Monday, September 3, 2007

Memoir of Jane Austen (by James Edward Austen-Leigh): Chapter X

Observations on the Novels.

It is not the object of these memoirs to attempt a criticism on Jane Austen’s novels.  Those particulars only have been noticed which could be illustrated by the circumstances of her own life; but I now desire to offer a few observations on them, and especially on one point, on which my age renders me a competent witness—the fidelity with which they represent the opinions and manners of the class of society in which the author lived early in this century.  They do this the more faithfully on account of the very deficiency with which they have been sometimes charged—namely, that they make no attempt to raise the standard of human life, but merely represent it as it was.  They certainly were not written to support any theory or inculcate any particular moral, except indeed the great moral which is to be equally gathered from an observation of the course of actual life—namely, the superiority of high over low principles, and of greatness over littleness of mind.  These writings are like photographs, in which no feature is softened; no ideal expression is introduced, all is the unadorned reflection of the natural object; and the value of such a faithful likeness must increase as time gradually works more and more changes in the face of society itself.  A remarkable instance of this is to be found in her portraiture of the clergy.  She was the daughter and the sister of clergymen, who certainly were not low specimens of their order: and she has chosen three of her heroes from that profession; but no one in these days can think that either Edmund Bertram or Henry Tilney had adequate ideas of the duties of a parish minister.  Such, however, were the opinions and practice then prevalent among respectable and conscientious clergymen before their minds had been stirred, first by the Evangelical, and afterwards by the High Church movement which this century has witnessed.  The country may be congratulated which, on looking back to such a fixed landmark, can find that it has been advancing instead of receding from it.

The long interval that elapsed between the completion of ‘Northanger Abbey’ in 1798, and the commencement of ‘Mansfield Park’ in 1811, may sufficiently account for any difference of style which may be perceived between her three earlier and her three later productions.  If the former showed quite as much originality and genius, they may perhaps be thought to have less of the faultless finish and high polish which distinguish the latter.  The characters of the John Dashwoods, Mr. Collins, and the Thorpes stand out from the canvas with a vigour and originality which cannot be surpassed; but I think that in her last three works are to be found a greater refinement of taste, a more nice sense of propriety, and a deeper insight into the delicate anatomy of the human heart, marking the difference between the brilliant girl and the mature woman.  Far from being one of those who have over-written themselves, it may be affirmed that her fame would have stood on a narrower and less firm basis, if she had not lived to resume her pen at Chawton.

Some persons have surmised that she took her characters from individuals with whom she had been acquainted.  They were so life-like that it was assumed that they must once have lived, and have been transferred bodily, as it were, into her pages.  But surely such a supposition betrays an ignorance of the high prerogative of genius to create out of its own resources imaginary characters, who shall be true to nature and consistent in themselves.  Perhaps, however, the distinction between keeping true to nature and servilely copying any one specimen of it is not always clearly apprehended.  It is indeed true, both of the writer and of the painter, that he can use only such lineaments as exist, and as he has observed to exist, in living objects; otherwise he would produce monsters instead of human beings; but in both it is the office of high art to mould these features into new combinations, and to place them in the attitudes, and impart to them the expressions which may suit the purposes of the artist; so that they are nature, but not exactly the same nature which had come before his eyes; just as honey can be obtained only from the natural flowers which the bee has sucked; yet it is not a reproduction of the odour or flavour of any particular flower, but becomes something different when it has gone through the process of transformation which that little insect is able to effect.  Hence, in the case of painters, arises the superiority of original compositions over portrait painting.  Reynolds was exercising a higher faculty when he designed Comedy and Tragedy contending for Garrick, than when he merely took a likeness of that actor.  The same difference exists in writings between the original conceptions of Shakspeare and some other creative geniuses, and such full-length likenesses of individual persons, ‘The Talking Gentleman’ for instance, as are admirably drawn by Miss Mitford.  Jane Austen’s powers, whatever may be the degree in which she possessed them, were certainly of that higher order.  She did not copy individuals, but she invested her own creations with individuality of character.  A reviewer in the ‘Quarterly’ speaks of an acquaintance who, ever since the publication of ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ had been called by his friends Mr. Bennet, but the author did not know him.  Her own relations never recognised any individual in her characters; and I can call to mind several of her acquaintance whose peculiarities were very tempting and easy to be caricatured of whom there are no traces in her pages.  She herself, when questioned on the subject by a friend, expressed a dread of what she called such an ‘invasion of social proprieties.’  She said that she thought it quite fair to note peculiarities and weaknesses, but that it was her desire to create, not to reproduce; ‘besides,’ she added, ‘I am too proud of my gentlemen to admit that they were only Mr. A. or Colonel B.’  She did not, however, suppose that her imaginary characters were of a higher order than are to be found in nature; for she said, when speaking of two of her great favourites, Edmund Bertram and Mr. Knightley: ‘They are very far from being what I know English gentlemen often are.’

She certainly took a kind of parental interest in the beings whom she had created, and did not dismiss them from her thoughts when she had finished her last chapter.  We have seen, in one of her letters, her personal affection for Darcy and Elizabeth; and when sending a copy of ‘Emma’ to a friend whose daughter had been lately born, she wrote thus: ‘I trust you will be as glad to see my “Emma,” as I shall be to see your Jemima.’  She was very fond of Emma, but did not reckon on her being a general favourite; for, when commencing that work, she said, ‘I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.’  She would, if asked, tell us many little particulars about the subsequent career of some of her people.  In this traditionary way we learned that Miss Steele never succeeded in catching the Doctor; that Kitty Bennet was satisfactorily married to a clergyman near Pemberley, while Mary obtained nothing higher than one of her uncle Philip’s clerks, and was content to be considered a star in the society of Meriton; that the ‘considerable sum’ given by Mrs. Norris to William Price was one pound; that Mr. Woodhouse survived his daughter’s marriage, and kept her and Mr. Knightley from settling at Donwell, about two years; and that the letters placed by Frank Churchill before Jane Fairfax, which she swept away unread, contained the word ‘pardon.’  Of the good people in ‘Northanger Abbey’ and ‘Persuasion’ we know nothing more than what is written: for before those works were published their author had been taken away from us, and all such amusing communications had ceased for ever.

No comments: