The Novels of Jane Austen

For nearly half a century England has possessed an artist of the highest rank, whose works have been extensively circulated, whose merits have been keenly relished, and whose name is still unfamiliar in men's mouths. One would suppose that great excellence and real success would inevitably produce a loud reputation. Yet in this particular case such a supposition would be singularly mistaken. So far from the name of Miss Austen being constantly cited among the glories of our literature, there are many well-informed persons who will be surprised to hear it mentioned among the best writers. If we look at Hazlitt's account of the English novelists, in his Lectures on the Comic Writers, we find Mrs. Radcliff, Mrs. Inchbald, Mrs. Opie, Miss Burney, and Miss Edgeworth receiving due honor, and more than is due; but no hint that Miss Austen has written a line. If we cast a glance over the list of english authors republicshed by Baudry, Galignani, and Tauchnitz, we find there writers of the very smallest pretensions, but not the author of Emma, and Mansfield Park. Mention the name of Miss Austen to a cultivate dreader, and it is probable that the sparkle in his eye will at once flash forth sympathetic admiration, and he will perhaps relate how Scott, Whately, and Macaulay prize this gifted woman, and how the English public has bought her works; but beyond this literary circle we find the name almost entirely unknown; and not simply unknown in the sense of having no acknowledged place among the remarkable writers, but unremembered even in connections with the very works which are themselves remembered. We have met with many persons who remembered to have read Pride and Prejudice or Mansfield Park, but who had altogether forgotten by whom they were written. 'Miss Austen? Oh, yes; she translates from the German, doesn't she?' is not an uncommon question—a vague familiarity with the name of Mrs. Austin being uppermost. from time to time also the tiresome twaddle of lady novelists is praised by certain critics, as exhibiting the 'quiet truthfulness of Miss Austin.'

That Miss Austen is an artist of high rank, in the most rigorous sense of the word, is an opinion which in the present article we shall endeavor to substantiate. That her novels are very extensively read, is not an opinion, but a demonstracted fact; and with this fact we couple the paradoxical fact, of a fine artist, whose works are widely known and enjoyed, being all but unknown to the English public, and quite unknown abroad. The causes which have kept her name in comparative obscurity all the time that her works have ben extensively read, and her reputation every year has been settling itself more firmly in the minds of the better critics, may well be worth an inquiry. It is intelligible how the blaze of Scott should have thrown her into the shade, at first: beside his frescoes her works are but miniatures; exquisite as miniatures, yet incapable of ever filling that space in the public eye which was filled by his massive and masterly pictures. But although it is intelligible why Soctt should have eclipsed her, it is not at first so easy to understand why Miss Edgeworth should have done so. Miss Austen, indeed, ahs taken her revenge with posterity. She will doubtless be read as long as English novels find readers; whereas Miss Edgeworth is already little more than a name, and only finds a public for her children's books. But contemporaries, for the most part judged otherwise; and in consequence Miss Edgeworth's name has become familiar all over the three kingdoms. Scott, indeed, and Archbishop Whately, at once perceived the superiority of Miss Austen to her more fortunate rival;1 but the Quarterly tells us that 'her fame has grown fastest since she died: there was no éclat about her first appearance: the public took time to make up its mind; and she, not having staked her hopes of happiness on success or failure, was content to wati for the dcision of her claims. Those claims have been long established beyond a question; but the meri tof first recognizing them belongs less to the reviewers than to the general readers.' There is comfort in this for authors who see the applause of reviewers lavished on works of garish effect. Nothing that is really good can fail, at last, in securing its audience; and it is evident that Miss Austen's work smust possess elements of indestructible excellence, since, although never 'popular,' she survives writers who were very popular; and forty years after her death, gains more recognition than she gained when alive. Those who, like ourselves, ahve read and re-read her works several times, can understand this duration, and this increase of her fame. But the fact that her name is not even now a household word proves that her excellence must be of an unobtrusive kind, shunning the glare of popularity, not appealing to temporary tastes and vulgar sympathies, but demanding culture in its admirers. Johnson wittily says of somebody, 'Sir, he managed to make himself public without making himself known.' Miss Austen has made herself known without making herself public. There is no portrait of her in the shop windows; indeed, no portrait of her at all. But she is cherished in the memories of those whose memory is fame.

As one symptom of neglect we have to notice the scantiness of all biographical details about her. Of Miss Burney, who is no longer read, nor much worth reading, we have biography, and to spare. Of Miss Bronte, who, we fear, will soon cease to find readers, there is also ample biography; but of Miss Austen we have little information. In the first volume of the eidtion published by Mr. Bentley (five charming volumes, to be had for fifteen shillings) there is a meagre notice, from which we draw the following details.

Jane Austen was born on the 16th December 1775, at Steventon in Hampshire. Her father was rector of the parish during forty years, and then quitted it for Bath. He was a scholar, and fond of general literature, and probably paid special attention to his daughter's culture. In bath, Jane only lived four years; but that was enough, and more than enough, for her observing humor, as we see in Northanger Abbey. After the death of her father, she removed with her mother and sister to Southampton; and finally, in 1809, settled in the pleasant village of Chawton, in Hampshire, from whence she issued her novels. Some of these had been written long before, but were withheld, probably because of her great diffidence. She had a high standard of excellence, and knew how prone self-love is to sophiticate. So great was this distrust, that the charming novel, Northanger Abbey, although the first in point of time, did not appear in print until after her death; and this work, which the Quarterly Review pronounces the weakest of the series (a verdict only intelligible to us because in the same breath Persuasion is called the best!), is not only written with unflagging vivacity, but contains two characters no one else could have equalled—Henry Tilney and John Thorpe. Sense and Sensibility was the first to appear, and that was in 1811. She had laid aside a sum of money to meet what she expected would be her loss on that publication, and "could scarcely believe her great good fortune when it produced a clear profit of £150." Between 1811 and 1816 appeared her three chefs-d'œuvre—Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. The applause these met with, gratified her, of course; but she steadily resisted every attempt to "make a lion of her," and never publicly avowed her authorship, although she spoke freely of it in private. Soon after the publication of Emma, symptoms of an incurable decline apepared. In the month of May, 1817, she was removed to Winchester, in order that constant medical advice might be secured. She seems to have suffered much, but suffered it with resignation. Her last words were, "I want nothing but death." This was on Friday, the 18th July, 1817; presently after she expired in the arms of her sister. Her body lies in Winchester Cathedral.

The Novels of Jane Austen by George Henry Lewes


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