Three Novels, Jane Austen

Sue of Whispering Gums, our resident expert on all things JA, recently commented she was insufficiently brave to write a review of Pride and Prejudice. And if she couldn’t then how could I? But luckily my guest reviewer has proved equal to the task, though a little carried away with the ‘state of the novel’. I have cut down what he wrote, but there is a link at the end if you wish to read his piece in full. Thankyou W. Scott.

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(c) BBC. 1995. Colin Firth, Jennifer Ehle

The novel in 1815

There are some vices in civilized society so common that they are hardly acknowledged as stains upon the moral character, the propensity to which is nevertheless carefully concealed, even by those who most frequently give way to them; since no man of pleasure would willingly assume the gross epithet of a debauchee or a drunkard. One would almost think that novel-reading fell under this class of frailties, since among the crowds who read little else, it is not common to find an individual of hardihood sufficient to avow his taste for these frivolous studies. A novel, therefore, is frequently “bread eaten in secret”…

The judicious reader will see at once that we have been pleading our own cause while stating the universal practice, and preparing him for a display of more general acquaintance with this fascinating department of literature, than at first sight may seem consistent with the graver studies to which we are compelled by duty: but in truth, when we consider how many hours of languor and anxiety, of deserted age and solitary celibacy, of pain even and poverty, are beguiled by the perusal of these light volumes, we cannot austerely condemn the source from which is drawn the alleviation of such a portion of human misery, or consider the regulation of this department as beneath the sober consideration of the critic.

If such apologies may be admitted in judging the labours of ordinary novelists, it becomes doubly the duty of the critic to treat with kindness as well as candour works which, like this before us, proclaim a knowledge of the human heart, with the power and resolution to bring that knowledge to the service of honour and virtue.

The author [of Emma] is already known to the public by the two novels announced in her title-page, and both, the last especially, attracted, with justice, an attention from the public far superior to what is granted to the ephemeral productions which supply the regular demand of watering-places and circulating libraries. They belong to a class of fictions which has arisen almost in our own times, and which draws the characters and incidents introduced more immediately from the current of ordinary life than was permitted by the former rules of the novel.

In its first appearance, the novel was the legitimate child of the romance; and
though the manners and general turn of the composition were altered so as to suit modern times, the author remained fettered by many peculiarities derived from the original style of romantic fiction. [However] social life, in our civilized days, affords few instances capable of being painted in the strong dark colours which excite surprise and horror; and robbers, smugglers, bailiffs, caverns, dungeons, and mad-houses, have been all introduced until they ceased to interest. And thus in the novel, as in every style of composition which appeals to the public taste, the more rich and easily worked mines being exhausted, the adventurous author must, if he is desirous of success, have recourse to those which were disdained by his predecessors as unproductive, or avoided as only capable of being turned to profit by great skill and labour.

Accordingly a style of novel has arisen, within the last fifteen or twenty years, differing from the former in the points upon which the interest hinges; neither alarming our credulity nor amusing our imagination by wild variety of incident, or by those pictures of romantic affection and sensibility, which were formerly as certain attributes of fictitious characters as they are of rare occurrence among
those who actually live and die. The substitute for these excitements, which had lost much of their poignancy by the repeated and injudicious use of them, was the art of copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him.

But the author of Emma confines herself chiefly to the middling classes of society; her most distinguished characters do not rise greatly above well-bred country
gentlemen and ladies; and those which are sketched with most originality
and precision, belong to a class rather below that standard. The narrative of all her novels is composed of such common occurrences as may have fallen under the observation of most folks; and her dramatis personae conduct themselves upon the motives and principles which the readers may recognize as ruling their own and that of most of their acquaintances.

The kind of moral, also, which these novels inculcate, applies equally to the paths of common life, as will best appear from a short notice of the author’s former works, with a more full abstract of that which we at present have under consideration.

Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility, the first of these compositions, contains the history of two sisters. The elder, a young lady of prudence and regulated feelings, becomes gradually attached to a man of an excellent heart and limited talents, who happens unfortunately to be fettered by a rash and ill-assorted engagement. In the younger sister, the influence of sensibility and imagination predominates; and she, as was to be expected, also falls in love, but with more unbridled and wilful passion. Her lover, gifted with all the qualities of exterior polish and vivacity, proves faithless, and marries a woman of large fortune. The interest and merit of the piece depend altogether upon the behaviour of the elder sister, while obliged at once to sustain her own disappointment with fortitude, and to support her sister, who abandons
herself, with unsuppressed feelings, to the indulgence of grief. The marriage of the unworthy rival at length relieves her own lover from his imprudent engagement, while her sister, turned wise by precept, example, and experience, transfers her affection to a very respectable and somewhat too serious admirer, who had nourished an unsuccessful passion through the three volumes.

Pride and Prejudice

In Pride and Prejudice the author presents us with a family of young women, bred up under a foolish and vulgar mother, and a father whose good abilities lay hid under such a load of indolence and insensibility, that he had become contented to make the foibles and follies of his wife and daughters the subject of dry and humorous sarcasm, rather than of admonition, or restraint.

This is one of the portraits from ordinary life which shews our author’s talents in a very strong point of view. A friend of ours, whom the author never saw or heard of, was at once recognized by his own family as the original of Mr. Bennet, and we do not know if he has yet got rid of the nickname. A Mr. Collins, too, a formal, conceited, yet servile young sprig of divinity, is drawn with the same force and precision.

The story of the piece consists chiefly in the fates of the second sister, to whom a man of high birth, large fortune, but haughty and reserved manners, becomes attached, in spite of the discredit thrown upon the object of his affection by the vulgarity and ill-conduct of her relations. The lady, on the contrary, hurt at the contempt of her connections, which the lover does not even attempt to suppress, and prejudiced against him on other accounts, refuses the hand which he ungraciously offers, and does not perceive that she has done a foolish thing until she accidentally visits a very handsome seat and grounds belonging to her admirer. They chance to meet exactly as her prudence had begun to subdue her prejudice; and after some essential services rendered to her family, the lover becomes encouraged to renew his addresses, and the novel ends happily.

Emma

Emma has even less story than either of the preceding novels. Miss Emma Woodhouse, from whom the book takes its name, is the daughter of a gentleman of wealth and consequence residing at his seat in the immediate vicinage of a country village called Highbury. The father, a good-natured, silly valetudinary, abandons the management of his household to Emma, he himself being only occupied by his summer and winter walk, his apothecary, his gruel, and his whist table. The latter is supplied from the neighbouring village of Highbury with precisely the sort of persons who occupy the vacant corners of a regular whist table, when a village is in the neighbourhood, and better cannot be found within the family.

[Scott proceeds to enumerate all the principal inhabitants of the village and to give us a detailed, and unneccessary, synopsis of the plot].

The author’s knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting. The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader…

The [merits of the author] consists much in the force of a narrative conducted with much neatness and point, and a quiet yet comic dialogue, in which the characters of the speakers evolve themselves with dramatic effect. The faults, on the contrary, arise from the minute detail which the author’s plan comprehends. Characters of folly or simplicity, such as those of old Woodhouse and Miss Bates, are ridiculous when first presented, but if too often brought forward or too long dwelt upon, their prosing is apt to become as tiresome in fiction as in real society. Upon the whole, the turn of this author’s novels bears the same relation to that of the sentimental and romantic cast, that cornfields and cottages and meadows bear to the highly adorned grounds of a show mansion, or the rugged sublimities of a mountain landscape. It is neither so captivating as the one, nor so grand as the other, but it affords to those who frequent it a pleasure nearly allied with the experience of their own social habits; and what is of some importance, the youthful wanderer may return from his promenade to the ordinary business of life, without any chance of having his head turned by the recollection of the scene through which he has been wandering…

SIR WALTER SCOTT ON JANE AUSTEN

[From. The Quarterly Review, October, 1815]

Emma; a Novel. By the Author of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and
Prejudice
, etc. 3 vols. 12mo. London. 1815


Scott was by 1815 a famous poet but he, like Austen, published his novels anonymously. Waverley (1814) was his first, but apparently his authorship was known to Austen, as she wrote:

Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. – It is not fair. – He has Fame & Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths. – I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but fear I must…

[ Letter 108, 28 September 1814, to Anna Austen (Le Faye)]


My source for the review above was the blog Onlyanovel (here).

[Blogger’s note: This review was extracted in full from the book Famous Reviews, selected and edited by R. Brimley Johnson (London, 1914). An eBook copy of Famous Reviews can be obtained from Project Gutenberg. A free pdf copy is also available from Google Books.]

 

14 thoughts on “Three Novels, Jane Austen

  1. Thanks for sharing this Bill! I have read it but a long time ago. One of the points he makes that I like relates to the ”class” Jane Austen writes about. There were a few in my reading group who insisted that they didn’t like her because she wrote about the snooty upper class. I couldn’t convince them that nearly all her characters, particularly her main characters, were squarely what we would now call middle class. They were reading her too superficially and without any knowledge of the times.

    I’ve always loved that he, that is Scott, recognised her skill.

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    • Yes, I must say that I always thought she was writing about the lower levels of the upper class. Interesting that Scott who after all was there, sees them as middle class. The bio that I’m reading (I told you which but I’ve forgotten over a long lunch) says that Austen didn’t read anyone of her own ability until Scott started publishing in 1813(?).

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      • Is that the Jenkins bio? And yes, I believe scott is right re class and Austen’s subjects. WE who don’t understand class at the time have, I think, misunderstood Austen’s characters because of their lifestyle. They didn’t call it middle class then but most of her characters were the equivalent.

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      • Yes, Jenkins. Very interesting. I’m just writing about a part of Jane’s life (rather than a review of the biog) and would have liked to put Jenkins and Tomalin side by side, but it doesn’t seem likely.

        And I guess my comment above should say – didn’t read a contemporary of her own ability … (I saw this morning that Wordsworth too is a similar age to Scott and JA, I haven’t seen him mentioned in this connection, that I remember, before.)

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