by O.W. Firkins
Part III: The Woman
Chapter IX: Life and Ways of Life
In this final section I shall treat of Jane Austen's personality with glances at certain literary traits to which that personality is closely related. Miss Austen is perhaps the poorest subject for biogaphy of all notable persons who have lived since biography began to flourish. Her family was large, her acquaintance not small; she was part of a peering, listening, gossiping community; and forty-two years in one district and four towns should have supplied a field for the accumulation of reminiscence. But her life was barren of events; her fame, when it tardily arrived, was shy; and curiosity awoke only after its nutriment had vanished. She died in 1817; the memoir of her nephew, J. E. Austen-Leigh, published in 1870, was the first attempt to present her life in narrative. In respect of material that memoir is famished, though the grace and exquisite humility with which the little repast is served leave us obliged even by its meagreness. The taste and loyalty, if not the grace, of the memoir-writer was bequeathed to his son and grandson, William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh, who published in 1913 the Life and Letters of Jone Austen. The life-story yielded scarcely anything to further pressure; but, in view of Jane's own destitution on this score, a purse of facts, if I may hazard the expression, was made up in her behalf to which every ancestor, relative, and acquaintance was bidden to contribute his mite. More important was the access to the Letters of Jane Austen, published in 1884 by her grand-nephew, Lord Brabourne, with explanations of every point within the editor's knowledge for which explanation was desirable or permissible. Apart from the novels, these letters are our chief datum for Miss Austen's character; they furnish us with a victus, if not a vita. Leslie Stephen, in the Dictionary of National Biography calls them trivial--a remark of which the seriousness is almost majestic. Addressed mainly to a sister, the Letters choose sisterly topics; but they paint a fashion of life in concise and pithy touches, and are crisped with a humor of which formal literature might be proud.
I shall dispense with the affectation of chronology in the few facts as to Miss Austen's life which I think it needful to set down. Her father, George Austen, born in 1731, held the living of Steventon in Hamp shire from 1761 to 1801, and died in Bath in 1805. Her mother, Cassandra Leigh, a shrewd and humorous woman, after bringing eight children into the world, settled down into that state of health which permits one to enjoy the privileges of an invalid to the age of eighty-eight. Of this family Jane was the sixth child. She had one sister, Cassandra, with whom her relations throughout her life were exquisite, and six brothers, only one of whom seems to have been overlooked in nature's generous bestowal of capacities and virtues. The eldest son, James, was a clergyman. Another son, Edward, was adopted by a rich landowner, whose fortune he inherited and whose name he took. Two other brothers, Francis and Charles, rose to admiralships in the English navy. Jane's favorite brother, Henry, was a brilliant and unstable character, who gave up orders to enter the militia, and who saw in the insolvency of his banking-house in later life a clear proof of his vocation for the ministry.
The family had many roots and many branches, was cohesive within itself and adhesive to its connections, was prone to marry and remarry, was lavish of births and sparing of deaths, had no prejudice against food and drink, and loved station, money, and office with an artlessness which may be taken as a partial set-off for its intensity. They were prone to those neighborships and clanships which demand for their maintenance both a certain tenderness and a certain toughness of the sensibilities. They had a healthy fondness for good times in which the younger daughter dutifully shared.
Miss Austen's love-affairs, so far as present evidence goes, present nothing that need detain or agitate the biographer. The industry of her relatives has come upon traces of two flirtations, of which Jane herself speaks with a matter-of-fact and reassuring lightness. Her niece, Caroline, is voucher for another story of Jane's acceptance of an income and position overnight and her rejection next morning of the human being with whom these advantages were encumbered. There is still another pointless story of a young man attractive to Jane who was expected to reappear and whose failure to meet expectations was the effect of a rendezvous with death. There is every reason to believe that Miss Austen in her youth had a girl's fondness for societey, attention, and, very possibly, flirtation, and there is no reason to suppose that her aversion to matrimony was of the kind which suitable pressure from an eligible quarter would have failed to conquer. Her person is said to have been very attractive. I quote from the author of the memoir.
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, and brown hair forming natural curls close round her face. If not so regularly handsome as her sister, yet her countenance had a peculiar charm of its own to the eyes of most beholders.Miss Austen's later years were spent in Bath, Southampton, and the village of Chawton in Hamp shire, in which Edward Knight--formerly Edward Austen--had offered an asylum to his mother and aisters. The Austen novels were written rapidly in two groups, parted by a singular hiatus of eleven sterile years. The first group, comprising Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey, was written in the order named between 1796 and 1798. The second group, comprising Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion, was written between 1811 and 1816. The publication was much more compressed than the writing. The six novels all came out between 1811 and 1818. Jane Austen died in Winchester, on July 18, 1817, at the age of forty-one, of a malady which her physicians could apparently neither cure nor name. Her grave is in Winchester cathedral.
In the dearth of biography I shall use the letters as tbe basis of a sketch of Jane's habits and interests, not shrinking from a little detail, which is more likely to surprise than to fatigue the reader.
Jane Austen was much too substantial a person to affect any indifference to food. She is specific in the expression of her attachment to cold souse which ahe "devours" with the approval and assistance of ber two nieces. I trust that this announcement will arm the reader for the still more depressing information that at a certain supper toasted cheese was ordered expressly on her account. Her mother calls ber a very good housekeeper, an estimate in which Jane cordially concurs, adding that she always provides such things as please her own appetite, "which I consider the chief merit in housekeeping." She inclines to haricot mutton, to ragout veal, and to experimental ox-cheeks, in which little dumplings are affectionately secreted. She invites the physician to dinner, and "was not ashamed at asking him to sit down to table, for we had some pease-soup, a spare-rib, and a pudding." "We are to kill a pig soon," she remarks with rural directness and house-wifely foresight. The turkey redux which we think so characteristic of Thanksgiving in America has clearly broadened slowly down from precedent to precedent, for Jane Austen has a jest at a French cook's expertness in this particular. The departure of guests is a welcome relief from the torments of rice puddings and apple dumplings, which may have been the clichés of cookery, abhorrent to the true stylist in housekeeping.
In travelling Jane's correspondence and her bodily frame are nourished on the same fare. At Deviees, as Cassandra is punctiliously informed, they had asparagus and a lobster, and cheesecakes that made the town memorable to the children. At Dartford, the absence of oyster sauce for the boiled fowl is confided to the same sympathetic ear. At Henry Austen's a French cook receives due plaudits for a most comfortable dinner of soup, fish, bouillée, partridges, and an apple-tart. Miss Austen has a true housekeeper's interest, in prices; Bath is virtuous in the point of meat (only eightpence a pound), but its charges for salmon are iniquitous.
It must not be supposed that Jane, in her solicitude about food, becomes oblivious of the claims of drink. Her affection for wine is unconcealed. In a letter written January 24, 1817, when already stricken with disease, she wants a recipe for some excellent orange wine made out of Seville oranges. At her brother Edward's she writes: "I shall eat ice and drink French wine, and be above vulgar economy." At Henry's we hear of a midnight participation in "soup and wine and water" (before they go to their "holes"). She writes from her brother Edward's in 1813: "By-the-bye, as I must leave off being young, I find many douceurs in being a sort of chaperon, for I am put on the sofa near the fire, and can drink as much wine as I like."
At an earlier date she writes: "I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne; I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand to-day." This may be only a humorous pretense, but there is little reason to suppose that the reality would have disquieted the writer.
Jane did not confine her partialities to imported liqueurs (they had liqueurs even in her day). The authoress whose peculiarity in literature was her fondness for the English domestic home-brew was true to her principles in the matter of drinks. She likes mead, and writes in 1813: "I find time in the midst of port and Madeira to think of the fourteen bottles of mead very often." She turns from the perfunctory mention of a pianoforte to the heart-felt cry: "We hear now that there is to be no honey this year. Bad news for us. We must husband our present stock of mead." Mead divided her affections with spruce beer. It was a period in which the variety of beverages at the same meal was some times interestingly great. Mrs. Austen reports a breakfast in which tea, coffee, and chocolate were served. Jane's niece Arna returns from an evening in which sillabub, tea, and coffee were the suite of the escort of a hot supper. Jane is very kind as a rule to her niece Fanny, but she will stand no juvenile nonsense on the subject of the consumption of tea. "As to Fanny and her twelve pounds in a twelve month, she may talk till she is as black in the face as her own tea, but I cannot believe her--more likely twelve pounds to a quarter."
If Jane was English in her respect for aliment, she was woman in her emphasis on dress. She is no more frivolous in her care for clothes than she is animal in her stress on nutriment; both are merely articles in the treaty which she made at the outset with things as they are. In relation to clothes her sentiment shows more of the zeal of the partisan than of the gravity of the devotee. They mix good- naturedly enough with more ethereal interests. "I have read the Corsair, mended my petticoat, and have nothing else to do." Literature and dress are associated after another fashion in the following mention of a cap. "It will be white satin and lace, snd a little white flower perking out of the left ear, like Harriet Byron's feather." Jane's interest in caps is inextinguishable. She wears a black cap to a ball to the probable admiration of everybody in the room, even at the time of life when she could dance twenty dances without fatigue and imagine herself dancing for a week together. She and her sister were thought to have taken to caps and the other ensigns of middle age earlier than their years or their looks required.
She was not, however, indifferent to fashion. "I find my straw bonnet looking very much like other people's, and quite as smart." She enumerates with gusto the fruits discoverable on the hats of the fashionable world in Bath, grapes, cherries, plums, apricots, even a bunch of strawberries. Nevertheless, there are moments of wilfulness when she dailies with the thought of nonconformity. "I wear my gauee gown to-day, long sleeves and all. I ahall see how they succeed, but as yet I have no reason to suppose long sleeves are allowable." She is resigned to the observance of the proprieties. When the Duke of Gloucester dies, the mourning gives importance to the death. "I suppose every-body will be black for the D. of G. Must we buy lace, or will ribbon do?" She is girlish enough at thirty-eight to call gowns sweet. "They are so very sweet by candle light." She can satirize effusiveness over dress without in the least renouncing her share in the object of her satire. "I have got your cloak home, which is quite delightful--as delightful at least as half the circumstances which are called so."
She has a rather piquant fashion of personifying articles of clothing. "I took the liberty a few days ago of asking your black velvet bonnet to lend me its cawl, which it very readily did." "I have found your white mittens. They were folded up within a clean nightcap, and send their duty to you." She takes an unaffected and unapologizing interest in all the little womanly shifts and crafts by which appearances are sustained and incomes husbanded. Evening gowns are made into morning gowns. The outer gown is transformed into a petticoat. "We are all busy making Edward's shirts, and I am proud to say that I am the neatest worker of the party. A frank and humorous readiness in the grapple with any of the little homely exigencies of a life that amused her almost as much as it bored her is characteristic of Jane Austen everywhere.
She is not uncritical of the dress of other people. The right to censure other people's dress is the recompense for the hours of anxiety given to one's own. "Tom Lefroy has but one fault, which time will, I trust, entirely remove--it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light. He is a very great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same coloured clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded." She appears to have favored temperance in the colors of her own apparel, and some pink shoes are referred to with virtuous misgiving.
Jane has a practical woman's interest in the problems of housing, bedding, and transporting other people. "Pray where did the boys sleep?" she asks in a letter to her sister with the curiosity of a New England housekeeper. The benefits of her criticism are not withheld from improvements in the shrubbery or repairs in the house. Her attitude toward servants is resignedly skeptical. There are indications that the rebellious tolerance and smouldering protest which sometimes seems almost the mutual attitude of mistress and servant in America had its prototypes in Jane Austen's England.
A woman to whom the fact meant so much would affect no delicate indifference to money, and the letters and novels agree in testifying to the weight that Jane Austen gave to pounds. Money is never lightly spoken of, either by the most sensible or the most romantic persons in her books, and even people like Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars, whose love is sincere and profound, are perfectly clear as to the relation of income to well-being. So far there is no ground for criticism. There is nothing sordid or base in the perception that a necessity, sordid itself or even base, if you insist, is a necessity. Even spirituality may innocently note a fact, but Miss Austen's interest in money is very far from stopping at this point. I wish to speak with measure of a frame of mind of which measure was a prime characteristic, but I think we may say that Miss Austen's attitude toward money, while neither idolatrous nor abject, is definable as homage. She was neither a Fanny Dashwood nor a Mrs. Norris, but money was for her one of the great good facts of life in the savor and brightness of which her imagination fondly rested. She says in one letter: "I shall keep my ten pounds to wrap myself up in." The reference is naturally to apparel, but I think Jane would have been quite capable of nestling cosily into the warm wrappage of a snug income. "My father is doing all in his power to increase his income by raising his tithes, etc., and I do not despair of getting very nearly six hundred a year" (the italics are mine). "We have now pretty well ascertained James's income to be eleven hundred pounds, curate paid, which makes us very happy " (italics mine). This is the idyl of the cash-box; this is the Faithful Shepherdess in a new guise.
Sing his praises that doth keep
Our flocks from harm,
Pan, the father of our sheep;
In a family of this sort the loss of a legacy cures any grief that might have been evoked by the loss of the testator. Jane is suffering from a bilious attack when the news of her uncle's disposition of his property is revealed to her by indiscreet relatives. "I am ashamed to say that the shock of my uncle's will brought on a relapse." The touch that follows is delectable: "My mother has borne the forgetfulness of her extremely well" (the italics are Jane's). "'Forgiveness, said Mr. Pecksniff, 'entire and pure forgiveness is not incompatible with a wounded heart; perchance when the heart is wounded it becomes a greater virtue.'"
Jane's objection to playing cards for money is characteristic. "There were two pools at commerce, but I would not play more than one, for the stake was three shillings, and I cannot afford to lose that twice in an evening." It is almost needless to observe that in this circle the getting or not getting of a frank is among the small poignancies of life. Nothing awakens tenderness like a gift of money. The very person of the donor is renovated to the grateful vision. "I have this moment received 5l. from kind, beautiful Edward" (italics mine). The possibility--or rather probability--that Jane is jocular in such expressions must be punctiliously allowed for; but even in the act of allowance one must remember that humor in such cases is the excuse for sincerity quite as often as it is the excuse for insincerity.
If the above paragraphs produce the impression that Miss Austen was grasping or parsimonious, they have been unskilfully written. The delicacy-- the interest--of the situation lies in the fact that Miss Austen was all that these paragraphs imply without being either grasping or parsimonious. The thought of money raised in her mind a glow not unlike that which the sight of fire awakens in a chilly person in a fickle climate; that glow does not imply that its owner will monopolise the cheer of the hearth or will be niggardly of coals to freezing neighbors. Such a feeling in relation to money indicates nothing worse than the abeyance of lethargy of those higher spiritual interests which, in women like George Eliot and Mrs. Browning, preoccupy the imagination and the feelings, and reduce money to the condition of a railway ticket--a thing to be at once guarded and despised. Miss Austen made few or no efforts to acquire money. A realistic estimate of publishers led her to accept contentedly rather small returns for literary products of extraordinary value. That she could be generous both in act and heart is evinced in the following quotation: "Mrs. Deedes is as welcome as May to all our benevolence to her son; we only lamented that we could not do more and that the 50 1. we slipped into his hand at parting was necessarily the limit of our offering."
Miss Austen's esteem for family was large, and Elizabeth Bennet's defiant cry, "I am a gentleman's daughter," was doubtless only a proud echo of the unuttered boast of the daughter of George Austen and Cassandra Leigh. It does not appear, however, that she set a high value on rank and title as things distinct from blood, or that the difference between high blood and good blood impressed her as momentous. Rank in her novels hardly rises higher than the baronetcy, and her baronets, Sir William Lucas, Sir John Middleton, Sir Thomas Bertram, and Sir Waiter Elliot, are guiltless of any tendency to monopolize the talents or the virtues. Poor Lady Catherine de Bourgh is worse mauled than almost any other victim of Miss Austen's none too lenient satire, and as to the Viscountess Dalrymple and her daughter, the rustle of whose skirts and whose stationery is audible in a chapter or two of Persuasion, they are cavalierly dismissed with the observation that they were "nothing."
Rank and money stood on different footings for Miss Austen. Her hard sense drew an immitigable distinction between the solid earth of which gold is an extract and the air out of whose fluid and impalpable substance such breaths as earl, marquis, and duke are cheaply and effortlessly drawn. She was not in the least overwhelmed by the consent of the de facto sovereign of England to receive the dedication of a novel, and the impassive formula, To the Prince Regent, shows no cleavage in her impenetrable reserve. In the gregarious and comprehensive social life of the county in Miss Austen's day lords seem to have associated with commoners on easy and liberal, if not precisely equal, terms, and the novelist mastered the art of mentioning a peer without a simper or a tremor. Jane's mother was the great-granddaughter of a lord, Jane's brother Francis became a baronet, his wife had cousinships among lords, Jane's first cousin married a French count, Jane's niece married a baronet, and the grand-nephew who edited her letters is a lord. The imposture of nobility--meaning by that simply its failure to equalize its talents or its virtues with its rank--would soon have been pierced by an observer so keen, in circumstances so propitious to observation. The theory put forth by a character in Chaucer that lords are "half-goddes in this world here" received no indorsement from Miss Austen's invincible common sense.
Jane's indifference to politics was total; her own nephew can get no further than the surmise that she shared the mild Toryism of her family. The Napoleonic era thundered vainly to her serene deafness. In one letter she exclaims: "What weather, and what news." Her biographers conjecture that the news is the Battle of Leipsic. The dedication to the Battle of Leipsic of half a sentence (a sentence of five words) the other half of which is occupied with a eulogy of the weather is as original as anything in Pride and Prejudice. The navy, through its provision of sustenance for two Austens, ranks rather more highly in the scale of institutions. In Persuasion the navy once becomes the subject of conversation, and questions such as the admission of lady passengers to a warship or the wisdom of an admiral's wife in sharing the voyages of her husband are discussed with appropriate gravity. One half recalls the type of religious question which interested the editor of a congeries of periodicals and newspapers in Arnold Bennett's What the Public Wants: "Shall lady parishioners give presents to curates?" It is pleasant, moreover, to reflect that alertness of mind can always find something of interest in the most sterile periods of the most lifeless institutions. The British navy could furnish enlivening topics to Jane Austen even amid the tediums of Aboukir and the nullities of Trafalgar.
On Jane's accomplishments her relatives are not insistent. She is said to have excelled in needlework and in penmanship, and her skill in gamed was the despair of her childish antagonists and imitators. Her fondness for art was not immoderate. Drawing as a drawing-room appurtenance or, to put the case a little differently, the pencil as one of the blunter shafts in Cupid's quiver, is sparingly visible in her novels; but her remark in a letter that in an art gallery the spectators diverted her attention from the pictures is instructive to the perspicacious. The woman who would read Southey's Life of Nelson, if it mentioned her brother Frank, would naturally find the chief interest of an exhibition in a small portrait of Mrs. Bingley. Something is said of a sweet voice and of practice on the pianoforte, but Jane's own repudiation of musical taste was enjoyably robust. She says of a popular singer: "That she gave me no pleasure is no reflection upon her, nor, I hope, upon myself, being what Nature made me in that article." She has an undisguised fondness for persons whose impatience of music is undisguised. "I liked her for being in a hurry to have the concert over and get away." Apparently, she went little to the theatre, and she certainly had not the temper of the true theatre-goer for whom the calamity of being disappointed of a play far out-weighs the mere misfortune of being disappointed in one. Kean, then in his first glory, entirely conquers her, but the other actors are put off with reservations and tepidities.
Neither the letters nor the biographies support the idea that Miss Austen was a systematic or sedulous reader. Hours of reading are scantly noted, and hours for reading belong to a world into which her cautious imagination never peeped. She read what fell in her way, or what the easy standards of a considerate world imposed upon a clergyman's daughter. She speaks once of her "dear Dr. Johnson," and a jocular project of marriage with George Crabbe, whom she sincerely and appropriately admired, was shadowed by a doubt as to the existence of a vacancy. She seems to have liked Cowper, though the line which haunted Fanny Price in her Portsmouth exile, "With what intense desire she wants her home," is surely as pedestrian a line as ever cumbered the remembrance of a lover of poetry. An of her phrase of Cowper's about "syringa ivory pure" does more credit both to poet and reader She reads Scott's poems as they emerge. In June 1808, she is still unconverted by Marmion, but in January, 1809, she has reached the point of admiring her own generosity in despatching her copy to her brother Charles. She is rather captious with Scott. "Walter Scott has no business to write novels especially good ones. It is not fair. He has fame and profit enough as a poet, and should not be taking the bread out of the mouths of other people." "I do not like him, and do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it, but fear I must."
The above passage is charmingly illustrative of a certain flexibility in Miss Austen's temper, which it often more or less concealed by the positivenesr of her language. She had a woman's playful selfwill, but even in the heyday and riot of her caprice she foresees its final subjection to a masculine equity. She has all manner of unreasoned dislikes, which she relinquishes with the most admirable candor and the most engaging reluctance.
To resume the topic from which I was lured away by the tempting observation in the last paragraph Jane remarked once not over-seriously that she had made up her mind to like no novels really but Miss Edgeworth's, her niece's, and her own. According to her nephew, her knowledge of Sir Charles Grandison was minute, an assertion which has two references to Haniet Byron in the letters on its side, but which I illogically decline to believe, with that faith in my unfaith which is one of the curious tattooings of human nature. She says once to her sister, in allusion to Miss Burney's Cecilia, "Remember that Aunt Cassandras are quite as scarce as Miss Beverleys." She recommends Corinna to a certain deaf Mr. Fitzshugh, but there is no evidence in the correspondence that her acquaintance with French belles-letters was more than respectable in amount or less than respectable in quality. Fielding is too much the stable-boy for her taste. She knew the Spectator and its progeny, and drew her history, no doubt in circumspect amounts, from the approved founts of Goldsmith, Hume, and Robertson. When she undertakes to read Modern Europ with her niece Fanny, something always occurs to delay or curtail the proposed reading. The discomfiture of plans of this kind for self-culture is among the favorite recreations of destiny.
One instinctively trusts Miss Austen's criticism of novels, even where one's ignorance of the book in question is complete. Nothing could be more unassuming, nothing could be less responsible or judicial, than these criticisms, yet we feel a basic, an involuntary, equipoise which no wilfulness or subjectivity in the critic's conscious attitude could derange. The letters to her niece Anna on Anna's unpublished novel contain remarks which in their unconfirmed sanity are so convincing that verification, if verification were feasible, would seem almost an impertinence. There are allusions to chestnut-planting in Miss Austen's letters, and mention is made of two roots of heart's ease, "one yellow and one purple," the references to which in my note-book are characteristically flanked by two other references, one to "asparagus, lobster and cheese" and the other to "ten pair of worsted stockings and a shift." It is nature drafted into the service of man, nature as the ornament and instrument of a vicarage, that is brought before us in scant and scattering allusion in these letters. In the novels the situation is not so very different, but a distinction must be made between the earlier group of novels from which nature is practically excluded and the later group in which like a well-bred villager she is allowed at cautious intervals to make a modest courtesy to her betters. In Mansfield Park a sentence or two here and there makes a rather formal, but not ungraceful or insincere, mention of Fanny Price's interest in spring, and in Persuasion matters are so far advanced that a whole paragraph--almost a whole paragraph--is squandered on the charms of Lyme. The advance ie readily explicable. Between Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion nature had "come out." She had not only received the solemn vouchers of that socially questionable preacher and hermit, William Wordsworth, but the ban of rusticity had been finally lifted by the patronage of Waiter Scott and Lord Byron. Miss Austen was born too early to have an articulate feeling for nature; not too early in time, for she was arithmetically younger than Scott or Wordsworth, but in time as related to scant education and unliterary surroundings. The love of nature has its own springtime in the centuries: when Miss Austen began to write, the frost was not yet out of the ground; at the date of Persuasion it was too late to plant a garden.
Mr. Howells, in an Easy-Chair paper, has spoken of the kind conscience and the tender affection of Miss Austen, and goes on to draw a picture of amiable self-dedication to the interests of friends and kinsfolk at which, I think, Jane Austen would have smiled. Jane's affections in certain quarters, particularly toward her sister and brothers and their descendants, were real and deep--were in fact the stuff and fibre of her life, but a robustness which abjured sentimentality and almost banished sentiment was their sanative and fortifying property. Her friends outside of the family were apparently few, and she seems to have conformed to that very human, if also rather barbarous, custom which solidifies friendships by the dismemberment of acquaintance. In the raids which Jane made upon a defenseless society the booty, as the following passage from the letters will clearly show, was considerable.
There were very few beauties, and such as there were, were not very handsome. Miss Iremonger did not look well, and Mrs. Blount was the only one much admired. She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond landeau, white shoes, pink husband, and fat neck. The two Miss Cores were there: I traced in one the remains of the vulgar, broad-featured girl who danced at Enham eight years ago; the other is refined into a nice composed-looking girl, like Catherine Bigg. I looked at Sir Thomas Champneys and thought of poor Rosalie; I looked at his daughter, and thought her a queer animal with a white neck. Mrs. Warren, I was constrained to think a very fine young woman, which I much regret. She danced away with great activity. Her husband is ugly enough, uglier even than his cousin John; but he does not look so very old. The Miss Maitlands are both prettyish, very like Anne, with brown skins, large dark eyes, and a good deal of nose. The Cenerd has got the gout, and Mrs. Maitland the jaundice. Miss Debrtry, Susan, and Sally, all in black, but without any statues, made their appearance, and I was as civil to them as circumstances would allow me.This passage, in which, at times, humanity seems viewed almost as meat, has its pabulum for the most obsequious biographer. Miss Austen did not live to see the publication of Vanity Fair. But had fate indulged her to that extent, I doubt if she would have felt any rancor toward that other maiden aunt who remarked after a dinner: "Come to my dressing-room, Becky, and let us abuse the company." The state of the case is fairly clear. Miss Austen's demands were rather exigent; the society in which she moved was apparently a jumble; and the satirist in her clamored for his rations. Jane's compassion would not allow him to go hungry. Her candor does not blench at the sight of a tombstone. Mrs. W. K. is just dead, and Jane had no idea that anybody liked her, and proceeds forthwith to the choice of a successor. In those days there was apparently a great deal of perfunctory mourning balanced by a great deal of spontaneous persiflage. We are told of "a gentleman in a buggy, who, on minute examination, turned out to be Dr. Hall--and Dr. Hall in such very deep mourning that either his mother, his wife, or himself must be dead." With many persons a bad cough means a truce to asperities or jocularities in relation to the sufferer. Jane writes in this fashion: "My aunt has a very bad cough--do not forget to have heard about that when you come--and I tkink she is deafer than ever." In writing to Cassandra Jane Austen remarks: "A better account of the sugar than I could have expected. I should like to have you break some more." I think Jane's benevolence was a hard sugar, the loaf or block sugar of former days, so hard that it needed crushers or solvents to convince the tongtie of its obdurate sweetness. She was no person to take the world into her lap. She scarcely fondled even her relatives. Her love for Cassandra had a beauty to which the ugly and the pretty would have been almost equally antithetic. If she sends "infinities of love," the hyperbole comports itself like a memorandum. She does once exclaim: "Sweet, amiable Frank," but adds: "Why does he have a cold too?" For colds the use of sirups is notorious. The general absence of criticism of her own family is remarkable in a person of quick eyesight and brusque tongue. Jane Austen liked her lot in life, and that life was mostly kinsfolk; hers was the temper for which the donnée in the dapper parlance of criticism or the deal in the homelier language of the card-table was final and authoritative.
I think it was this quiet finality in the acceptance of current restraints that made Jane Austen's moral life at the same time impeccable and vacant. Her letters never show the slightest moral agitation, the slightest moral difficulty. There is no record of a duty arduous enough to make its fulfilnent exhilarating, of a rebellion strong enough to make its chastisement dramatic. For Jane Austen the dividing line in conduct ran rather between sense and folly than between good and evil, and the very titles of her novels are advertisements of her adhesion to this view. The lesson of Sense and Sensibility is clearly prudential, and Pride and Prejudice is obviously a rebuke to the indiscretions rather than sins which are held up to disapproval in its alliterative and pedagogic title. There is guilt as well as folly in both novels, but the object is evidently not to put virtue into immoral Willoughbys and Wickhams, but sense into thoughtless Lydias and Mariannes. The wolf is assumed to be incorrigible, but we must do what we can for Red Ridinghood. Miss Austen, in this point, has a certain affinity with Moliére, whose Tartuffe, to furnish only one example, exposes the hypocrites in the endeavor to instruct the dupes. In Northanger Abbey folly--romantic folly--is again the object of reproof; the conversion of the Isabella Thorpes in England is plainly not the incentive to the recital of Isabella's perfidy. In Mansfield Park the references to morality are emphatic, but the exciting cause is that participation of a few intimate friends in strictly private theatricals in which the reader of our own day could hardly be coaxed into perceiving even an imprudence. The moral of Emma is implicit in the following words: "The real evils of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much of her own way, and a disposition to think too well of 'herself.'" Persuasion illustrates the folly of listening too meekly to the counsels of your elders in affairs of the heart.
Miss Austen assumed virtue to be normal and prevalent, and vice, where it showed itself, to be practically beyond cure. Her attitude toward reprobates is by no means unindulgent; she endows them liberally with attractions, and allows her virtuous Elinor Dashwoods, Elizabeth Bennets, and Anne Elliots to qualify their disapprobations with eurious, though half reluctant, lenities. I think that the daughter of the vicar of Steventon felt toward these gay Lotharios very much as that other eminently respectable person, the sheriff of Selkirk, felt toward the Roderic Dhus and Bertrams, the Rob Roys and Redgauntlets, with whom he blackened and brightened his romantic pages. I suspect that in Jane's world virtue, as virtue was understood, was so plentiful, and sensible and agreeable people were so relatively few that she had a difficulty in renouncing the latter on account of their insufficiency in the point of morals.
It is unlikely that ideas of this sort ever inffuenced Miss Austen's conduct, but their very failure to affect her conduct may have strengthened their hold upon her feelings. "Eliza has seen Lord Craven at Barton. . . . She found his manners very pleasing indeed. The little flaw of having a mistress now living with him at Ashdown Park seems to be the only unpleasing circumstance about him." The "little" is irony beyond a doubt, but irony in such a case is leniency; manners are powerful with women, especially where they are scarce, and the Lovelaces of the period no doubt found their stoutest allies in the boorish Solmeses who posed as competitors. Here are a; few remarks on a certain Mr. Lushington:
"He is quite an M. P., very smiling, with an exceeding good address and readiness of language. I am rather in love with him. I dare say he is ambitious and insincere." Apart from her serious and loyal family life the social world--the little world in which, as appearances are the realities, so manners are the virtues--was Jane's world.If in Jane Austen's life morality is tacit, religion, at least religious feeling, is practically null. Allusions even to the apparel and process of religion are comparatively scant; church-going is rarely mentioned and never stressed; she is pleased once that two headstrong young nephews have taken the sacrament. Except in formal phrases like "God bless you," the name of God scarcely occurs in the correspondence. Plainly we have here to deal with an unpresuming divinity, a modest and circumspect Providence, who never oversteps the limits assigned to his function by the foresight of a judicious establishment. Jane was a decent, docile, worldly woman by whom the paternal cult was accepted without a shadow of question, an atom of feeling, or a trace of display. It required no urgency to induce her to respect an institution to which so many exemplary relatives were indebted for their sustenance.
In Sense and Sensibility the entrance of a young man into holy orders as the prelude and stepping-stone to his entrance into the substantial and interesting state of matrimony is accepted by Miss Austen with a wholeheartedness which forestalls indorsement, and not a drop of ink is wasted in condonation of the young man's total want of religious feeling or vocation. Even the admirable Edmund Bertram, in the very act of rebuking the levities of the worldly Miss Crawford, calmly admits that his father's control of a desirable living had influenced his decision to enter the church. Why not? He really likes the church. One recalls a satirical gibe of Miss Austen's to the effect that all heiresses are beautiful. In the earlier and cruder legends of the Holy Grail that vessel was often called on to provide corporal sustenance for companies of devout and starving people. I am sure the arrangement commended itself to the Jane Austens of that artless day. Singular combinations whisk themselves in and out of these gay and caustic letters. "Mr. Brecknell is very religious, and has got black whiskers."
I cannot but feel regret that the absence of religious feeling and of poetical feeling in Jane Austen's constitution should have been equal and parallel. As Mr. George Santayana has shown, poetry and religion have latent affinities, and often minister kindred nutriment in diverse forms to unlike spirits. The removal of both is a source of aridity.
This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.