Jane Austen and Her Country-house Comedy

Jane Austen and Her Country-house Comedy
Title: Jane Austen and Her Country-house Comedy
Release Date: 2017-04-18
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
Count views: 24
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Jane Austen
Jane Austen








"I concluded, however unaccountable the assertionmight appear at first sight, that good-nature was anessential quality in a satirist, and that all the sentimentswhich are beautiful in this way of writing, must proceedfrom that quality in the author. Good-nature producesa disdain of all baseness, vice, and folly; whichprompts them to express themselves with smartnessagainst the errors of men, without bitterness towardstheir persons."—STEELE, Tatler, No. 242.


The author is much indebted to the Hon. C. M. Knatchbull-Hugessen,and also to Messrs. Macmillan & Co.,Ltd., for permission to make extracts from the Letters ofJane Austen.




Jane Austen's abiding freshness—Why she has notmore readers—Characteristics of her work—Absenceof passion—Balzac, Jane Austen, andCharlotte Bront—Jane in her home circle—Hertranquil nature—Her unselfishness—Comparedwith Dorothy Osborne—Prudent heroines—Thoughtlessadmiration



Literary influences—Jane Austen's defence ofnovelists—The old essayists—Her favourite authors—Somenovels of her time—Criticism of her niece'snovel—Sense of her own limitations—Hermethod—Humour—Familiar names—Some characteristicsof style—Suggested emendations—A new"problem" of authorship—A "forbidding"writer—"Commonplace" and "superficial"—ThomasLove Peacock—Sapient suggestions



Origins of characters—Matchmaking—Secondmarriages—Negative qualities of the novels—Closeknowledge of one class—Dislike of "lionizing"—Madamede Stal—The "lower orders"—Tradesmen—Socialposition—Quality of Jane's letters—Ballsand parties



Dr. Whately on Jane Austen—"Moral lessons" ofher novels—Charge of "Indelicacy"—Marriageas a profession—A "problem" novel—"TheNostalgia of the Infinite"—The "whitewashing" ofWilloughby—Lady Susan condemned by itsauthor—The Watsons—Change in manners—No"heroes"—Woman's love—The Prince Regent—TheQuarterly Review



What has woman done?—"Nature's Salic law"—Womendeficient in satire—Some types in thenovels—The female snob—The valetudinarian—Thefop—The too agreeable man—"Personal sizeand mental sorrow"—Knightley's opinion ofEmma—Ashamed of relations—Mrs. Bennet—Theclergy and their opinions—Worldly life—Absenceof dogma—Authors confused with their creations



The novelist and her characters—Her sense of theirreality—Accessories rarely described—Her ideason dress—Her own millinery and gowns—Thinclothes and consumption—Domestic economy—Janeas housekeeper—"A very clever essay"—Mr. Collinsat Longbourn—The gipsies at Highbury—Topographyof Jane Austen—Hampshire—LymeRegis—Godmersham—Bath—London



Jane Austen's genius ignored—Negative and positiveinstances—The literary orchard—Jane's influencein English literature



FRONTISPIECE . . . . . . By Violet Helm.





Jane Austen's abiding freshness—Why she has not morereaders—Characteristics of her work—Absence ofpassion—Balzac, Jane Austen, and Charlotte Bront—Janein her home circle—Her tranquil nature—Herunselfishness—Compared with DorothyOsborne—Prudent heroines—Thoughtless admiration.

The year 1775, which deprived England of herAmerican colonies, was generous to English artand literature. Had it only produced WalterSavage Landor, or even no better worthy thanJames Smith of the Rejected Addresses, itwould not have done badly. But these were itsadded bounties. Its greater gifts were Turner,Charles Lamb and Jane Austen. Could we beoffered the choice of re-possessing the UnitedStates, or losing the very memory of these three,which alternative would we choose?


It is difficult to appreciate the lapse of timesince Jane Austen was at work. We are nowwithin a few years of the centenary of her death.She had been laid beneath that black slab inWinchester Cathedral before the first railway hadbeen planned, or the first telegraph wire stretchedfrom town to town, or the first steamship steeredacross the Atlantic. Yet the must of age has notsettled on her books. The lavender may liebetween their pages, but it is still sweet, and thereis many a successful novelist of our own timeswhose work is already far more out of date thanhers.

This perennial timeliness of atmosphere is nonecessity of genius. Fielding and Scott remaina delight for succeeding generations, because theypossess the essential quality of humanity, but thelife which they offer us is largely remote from ourown, foreign to our experience. Jane Austeninvites us to enjoy a change of air among peoplewith most of whom we may soon feel at ease,finding nothing in their conversation that willdisturb our equanimity. If you are one of JaneAusten's lovers, you come back to her novels fora holiday from the noise and whirl of modern{15}fiction, as you would come from a great city tothe countryside or the coast village for rest andrestoration.

The failure of her books to attract the mass ofnovel-readers is due in the first place to a lackof "exciting" qualities. No syndicate that knewits business would offer them for serial purposes;they have no breathless "situations," and theirstrong appeal is to the calmer feelings and theintellect, not to the passions and the prejudices.In one respect only has she anything in commonwith the popular novelists of our day. Her setof characters is even more limited than theirs.The virtuous heroine, the handsome hero, thefrivolous coquette, the fascinating libertine, theworldly priest, are to be encountered in her pages,but the wicked nobleman and the criminaladventuress find no places there. What is oftenoverlooked, however, by those who speak of JaneAusten's few characters, is that no two of themhave quite the same characteristics of mind.They are differentiated with admirable art. Evenso, the types are few, and the smallness of thefield which she cultivated has been frequentlyadduced as a bar to her inclusion among the{16}masters of English fiction. She has the leastrange of them all. When one thinks of the hostof strongly-marked types in Scott, in Dickens,in Thackeray, of the diversity of scenes andincidents which fill the pages of their books, herfew squires and parsons and unemployed officers,with their wives and daughters, who live out theirdays in Georgian parlours and in shrubberies andparks, make a poor enough show in the dramaticand spectacular way.

No particular passion dominates the life of anyone of her leading personages. Avarice, whichhas afforded such notable figures to almost everygreat novelist, in her world is only representedby meanness; lust and hate are nowhere stronglyemphasized, even love is rarely permitted tosuggest the possibility of becoming violent.There are no Pecksniffs, Quilps, Pre Grandets,nor Lord Steynes; no Lady Kews, Jane Eyres,nor Lisbeth Fischers. Only into the hearts ofher younger women does Jane Austen throw thesearchlight of complete knowledge, lit by her ownfeelings, and tended with self-analysis, and herheroines still leave a large part of virtuouswomankind unrepresented.


Balzac, describing the origins of his play LaMartre to the manager who produced it, said:"We are not concerned with an appalling melodramawherein the villain sets light to houses andmassacres the inhabitants. No, I imagine adrawing-room comedy where all is calm, tranquil,pleasant. The men play peacefully at thewhist-table, by the light of wax candles under littlegreen shades. The women chat and laugh asthey do their fancy needlework. Presently theyall take tea together. In a word, everythingshows the influence of regular habits and harmony.But for all that, beneath this placid surface thepassions are at work, the drama progresses untilthe moment when it bursts out like the flame ofa conflagration. That is what I want to show."

The scene described is Jane Austen's—thequiet parlour, the card-players, the womenchatting, and working with their coloured silks, thetea-tray, the shaded candles, the general air ofease and tranquillity. We find it at MansfieldPark with the Bertrams, at Hartfield with theWoodhouses, and, in spite of Lydia and her"mamma," at Longbourn with the Bennets. Butthe dnouement to which Balzac looked for his{18}effect has no attraction for Jane Austen.Catherine Morland, at Northanger Abbey,imagines some such tragedy smouldering into lifebelow the surface of quiet habitude as Balzacdiscovers in his horrid war of step-daughter andstep-mother, and Jane Austen herself laughs withHenry Tilney at this impressionable countrymaiden whom he mocks while he admires.

Balzac and Jane Austen both strove to depictlife, to show the motives and instincts of men andwomen as the causes of action; in his case of anenergetic and passionate type, wherein the primaryinstincts are freely exercised, in her case, of asimple, orderly kind, which allows but little scopefor the display of violence or the elaboration ofplots. There are exceptions, of course, which forfear of the precise critic must at least beillustrated. Balzac has his quiet Pierrettes and RoseCormons, who suffer as patiently and far morepoignantly than an Elinor Dashwood or a FannyPrice; Jane Austen has her dissolute Willoughbysand disturbing Henry Crawfords, and also herMaria Rushworths and Mrs. Clays, who throwtheir bonnets over the windmills with even lessregard for their reputations than a Beatrix de{19}Rochefide or a Natalie de Manerville. When alapse from virtue on the part of any of hercharacters was, on some rare occasion, necessaryto her plan, Jane Austen did not allow any prudishreserve to stand in the way, but it may be saidno less unreservedly that she never introducedvice where her story could do quite as well withoutit, and it is never the central motive of her novels.It is, then, not alone for the narrowness ofher field that her title to greatness has often beendisputed. Many persons whose literary tastesare marked by understanding and catholicityrefuse to acknowledge the genius of so peacefula novelist. Because of the absence of passionand sentiment in Jane Austen's works, the authorof Jane Eyre would not recognize in her the greatartist that Scott and Coleridge believed her tobe. "The passions," wrote Miss Bront, "areperfectly unknown to her; she rejects even aspeaking acquaintance with that stormysisterhood. Even to the feelings she vouchsafes nomore than an occasional graceful but distantrecognition—too frequent converse with themwould ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress." Thethree novelists here brought into momentary{20}association, the creators of Eugnie Grandet,Emma, and Jane Eyre represent three distinctiveforces in fiction. Charlotte Bront, disillusionedwith the world, of which she knew very little, andangry at its follies and injustices, sat alone andpoured out her feelings in her books; Balzac,hungry for fame, wrote furiously all night bythe light of a dip, stimulating his fieryimagination with the strong coffee which was theirresponsible author of many of his most astonishingchapters; Jane Austen, taking her meals and herrest regularly, sat at her little desk in the parlourwhere her mother and sister were sewing or writingletters, and placidly turned her observations andreflections into manuscript. Her hazel eyes, wemay be certain, never rolled in any kind of frenzy,her brown curls were never disturbed by thespasmodic movements of nervous hands. Greatartist as she was, she had no greater share of the"artistic temperament" than many a popularnovelist who "turns out" two or three serialstories at a time by the simple process of shufflingthe situations, changing the scenery, and re-namingthe characters. If she had been touched bythe strong emotion of a Charlotte Bront, or the{21}burning imagination of a Balzac, she might haveproduced work which would have set the world onfire, instead of merely infusing keen happinessinto responsive minds and compelling their loveand admiration. That is only to say that if shehad been somebody else she would not have beenherself. It is peace, not war, that she carries tous. Even her irony is not of the sardonic kind,and in her work the "master spell" is so daintilymingled that the bitter ingredients seem to havedisappeared in the making.

Respect and admiration and sympathy in ahigh degree have been given by millions of minds,not always emotional, to many authors, but JaneAusten is loved as few have been. The love isinspired by her works, and she shares it withElizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, and AnneElliot. Milton, in a line which is as clear inmeaning as it is foggy in construction, speaks ofEve as "the fairest of her daughters." JaneAusten is regarded by the generality of her loversas the most delightful of her own heroines, andnot merely as the woman who brought them intoexistence.

Could we have loved her so much if we had{22}lived with her at Steventon Rectory or at ChawtonCottage? What she was at home I think weknow much better from her own letters than fromher brother Henry's panegyric, which, in spite ofits obvious sincerity of

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