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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Jane Austen (1775–1817)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE BIOGRAPHY of one of the greatest English novelists might be written in a dozen lines, so simple, so tranquil, so fortunate was her life. Jane Austen, the second daughter of an English clergyman, was born at Steventon, in Hampshire, in 1775. Her father had been known at Oxford as “the handsome proctor,” and all his children inherited good looks. He was accomplished enough to fit his boys for the University, and the atmosphere of the household was that of culture, good breeding, and healthy fun. Mrs. Austen was a clever woman, full of epigram and humor in conversation, and rather famous in her own coterie for improvised verses and satirical hits at her friends. The elder daughter, Cassandra, adored by Jane, who was three years her junior, seems to have had a rare balance and common-sense which exercised great influence over the more brilliant younger sister. Their mother declared that of the two girls, Cassandra had the merit of having her temper always under her control; and Jane the happiness of a temper that never required to be commanded.  1
  From her cradle, Jane Austen was used to hearing agreeable household talk, and the freest personal criticism on the men and women who made up her small, secluded world. The family circumstances were easy, and the family friendliness unlimited,—conditions determining, perhaps, the cheerful tone, the unexciting course, the sly fun and good-fellowship of her stories.  2
  It was in this Steventon rectory, in the family room where the boys might be building their toy boats, or the parish poor folk complaining to “passon’s madam,” or the county ladies paying visits of ceremony, in monstrous muffs, heelless slippers laced over open-worked silk stockings, short flounced skirts, and lutestring pelisses trimmed with “Irish,” or where tradesmen might be explaining their delinquencies, or farmers’ wives growing voluble over foxes and young chickens—it was in the midst of this busy and noisy publicity, where nobody respected her employment, and where she was interrupted twenty times in an hour, that the shrewd and smiling social critic managed, before she was twenty-one, to write her famous ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ Here too ‘Sense and Sensibility’ was finished in 1797, and ‘Northanger Abbey’ in 1798. The first of these, submitted to a London publisher, was declined as unavailable, by return of post. The second, the gay and mocking ‘Northanger Abbey,’ was sold to a Bath bookseller for £10, and several years later bought back again, still unpublished, by one of Miss Austen’s brothers. For the third story she seems not even to have sought a publisher. These three books, all written before she was twenty-five, were evidently the employment and delight of her leisure. The serious business of life was that which occupied other pretty girls of her time and her social position,—dressing, dancing, flirting, learning a new stitch at the embroidery frame, or a new air on “the instrument”; while all the time she was observing, with those soft hazel eyes of hers, what honest Nym calls the “humors” of the world about her. In 1801, the family removed to Bath, then the most fashionable watering-place in England. The gay life of the brilliant little city, the etiquette of the Pump Room and the Assemblies, regulated by the autocratic Beau Nash, the drives, the routs, the card parties, the toilets, the shops, the Parade, the general frivolity, pretension, and display of the eighteenth-century Vanity Fair, had already been studied by the good-natured satirist on occasional visits, and already immortalized in the swiftly changing comedy scenes of ‘Northanger Abbey.’ But they tickled her fancy none the less, now that she lived among them, and she made use of them again in her later novel, ‘Persuasion.’  3
  For a period of eight years, spent in Bath and in Southampton, Miss Austen wrote nothing save some fragments of ‘Lady Susan’ and ‘The Watsons,’ neither of them of great importance. In 1809 the lessened household, composed of the mother and her two daughters only, removed to the village of Chawton, on the estate of Mrs. Austen’s third son; and here, in a rustic cottage, now become a place of pilgrimage, Jane Austen again took up her pen. She rewrote ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ She revised ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ and between February 1811 and August 1816 she completed ‘Mansfield Park,’ ‘Emma,’ and ‘Persuasion.’ At Chawton, as at Steventon, she had no study, and her stories were written on a little mahogany desk near a window in the family sitting-room, where she must often have been interrupted by the prototypes of her Mrs. Allen, Mrs. Bennet, Miss Bates, Mr. Collins, or Mrs. Norris. When at last she began to publish, her stories appeared in rapid succession: ‘Sense and Sensibility’ in 1811; ‘Pride and Prejudice’ early in 1813; ‘Mansfield Park’ in 1814; ‘Emma’ in 1816; ‘Northanger Abbey’ and ‘Persuasion’ in 1818, the year following her death. In January 1813 she wrote to her beloved Cassandra:—“I want to tell you that I have got my own darling child ‘Pride and Prejudice’ from London. We fairly set at it and read half the first volume to Miss B. She was amused, poor soul!… but she really does seem to admire Elizabeth. I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.” A month later she wrote:—“Upon the whole, however, 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 general style!”  4
  Thus she who laughed at everybody else laughed at herself, and set her critical instinct to estimate her own capacity. To Mr. Clarke, the librarian of Carlton House, who had requested her to “delineate a clergyman” of earnestness, enthusiasm, and learning, she replied:—“I am quite honored by your thinking me capable of drawing such a clergyman as you gave the sketch of in your note. But I assure you I am not. The comic part of the character I might be equal to, but not the good, the enthusiastic, the literary…. I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress.” And when the same remarkable bibliophile suggested to her, on the approach of the marriage of the Princess Charlotte with Prince Leopold, that “an historical romance, illustrative of the august House of Coburg, would just now be very interesting,” she answered:—“I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe-Coburg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But 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 keep it up, and never relax into laughing at myself or at other people, I am sure that I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No! I must keep to my own style, and go on in my own way: and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I shall totally fail in any other.” And again she writes: “What shall I do with your ‘strong, manly, vigorous sketches, full of variety and glow’? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect, after much labor?”  5
  Miss Austen read very little. She “detested quartos.” Richardson, Johnson, Crabbe, and Cowper seem to have been the only authors for whom she had an appreciation. She would sometimes say, in jest, that “if ever she married at all, she could fancy being Mrs. Crabbe!” But her bent of original composition, her amazing power of observation, her inexhaustible sense of humor, her absorbing interest in what she saw about her, were so strong that she needed no reinforcement of culture. It was no more in her power than it was in Wordsworth’s to “gather a posy of other men’s thoughts.”  6
  During her lifetime she had not a single literary friend. Other women novelists possessed their sponsors and devotees. Miss Ferrier was the delight of a brilliant Edinboro’ coterie. Miss Edgeworth was feasted and flattered, not only in England, but on the Continent; Miss Burney counted Johnson, Burke, Garrick, Windham, Sheridan, among the admiring friends who assured her that no flight in fiction or the drama was beyond her powers. But the creator of Elizabeth Bennet, of Emma, and of Mr. Collins, never met an author of eminence, received no encouragement to write except that of her own family, heard no literary talk, and obtained in her lifetime but the slightest literary recognition. It was long after her death that Walter Scott wrote in his journal:—“Read again, and 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 commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me.” It was still later that Macaulay made his famous estimate of her genius:—“Shakespeare has neither equal nor second; but among those who, in the point we have noticed (the delineation of character), approached nearest the great master, we have no hesitation in placing Jane Austen as a woman of whom England may justly be 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…. And 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.” And a new generation had almost forgotten her name before the exacting Lewes wrote:—“To make our meaning precise, we would say that Fielding and Jane Austen are the greatest novelists in the English language…. We would rather have written ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or ‘Tom Jones,’ than any of the Waverley novels…. The greatness of Miss Austen (her marvelous dramatic power) seems more than anything in Scott akin to Shakespeare.”  7
  The six novels which have made so great a reputation for their author relate the least sensational of histories in the least sensational way. ‘Sense and Sensibility’ might be called a novel with a purpose, that purpose being to portray the dangerous haste with which sentiment degenerates into sentimentality; and because of its purpose, the story discloses a less excellent art than its fellows. ‘Pride and Prejudice’ finds its motive in the crass pride of birth and place that characterize the really generous and high-minded hero, Darcy, and the fierce resentment of his claims to love and respect on the part of the clever, high-tempered, and chivalrous heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. ‘Northanger Abbey’ is a laughing skit at the school of Mrs. Radcliffe; ‘Persuasion,’ a simple story of upper middle-class society, of which the most charming of her charming girls, Anne Elliot, is the heroine; ‘Mansfield Park’ a new and fun-loving version of ‘Cinderella’; and finally ‘Emma,’—the favorite with most readers, concerning which Miss Austen said, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,”—the history of the blunders of a bright, kind-hearted, and really clever girl, who contrives as much discomfort for her friends as stupidity or ill-nature could devise.  8
  Numberless as are the novelist’s characters, no two clergymen, no two British matrons, no two fussy spinsters, no two men of fashion, no two heavy fathers, no two smart young ladies, no two heroines, are alike. And this variety results from the absolute fidelity of each character to the law of its own development, each one growing from within and not being simply described from without. Nor are the circumstances which she permits herself to use less genuine than her people. What surrounds them is what one must expect; what happens to them is seen to be inevitable.  9
  The low and quiet key in which her “situations” are pitched produces one artistic gain which countervails its own loss of immediate intensity: the least touch of color shows strongly against that subdued background. A very slight catastrophe among those orderly scenes of peaceful life has more effect than the noisier incidents and contrived convulsions of more melodramatic novels. Thus, in ‘Mansfield Park’ the result of private theatricals, including many rehearsals of stage love-making, among a group of young people who show no very strong principles or firmness of character, appears in a couple of elopements which break up a family, occasion a pitiable scandal, and spoil the career of an able, generous, and highly promising young man. To most novelists an incident of this sort would seem too ineffective: in her hands it strikes us as what in fact it is—a tragic misfortune and the ruin of two lives.  10
  In a word, it is life which Miss Austen sees with unerring vision and draws with unerring touch; so that above all other writers of English fiction she seems entitled to the tribute which an Athenian critic gave to an earlier and more famous realist,—
          “O life! O Menander!
Which of you two is the plagiarist?”
  11
 
 
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