John Brett. Portrait of Christina Rossetti. 1857.
Maria Jane Jewsbury

LITERARY WOMEN No. II.1
JANE AUSTEN.2

In the slight sketches which will from time to time occupy a page of the Athenæum, we shall alternate between the dead and the living, the past time and the present, and thus tincture criticism with biography. Would that the interesting and gifted woman whose name is prefixed to this paper, could be numbered among the living! Would that, instead of closing her works with the saddened feeling, that the source whence so much pure amusement emanated is sealed for ever, we could glance over the list of books "nearly ready for publication," and find another announced by the same author. Miss Austen, however, has been dead fourteen years; and from what has been laid before the public of a biographical nature, (slight as that is,) there seldom appears to have been a more beautiful accordance between an author's life and writings; in fact, in the life and education of Miss Austen, may be discerned many of the causes of the excellencies that mark her works. Her father was a clergyman, a scholar, a man of fine general taste, and for forty years he resided on his living, (Steventon, in Hants,) conscientiously discharging its ministerial duties in his own person. Miss Austen was thus placed from infancy under two influences, calculated to mature female intellect in the happiest manner—rural life, and domestic intercourse at once polished, intellectual, and affectionate. The four years prior to his death were spent at Bath; and after that event, she resided with her mother and sister in the pleasant village of Shawton, Hants; from thence she sent her novels into the world, and there, in May 1817, she died, after a slow insidious decline of many months. She was only forty-two when this event occurred, and though some of her works had been the gradual composition of her previous life, she was upwards of thirty before the first ('Sense and Sensibility') was published. For those who may doubt the possibility of engrafting literary habits on those peculiarly set apart for the female sex, and for those who may doubt how far literary reputation is attainable, without a greater sacrifice to notoriety than they may deem compatible with female happiness and delicacy, it is pleasant to have so triumphant a reference as Miss Austen. Being dead, she may be quoted without impropriety. Placed by Providence in easy and elegant circumstances—endowed preeminently with good sense, and a placid unobtrusive temperament, she passed unscathed through the ordeals of authorship, and, in addition to exciting enthusiastic affection in immediate friends, received the general good-will of all who knew her. This alone is a high tribute to the benevolence of her temper, and the polish of her manners in daily life; for in print, her peculiar forte is delineating folly, selfishness, and absurdity—especially in her own sex. In society, she had too much wit to lay herself open to the charge of being too witty; and discriminated too well to attract notice to her discrimination. She was, we suspect, like one of her own heroines, "incurably gentle," and acted on the principle of another, that "if a women have the misfortune of knowing anything, she should conceal it as well as she can."3 Besides this, whilst literature was a delightful occupation, it was not a profession to Miss Austen; she was not irrational enough to despise reputation and profit when they sought her, but she became an authoress entirely from taste and inclination; and as her judgment made her severely critical before she published her works, her unambitious temper was amply satisfied with the attention bestowed upon them by the public.

Unlike that of many writers, Miss Austen&s fame has grown fastest since she died; there was no éclat about her first, or second, or third appearance; the public took time to make up its mind; and she, not having staked her hopes of happiness on success or failure, and not being obliged by circumstances to stake something more tangible on these results, could afford to wait for the decision of her claims. Those claims have long been established beyond a question; but the merit of first recognizing them, belongs less to reviewers than to general readers.

The able article in the Quarterly Review for 1821, was founded on a posthumous work, when the praise or blame of ten thousand critics were equally unimportant to the author. So retired, so unmarked by literary notoriety, was the life Miss Austen led, that if any likeness was ever taken of her, (and the contrary supposition would seem strange,) none has ever been engraved; and of no woman, whose writings are as numerous and distinguished, is there perhaps so little public beyond the circle of those who knew her when alive— A violet by a mossy stoneHalf hidden from the eye.4

With regard to her genius, we must adventure a few remarks. She herself compares her productions to a little bit of ivory two inches wide, worked upon with a brush so fine that little effect is produced after much labour.5 It is so; her portraits are perfect likenesses, admirably finished, many of them gems, but it is all miniature-painting; and, satisfied with being inimitable in one line, she never essayed canvas and oils—never tried her hand at a majestic daub. Her "two inches of ivory" just describes her preparations for a tale of three volumes. A village—two families connected together—three or four interlopers, out of whom are to spring a little tracaserie—a village or a country town, and by means of village and country town visiting and gossiping, a real plot shall thicken, and its "rear of darkness"6 never be scattered till six pages off Finis.7 The plots are simple in construction, and yet intricate in developement;—the main characters, those that the reader feels sure are to love, marry, and make mischief, are introduced in the first or second chapter; the work is all done by half a dozen people; no person, scene, or sentence, is ever introduced needless to the matter in hand—no catastrophes, or discoveries, or surprises of a grand nature are allowed—neither children nor fortunes are lost or found by accident—the mind is never taken off the level surface of life—the reader breakfasts, dines, walks, and gossips, with the various worthies, till a process of transmutation takes place in him, and he absolutely fancies himself one of the company. Yet the winding up of the plots involves a surprise; a few incidents are entangled at the beginning in the most simple and natural manner, and till the close one never feels quite sure how they are to be disentangled. Disentangled, however, they are, and that in a most satisfactory manner. The secret is, Miss Austen was a thorough mistress in the knowledge of human character; how it is acted upon by education and circumstance; and how, when once formed, it shows itself through every hour of every day, and in every speech to every person. Her conversations would be tiresome but for this; and her personages, the fellows to whom may be met in the streets or drank tea with at half an hour's notice, would excite no interest. But in Miss Austenn's hands we see into their hearts and hopes, their motives, their struggles within themselves; and a sympathy is induced, which, if extended to daily life and the world at large, would make the reader a more amiable person. We think some of Miss Austen's works deficient in delineations of a high cast of character, in an exalted tone of thought and feeling, a religious bias that can be seen as well as understood; Miss Austen seemed afraid of imparting imagination to her favourites, and conceived good sense the ultima Thule8 of moral possessions. Good sense is very good, but St. Leon's Marguerite, and Rebecca, and Desdemona,9 and many other glorious shadows of the brain, possessed something more. However, the author of 'Pride and Prejudice,' &c., limited herself to this every-day world; and to return to the point of view in which her books yield moral benefit, we must think it a reader's own fault who does not close her pages with more charity in his heart towards unpretending, if prosing worth—with a higher estimation of simple kindness and sincere good-will—with a quickened sense of the duty of bearing and forbearing in domestic intercourse, and of the pleasure of adding to the little comforts even of persons who are neither wits nor beauties—who, in a word, does not feel more disposed to be benevolent. Miss Bates and her mother, Mrs. Jennings, old Mrs. Musgrave, all the foils who with half, or at most three quarters of an idea, are humble in their ignorance and happy in their simplicity—then the fools, who are only too life-like, from Mr. Rushworth and his "forty-two speeches" out of 'Lovers Vows,' to Sir Walter Elliot, who hates the naval profession because it enables plebeians to fight their way to a title, and makes a man mahogany-colour before he is forty—then her worldly selfish people, who are delightful and benevolent everywhere but where it is their first duty, or at every one's expense but their own—Mrs. Elton's pretension, Aunt Norris's second-hand charity, all are inimitable. Characters of another grade, those very troublesome persons to draw, heroes and heroines, have in Miss Austen's pages spirit and reality. The hero is not a suit of fashionable clothes, and a set of fashionable phrases; the heroine is not a ball-dress, a fainting fit, and a volume of poetry; they too are taken from life, and are distinguished one from another. Caroline Morland, artless and sometimes a little awkward; Emma Woodhouse, clever, spoiled, candid, faulty, and yet delightful; Fanny Price, with her meekness and humility, her loving, loveable, and most forgiving temper, her weeping-willow spirit that principle strengthens into decision and self-dependence—none of these are alike, and none appeal to our good graces by virtue of any qualities that sisters and cousins in real life may not and do not possess. We sometimes feel that Miss Austen's works deal rather too largely with the commonplace, petty, and disagreeable side of human nature—that we should enjoy more frequent sketches of the wise and high-hearted—that some of the books are too completely pages out of the world. In the last posthumous tale ('Persuasion') there is a strain of a higher mood; there is still the exquisite delineation of common life, such life as we hear, and see, and make part of, with the addition of a finer, more poetic, yet equally real tone of thought and action in the principals. Miss Austen was sparing in her introduction of nobler characters, for they are scattered sparingly in life, but the books in which she describes them most we like most; they may not amuse so much at the moment, but they interest more deeply and more happily. In many respects Miss Austen resembled Crabbe: she had not his genius for grappling with the passions, and forcing them to pass before the reader in living, suffering, bodily forms—but Crabbe in his lighter moods, unveiling the surface of things, playing with the follies of man, and even dealing seriously with such of his minor faults as all flesh is heir to. Crabbe himself, when not describing the terrible, is scarcely superior to the accomplished subject of this article. Her death has made a chasm in our light literature, the domestic novel with its home-borne incidents, its "familiar matter of to-day,"10 its slight array of names and great cognizance of people and things, its confinement to country life, and total oblivion of costume, manners, the[Page 554] great world, and "the mirror of fashion."11 Every species of composition, is, when good, to be admired in its way; but the revival of the domestic novel would make a pleasant interlude to the showy, sketchy, novels of high life. Hampshire (Miss Austen's county) still possesses a female writer richly endowed with some of her predecessor's qualifications for this species of writing, and possessing on her own account a higher faculty of imagination. We allude to Caroline Bowles.

Notes

1For No.I. Mrs. Hemans—see Athenaæum, No. 172 [Athenaæum note]. Back

2The Athenæum no. 200 (August 27, 1831): 553-4. This edition created by Krystal J. Iseminger and Mary A. Waters. Back

3See Austen's Northanger Abbey, Chapter 14 for her ironic use of this same courtesy-book style injunction. "Incurably gentle" is Austen's description of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park Chapter 33. Back

4Wordsworth, "Song" ("She dwelt among th' untrodden ways") 5-6. Back

5Austen's famous description of her work as "The little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour," which so powerfully influenced the reception of her work, appears in her 16-17 December 1816 letter to James Edward Austen. Back

6Milton,"L'Allegro" (1654) 50. Back

7Compare the phrasing with Austen's declaration that "3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on" (Letter to Anna Austen, 9-18 September 1814). Back

8In ancient Greek and Latin times, Thule was believed the most northern place in the world. Hence, ultima Thule is the farthest possible limit of discovery and travel (Oxford English Dictionary). Back

9Characters from William Godwin's St. Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (1799), Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1819), and Shakespeare's Othello, respectively. Back

10Wordsworth, "The Solitary Reaper" 22. Back

11Published from 1798-1828, the popular Ladies' Monthly Museum featured "The Mirror of Fashion" color plates of the latest clothing styles for women. Back