Criticisms and Interpretations IV. By Anne Thackeray Ritchie
NOTWITHSTANDING a certain reticence and self control which seems to belong to their age, and with all their quaint dresses, and ceremonies, and manners, the ladies and gentlemen in Pride and Prejudice and its companion novels seem like living people out of our own acquaintance transported bodily into a bygone age, represented in the half-dozen books that contain Jane Austens works. Dear books! bright, sparkling with wit and animation, in which the homely heroines charm, the dull hours fly, and the very bores are enchanting .
She has a gift of telling a story in a way that has never been surpassed. She rules her places, times, characters, and marshals them with unerring precision. Her machinery is simple but complete; events group themselves so vividly and naturally in her mind that, in describing imaginary scenes, we seem not only to read them but to live them, to see the people coming and goingthe gentlemen courteous and in top-boots, the ladies demure and piquant; we can almost hear them talking to one another. No retrospects; no abrupt flights, as in real life: days and events follow one another Last Tuesday does not suddenly start into existence all out of place; nor does 1790 appear upon the scene when we are well on in 21. Countries and continents do not fly from hero to hero, nor do long and divergent adventures happen to unimportant members of the company. With Miss Austen, days, hours, minutes, succeed each other like clockwork; one central figure is always present on the scene; that figure is always prepared for company .
Some books and people are delightful, we can scarce tell why; they are not so clever as others that weary and fatigue us. It is a certain effort to read a story, however touching, that is disconnected and badly related. It is like an ill-drawn picture, of which the coloring is good. Jane Austen possessed both gifts of color and drawing. She could see human nature as it waswith near-sighted eyes, it is true; but having seen, she could combine her picture by her art, and color it from life .
It is difficult, reading the novels of succeeding generations, to determine how much each book reflects of the time in which it was written; how much of its character depends upon the mind and mood of the writer. The greatest minds, the most original, have the least stamp of the age, the most of that dominant natural reality which belongs to all great minds. We know how a landscape changes as the day goes on, and how the scene brightens and gains in beauty as the shadows begin to lengthen. The clearest eyes must see by the light of their own hour. Jane Austens hour must have been a midday hourbright, unsuggestive, with objects standing clear without relief or shadow. She did not write of herself, but of the manners of her age. This age is essentially an age of men and women of strained emotion, little remains of starch, or powder, or courtly reserve. What we have lost in calm, in happiness, in tranquillity, we have gained in intensity. Our danger is now, not of expressing and feeling too little, but of expressing more than we feel .
Miss Austens heroines have a stamp of their own. They have a certain gentle self-respect and humor and hardness of heart in which modern heroines are a little wanting. Whatever happens they can for the most part speak of gayly and without bitterness. Love with them does not mean a passion so much as an interestdeep, silent, not quite incompatible with a secondary flirtation. Marianne Dashwoods tears are evidently meant to be dried. Jane Bennet smiles, sighs, and makes excuses for Bingleys neglect. Emma passes one disagreeable morning making up her mind to the unnatural alliance between Mr. Knightley and Harriet Smith. It was the spirit of the age, and perhaps one not to be unenvied. It was not that Jane Austen herself was incapable of understanding a deeper feeling. In the last written page of her last written book there is an expression of the deepest and truest experience. Anne Elliots talk with Captain Harville is the touching utterance of a good womans feelings. They are speaking of men and womens affections. You are always laboring and toiling, she says, exposed to every risk and hardship. Your home, country, friends, all united; neither time nor life to call your own. It would be hard indeed (with a faltering voice) if a womans feelings were to be added to all this.
Farther on she says eagerly: I hope I do justice to all that is felt by you, and by those who resemble you. God forbid that I should undervalue the warm and faithful feelings of any of my fellow-creatures. I should deserve utter contempt if I dared to suppose that true attachment and constancy were known only by woman. No! I believe you capable of everything great and good in your married lives. I believe you equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance, so long asif I may be allowed the expressionso long as you have an object; I mean while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own (it is not a very enviable one, you need not court it) is that of loving longest when existence or when hope is gone.
Dear Anne Elliot! sweet, impulsive, womanly, tender-hearted!one can almost hear her voice pleading the cause of all true women. In those days, when perhaps peoples nerves were stronger than they are now, sentiment may have existed in a less degree, or have been more ruled by judgment; it may have been calmer and more matter-of-fact; and yet Jane Austen, at the very end of her life, wrote thus. Her words seem to ring in our ears after they have been spoken. Anne Elliot must have been Jane Austen herself, speaking for the last time. There is something so true, so womanly about her, that it is impossible not to love her. She is the bright-eyed heroine of the earlier novels matured, chastened, cultivated, to whom fidelity has brought only greater depth and sweetness instead of bitterness and pain.From The Cornhill Magazine, August, 1871.