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Austen-leigh's Memoir Of Jane Austen Post by :anthony_hms Category :Essays Author :Goldwin Smith Date :April 2011 Read :696

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Austen-leigh's Memoir Of Jane Austen

(Footnote: "A Memoir of Jane Austen. By her nephew, J. E. Austen-Leigh, Vicar of Bray, Berks." London: Richard Bentley; New York: Scribner, Welford & Co.)


The walls of our cities were placarded, the other day, with an advertisement of a new sensational novel, the flaring woodcut of which represented a girl tied down upon a table, and a villain preparing to cut off her feet. If this were the general taste, there would be no use in talking about Jane Austen. But if you ask at the libraries you will find that her works are still taken out; so that there must still be a faithful few who, like ourselves, will have welcomed the announcement of a Memoir of the authoress of "Pride and Prejudice," "Mansfield Park," and "Emma."

If Jane Austen's train of admirers has not been so large as those of many other novelists, it has been first-rate in quality. She has been praised--we should rather say, loved by all, from Walter Scott to Guizot, whose love was the truest fame. Her name has often been coupled with that of Shakespeare, to whom Macaulay places her second in the nice discrimination of shades of character. The difference between the two minds in degree is, of course, immense; but both belong to the same rare kind. Both are really creative; both purely artistic; both have the marvellous power of endowing the products of their imagination with a life, as it were, apart from their own. Each holds up a perfectly clear and undistorting mirror--Shakespeare to the moral universe, Jane Austen to the little world in which she lived. In the case of neither does the personality of the author ever come between the spectator and the drama. Vulgar criticism calls Jane Austen's work Dutch painting. Miniature painting would be nearer the truth; she speaks of herself as working with a fine brush on a piece of ivory two inches wide. Dutch painting implies the selection of subjects in themselves low and uninteresting, for the purpose of displaying the skill of a painter, who can interest by the mere excellence of his imitation. Jane Austen lived in the society of English country gentlemen and their families as they were in the last century--a society affluent, comfortable, domestic, rather monotonous, without the interest which attaches to the struggles of labour without tragic events or figures seldom, in fact rising dramatically above the level of sentimental comedy, but presenting nevertheless, its varieties of character, its vicissitudes, its moral lessons--in a word, its humanity. She has painted it as it was, in all its features the most tragic as well as the most comic, avoiding only melodrama. "In all the important preparations of the mind, she (Miss Bertram) was complete, being prepared for matrimony by a hatred of home, restraint and tranquillity, by the misery of disappointed affection and contempt of the man she was to marry; the rest might wait." This is not the touch of Gerard Douw. An undertone of irony, never obtrusive but everywhere perceptible, shows that the artist herself knew very well that she was not painting gods and Titans, and keeps everything on the right level.

Jane Austen, then, was worthy of a memoir. But it was almost too late to write one. Like Shakespeare, she was too artistic to be autobiographic. She was never brought into contact with men of letters, and her own fame was almost posthumous, so that nobody took notes. She had been fifty years in her grave when her nephew, the Rev J. E. Austen-Leigh, the youngest of the mourners who attended her funeral, undertook to make a volume of his own recollections, those of one or two other surviving relatives, and a few letters. Of 230 pages, in large print, and with a margin the vastness of which requires to be relieved by a rod rubric, not above a third is really biography, the rest is genealogy, description of places, manners, and customs, critical disquisition, testimonies of admirers. Still, thanks to the real capacity of the biographer, and to the strong impression left by a character of remarkable beauty on his mind, we catch a pretty perfect though faint outline of the figure which was just hovering on the verge of memory, and in a few years more would, like the figure of Shakespeare, have been swallowed up in night.

Jane Austen was the flower of a stock, full, apparently, through all its branches, of shrewd sense and caustic humour, which in her were combined with the creative imagination. She was born in 1775, at Steventon, in Hampshire, a country parish, of which her father was the rector. A village of cottages at the foot of a gentle slope, an old church with its coeval yew, an old manor-house, an old parsonage all surrounded by tall elms, green meadows, hedgerows full of primroses and wild hyacinths--such was the scene in which Jane Austen grew. It is the picture which rises in the mind of every Englishman when he thinks of his country. Around dwelt the gentry, more numerous and, if coarser and duller, more home-loving and less like pachas than they are now, when the smaller squires and yeomen have been swallowed up in the growing lordships of a few grandees who spend more than half their time in London or in other seats of politics or pleasure. Not far off was a country town, a "Meriton," the central gossiping place of the neighbourhood, and the abode of the semi-genteel. If a gentleman like Mr. Woodhouse lives equivocally close to the town, his "place" is distinguished by a separate name. There was no resident squire at Steventon, the old manor-house being let to a tenant, so that Jane's father was at once parson and squire. "That house (Edmund Bertram's parsonage) may receive such an air as to make its owner be set down as the great landowner of the parish by every creature travelling the road, especially as there is no real squire's house to dispute the point, a circumstance, between ourselves, to enhance the value of such a situation in point of privilege and advantage beyond all calculation." Her father having from old age resigned Steventon when Jane was six and twenty, she afterwards lived for a time with her family at Bath, a great watering-place, and the scene of the first part of "Northanger Abbey;" at Lyme, a pretty little sea-bathing place on the coast of Dorset, on the "Cobb" of which takes place the catastrophe of "Persuasion;" and at Southampton, now a great port, then a special seat of gentility. Finally, she found a second home with her widowed mother and her sister at Chawton, another village in Hampshire.

"In person," says Jane's biographer, "she was very attractive. Her figure was rather tall and slender, her step light and firm, and her whole appearance 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 (it is a touch of the woman, then, when Emma is described as having _the true hazel eye_), and brown hair forming natural curls close round her face." The sweetness and playfulness of "Dear Aunt Jane" are fresh after so many years in the memories of her nephew and nieces, who also strongly attest the sound sense and sterling excellence of character which lay beneath. She was a special favourite with children, for whom she delighted to exercise her talent in improvising fairy-tales. Unknown to fame, uncaressed save by family affection, and, therefore, unspoilt, while writing was her delight, she kept it in complete subordination to the duties of life, which she performed with exemplary conscientiousness in the house of mourning as well as in the house of feasting. Even her needlework was superfine. We doubt not that, if the truth was known, she was a good cook.

She calls herself "the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress;" but this is a nominal tribute to the jealousy of female erudition which then prevailed, and at which she sometimes glances, though herself very far from desiring a masculine education for women. In fact, she was well versed in English literature, read French with ease, and knew something of Italian--German was not thought of in those days. She had a sweet voice, and sang to her own accompaniment simple old songs which still linger in her nephew's ear. Her favourite authors were Johnson, whose strong sense was congenial to her, while she happily did not allow him to infect her pure and easy style, Cowper, Richardson and Crabbe. She said that, if she married at all, she should like to be Mrs. Crabbe. And besides Crabbe's general influence, which is obvious, we often see his special touch in her writings:

"Emma's spirits were mounted up quite to happiness. Everything wore a different air. James and his horses seemed not half so sluggish as before. When she looked at the hedges, she thought the elder at least must soon be coming out; and, when she turned round to Harriet, she saw something like a look of spring--a tender smile even there."

Jane was supremely happy in her family relations, especially in the love of her elder sister, Cassandra, from whom she was inseparable. Of her four brothers, two were officers in the Royal Navy. How she watched their career, how she welcomed them home from the perils not only of the sea but of war (for it was the time of the great war with France), she has told us in painting the reception of William Price by his sister Fanny, in "Mansfield Park." It is there that she compares conjugal and fraternal love, giving the preference in one respect to the latter, because with brothers and sisters "all the evil and good of the earliest years can be gone over again, and every former united pain and pleasure retraced with the fondest recollection: an advantage this, a strengthener of love, in which even the conjugal tie is beneath the fraternal." It was, perhaps, because she was so happy in the love of her brothers and sisters, as well as because she was wedded to literature, that she was content, in spite of her good looks, to assume the symbolic cap of perpetual maidenhood at an unusually early age.

Thus she grew in a spot as sunny, as sheltered, and as holy as do the violets which her biographer tells us abound beneath the south wall of Steventon church. It was impossible that she should have the experiences of Miss Bronte or Madame Sand, and without some experience the most vivid imagination cannot act, or can act only in the production of mere chimeras. To forestall Miss Braddon in the art of criminal phantasmagoria might have been within Jane's power by the aid of strong green tea, but would obviously have been repugnant to her nature. We must not ask her, then, for the emotions and excitements which she could not possibly afford. The character of Emma is called commonplace. It is commonplace in the sense in which the same term might be applied to any normal beauty of nature--to a well-grown tree or to a perfectly developed flower. She is, as Mr. Weston says, "the picture of grown-up health." "There is health not merely in her bloom, but in her air, her gait, her glance." She has been brought up like Jane Austen herself, in a pure English household, among loving relations and good old servants. Her feet have been in the path of domestic and neighbourly duty, quiet as the path which leads to the village church. It has been impossible for strong temptations or fierce passions to come near her. Yet men accustomed to the most exciting struggles, to the most powerful emotions of parliamentary life, have found an interest, equal to the greatest ever created by a sensation novel, in the little scrapes and adventures into which her weakness betrays her, and in the process by which her heart is gradually drawn away from objects apparently more attractive to the robust nature in union with which she is destined to find strength as well as happiness.

With more justice may Jane Austen be reproached with having been too much influenced by the prejudices of the somewhat narrow and somewhat vulgarly aristocratic, or rather plutocratic, society in which she lived. Her irony and her complete dramatic impersonality render it difficult to see how far this goes; but certainly it goes further than we could wish. Decidedly she believes in gentility, and in its intimate connection with affluence and good family; in its incompatibility with any but certain very refined and privileged kinds of labour; in the impossibility of finding a gentleman in a trader, much more in a yeoman or mechanic. "The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do; a degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance, might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other; but a farmer can need none of my help, and is, therefore, in one sense, as much above my notice as in every other he is below it." This is said by Emma--by Emma when she is trying to deter her friend from marrying a yeoman, it is true, but still by Emma. The picture of the coarseness of poverty in the household of Fanny's parents in "Mansfield Park" is truth, but it is hard truth, and needs some counterpoise. Both in the case of Fanny Price and in that of Frank Churchill, the entire separation of a child from its own home for the sake of the worldly advantages furnished by an adoptive home of a superior class, is presented too much as a part of the order of nature. The charge of acquiescence in the low standard of clerical duty prevalent in the Establishment of that day is well founded, though perhaps not of much importance. Of more importance is the charge which might be made, with equal justice, of acquiescence in somewhat low and coarse ideas of the relations between the sexes, and of the destinies and proper aspirations of young women. "Mr. Collins, to be sure, was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary; but still he would be her husband. Without thinking highly either of men or matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune; and, however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now attained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good-luck of it." This reflection is ascribed to Charlotte Lucas, an inferior character, but still thought worthy to be the heroine's bosom friend.

Jane's first essays in composition were burlesques on the fashionable manners of the day; whence grew "Northanger Abbey," with its anti- heroine, Catharine Morley, "roving and wild, hating constraint and cleanliness, and loving nothing so much as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house," and with its exquisite travestie of the "Mysteries of Udolpho." But she soon felt her higher power. Marvellous to say, she began "Pride and Prejudice" in 1796, before she was twenty- one years old, and completed it in the following year. "Sense and Sensibility" and "Northanger Abbey" immediately followed; it appears, with regard to the latter, that she had already visited Bath, though it was not till afterwards that she resided there. But she published nothing--not only so, but it seems that she entirely suspended composition--till 1809, when her family settled at Chawton. Here she revised for the press what she had written, and wrote "Mansfield Park," "Emma" and "Persuasion." "Persuasion," whatever her nephew and biographer may say, and however Dr. Whewell may have fired up at the suggestion, betrays an enfeeblement of her faculties, and tells of approaching death. But we still see in it the genuine creative power multiplying new characters; whereas novelists who are not creative, when they have exhausted their original fund of observations, are forced to subsist by exaggeration of their old characters, by aggravated extravagances of plot, by multiplied adulteries and increased carnage.

"Pride and Prejudice," when first offered to Cadell, was declined by return of post. The fate of "Northanger Abbey" was still more ignominious: it was sold for ten pounds to a Bath publisher, who, after keeping it many years in his drawer, was very glad to return it and get back his ten pounds. No burst of applause greeted the works of Jane Austen like that which greeted the far inferior works of Miss Burney. _Crevit occulto velut arbor oevo fama_. A few years ago, the verger of Winchester cathedral asked a visitor who desired to be shown her tomb, "what there was so particular about that lady that so many people wanted to see where she was buried?" Nevertheless, she lived to feel that "her own dear children" were appreciated, if not by the vergers, yet in the right quarters, and to enjoy a quiet pleasure in the consciousness of her success. One tribute she received which was overwhelming. It was intimated to her by authority that His Royal Highness, the Prince Regent, had read her novels with pleasure, and that she was at liberty to dedicate the next to him. More than this, the Royal Librarian, Mr. Clarke, of his own motion apparently, did her the honour to suggest that, changing her style for a higher, she should write "a historical romance in illustration of the august house of Cobourg," and dedicate it to Prince Leopold. She answered in effect that, if her life depended on it, she could not be serious for a whole chapter. Let it be said, however, for the Prince Regent, that underneath his royalty and his sybaritism, there was, at first, something of a better and higher nature, which at last was entirely stifled by them. His love for Mrs. Fitzherbert was not merely sensual, and Heliogabalus would not have been amused by the novels of Miss Austen.

Jane was never the authoress but when she was writing her novels; and in the few letters with which this memoir is enriched there is nothing of point or literary effort, and very little of special interest. We find, however, some pleasant and characteristic touches.

"Charles has received L30 for his share of the privateer, and expects L10 more; but of what avail is it to take prizes if he lays out the produce in presents to his sisters? He has been buying gold chains and topaz crosses for us. He must be well scolded."

"Poor Mrs. Stent! It has been her lot to be always in the way; but we must be merciful, for perhaps in time we may come to be Mrs. Stents ourselves, unequal to anything and unwelcome to everybody."

"We (herself and Miss A.) afterwards walked together for an hour on the Cobb; she is very conversable in a common way; I do not perceive wit or genius, but she has sense and some degree of taste, and her manners are very engaging. _She seems to like people rather too easily."_

Of her own works, or rather of the characters of her own creation, her Elizabeths and Emmas, Jane speaks literally as a parent. They are her "dear children." "I must confess that I think her (Elizabeth) 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." This is said in pure playfulness; there is nothing in the letters like real egotism or impatience of censure.

At the age of forty-two, in the prime of intellectual life, with "Emma" just out and "Northanger Abbey" coming, and in the midst of domestic affection and happiness, life must have been sweet to Jane Austen. She resigned it, nevertheless, with touching tranquillity and meekness. In 1816, it appears, she felt her inward malady, and began to go round her old haunts in a manner which seemed to indicate that she was bidding them farewell. In the next year, she was brought for medical advice to a house in the Close of Winchester, and there, surrounded to the last by affection and to the last ardently returning it, she died. Her last words were her answer to the question whether there was anything she wanted--_"Nothing but death."_ Those who expect religious language in season and out of season have inferred from the absence of it in Jane Austen's novels that she was indifferent to religion. The testimony of her nephew is positive to the contrary; and he is a man whose word may be believed.

Those who died in the Close were buried in the cathedral. It is therefore by mere accident that Jane Austen rests among princes and princely prelates in that glorious and historic fane. But she deserves at least her slab of black marble in the pavement there. She possessed a real and rare gift, and she rendered a good account of it. If the censer which she held among the priests of art was not of the costliest, the incense was of the purest. If she cannot be ranked with the very greatest masters of fiction, she has delighted many, and none can draw from her any but innocent delight.


(The end)
Goldwin Smith's essay: Austen-Leigh's Memoir Of Jane Austen

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