any one who reads Miss Austen.
Her style deserves the highest commendation. It has all the form and finish of the eighteenth century, without being in the least degree stilted or unnatural. It has all the tone of good society without being in the least degree insipid. For a specimen of crisp, rich English, combining all the vigour of the masculine with all the delicacy of the feminine style, we suggest the opening chapter of Northanger Abbey as a model for any young lady writer of the present age.
Jane Austen at home
By THOMAS E. KEBBEL.
THE LETTERS OF Jane Austen, which have recently been published by Mr. Bentley,1.were discovered by Lord Brabourne among other family papers after the death of his mother, Lady Knatchbull, who was Miss Austen’s niece. The letters are interesting from the character of the writer, and from the allusions which they contain to her daily life and habits, and the neighbourhood in which she lived during the last seven years of her life. But they are addressed chiefly to her sister and her niece, and seldom travel out of the range of domestic topics, recording for the most part only the occupations and amusements – the birth, death, and marriage of her numerous circle of relations. They are full of the same humour and gentle smiling satire which we find in the novels, and by all who can appreciate these will be read with pleasure. But the flavour of Miss Austen’s wit is rather delicate than rich, and by some it has been called insipid. So that some ninety letters, almost exclusively taken up with ribbons, flounces, and caps, and the sayings and doings of a crowd of undistinguished persons in whom the public at large cannot be expected to take an interest, are hardly likely, even with the aid of Miss Austen’s genius, to become generally popular. To the lady’s genuine admirers, however, they need no recommendation. These will understand that the pettiest and most commonplace details of the domestic life may become amusing in the hands of this incomparable writer; while the book at the same time has the wider interest which always attaches to the sight of heroes and heroines en deshabille, and occupied with those trifling objects which, though as important to most of them as they are to the rest of the world, are vulgarly supposed to be beneath their notice. But the public must look for no literary or social gossip in these epistles. They introduce us to no lions; they offer us no criticism, or next to none; and they leave us with the impression that Miss Austen was in no sense of the word a woman of letters, or absorbed very deeply in the literature of her own or any other country. There is not the faintest odour of the salon about her. She is just a simple-minded, well-bred English young lady, thoroughly satisfied with her lot in life, interested in all the amusements which are popular with her sex, fond of quiet, fond of shopping, fond of the theatre, and thoroughly familiar with all rural habits and occupations. “There are a prodigious lot of birds, they say, this year,” she writes to a correspondent, “so that perhaps even I may kill a few.” We are not, I suppose, to infer from this passage that Miss Austen ever did shoot a bird, or shoot at one. But she must have felt, at all events, that there could be nothing very odd in her doing so. That beneath this unpretending exterior lay a depth of observation, a power of expression, and a quality of humour which have caused eminent critics to pronounce her second only to Shakespeare, was suspected by no one till her works appeared, and then was very slowly recognised.
MANY OF THESE LETTERS were written in London at the house of her brother Henry, who lived in Sloane Street, and at another in Henrietta Street, Covert Garden, near the bank in which he was a partner. Here we may study the life of the upper middle class as it was in London sixty years ago. The ladies still shop in Cranbourne Alley and Leicester Square; they dine at half-past four that they may be in good time to see the great Mr. Kean as Skylock; when they come home at night they have soup and wine-and-water, and then retire “to their hole.” We are rather surprised to find no hint of Vauzhall on any of these occasions; but Jane went to all the picture galleries constantly on the look out for a portrait of Elizabeth Bennett, whom she expected to find in a yellow dress. In this particular search she was unsuccessful, but she did discover Mrs. Bingley, “dressed in a white gown with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her.” She amuses herself with supposing that Mr. Davey had too much “love, pride, and delicacy,” to allow Elizabeth’s picture to be exhibited. Her own characters were very real persons in her eyes; and she was fond of describing to her friends what were their respective destinies in after life. The majority of the letters were written while Jane Austen’s home was at Chawton, and as it was during these years that two of her best novels, one of them, perhaps, her very best, were begun and completed, and as she must certainly have found some of the materials for them in her immediate neighbourhood, I hope my readers will share the interest which I took in visiting this haunted spot.
Miss Austen, with her mother and sister, came to reside at Chawton in the year 1809. Mrs. Austen was the widow of a clergyman, who had been vicar of Steventon, in Hampshire, and who died at Bath in 1805. They had all quitted Steventon in 1801, and after Mr. Austen’s death spent some years at Southampton, before finally settling down again to cottage life. During this interval Miss Austen wrote nothing but the unfinished story of the Watsons. At Steventon she had composed Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility, though they were not published till 1811. The remainder were not designed and executed at Chawton.
This little Hampshire village is situated about a mile and a half to the south of Alton, on the road to Winchester, and is property of Mr. Montagu Knight, the great-nephew of Miss Austen. His grandfather was Jane’s brother, Edward, who was adopted by his first cousin, the Mr. Knight of that day, and assumed his name and arms. The Knights were a very old family in Kent, who acquired the Chawton property by intermarriage with the Lewknors, about the end of the seventeenth or beginning of the eighteenth century. The house is a picturesque old building of the date of 1588, and contains many very interesting portraits by Lely and by Romney; among others, one of the Edward Knight, attired in the high-collared tail-coat, voluminous cravat, nankeen shorts, and watch seals dangling from his fob, which was the habitual costume, we must remember, of all Jane Austen’s heroes. His face, however, did not remind us of his sister. It is a shrewd and rather striking face; but not oval like the novelist’s, and without any of her beaming good-humour.
Miss Austen was particularly careful not to draw her characters from the life, or even to reproduce traits which should lead her acquaintances into the temptation of guessing at the originals. Her own family know of no instance in which this rule has been violated, so that no traditions remain, either at Steventon or at Chawton, of the particular personages who might have suggested Tom Thorpe or Mr. Bennett, or Mr. Elton, or Mrs. Norris. But the scenes, the houses, and the classes of society which we find in her delightful stories are exactly those with which she was familiar at home; and it is impossible to walk through the village of Chawton without feeling that we are in the presence of old acquaintances to whom we were introduced in the pages of Mansfield Park, or Emma. The cottage in the village, otherwise called the White House, belonging to Sir Thomas Bertram, to which Mrs. Norris retired on the death of her husband, the vicar, what can it be but the identical cottage belonging to the owner of the “Great House” to which Miss Austen herself retired? and if not, there are one or two others still remaining in the village which would equally correspond to it. I have seen in Chawton House itself a room conspicuously resembling that “East room,” formerly the schoolroom, which was given up to Fanny Price; while from the hall-door you would just catch that glimpse of “two ladies walking up from the Parsonage,” which Fanny caught herself when she was flying from the rehearsal of Lover’s Vows. Often and often has that path been trodden by the footsteps of Jane Austen herself; and the only personal reminiscence of her which seems to have been preserved is in connection with it. One of her surviving nieces still remembers the figure of Aunt Jane walking across “the Pasture,” as it is called, from the village to the “great House,” with her head a little on one side, and a small pillow or cushion pressed against it as if she was suffering from the toothache.
On the other side of Alton lie one or two other villages which bear a family resemblance to Highbury. Holybourne even now is much what Highbury might have been in the days of Emma, and Froyle, a village nearer to Farnham, was, I am told, just such another. In Chawton itself, a place with not two hundred inhabitants, there were two houses of “gentle-folk,” besides the Hall and the Parsonage. At Froyle there were as many, and at Holybourne there are still. There was in those days a particular grade of society, now all but extinct, which haunted these large villages and small country towns, and seemed somehow or other to be associated with the days of stage coaches and to have perished with the advent of the railways: families quite unconnected with “trade,” with small but still sufficient incomes, who did nothing at all in life, and seemed to wish to do nothing. Mr. Woodhouse is just such a man; Mr. Bennet was another. They were not county gentlemen; they were not professional men; they were not necessarily sportsmen; if they farmed, it was only for amusement. They would have shuddered at the thought of speculating; they vegetated quietly on a fixed income, which they were careful not to imperil, and formed the main ingredient at those card parties and early supper parties which were the amusement of our grandfathers and grandmothers in these secluded spots, and which imparted a familiar flavour of sociability and gaiety to the country life of the period, which has now long ago departed from it. Then, too, there was the village club, which was held at the Crown at Highbury, of which Mr. Knightly and Mr. Weston were members, and who had never found out that the paper was dirty till Emma and Mrs. Weston pointed it out to them. Imagine a country squire of four to five thousand a year, with all the best company in the neighbourhood, meeting to play whist and drink port wine at the Dog and Gun, or the King’s Arms, or any other village inn of similar calibre, at the present day!
The residents in the neighbourhood of Chawton have noticed the gradual disappearance of families of this type, and I have noticed it myself in other parts of England. Civilisation has been too much for them, and they are gradually retiring before its advances like the otter and the badger.
Jane Austen’s cottage stands at the south-west corner of the village, where the road turns off to Alresford, and is thought at some remote period to have been a posting-house. It is now divided into two parts, one used as a working man’s club, the other occupied by Mr. Knight’s coachman. It is a long low house, of which what were the dining-room and drawing-room are still nearly as they were; and we may people the former with the authoress and her little writing-desk, seated at a table by the window, without any effort of the imagination. The garden was evidently a large one; the flower garden separated from the kitchen garden only a grass walk, and some fine fir-trees and lime-trees offering a pleasant shelter in the summer-time. It is now all in disorder. Turnips and mangel-wurzel are grown by the enterprising coachman in the ground where Jane Austen perhaps cultivated roses and dahlias, and the whole place wears a forlorn and disconsolate appearance. The memory of its former occupant, however, invests it with a halo of its own, which no amount of squalor can dispel. Here are the trees and the walks and the hedges on which Jane Austen’s eyes rested as the Elliots and the Musgroves, and the Eltons and the Bertrams grew beneath her hand. Here was the shady walk where she paced up and down maturing her plots and shaping her catastrophes. Here, in this very little room, were written Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion, and here the great question was decided of the proper incomes to be allotted to Eleanor and Marian Dagmoor. He who cannot do the rest for himself and rehabilitate Jane Austen’s houses as it was during her living occupation of it, had better not visit it at all.
ALL THE READING WORLD is now at Miss Austen’s feet, but till lately her public was a small one. The generous and humourous Scott, the critical and prejudiced Macaulay, Southey, Coleridge, Lord Lansdowne, Lord Holland, Sydney Smith, knew and appreciated her novels. But the popular taste had just been diverted into another channel by the author of Waverly himself, when they first began to appear, and it was not till the flood of enthusiasm excited by the great feudal and mediaeval renaissance had begun to settle down that Jane Austen’s characters reappeared, so to speak, above the waters, and assumed their natural place in the literary world. There is hardly any person nowadays under fifty years of age with any pretensions to culture or literary taste, who would not be ashamed to own that he or she had not read Pride and Prejudice, or Emma, and the growing popularity of these inimitable portraitures, owing nothing to either sensational incidents, or broadly comic caricatures, is one of the most hopeful literary symptoms of the present day. Miss Austen is the true mistress of what for lack of a better title we must still call genteel comedy, and had she lived in the beginning or middle of the last century, would, I am confident, have outstripped all competitors. Emma alone would have made the fortune of a theatre, and would still, had we the actors and actresses capable of exhibiting traits so delicately marked, yet at the same time so piquant and so peculiar.
If we turn to the dramatists of the Restoration, and after these again to the Colemans, and Cibbers, and Bickerstaffs, and Murphys of the Georgian era, where shall we find a single painter of character to compare with her? The Dorindas and Isabellas, the Lady Sullens and Lady Teazles, the Sir Gilberts Wrangles and Sir Pertinax Mo Sycophants, who still keep the stage, are daubs by the side of Harriet Smith and her patroness, Mrs. Norris, Lady Bertram, Tom Thorpe, Mr. Bennett, or Mr. Collins. I have taken these names at random and could match them with a dozen other. Neither Godsmith nor Sheridan holds the mirror up to nature like Miss Austen; their comedies are really farces, and their characters, when not buffoons, possess little or no individuality. Powers more akin to Jane Austen’s are discernible in both Richardson and Fielding: and I have often thought that had she been a man, she could have drawn a better Lovelace than the one and a better Amelia than the other. But after all, if there is one writer in the English language, except the great master of all, who, had he laid out his strength upon fiction could have equalled her on her own ground, I am inclined to think there is but one, and that is Addison.
Miss Austen’s part is to make us smile rather than to make us think, to show us the ridiculous side of wickedness and folly, of meanness, selfishness, pompousness, vanity, and egotism, rather than their darker aspects or more dangerous consequences. She is no great moralist. Her art is all in all to her. She never treats vice with levity; that would have been false to the character of the society she was depicting. But as little do we hear of anything in the shape of agony, remorse, or penitence, as the natural consequences of moral guilt. Adultery and seduction figure in her pages among other incidents of human life which cannot be omitted if the drama is to faithfully represent it. But they are treated with just that amount of reprobation which the world in general, the respectable, decorous world in which Jane Austen moved, visit such offences. They are shocking and deplorable, and imply that the young people who are guilty of them must have been very badly brought up. But we are carried no farther. Lydia Bennett and Wickham are supposed to be as happy in their married life as it they have never done wrong before it. A similar lot is thought possible for Mrs. Rushworth and Henry Crawford. The authoress who is to draw a picture of society cannot go farther than society goes in these matters; and the grief of the Bertram family over the elopement of Maria always reminds us of the conventional sorrow, which, when the feelings are not deeply touched, it is proper to exhibit at a funeral, rather than of that heart-felt shame or horror which many other writers would have deemed the necessary effect of a sister or a daughter’s fall.
Herein this lady shows her genuine dramatic genius. We have plenty of writers who make the world out to be a great deal worse than it is; others who represent the worldly consequences of wrong-doings as a great deal worse than they are. Miss Austen hits the happy mean. She takes society as she finds it, and turns neither to the right nor to the left for the sake of strained effects; extenuates nothing, exaggerates nothing; leaves her readers to point a moral for themselves if they are so minded, or to rest satisfied with the contemplation of an exquisite picture is their ideas soar no higher. Above all, she indulges in no asides or colloquies with the reader, makes use of no artifices to direct his attention to her meaning, and never for one single instant is guilty of the crime of preaching. Oh! then it will be said, Miss Austen has no moral purpose. No, certainly not; and why should she have? Why should she be burdened with a load which the greatest luminaries of literature have never carried?
That a woman brought up as Jane Austen was brought up, and living the life that she did live both at Steventon and Chawton, should have risen to this conception of her art, is one of the most curious facts in connection with her. That she reflects only the prevailing tone of the society in which she moved is no bar to our surprise. The wonder is that she was never tempted to depart from it, if only to lighten the difficulty of exciting an interest in her stories. To have steered exactly between the two extremes of undue severity and undue license; to have caused us an uninterrupted amusement without ever descending to the grotesque; to have been comic without being vulgar, and to have avoided extremes of every kind, without ever being dull or commonplace, is the praise of which Jane Austen is almost entitled to a monopoly. The narrow path on which all her stories move, the moderation of her pretensions, the ordinary material out of which her dramas are constructed, are a source of ceaseless admiration when we consider the effects which have been produced by them: and only add another to the many proofs which we possess that nothing is too mean for genius to convert into gold.
WE LEARN FROM the biographer of Miss Austen that her favourite poet was Crabbe. She would naturally sympathise with a writer who drew his inspiration from the ordinary humanity which surrounded him, and found poetry under the coarsest and least romantic aspects of village life. Yet the eye with which Crabbe looked on society was very different indeed from that which Jane Austen turned upon it. Crabbe was in reality more akin to the authoress of Adam Bede, than to the authoress of Mansfield Park. He had all her seriousness of purpose, though without any particle of her humour: and his powers of versification, combined with the sincerity and novelty of his descriptions, secured him the place which he deservedly occupies in our literature. But the cheerful, easy view of life, which either avoids or is unconscious of its deeper problems and its worst miseries, was wholly foreign to the author of the Tales of the Village. He could not walk about among the poor without seeing that the real conditions of rural life, at all events in the eastern counties, were very different from what poets had described: and to borrow a celebrated and much-misunderstood expression, Crabbe “resolved to be correct.” That is, he determined to be true to nature, and to give the world a picture of rural existence unembellished by any of the fanciful ideas with which it had been customary to adorn it. Now, I doubt whether her genius would have flowered freely under such conditions; and whether she could have fixed her mind for long together on what was not cheerful and comfortable. But to repeat what I have said already, herein lies her title to our homage. There are better materials for fiction of a highly interesting character among the very poor and the very rich, than among the intermediate classes. There is no word in the human vocabulary which lends itself so little to the purpose of imagination as “comfort.” Yet in Miss Austen’s stories, while we are most deeply interested and excited, we are always steeped in comfort. I should have said, that much as she might enjoy the literary excellence of Crabbe she would have shrunk from the realities which attend it; and that she had neither the intellectual nor the moral robustness to stomach such fare. She was not born to “rough it” in pursuit of subjects: either to climb the highest peaks, or explore the lowest depths of society. But of all that could be seen from the window of a quiet English country parsonage, the whole border land in which the middle and the upper classes melt into each other, she was a perfect mistress, and such a painter as we may never see again. In his portraiture of squires and clergyman Crabbe cannot be compared with her for a moment. Though a clergyman, he was but an outside observer of such types; but Miss Austen was to the manner born, free of the craft, and knew them to the backbone.
Where all are so good it is difficult to award the palm. But I cannot at all events accept Lord Brabourne’s classification, who places Elizabeth Bennett first among the heroines, and Darcy among the heroes. It is unnecessary to add that he thinks Pride and Prejudice her best novel. If we understand his contention, it is that Elizabeth is the best heroine because she has the fewest faults; and he appears to be of opinion that Emma’s love of match-making, self-confidence, and self-will ought necessarily to make her less interesting. To myself they make her all the more so. Her sauciness if her great charm, and the sparring between herself and Mr. Knightly is scare, if at all, inferior to the scenes between Beatrice and Benedict. In the heroine of Pride and Prejudice there is a combination of sweetness and vivacity which is very captivating, but she lacks the individuality of Emma, and on this ground alone, if on no other, I must still place her higher than Elizabeth.
If we turn to the heroes, I cannot say of Darcy what Lord Brabourne says of Mr. Knightly: “I never could endure him.” He is eminently disagreeable, and in my opinion ill-bred. He might have thought what he liked about Elizabeth’s relations, but he ought not to have said it to herself. Mr. Knightly, on the contrary, is always a gentleman. That he was sixteen years older than Emma was, in my opinion, rather in his favour than against him. If he lectured her he never lectured her pompously, and it is to be believed that a few such lectures before marriage would save a good many afterwards.
Lord Brabourne’s criticism is interesting, and his judgment carries great weight; but the explanatory prefaces attached to each division of the correspondence are more valuable still, as they enable us to enter into the subject-matter of the letter, and to understand the allusions and the jokes as we never could have done without them. I have no doubt that I speak the sentiments of all Jane Austen’s admirers when I say that we are greatly indebted to him.
I thought it a privilege to be allowed to visit the spot where these novels were composed, and to gaze on the very room in which the authoress sat and wrote, to walk in the garden where she walked, and in the church where she so often knelt. Her grave is not in Chawton churchyard, where her mother, who died in 1827, and her sister, who lived in Chawton Cottage till 1845, are both interred; for she was removed to Winchester for her health in May, 1817, and dying there in the following June, was buried in Winchester Cathedral, nearly opposite to the tomb of William Wykeham. Her fame has made its way so slowly, and is even now so much less than her deserts, that Chawton is untrodden of pilgrims, and the hospitable owner of Chawton House is but little molested with inquirers. But while English society remains what it still is, with so much to remind us of what it once was, and while the manners of one generation melt so imperceptibly into those of another that the continuity hardly seems broken, so long will the interest in Jane Austen continue to strengthen and expand, till Chawton perhaps may even become nearly as well known as Selbourne, and visitors to the one never think of departing from the neighbourhood till they have also paid a visit to the other. A celebrity such as that of Abbotsford it is not possible that it should acquire. Scott wrote for the world, while Miss Austen could hardly be appreciated by any one not thoroughly English. Guizot, it is true, was among her admirers, and there are foreigners, of course, who know England as well as some Englishmen know the continent. But these are exceptions, and “Miss Austen’s country” must be content with the admiration of those who can admire Miss Austen. I had not intended when I commenced this article to travel much beyond the local associations connected with her, but have been unconsciously led into a criticism which my enthusiasm for one who commended the enthusiasm of so many better able to justify it, will, I hope, be permitted to excuse.
Thomas Edward Kebbel was a journalist, critic and close friend of Benjamin Disraeli. These two essays are republished from our archive to commemorate the 240th anniversary of Jane Austen’s birth on 16 December 1775.
“Jane Austen” originally appeared in the February 1870 issue of the Fortnightly. “Jane Austen at home” appeared fifteen years later in the February 1885 number.