was born at Steventon, in the northern part of the county of Hampshire,
on 16 December 1775. Her father was the Rev. George Austen, an Oxford man,
who had received the neighbouring rectories of Deane and Steventon in 1764,
the year of his marriage to Cassandra Leigh. Instead of bringing woe and
death in her train, Cassandra brought the parson conjugal bliss and seven
children, to one of whom she gave her own name, in defiance of augury.
It is not true, as stated in the Dictionary of National Biography, that
Jane was "the youngest of seven children," and the Dictionary's further
statement, that her brother Charles died in 1832, at the age of seventy-three,
would place his birth before the marriage of his parents! The Dictionary
article on Jane Austen is singularly brief and unsympathetic; but that
affords no excuse for its flagrant errors in fact. The oldest son, James,
was born at Deane in 1765. At Oxford he had a high reputation among the
undergraduates for his literary skill and his knowledge of English literature.
It is to this young Oxonian that the world owes a debt of gratitude; for
on his return to the rectory, his mind full of his favourite books, he
took charge of the reading of his two younger sisters, and guided them
at their most docile age into the green pastures of literature. Edward
was the second son; he was born at Deane in 1768, but at an early age left
the family circle, being adopted by his cousin, Thomas Knight, who owned
estates at Godmersham Park, Kent, and Chawton in Hampshire He came into
the inheritance in 1794, and in 1812 changed his name to Knight. This adoption
was a fortunate thing not only for him, but for the whole family; for after
some years he was able to give his widowed mother and sisters a home, and
was especially kind and helpful to Jane. The next arrival in the family
was the third son, Henry Thomas, born in Deane in 1771. He lived a life
of active uselessness. Brilliant, witty, and charming in conversation,
eternally hopeful and enthusiastic, he went through life with innocent
gaiety, and with a constantly increasing sense toward the end that he might
have reached distinction had he concentrated his energies. We should not
forget, however, that he did help Jane in some details of her business
dealings with her publishers, and that she highly valued his criticisms.
He died in 1850.
The dearest member of the family to Jane, and indeed by far the most intimate friend she had in the world, was her sister Cassandra, three years her senior. Two girls of about the same age with five brothers would naturally form an offensive and defensive alliance; and between these two sisters as they grew from childhood into maturity ripened a marvellous friendship, where each took delight in the other's gifts and pleasures. They were all in all to each other; they were never married, and they remained in the diminishing family circle while the brothers struck out into the world. It was to Cassandra that Jane wrote nearly all of the letters that have come down to us; and the very absence of literary style in these documents and their meagreness of information about Jane's literary career is a substantial proof of the complete intimacy of the two women. It was in Cassandra's arms that Jane died; and how terribly the survivor suffered we shall never know, for she thought it to be her duty to control the outward expression of her grief. She was indeed a woman of extraordinary good sense, independence, and self-reliance, who loved her younger and more impulsive sister with an affection unknown to many more demonstrative individuals. She died in 1845.
The fifth child was Francis, born in 1773. In striking contrast to the serene and tranquil life of his sisters, this resolute and ambitious man lived in the very whirlwind of action. His career affords a striking illustration of the truth that those who seek death do not find it; for he served in the navy during England's most stormy and most glorious period of warfare on the sea. In the midst of death he found life, for while the other members of the family, all but one of whom dwelt in peace and apparent security, passed away, he rose steadily in the service, and lived to be ninety-two years old. He was a very religious man, and was known as "the officer who kneeled at church." Most remarkable of all for a sailor, no one ever heard him swear. His long years of service in the navy were crowned with success, for he rose to the highest rank obtainable, being at the time of his death the Senior Admiral of the Fleet.
The youngest child in the family was Charles, who was born in 1778. He is said to have closely resembled Jane in sweetness of disposition and general loveableness of character. He also entered the navy, and frequently smelt gunpowder. He survived all the perils of action, however, and rose to be an Admiral. While on a steam-sloop in Eastern waters, he died of cholera in 1852. He was beloved by both offlcers and sailors, one of whom said, "I know that I cried bitterly when I found he was dead." Readers of her novels have often wondered why Jane Austen, who lived in wars and rumours of wars, showed apparently so little interest in the momentous events of her time. As a matter of fact she took her part in those world-combats `-icariously, and the welfare of her brothers was more interesting to her than the fate of Napoleon. The sea-faring men in her books afford the evidence of her knowledge of the navy, though, true to her primal principle of art, she did not let them escape beyond the boundaries of her personal experience.
Jane Austen has been regarded by many as a prim, prudish old maid, and yet the stricter women of our more liberal times would look upon her as a daughter of Belial, for she loved to drink Wine and play cards, she loved to dance, and she delighted in the theatre. The very smallness of Steventon brought its inhabitants together in social intercourse; and in a house where a genie] father and mother presided over seven children, and wh.ere there were often dances and social gatherings several times a week, we need not waste any pity on her desolate and lonely youth. She was so fond of society that had she lived in a large city, among brilliant men and women, she might never have written a book. In her four residences, Steventon, Bath, Southampton, and Chawton, she saw all phases of society, for Thomas Hardy has shown us that the human comedy is played in the villages as well as in great cities Her close proximity to the persons she saw m village balls and dances gave her unrivalled opportunities for observation, since the; main traits in human nature are always the same. We need not regret therefore, that the geographical limits of her bodily life were so circumscribed. She could have lived in a nutshell, and counted herself a monarch of infinite space, for she had no bad dreams like those of Hamlet. It has been well said that the happiest person is he who thinks the most interesting thoughts; and the enJoyment and entertainment that this quiet, woman got out of life can hardly be over-estimated.
As a child she began to scribble, regretting in later life that she had not read more and written less. She composed "The Mystery: an Unfinished Comedy," and dedicated it to her father with mock gravity. Even then she loved burlesque, and she delighted in laughing at the two great schools in literature so prominent in her childhood, the school of impossible romance and the school of absurd sentimentality. She saw clearly the ridiculous side of the sentimental books that followed in the wake of Richardson and Sterne, and the absurdity of the Gothic romances that pursued hard upon the Castle of Otranto. She did not know then that she was to write an immortal burlesque, wherein both these tendencies were treated with genial contempt; but her attitude of mind did not change as she grew older, and before she was twenty-one, she had begun the composition of one of the greatest novels in all literature, Pride and Prejudice. She was surely in the vein; for upon the completion of this work, she immediately began Sense and Sensibility, and during her residence in Steventon she also composed Northanger Abbey. These three books constitute sufflcient proof of the manner in which genius finds its own environment.
Jane Austen had visited Bath before the composition of the last-named work, and thither the whole family moved in the spring of 1801, beginning the century under as different surroundings from the old home as can well be imagined. Steventon was a small village, Bath a city alive with social excitement. Here she was too much occupied in living to do much writing, though is possible that she began her unfinished story The Watsons, during this period. A visit to Lyme in 1804 gave her unconsciously the material which she afterwards alchemised into the pure gold of Persuasion. Her father died February 1805 at Bath, and the fortunes of the family underwent a change for the worse. They were, however, by no means destitute, nor did they ever know the pangs of poverty. Before the end of this year they moved to Southampton, and lived in a comfortable old house in Castle Square. Here they stayed four years.
As her nephew says, neither Bath nor Southampton can be regarded as homes of Jane Austen; "she was only a sojourner in a strange land." In 1809, however, they had the pleasure of once more finding an abiding-place. As has been said, Edward Austen, who became Edward Enight, inherited two residences, one at Godmersham Park, in Kent, the other at Chawton in Hampshire. He now gave his mother the choice of two dwellings, each house being near his property in these two respective counties. Perhaps owing to her long residence in Hampshire, she chose the cottage at Chawton, which stood in the village "about a mile from Alton, on the righthand side, just where the road to Winchester branches off from that to Gosport. It was so close to the road that the front door opened upon it; while a very narrow enclosure, paled in on each side, protected the building from danger of collision with any runaway vehicle. . . . It had been originally built for an inn, for which purpose it was certainly well situated . . . . Trees were planted each side to form a shrubbery Nvalk, carried round the enclosure, which gave a sufficient space for ladies' exercise. There was a pleasant irregular mixture of hedgerow and gravel walk and orchard, and long grass for mowing, arising from two or three little enclosures having been thrown together. The house itself was quite as good as the generality of parsonage houses then were, and much in the same style; and was capable of receiving other members of the family as frequent visitors. It was sufficiently well furnished; everything inside and out was kept in good repair, and it was altogether a comfortable and ladylike establishment, though the means which supported it were not large."
In this unpretentious cottage, with no separate study, but writing in the family sitting-room amidst the general conversation, Jane Austen not only arranged for the press her three earlier novels, but composed three masterpieces of fiction, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion. She had the pleasant excitement of the publication of her books, of reading them aloud to the family in manuscript, of receiving and examin ing bundles of proof, of actually handling money earned by her pen, and of observing the faint dawn of her great reputation. This made her peaceful environment more than interesting, and we may be sure that the days passed swiftly. Up to this tune her sole reward for her labour had been the glow of composition and the satisfaction of knowing that she had done good work; the harvest was late, but she now began to reap it. Unfortunately the time was short. It is one of the apparent perversities of the stupidity of Dest~ny, that the only member of the family who possessed undoubted genius should have had to die so young. Jane Austen is the kind of person who ought to live forever.
In the spring of the year 1816 her health began to fail. This is said to have been caused by worry over some family misfortunes; but may it not have been owing to the consuming flame of genius? It is impossible that she could have written such masterpieces of literature without feeling that virtue had gone out of her. The joy of artistic creation is probably one of the greatest Joys known to the sons and daughters of men; but the bodily frame pays dearly for it, and the toi of making a good book surpasses in intensity of labour almost all other forms of human exertion. Whatever was the cause, the fact was that her life began to decay at precisely the time when her mind began to reach its greatest brilliancy. Her cheerful letters showed faint signs of an impending disaster. She wrote to her brother Charles, "I live upstairs for the present, and am coddled. I am the only one of the party who has been so silly, but a weak body must excuse weak nerves." The malady began to gain ground, and she had to walk shorter distances, and then cease walking altogether. Soon she was obliged to lie down a good part of the day, when she wished ardently to be at work; and there being only one sofa in the general sitting-room, she refused to use it except in the absence of her mother, who had passed seventy years. She tried to persuade her friends that she was getting well. In January, 1817, she wrote, "I have certainly gained strength through the winter, and am not far from being well; and I think I understand my own case now so much better than I did, as to be able by care to keep off any serious return of illness." It was not to be. The last date found on her manuscript is the seventeenth of March, 1817. Her nephew says, "And here I cannot do better than quote the words of the niece to whose private records of her aunt's life and character I have been so often indebted: 'I do not know how early the alarming symptoms of her malady came on. It was in the following March that I had the firs idea of her being seriously ill. It had been set tied that about the end of that month or the be ginning of April I should spend a few days a Chawton, in the absence of my father an mother, who were just then engaged with Mrs Leigh Perrot in arranging her late husband's affairs; but Aunt Jane became too ill to have me in the house, and so I went instead to my sister Mrs. Lefroy at Wyards'. The next day we walked over to Chawton to make inquires after our aunt. She was then keeping her room, but said she would see us, and we went up to her. She was in her dressing-gown, and was sitting quite like an invalid in an armchair, but she got up and kindly greeted us, and then, pointing to seats which had been arranged for us by the fire, she said, "There is a chair for the married lady, and a little stool for you, Caroline." It is strange, but those trifling words were the last of hers that I can remember, for I retain no recollection of what was said by anyone in the conversation that ensued. I was struck by the alteration in herself. She was very pale, her voice: was weak and low, and there was about her a general appearance of debility and suffering. but I have been told that she never had much; acute pain. She was not equal to the exertion of talking to us, and our visit to the sick-room was a very short one, Aunt Cassandra soon taking us away. I do not suppose we stayed a quarter of an hour; and I never saw Aunt Jane again.'"
In the month of May, 1817, the family decided that she must be taken to Winchester, in order to get the benefit of daily skilled medical advice. Thither she went with the faithful Cassandra, and the two sisters took lodgings in a pleasant house on College Street, near the great cathedral. From these rooms she wrote in a trembling and uncertain hand the following letter, in which she tried to give a playful tone to her illness. The letter bears date of the 27 May.
"There is no better way, my dearest E., of thanking you for your affectionate concern for me during my illness than by telling you myself, as soon as possible, that I continue to get better. I will not boast of my handwriting; neither that nor my face have yet recovered their proper beauty, but in other respects I gain strength very fast. I am now out of bed from nine in the morning to ten at night: upon the sofa, it is true, but I eat my meals with Aunt Cassandra in a rational way, and can employ myself, and walk from one room to another. Mr. Lyford says he will cure me, and if he fails, I shall draw up a memorial and lay it before the Dean and Chapter, and have no doubt of redress from that pious, learned, and disinterested body. Our lodgings are very comfortable. We have a neat little drawing-room with a bow window overlooking Dr. Gabell's garden. Thanks to the kindness of your father and mother in sending me their carriage, my journey hither on Saturday was performed with very little fatigue, and had it been a fine day, I think I should have felt none but it distressed me to see Uncle Henry and Wm. Knight, who kindly attended us on horseback, riding in the rain almost the whole way. We expect a visit from them to-morrow, and hope they will stay the night; and on Thursday, which is a confirmation and a holiday, we are to get Charles out to breakfast. We have had but one visit from him, poor fellow, as he is in sick-room, but he hopes to be out to-night. We see Mrs. Heathcote every day, and William is to call upon us soon. God bless you, my dear E. If ever you are ill, may you be as tenderly nursed as I have been. May the same blessed alleviations of anxious, sympathising friends be yours: and may you possess, as I dare say you will, the greatest blessing of all in the consciousness of not being unworthy of their love. I could not feel this "Your very affecte Aunt,
" J. A."
She added later:
"I will only say further that my dearest sister, my tender, watchful, indefatigable
nurse, has not been made ill by her exertions. As to what I owe her, and
the anxious affection of all my beloved family on this Occasion, I can
only cry over it, and pray God to bless them more and more."
Thus, with only temporary alleviations, she grew gradually weaker, and died on the morning of 18 July, 1817. Shortly before she became unconscious, she was asked if there were anything she wished. She replied, "Nothing but death."
In the history of English Fiction there are only eight writers who may be said to have an assured place in the front rank, for Stevenson and Thomas Hardy are still too near to be seen in the proper perspective. These immortal eight in order of time are Daniel DeFoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and George Eliot. What are the qualities that place the novels of Jane Austen so far above those of all her contemporaries except Scott, and that class her so distinctly above a writer like Charlotte Brontë? That much abused phrase, "Art for art's sake," so often heard in the mouths of hypocritical and unclean authors, is strictly applicable to the aims and ideals of Jane Austen. She is one of the supreme literary artists of the world, like the Russian Turgenev. She made no compromises, and never wrote a line to please anybody but herself. That is precisely why she pleases all readers of taste and intelligence. Coming before the days when the advertising of new novels had become as purely a commercial enterprise as the exploitation of breakfast foods, she knew nothing of the ways of publishers, nor did she understand how it was possible for an author to write for the market. Far from the madding crowd she wrought her books in the peaceful tranquillity of an affectionate family circle, and she refused to search for material either in huge libraries or in remote corners of the earth. Many novelists of to-day work up a new story exactly as a haggard student prepares a doctor's thesis, by mastering an immense amount of historical fact. Such, for example, is the method pursued by an authoress who at this moment enjoys an immense vogue-the studious and painstaking Mrs. Humphry Ward. To observe the vast gulf that separates Industry from Genius, one has but to compare The Marriage of William Ashe with Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen never worked up material, for she found it all on the sensitive plates of her own delicate mind. There are those who think the flawless perfection of her books was a kind of accident; that she wrote them without in the least realising the magnitude of her success. That she did not anticipate the prodigious fame that her novels have won in the twentieth century is probably true; but that a woman of so consummate genius and good sensse did not know that she had done truly great work, is simply impossible. She knew exactly what she was about; she understood her powers and in exactly what field of art they could find full play. To a man high in station who suggested that she portray "the habits of life, and character, and enthusiasm of a clergyman who should pass his time between the metropolis and the country," she replied, "I am quite honoured by your thinking me capable of drawing such a clergyman as you gave the sketch of in your note of Nov. 16th. 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. Such a man's conversation must at times be on subjects conscience, and philosophy, of which I know nothing; or at least be occasionally abundant in quotations and allusions which a woman who, like me, knows only her own mother tongue, and has read little in that, would be totally without the power nf giving. A classical education, or at any rate a very extensive acquaintance with English literature, ancient and modern, appears to me quite iindispensable for the person who would do any Justice to your clergyman; and 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." Not discouraged by this, as he should have been, her fatuous correspondent proposed that she write " an historical romance illustrative of the august House of Cobourg"--(what a pity that Anthony Hope was unborn!) to which happy suggestion he received the following reply from the author of Northanger Abbey:--
"You are very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg, 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 for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or at other people, I am sure 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 should totally fail in any Other.
my dear Sir,
"Your very much obliged and sincere friend,
Alton, April 1, 1816. "
connection she described her work as follows:-- "The little bit (two inches
wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little
effect after much labour." The very last word to describe the perfection
of her art would be the word accident.
Not only did she write without any presence to knowledge and experience unpossessed, but she worked with faithful devotion through years of obscurity. She began the composition of her famous novels in 1796; it was not until 1811 that any of her work found a publisher. If this be not "art for art's sake," one must despair of finding it anywhere.
Not only is the structure of her stories superb in outline, not only is her style so perfect that it seems to the unskilful no style at all, but her characters have an amazing vitality. Not a single one of them passes through an extraordinary adventure; hence we are interested in them not for what they do and suffer, but wholly for what they are. No persons in the whole realm of fiction are more alive than Elizabeth Bennet, or the adorable heroine of Persuasion. To read Jane Austen's books is to add to our circle of acquaintances men and women whom it is most desirable to know, and whose presence in our mental world adds enormously to the pleasure of life. They are so real that the mere mention of their names brings a clear image of their faces before our consciousness, along with a glow of reminiscent delight. One of the sincere joys of existence is to discuss with kindred souls the characters and fortunes of the men and women born into life eternal on the pages of Jane Austen!
er books are truly great, then, because they have in them what Mrs. Browning called the "principle of life." Their apparently simple and transparently clear style contains treasures, inexhaustible; for no one reads any of her stories, only once. With every fresh reading comes the old pleasure, heightened in intensity; to read her novels is simply to live, to live in a world of steadily increasing interest and charm. It would be possible to give in detail a critical estimation of the value of her books; to dwell on the elements in her Enghsh style, to examine minutely the construction of her plots, and to analyse microscopically her dramatic personae. But it is needless; the reason why Jane Austen has outlived thousands of novelists who have been greeted with wild acclaim, is simply because she succeeded introducing to a marvellous degree the illusion that is the essence of great Art, the pleasing ilusion that we are gazing not on the image, but at the reality. Her books have the "principle of life," and cannot die. Her fame was slow in growth, but no slower than might have been expected, and we should not blame previous generations for not seeing instantly what we have the advantage of seeing with a proper background. She lived only six years after the publication of her first book; and during that brief time she enjoyed fully as much reputation as could reasonably have been hoped for. Some of her novels went almost immediately into second editions; and her pleasure at praise from good sources was like all her emotions, perfectly genuine, frank, and unashamed. She was very glad to have her books widely read and appreciated, as any sensible person would be; and her delight in receiving a sum of money from the publisher--the tangible mark of suecess--was charming in its unaffected demonstration. Those worthy writers who receive a semi-annual copyright statement of two dollars and seventy-five cents for their learned productions can perhaps understand her enthusiasm.
She has never lacked discriminating admirers . The Quarterly Review for October 1815 contained an article on Emma from the pen of Walter Scott; and Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were reviewed in the same periodical for January 1821 by Archbishop Whately. The latter writer compared her to Shakspere--we cannot ask more than that. Walter Scott said in his diary, 14 March 1826: "Read again, 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 ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!" Trevelyan, in his Life of Macaulay, says, (Vol. II, pp. 894-5), " But, amidst the infinite variety of lighter literature with which he beguiled his leisure, Pride and Prejudice, and the five sister novels, remained without a rival in his affections. He never for a moment wavered in his allegiance to Miss Austen. In 1858 he notes in his journal: 'If I could get materials, I really would write a short life of that wonderful woman, and raise a little money to put up a monument to her inWinchester Cathedral."' After the publication of the Memoir by her nephew in 1870, which came at the psychological moment, the books and articles on Jane Austen began to bloom in every direction. About 1890, what was called a "revival" took place; it was really nothing but the cumulative growth of her fame. Many new editions appeared; and an instance of how she was regarded as a master of style may be seen in the fact that for some years every Harvard Freshman was required to read one of her books for rhetorical purposes. She has had sufficient vitality to survive even such treatment.
Sense and Sensibility
Sense and Sensibility
was the first of the novels to be honoured by publication. It appeared
in 1811. It may be considered as her first work, for she had written a
draft called Elinor and Marianne, which is undoubtedly the first form of
the later novel. This was made originally in Letters; an interesting fact,
because it affords unmistakable evidence of her debt to Richardson. She
learned more of the art of writing from Richardson than from any other
master; it is said that she could repeat pages of Sir Charles Grandison
by heart. There is no doubt that Richardson's wonderful power of analysis,
and hls uncompromising realism, made a profound ~mpression on her mind.
She had too keen a sense of humour not to perceive his errors; but she
remained all her life long an ardent admirer of his great genius. After
the family had removed to Chawton, Jane Austen revised and prepared for
publication her earlier works; and we shall never know how far the press
copy differed from the manuscript she had written at Steventon in her girlhood.
Her nephew tells us that Sense and Sensibility was begun at Steventon in
November, 1797, immediately after the completion of Pride and Prejudice;
even thus early she had rejected the epistolary form for this novel, and
had composed it on its present plan Then the work remained in manuscript
until 1811, as the rejection of Pride and Prejudice, and the unwillingness
of the Bath publisher to risk his money on Northanger Abbey--both of which
works she must have thought superior to Sense and Sensibility--did not
give her sufflcient courage to make further overtures. During the spring
of 1811, however, Jane Austen was in London, and with the assistance of
her brother, the publication of her first novel became an assured fact.
It is of course possible that it was printed at its author's expense, though
we do not know. With what affection she regarded the children of her brain
may be seen in a letter she rote from London to her sister Cassandra, 25
April 1811. "No, indeed, I am never too busy to think of S. and S. I can
no more forget it than a mother can forget her sucking child; and I am
much obliged to you for your enquiries. I have had two sheets to correct,
but the last only brings us to Willoughby's first appearance. Mrs. K. regrets
in the most flattering manner that she must wait till May, but I have scarcely
a hope of its being out in June. Henry does not neglect it; he has hurried
the printer, and says he will see him again to-day. It will not stand still
during his absence, it will be sent to Eliza." Then follows in the same
letter a passage which seems to indicate that Cassandra had thought the
incomes of the characters in the novel needed readjustment. "The incomes
remain as they were, but I will get them altered if I can. I am very much
gratified by Mrs. K.'s interest in it; . . . I think she will like my Elinor;
but cannot build on anything else." In this same anxious period of suspense,
another novel had appeared, which had awakened great interest and considerable
alarm in the breast of the modest author of Sense and Sensibility, for
she writes, "We have tried to get 'Self-Control,' but in vain. I should
like to know what her estimate is, but am always half afraid of finding
a clever novel too clever, andof finding my own story and my own people
She was delighted to receive from the publisher, Mr. Egerton, one hundred and fifty pounds! The book, therefore, was moderately successful, and its author had in her hands the visible proof thereof. She made no scruple whatever of showing her pleasure at the receipt of money earned in this manner; and we can easily understand her feelings, after she had waited so many years to see her writings in print. She was glad to hear her books praised, glad to have as many people as possible buy them, glad to receive money from the publisher. Writing in 1814 about Mansfield Park, she said, " People are more ready to borrow and praise than to buy, which I cannot wonder at; but though I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls 'Pewter,' too."
Sense and Sensibility is on the whole the poorest of Jane Austen's completed novels. The contrast between the two sisters is of course interesting; but they are less individual than the persons in the other tales. The very fact that Elinor stands for Sense and Marianne for Sensibility militates against the reality and charm of their personalities; and the three leading men are less satisfactory than her other heroes. The book is the least original of all her works; and in places sounds as if it were written under the shadow of Richardson's influence. There is of course the same contrast between first impressions and the final reality that appears elsewhere; there is the same endeavour to show that those who have the most ease of manner are not necessarily of the most solid worth. There is in addition the touch of burlesque in the character of Marianne, where Jane Austen is laughing at the sentimentalists; but while all these characteristics are typical of her art, they appear with less subtlety than in the other novels, indeed one might say there is now and then a suggestion of crudity. Edward Ferrars is spineless, Willoughby is a stage villain, and Colonel Brandon is depressing. On the whole, if we had to part with any one of Jane Austen's works, I imagine that Sense and Sensibility is the one that we should most willingly let die.
Pride and Prejudice
book has a curious history. She began its composition before she was twenty-one
years old, in October 1796, and finished it in less than a year, during
the month of August 1797. Her father--who unfortunately did not live to
see a line of his daughter's in print--was so captivated by this story
that he immediately set about finding a publisher. On the first of November,
1797, he wrote the following letter to Cadell:
in my possession a manuscript novel, comprising 3 vols., about the length
ot Miss Burney's "Evelina." As I am well aware of what consequence it is
that a work of this sort sh make its first appearance under a respectable
name, I apply to you. I shall be much obliged therefore if you will inform
me whether you choose to be concerned in it, what will be the expense of
publishing it at the author's risk, and what you will venture to advance
for the property of it, if on perusal it is approved of. Should you give
any encouragement, I will send you the work.
"I am, Sir, your humble Servant,
Steventon, Near Overton, Hants, 1st Nov., 1797."
suspense was of short duration, for the very next post brought a summary
declination. The publisher did not even care to look at the manuscript,
or to consider the question of printing it at the author's expense, probably;
thinking, as someone has suggested, that it was a feeble imitation of Miss
Burney. Here indeed was a case of pride and prejudice! Paternal pride and
publisher's prejudice kept this work in manuscript until 1813. It is fortunate
that the young girl knew the value of her work, and preserved it--for we
have instances in literature where proud and angry authors have committed
literary infanticide. In January 1813 this novel--which had been originally
christened "First Impressions "--was published at London by Egerton, in
three neat volumes, printed in large, heavy type. On the title-pages of
Sense and Sensibility ran the legend, "By a Lady" for Jane Austen would
not permit her name to appear with any of her publications; it was perhaps
thought inconsistent with true feminine modesty. The title-pages of the
second work are as follows: Pride and Prejudice: A Novel. In Three Volumes.
By the Author of 'Sense and Sensibility.' London: Printed for T. Egerton,
Military Library, Whitehall, 1813." On 29 January she wrote to her sister:--"I
want to tell you that I have got my own darling child from London. On Wednesday
I received one copy sent down by Falkener, with three lines from Henry
to say that he had given another to Charles, and sent a third by the coach
to Godmersham. . . . Mrs. B. dined with us on the very day of the book's
coming; and in the evening we fairly set at it, and read half the first
volume to her, prefacing that having intelligence from Henry that such
a work would soon appear, we had desired him to send it whenever it came
out, and I believe it passed with her unsuspected She was amused, poor
soul! That she could not help, you know, with two such people to lead the
way; but she really does seem to ad~nire 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. There are a few typical errors; and a 'said he,' or a 'said she,'
would sometimes make the dialogue more immediately clear; but 'I do not
write for such dull elves' as have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves.
The second volume is shorter than I could wish; but the diff erence is
not so much in reality as in look, there being a larger proportion of narrative
in that part. I have lop's and crop's so successfully, however, that I
imagine it must be rather shorter than Sense and Sensibility altogether."
The second volume contained 239 pages, while the first had 307, and the
last 323, which accounts for her fears about the shortness of the middle
one. The fact that she speaks of her condensation is absolute proof that
the novel as it was published is by no means the same ibl style as that
written in her girlhood. It was undoubtedly thoroughly revised and corrected
for the press. She wrote shortly after, "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. . . . Her liking Darcy and
Elizabeth is enough. She might hate all the others, if she would." This
letter is interesting, as showing how perfectly she understood her art,
and how she refused to tolerate long didactic disquisitions in the middle
of a story. It is pleasant to observe, also, that she fully realised what
a charming girl Elizabeth Bennet was.
Pride and Prejudice was a successful novel, for it went into a second edition the same year. We can fix the date of the second edition with even more exactitude, for she had written a letter to Cassandra on the 3d of November; then, on the 6th of the same month she writes, "Since I wrote last, my 2nd edit. has stared me in the face. Mary tells me that Eliza means to buy it. I wish she may. . . . I cannot help hoping that many will feel themselves obliged to buy it. I shall not mind imagining it a disagreeable duty to them, so as they do it. Mary heard before she left home that it was very much admired at Cheltenham." I have a beautiful copy of this second edition in three neat volumes before me as I write. One winter day in 1904, as I was prowling around old book-shops in Munich, I had the rare fortune to find these three neat volumes tucked away among various curiosities in various languages. I inquired the price with a beating heart--it was one mark the volume, seventy-five cents for the whole work!
Pride and Prejudice is Miss Austen's master piece, and one of the few great novels of the world. Its literary style is not perhaps equal in finish to that shown in Mansfield Park or Persuasion; but Elizabeth Bennet is her author's greatest creation, and of all the delightful characters in her works, Elizabeth is the one we should most like to meet. She has the double charm of girlhood and womanhood; and to know her is indeed a liberal education. She has no particular accomplishments, and is second to one of her sisters in beauty; it is her personality that counts with us, as it did with her proud lover. Mr. Darcy, in spite of his stiffiness and hauteur, is a real man, an enormous improvement on Colonel Brandon. He exhibits the exact difference between pride and conceit that Miss Austen wished to portray. The whole Bennet family are impossible to forget, in their likeness and in their individuality; and there is so astonishing a sense of reality in the characters and action of this work, that when Elizabeth hurries into the breakfast-room of her critics "with weary ankles, dirty stockings and a face glowing with warmth of exercise," no corporeal appearance could be more vivid to our eyes, and we actually tremble for the impression her dirty stockings and petticoat will nlalie on the fastidious folk around the table. Jane Austen is fully as conscientious an artist and fully as courageous and firm in her realism as was Flaubert; and she is greater than the author of Madame Bovary, for she arouses even more intense interest while resorting to no questionable or extraordinary adventures to awaken it.
nephew tells us that Northanger Abbey was composed in 1798, when its author
was only twenty-two. It was during the sojourn of tile family in Bath that
the book was prepared for publication. It seemed at first to have a better
chance to appear in type than Pride and Prejudice; for in 1803 it was actually
sold to a Bath publishing house, for a consideration of ten pounds. The
publisher either did not have time to examine it, or after examination
he repented of his bargain; for he laid it away in a drawer, where it remained
undisturbed for years. It was not published until after its author had
ceased to live, finally appearing with Persuasion and a brief Memoir--four
volumes altogether--in 1818. The family neatly revenged themselves on this
publisher's delay; for years later, when they were living at Chawton, the
same publisher, Mr. Bull, was offered his ten pounds back for the surrender
of the manuscript, which proposition he accepted with surprise and pleasure.
After the precious papers were received, he was informed that the dust-covered
pages were written by the author of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and
Northanger Abbey bears the marks of youth. It is a burlesque, and has the virtues and defects of that species of literature. As an example of what Jane thought of the Mysteries of Udolpho, and of the whole school of blood and thunder, it is highly important; it contains also many remarks on novels and novel-reading which are., valuable as showing how Jane Austen regarded her art. But it is not equal to such a work as Mansfield Park; it lacks the variety and subtlety; of her masterpieces. The narration of the heroine's finding the washing-bill in the old Abbey is pure fun, youthful mirth, and the description o the face and figure of the young girl is no more nor less than satire on the popular heroines of the day. Historically, however, the book is of the deepest significance; for it marks a turning-point in the history of the English novel, and it tells us more of its author's personal views than all the rest of her tales put together. It is far more subjective; in the fifth chapter there is an almost passionate defense of the novel against its detractors, who regarded such writing as merely superficial and totally lacking in serious artistic purpose; while in the sixth chapter, Sir Charles Grandison is most favourably compared with the romances of Mrs. Radcliffe and her ilk. Such a work, written in the very bloom of youth, is conclusive evidence of the self-conscious purpose of its author; it proves that she knew exactly what she wanted; that her purpose in art was fixed, definite, and unalterable. In Northanger Abbey she showed how novels ought not to be written; her other books are illustrations of what she conceived to be the true theory.
Visitors to Bath have always loved this story, as it deals with places that shine bright in the memory; she returned to these familiar scenes in Persuasion, a far greater work, and it was fitting that her two Bath guide-books should have appeared together. Miss Austen had been at least twice in this gay city before the family moved thither; which gave her the necessary experience, and proves that here, as elsewhere, she kept within the limits of her actual experience.
Lady Susan and The Watsons
Of these two
stories little need be said, and it is probable that Jane Austen would
have forbidden their publication. They appeared together with the second
edition of Mr. Austen-Leigh's Memoir, in 1871. No one knows exactIy when
theywere written; the fact that Lady Susan is in the form of letters, as
was the first draft of Sense and Sensibility, seems to set the date of
its composition before that of Pride and Prejudice, at the very beginning
of her career. This opinion is shared by Mr. Oscar Fay Adams, whose Story
of Jane Austen's Life is a model of its kind, and should be read by all
lovers of the novelist's works. Lady Susan has flashes of great brilliance,
but really adds little to its writer's fame. She was evidently dissatislded
with it, for she left it in her portfolio; it is the raw material of literature,
rather than the finished product.
The date of the composition of the unfinished fragment, The Watsons, can be guessed at with more evidence. The watermarks of the years 1803 and 1804 were found on the manuscript, after a careful examination; this makes it of course certain that it was not composed before those dates, but leaves us in the dark as to its exact time. The most probable supposition seems to be that she worked at it while living in Bath, but subsequently lost interest, and was content to leave it in obscurity. It contains some thoroughly mature characterisation, together with some fine strokes of style; but it wholly lacks the peculiar brightness of such a book as Pride and Prejudice.
We come now
to the three great novels whose inception and composition seem to date
wholly after the year 1809, when the family moved to Chawton Cottage. It
was published in 1811. On 5 March of that year, writing a letter to Cassandra,
in which she states without comment that she has read the Corsair, she
remarks, "Henry has this moment said that he likes my M. P. better and
better; he is in the third volume. I believe now he has changed his mind
as to foreseeing the end; he said yesterday, at least, that he defied anybody
to say whether H. C. [Henry Crawford] would be reformed, or would forget
Fanny in a fortnight." On the ninth of March she writes again:--" Henry
has finished Mansfield Park, and his approbation has not lessened. He found
the last half of the last volume extremely interesting.", Later, on l3
June:-- Mr. Cooke says 'it is the most sensible novel he ever read,' and
the manner in which I treat the clergy delights them very much." The book,
it is pleasant to note, had an immediate success; for writing to her niece
Fanny on 18 November of the same year, she says, "You will be glad to hear
that the first edition of M. P. is all sold. Your uncle Henry is rather
wanting me to come to town to settle about a second edition, but as I could
not very conveniently leave home now, I have written him my will and pleasure,
and unless he still urges it, shall not go. I am very greedy and want to
make the most of it, but as you are much above caring about money I shall
not plague you with any particulars. The pleasures of vanity are more within
your comprehension, and you will enter into mine at receiving the praise
which every now and then comes to me through some channel or other." To
the same niece on 30 November:--"Thank you, but it is not settled yet whether
I do hazard a second edition. We are to see Egerton to-day, when it will
probably be determined." The second edition actually appeered in 1816.
Next to Pride and Prejudice, this novel is probably Jane Austen's greatest work. It contains an immense variety of characters, none of whom is badly drawn. Fanny Price, Henry Crawford and his brilliant sister, Mrs. Norris, Sir Thomas Bertram, his wife, and sons and daughters, Fanny's father, mother, and family, the Rev. Dr. Grant and his wife, Mr. Rushworth,--these are all strikingly individual, and all unforgettable. Fanny is in some respects the loveliest of all Miss Austen's heroines, and we suffer with her silent love, as she lets "concealment, like a worm i' the bud, prey on her damask cheek." The contrasts in characters and scenes in this narrative are truly dramatic. As someone has said, even Zola has not excelled the picture of sordid misery presented in the Price ménage, made positively terrible to Fanny by the remembrance of the luxury she had quitted. Henry Crawford comes dangerously near being a hero must be admitted that Miss Austen could not draw men as she sketched women. He is, however, far more real than the Willoughty of Sense and Sensibility, and his fascination for certain kinds of women is perfectly comprehensible, just as we understand why his sister outshone for a time the less conspicuous charm of Fanny. Edmund, like all of Jane Austen's good men, is inclined to be priggish; but he is not lacking in reality. Dr. Grant was probably known only too well at the Steventon parsonage; but after all, while somewhat selfish, and decidedly gluttonous, he is not made contemptible. NIrs. Norris is one of the best drawn characters in the story; she is indeed so offensively real, that she gets on a reader's nerves, and we realise how formidable she must have been to a creature like Fanny. Sin and disgrace enter into this powerful novel more than into any other of Miss Austen's works; but it is the character of the sinner, and not the details of the sin, that the author analyses. She was interested not in the sensations of sin, but wholly in the processes of mind that lead up to it; being a true psychologist who, as Turgenev said, tells us how people think, not how they feel. Of all Miss Austen's masterpieces, Mansfield Park is the richest in its display of artistic resources.
bearing on its three title-pages the date 1816, was advertised to appear
in the preceding December. Since the publication of Mansfield Park, early
in 1814, Miss Austen had been steadily at work on this story, and was far
advanced with it by the spring of 1815. The dedication of Emma, and the
circumstances that led to it, are interesting, and prove, that although
the author's name never appeared with her books, her identity was fairly
well known. During the autumn of 1815 her brother Henry fell seriously
ill, and Jane went to London to take care of him One of the Prince Regent's
physicians was in constant attendance, and he knew that the quiet woman
who seemed anxious only for her brother's recovery, was the great novelist.
He gave her deep pleasure by the information that the Prince was an assiduous
reader of her books; that a full set reposed in every one of the royal
residences; that the Prince had been informed that Miss Austen was in London,
etc., etc. His Royal Highness immediately requested Mr. Clarke, the librarian
of Carlton House, not only to invite the lady to visit the palace and view
the Prince's library and other rooms, but to inform her that if she were
writing another novel, she might dedicate it to him. The following correspondence
immediately took place
"Nov. 15, 1815.
"SIR,--I must take the liberty of asking you a question Among the many flattering attentions which I received from you at Carlton House on Monday last was the information of my being at liberty to dedicate any future work to His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, without the necessity of any solicitation on my part. Such, at least, I believed to be your words; but as I am very anxious to be quite certain of what was intended, I entreat you to have the goodness to inform me how such a permission is to be understood, and whether it is incumbent on me to show my sense of the honour by inscribing the work now in the press to His Royal Highness; I should be equally concerned to appear either presumptuous or ungrateful."
To which communication she received the following reply:--
Nov. 16, 1815.
"DEAR MADAM,--It is certainly not incumbent on you to dedicate your work now in the press to His Royal Highness; but if you wish to do the Regent that honour either now or at any future period I am happy to send you that permission, which need not require any more trouble or solicitation on your part."
Mr Clarke added
that every novel she wrote increased his Opinion of her powers, and that
Mansfield Park had reflected the highest honour on her genius and her principles
Shortly after, in response to another letter from the royal librarian, she wrote in the following interesting vein:--
"DEAR Sir,--My Emma is now so near publication that I feel it right to assure you of my not having forgotten your kind recommendation of an early copy for Carlton House, and that I have Mr. Murray's promise of its being sent to His Royal Highness, under cover to you, three days previous to the work being really out. I must make use of this opportunity to thank you, dear Sir, for the very high praise you bestow on my other novels. I am too vain to wish to convince you that you have praised them beyond their merits. My greatest anxiety at present is that this fourth work should not disgrace what was good in the others. But on this point I will do myself the justice to declare that, whatever may be my wishes for its success, I am strongly haunted with the idea that to those readers who have preferred Pride and Prejudice it will appear inferior in wit, and to those who have preferred Mansfield Park inferior in good sense." Emma is unique among Jane Austen's works in that the reader's attention is almost entirely concentrated upon one character. In this respect it differs most widely of all from Mansfield Park, where the interest is more generally diffused than in any other of her stories. She felt deep misgivings as to the popular and critical reception of Emma, as the letter printed immediately above sufficiently shows; but while, for one reason or another, the majority of her admirers do actually prefer both Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park to this later production, she need have felt no fear that its publication would lower her reputation. On the contrary, there are many who place Emma first in the list of the author's novel This "sturdy young patrician," as somebody has called her, is at least refreshingly assertive and self-reliant, most of all when she is in the wrong thereby differing from Fanny Price, who hardly dared call her soul her own. What a powerful contrast between this heroine and the one whom she followed into the world, and what an illustration of creative power to make both girls so remarkably attractive! Emma has more actual faults than any other of Miss Austen's persons who are intended to gain the reader's sympathy She is something of a snob, understands perfectly the privileges of her social rank, and means to have others understand them as well. She thinks she understands human nature, and delights to act in the role of match-maker, in which capacity she is a grievous failure. Best of all, she is ignorant of her own heart, as the most charming heroines in fiction are apt to be. She does not realise that she loves Knightley until the spark of jealousy sets her soul aflame. The curious thing is, that before we hnish the book we actually like her all the better for her faults, and for her numerous mistakes; because her heart is pure, sound, and good, and her sense of principle is as deeply rooted as the Rock of Gibraltar. She is, however, a snob; and this is the only instance in fiction that I can remember at this moment where a snob is not only attractive, but lovable.
The plot of the story, that which critics used to call the "fable," is not so well-ordered or so convincing as in Mansfield Park. It by no means gives the sense of the inevitable that we feel in reading Pride and Prejudice. The suspicion crosses our mind at times that the author is about to arrange a surprise for us, though we do not know what it is to be. We are dazzled at the skill, brilliancy, and cleverness displayed, and we admire the genius which is so constantly in evidence; but in some of the other stories we have no thought of admiring skill or genius, for we feel that it is not art, but life. In other words, the dramatic illusion is not so perfect in Emma; the novel is simply a wonderful tour de force. Persuasion
Emma was the
last production that Jane Austen saw in type, for her life was drawing
to a close. How active her pen was in these last days may be seen by the
fact that while she was revising the proof-sheets of Emma she was busily
engaged on a new book. As early as 13 March, 1816,she writes to her niece
Fanny, "I will answer your kind questions more than you expect. Miss Catherine
is put upon the shelf for the present, and I do not know that she will
ever come out; but I have a something ready for publication, which may,
perhaps, appear about a twelvemonth hence. It is short--about the 1ength
of Catherine. This is for yourself alone. Neither Mr. Salusbury nor Mr.
Wildman is to know of it." Mr. Oscar Fay Adams says, "Mr. Austen. Leigh
in his biography makes no mention of Catherine; and I am not aware that
this reference to it appears to have been noticed by any writer upon Jane
Austen. Its author probably never subjected it to revision, from the feeling
that it was not up to the level of her other work, and took care that it
should not be published. . . . I am led to wish that this and not Lady
Susan had fallen into her nephew's hands." Is not the explanation of the
Catherine mystery really a very simple one? It has occurred to me only
this moment at my desk, but it seems convincing. The reference must be
to Northanger Abbey, whose heroine is Catherine. It is certain that Jane
Austen thought of publishing this book before her death, and certain also
that she did not. The novel also is short, "about the length" of Persuasion.
This covers every difficulty, including the supposed total disappearance
of another book.
On 28 March she writes to the same correspondent'" Do not be surprised at finding Uncle Henry acquainted with my having another ready for publication. I could not say No when he asked me, but he knows nothing more of it. You will not like it, so you need not be impatient. You may perhaps like the heroine, as she is almost too good for me." She had already remarked in the same letter, "Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked," a statement that throws a flood of light on the creation of such characters as Emma, and indeed on her whole method of composition.
She finished Persuasion in August 1816, in the form in which we have it now; but she thought she had finished the book on the 18 July, for she wrote at the end of the manuscript, "Finis," and then added that date. The more she thought about the conclusion, however, the less she liked it; and in spite of failing health, she determined to have nothing published of which she could not approve. She therefore struck out Chapter X, and wrote in its place two others, which bring about the denouement in a totally different fashion. Curious readers may compare the condemned chapter, which appears in Mr. Austen Leigh's Memoir, with the book as it stands; and they will see that the flame of genius burned brightly to the last, for the substitution is a marked improvement on the first version. It affords, also, as has been said, an illustration of her conscientious devotion to her art.
She probably spent the rest of the year 1816 in revising and correcting the whole work; and on 27 January she began the composition of a story, which she wrote at steadily, completing twelve chapters, under enormous diffculties of disease, by 17 March, when she was forced to lay aside all thoughts of book-making. No title was ever given to this narrative, nor does anyone know what course the plot was to follow; but we are assured by her nephew that in the draft which remains there is no evidence of failing strength.
Persuasion was not published until 1818, when, as has been said, it appeared with Northanger Abbey and a Memoir, in four volumes. It thus has a melancholy interest for us, as being the last work of art that she completed. It is one of the miniature masterpieces in the English language, and its scenes at Bath and at Lyme are indelibly impressed on the reader's mind. The character of Anne Elliott, while completely lacking the self-assertion of Emma, was, we may be sure, a pretty close approximation to what Jane Austen thought a woman should be. There is no moral teaching in this book, any more than in her olher works of fiction, but the ethical element is strong, and the virtues of constancy, purity, and modesty stand out in bold relief. In some respects. Anne Elliott is the most spiritual of all Miss Austen's heroines; she has a great soul, and we do not wonder that Captain Wentworth found it difficult to forget her. In her gentleness, purity, and sweetness she reminds us of the best of all Russian heroines, Turgenev's Lisa; and like Lisa, when she gave her heart, she gave it once and for all. Let no one believe that Jane Austen's men and women are deficient in passion because they behave with decency: to those who have the power to see and interpret, there is a depth of passion in her characters that far surpasses the emotional power displayed in many novels where the lovers seem to forget the meaning of such words as honour, virtue, and fidelity. To say that Elizabeth Bennet, Darcy, Knightley, Captain Wentworth, Fanny Price, and Anne Elliott lack passion, because we know that not one of them would have sacrificed their principles for its enjoyment, is to make the old error of assuming that only those persons have passions who are unable to control them.