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Jnne Austen's position in literary history ; born, December i6,
1775, at the Parsonage, Steventon ; the Austen family ;
Steventon and its society the basis of Jane Austen's
works ; her early days and literary tastes ; childish pro-
ductions; a precocious genius; "Pride and Prejudice"
(1796), " Sense and Sensibility " (1797), and " Northanger
Abbey" (1798), written at Steventon; rejected by the
publishers ; delight in her work and in her home life pre-
vents discouragement ; she moves with her father to P)ath,
iSoi ; her father dies, 1805 ; consequent removal to
Southampton ; considers herself an old maid ; views
thereon and on dress ; removal to Chawton, near Win-
chester, 1809; "Emma," " Mansfield Park," and " Per-
suasion " written at Chawton ; anonymous publication of
the novels, 1811-18; Jane Austen and Madame de
Stael ; the novels appreciated by Sir Walter Scott,
and other leading men ; also by the Prince Regent ;
officiousness of the Prince Regent's librarian ; illness ;
removal to Winchester ; death, July 18, 1817; her view of
life ; the tone of her letters ; a foe to sentimentality ; a
lover of nature ; a mild Conservative ; her novels accu-
rately depict the social life of the time ; her views on
wealth ; religion ; the clergy ; her moral teaching ; the



novels not didactic, nor propngandist, but very human ;
country life as depicted in her novels compared with that
of to-day ; the novels of necessity unromantic ; their cha-
racters taken from a limited class — the gentry ; her work
narrow in compass, but perfect in detail . . . .11


" Pride and Prejudice " perhaps the best of Jane Austen's
novels ; the Bennet and Darcy families ; the plot of the
novel ; discussion of characters ; Darcy's pride and self-
love somewhat overdone ; the solemn priggishness of the
Rev. Mr. Collins— his proposal to Elizabeth, his letter of
condolence to Mr. Bennet ; Mr. Bennet's dry humour and
Mrs. Bennet's vulgarity ; aristocratic insolence of Lady
Catherine de Bourgh ; Charlotte Lucas's practical view of
matrimony as a provision for young women



" Sense and Sensibility" constructed on somewhat similar lines
to "Pride and Prejudice," but inferior to it; the chief
characters— their counterparts in " Pride and Prejudice ; "
epitome of the plot ; Willoughby's rehabilitation rather
a strange incident ; the minor characters ; the good-
natured vulgarity of Mi's. Jennings ; Sir John Middleton
half way between the old country squire and the modern
country gentleman ; the cold-hearted selfishness of Lady
Middleton and Mrs. John Dashwood ; the Misses Steele,
vulgar both in manners and in soul ; Mrs. John Da'^hwood
on annuities ; the pleasantries of spoilt children . . 89


" Northanger Abbey "—a comic travesty of the " Mysteries of
Udolplio " of Mrs. Radcliffc ; Catherine Morland's original



disqualifications for a heroine of romance ; she gradually
qualifies ; goes to Bath ; meets there the Thorpes and the
Tilneys ; a description of them ; General Tilney ; wrongly
understanding Catherine to be an heiress, he invites her to
Northanger Abbey ; Heniy Tilney prepares her for
romantic horrors ; the first night at the Abbey ; other
adventures ; General Tilney bent on a match between
Catherine and Henry ; finding she is not an heiress, he
suddenly orders Catherine home ; but all ends happily . I02


"Emma"; a description of her; the relations between the
principal characters ; characteristics of Emma Woodhouse
and Mr. Knightley ; the plot of the novel ; Lord Bra-
bourne's unfavourable view of Mr. Knightley ; " Emma"
rich in character ; Mr. Woodhouse's benevolent valetudi-
narianism a little overdrawn ; Mr. Elton, the clerical
Adonis, and his vulgar, conceited wife ; Miss Bates, the
worthy old maid Il8


Mansfield Park ;" it teems with delicate touches of character
and fine strokes of art ; an account of the plot and of the
principal characters ; the subordinate characters ; the mean
and despicable Mrs. Norris ; the indolence and apathy of
Lady Bertram somewhat exaggerated ; her passive fault-
lessness ; the unmethodical and slatternly Mrs. Price well
drawn ; realistic description of the Price household ;
Admiral Crawford and Lieutenant Price ; the comic and
bad characters of the novels generic, but some of the
better ones very likely portraits ; William Price probably



represents one of Jane Austen's sailor brothers ; a tribute

to the navy 140


" Persuasion " — ^Jane Austen's last work ; its autumnal mellow-
ness of tone and sentiment ; not so well constructed as her
other novels, but contains some of her finest touches ;
Anne Elliot perhaps the most interesting of Jane Austen's
women ; the plot and principal characters discussed ;
minor characters ; the family pride and self-conceit of Sir
W. Elliot slightly overdone ; Elizabeth Elliott's selfish-
ness ; Mary Elliot's querulous and hypocritical self-love —
her letter to Anne ; Admiral Croft, a sketch from life ;
weakness in construction of the plot ; several more or less
aimless characters 167


Fragments : '* Lady Susan," probably an exercise never in-
tended for publication ; its plot ; composed in the form of
a series of letters ; defects of that style of composition ;
" The Watsons ; " the circumstances in which it was begun
and left unfinished ; only one or two of its characters
faintly reproduced in other novels 181


Jane Austen's novels regarded as a whole : no hidden meanings
or philosophy in them ; she only made the familiar and
commonplace interesting and amusing; their style the same
throughout; the plots generally well -sustained, though
unsensational ; the heroines more interesting and better
drawn than the heroes, but the secondary characters the
best ; Jane Austen's narrow range of observation caused
partial recurrences of characters and incidents, but Lord



Mrxaulay claims that each character is distinct ; though
her subjects were commonplace and tri\nal, her genius has
made them bright for ever ...... 185


Jane Austen's chronological relation to the other English nove-
lists 19:




MISS AUSTEN stands in literary history as one of
a group of female novelists of manners, of which
the other most prominent figures are Miss Burney, Miss
Edgeworth, and Miss Ferrier, while the whole group
stands in contrast to the contemporary novelists of
romance, such as the once famous Mrs. Radcliffe.^ Of
the novelists of manners the common parent, to a certain
extent, was Richardson, while the novelists of romance
had a precursor in the author of "The Castle of
Otranto." But it is not in Miss Austen's relations to
other writers or schools of writers that her importance
consists. On her was bestowed, though in a humble
form, the gift which had been bestowed on Homer,
Shakespeare, Cervantes, Scott, and a few others — the
gift of creative power.

Short and simple are the annals of her life. Till near
its close her genius was not recognized outside the circle

' Jane Austen's chronological relation to the other English
novelists will be seen from the table at the end of the volume (p. 192).


of her own family, nor was it fully recognized till after
her death. She had no literary acquaintance, and but a
small acquaintance of any kind. Of her doings and
sayings nobody took notes. Twenty years ago it was
remarked in presence of one of her family that almost
as little was known about her as about Shakespeare.
Not long afterwards there appeared a memoir of her by
her nephew, Mr. Austen-Leigh. It tells us her ap-
pearance, her general character and habits, but it tells
us little more. There was probably little more to tell.
The works are the only biography. Perhaps there might
be some disappointment even in the case of Shake-
speare if pious inquiry could succeed in rescuing
details from the night in which they have been lost.
Since the publication of the memoir, a collection of Jane
Austen's letters has been given to the world by her
grandnephew, Lord Brabourne. The genial industry of
the editor has done all that could be done, but the letters,
in a biographical point of view, are disappointing. These,
however, with Lord Brabourne's introductions, are our
only source of information beyond Mr. Austen-Leigh's
Memoir, which forms the staple of this as of the other

Jane Austen was born on December i6, 1775 — the
year of the American Revolution — at the Parsonage
House of Steventon, in Hampshire, of which parish, and
of the neighbouring parish of Deane, her father, George
Austen, was the rector. George Austen had been a fellow
of St. John's College, Oxford. Lie was a good scholar,
so that he was able to prepare two of his sons for the


University, and was noted for his good looks, having been
called "the handsome Proctor." His wife and Jane
Austen's mother was Cassandra, the youngest daughter
of the Rev. Thomas Leigh, who, after being a fellow
of All Souls', held the College living of Hampden, near
Henley-on-Thames, — and niece of Dr. Theophilus Leigh,
for more than half-a-century Master of Balliol College,
and the great University wit of his day.

Jane had five brothers and one sister. Her eldest
brother, James, was well read in English literature, was
a writer in a modest way, and is believed to have had a
large share in directing her reading and forming her
taste. Her second brother, Edward, like Frank Churchill
in "Emma," had been adopted by a wealthy rela-
tive, Mr, Knight, of Godmersham Park in Kent, and
Chawton House in Hampshire, and on coming into
possession of the property changed his name to Knight.
Though he was separated from his sister in childhood, in
later life they were drawn together, and a large share of
her affections was given to him and to his children. He
is described as very amiable and full of fun. The third
brother, Henry, is said to have had great conversational
powers, but not to have got on very well in life. He
became a clergyman when middle-aged, and helped Jane
in negotiations with the publishers. The two youngest
brothers, Francis and Charles, were sailors, and served in
the Great War. Both rose to the rank of Admiral ; both
seem to have deserved it; and both left a record of
kindly and gentle character as well as of high pro-
fessional spirit. The details of their profession, their
prize-money, and their promotions, as well as the joy with


Avhich they were welcomed home, have left plain traces
on their sister's pages. But dearest of all, we are told,
to the heart of Jane was her sister Cassandra, about
three years her senior. They were always together,
lived in the same home and shared the same bed-
room till they were separated by death. Cassandra's
was the calmer disposition, with less sunniness.
Cassandra, it used to be said in the family, had
the merit of having her temper always under com-
mand; but Jane had the happiness of possessing a
temper that never required to be commanded. When
*' Sense and Sensibility " came out, the two sisters were
identified with Elinor and Marianne ; but Jane could
never have painted herself as the foolishly emotional
and impulsive Marianne ; if she had, she would certainly
have done herself great injustice. Mr. Austen-Leigh
remarks that the young woman who before the age of
twenty could so clearly discern the failings of Marianne
Dashwood, can hardly have been subject to them herself.
Sisterly love had probably a share in suggesting the
loving pair of sisters in " Sense and Sensibility," as well
as the loving pair of sisters in "Pride and Prejudice,"
and the want of a sister in " Emma."

Twenty- five years, more than half Jane Austen's life,
were spent in Steventon Parsonage. Steventon is a
small village upon the chalk hills of North Hants, in
a winding valley, seven miles from Basingstoke. There
is always a cheerfulness about the chalk country, and
Steventon is described as pretty on a small scale and
in a very quiet way, without large timber, but with
broad and leafy hedgerows, beneath which grew the


primrose, the anemone, and the wild hyacinth. The
hedgerows were not mere fences, but were of the ampH-
tude usual in the days of unimproved husbandry, with
a rough path down the middle : in *' Persuasion " the
conversation of a pair walking along one of them is
overheard by an anxious listener on the outside. The
parsonage, since pulled down, " stood in a shallow valley,
surrounded by sloping meadows well sprinkled with elm
trees, at the end of a small village of cottages, each well
provided with a garden, scattered about prettily on
either side of the road." On the south side was an old-
fashioned garden, and along the garden ran a terrace of
turf which Mr. Austen-Leigh says may have been in
his aunt's thoughts when she described Catherine
norland's childish delight in rolling down the green
slope at the back of the house. Not far off was a manor-
house of the time of Henry VIIL, which, however,
does not seem to have turned Jane's thoughts to the
romantic past.

In and around Steventon, and in the little town of
Basingstoke, which probably is the original of Meryton,
Jane would see the classes of people and the life which
a village and a litde country town in England presents.
She would see the large landed • proprietor and member
of Parliament, like Sir Thomas Bertram, the small
proprietor, like Mr. Bennet and Mr. Woodhouse, and
the clergyman, with their wives and daughters, occa-
sionally the military or naval officer of good family, the
old lady not of good family, or retired tradesman, living
in the little town, the village apothecary, the independent
yeoman, like Robert Martin, common in those days


though now almost extinct These are the materials of
her novels. If the range of her characters was limited,
she would have good opportunities of studying them,
for English life, which has now become migratory and
restless, in days before railways was quiet and stationary.
In one of her letters, Jane says to a neophyte in novel-
making, " You are now collecting your people delight-
fully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the
delight of my life. Three or four families in a country
village is the very thing to work on ; and I hope you
will write a great deal more and make very full use of
them when they are so favourably arranged." The
Austen family were not rich, but they were sufficiently
well off to go into the society of the neighbourhood and
keep a carriage. Their social position was much the
same as that of Dr. and Mrs. Grant in " Mansfield Park,"
who keep their carriage and entertain, spreading their
table with a liberality which seems excessive to the
jealous Mrs. Norris.

The Austen circle was enlarged in every sense by
intimacy with two cousins, Edward and Jane Cooper,
the children of Mrs. Austen's eldest sister and Dr.
Cooper, the vicar of Sonning, near Reading, and about
eighteen miles from Basingstoke. Edward Cooper had
won the prize for a Latin poem at Oxford, and afterwards
wrote a work on prophecy, called "The Crisis," and
several volumes of sermons, which at one time were in
vogue. He no doubt read with pleasure the passage in
" Mansfield Park " extolling the gifts of preaching. The
Coopers lived for some time in Bath, where, it appears,
Jane Austen visited them and acquired the know-


ledge of the great watering-place which enabled her
to write " Northanger Abbey." She also visited her
kinsman, Mr. Knight, at Godmersham Park, and per-
haps it was there, more than at Steventon, that she
studied the life of the county magnate, the Sir Thomas
Bertram of " Mansfield Park."

It seems that the family circle in Steventon Parsonage
was entirely united and happy, so that the home influ-
ences under which the girl grew up, combined with the
natural sweetness of disposition of which her kinsman
retains a vivid recollection, gave her a genial view of
life, and inclined her to play gently with the foibles
of humanity. Jane loved company and all the simple
pleasures of life, flirting in a quiet way not excepted.
" There were twenty dances," she says, when she had
been at a ball, "and I danced them all without any
fatigue ; " and this was when she was so far past the
heyday of youth as to wear a cap. She does not
conceal her enjoyment of good cheer. She had a
sweet voice, sang simple airs, and played on the piano.
There is not a greater contrast between the bleak
Westmoreland moor and the soft beauty of the Hamp-
shire valley, than there was between the youth of the
authoress of " Jane Eyre " and the youth of Jane Austen.

Nor was Jane Austen without a share of the happiness
which goes with good looks. Her figure was tall and
slender, her step was light and firm, and her whole
appearance, we are told, was expressive of health and
animation. In complexion she was a clear brunette
with a rich colour; she had full, round cheeks, with
mouth and nose small and well formed, bright hazel



eyes, and brown hair forming natural curls close round
her face. Such is the portrait drawn of her by her
affectionate kinsman. To a less partial observer the
cheeks appeared rather too round and full.

It has seemed curious that no attachment should have
been formed by a good-looking girl, fond of society
and balls, and not averse from flirting. Mr. Austen-
Leigh says in his first edition that he has no tale of love
to relate. In his second edition he has introduced a
double qualification of this statement. He tells us that
his aunt in youth declined the addresses of a man who
had the recommendations of good character, connec-
tions, and position, of everything but the power of touch-
ing her heart. But he also says that there is one passage
of romance in her history with which he is imperfectly
acquainted, but which he has on the authority of her
sister Cassandra, who deposed that at some seaside place
they became acquainted with a gentleman whose charm
of person, mind, and manners was such that Cassandra
thought him worthy to possess and likely to win her
sister's love. When they parted, he expressed his inten-
tion of soon seeing them again, and Cassandra felt no
doubt as to his motives. But they never again met,
and within a short time he suddenly died. A Quarterly
Reviewer has observed, concerning the attachment of
Fanny Price in " Mansfield Park " to Edmund Bertram :
" The silence in which this passion is cherished, the
slender hopes and enjoyments by which it is fed, the
restlessness and jealousy with which it fills a mind
naturally active, contented, and unsuspicious, the manner
in which it tinges every event and every reflection, are


painted with a vividness and a minuteness of which
we can scarcely conceive any one but a female, and
we should almost add a female writing from recollection,
capable." Mr. Austen-Leigh, however, is of opinion
that this conjecture, however probable, is wide of the
mark, and that Fanny's love of Edmund was drawn from
the intuitive perceptions of genius, not from personal
experience. He has no reason, he says, to think that
his aunt ever felt any attachment by which the happi-
ness of her life was at all affected. There is little use
in bandying conjectures when we have no evidence of
facts. Yet it may be remarked in reply to Mr. Austen-
Leigh, that if Jane Austen had felt such an attachment,
and supposing the attachment to be unrequited or baffled
by adverse circumstances, she would not have betrayed
it. Complete command over her feelings in such a
case is a characteristic which she holds up to admiration
in two of her models of womanhood, Fanny Price and
Elinor Dashwood. It is not in '* Mansfield Park " that, if
we were inclined to follow up this chase of an imaginary
love affair, we should look for the trail. It is rather in
the passage in " Persuasion " concerning the lingering
attachment of Anne Elliot to Captain Wentworth, after
the breaking off of their engagement.

" More than seven years were gone since this little history of
sorrowful interest had reached its close ; and time had softened
down much, perhaps nearly all of peculiar attachment to him, but
she had been too dependent on time alone ; no aid had been given
in change of place (except in one visit to Bath soon after the
rupture), or in any novelty or enlargement of society. No one had
ever come within the Kellynch circle who could bear a comparison
with Frederick Wentworth, as he stood in her memory. No second


attachment, the only thoroughly natural, happy, and sufficient cure,
at her time of life, had been possil:)le to the nice tone of her mind,
the fastidiousness of her taste, in the small limits of the society
around them.


" How eloquent could Anne Elliot have been ! how eloquent, at
least, were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and
a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution
which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence I She bad
been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as
she grew older : the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning."

Captain Wcntworth is a sailor. Jane had two brothers
in the navy, and she could hardly fail to become ac-
quainted with some of their brother officers. However,
she is almost as impersonal as Shakespeare, and any
attempt to extract her own history from her novels must
be precarious in the highest degree. Cassandra was
engaged to a young clergyman, who, before their
marriage-day came, died in the West Indies. This may
have furnished the cue for the passage in " Persuasion,"
if that passage had any relation to facts. There was
certainly nothing serious in the case of Tom Lefroy, of
whom Jane writes, " At length the day is come on which
I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you
receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at
the melancholy idea."

An acute female critic has surmised that so observant
a young lady with so sharp a pen must have been ratlicr an
object of dread than of affection to the people about her.
Of the sharp pen the people of Stcventon could not be in
dread, inasmuch as it was not till many years after that
any of its works were given to the world, and none but


Jane's own family at this time knew that she was an
authoress. The gift of social satire is perhaps one not
easily concealed, but we are assured that Jane was on a
friendly footing with all around her and interested in
their concerns, as she certainly was dearly loved, and
deserved to be dearly loved, by her own family. Though
satirical, she was not in the least cynical or malicious.
Shakespeare must liave been always taking notes, yet he
was " Sweet Will " to the set in which he lived.

If the range of Jane's social experience was limited,
so, apparently, was her literary culture. She was no
doubt well read in English classics, especially in the line
of fiction. Richardson, her nephew tells us, she knew
thoroughly and greatly admired : she had a narrow
escape of being seduced into imitation of him. Cowper
she loved both in verse and prose. A man who cannot
be animated by Cowper, she makes one of her characters
say, cannot be animated at all. Crabbe she loved
apparently still more, for she used to say that if ever she
married at all she could fancy being Mrs. Crabbe. She
was taken no doubt by the intense reality of his pictures^
as well as by their minute and highly-finished detail.
Once or twice she seems to have reproduced his thoughts.
The following, for instance, reminds us of "The Lover's
Ride : " " Emma's spirits were mounted up quite to happi-
ness; everything wore a different air ; James and his horses
seemed not half so sluggish as before. When she looked
at the hedges she thought that the elder at least must
soon be coming out ; and when she turned to Harriet
she saw something like a look of spring, a tender smile
even there "

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Online LibraryGoldwin SmithLife of Jane Austen → online text (page 1 of 15)