JANE AUSTEN WAS BORN in 1775 and died in 1817. Her father was a well-connected clergyman, with two livings in north Hampshire. He belonged by right to "the gentlemen of the parish" - that powerful oligarchy of Tory squires and parsons to whom, as unpaid magistrates, the maintenance of law and order in rural England was largely committed.
Jane Austen never married. In 1809, with her widowed mother and her un-married sister, Acassandra, she settled down at Chawton Cottage on the Hamsphire estate of ther brother Edward. Here, sitting at a small mahog-any desk in the combined hall and dining room, she wrote or revised her six great novels.
APortrait of Jane Austen is profusely illustrated to show the gentry world in which these novels are set - the mansions she must have visited, the people she must have known. They stare at us rather solemnly. She also appears herself in a painting by Cassandra Austen. Appropriately enough, she has her back towards us: for illustrations do not much help when it comes to the character of this immortal lady or the inner life of her novels.
The accompanying text is by Lord David Cecil, a former Goldsmith Professor of English Literature at Oxford University. It is an expert scrutiny of her world, life, character and work. As might be expected from the author of Melbourne, it is beautifully written. As becomes the work of a President of the Austen Society, it is judicious, equable and (to use an Austenite adjective, meaning sensitive to other people's feeling) "gentlemanlike".
There is much to be said for such an approach, but it has its blind spots. Five of her six novels were written during the Napoleonic Wars, years in which the rural gentry, now vastly improved in manners and learning, had never been more prospersous.Wheat had tripled in price; rents and land values were rising as agrarian capitalists, the country gentlemen invested heavily in enclosure,inexorably driving the people off the land. Indeed, the landless agricultural poor, owing to the high price of bread, had never been more miserable than during those years. Something was done for them out of the rates. Otherwise, safe in their rural fastnesses, the gentry paid the war and its victims as little attention as they possibly could.
It is foten remarked, and even with astonishment, that Jane Austen never directly mentions war in her novels.In Pride and Prejudice, to take one example, the county militia - one of the great providers of recruits for Wellington's armies - is shown simply as a great provider of officers for the Mervton girls to flirt with. Here her work is a response to her milieu, with its hard self-centered side. Upon this Lord David does not dwell: but we ought to remember i.
Her novels, of course, are far more than just a response to milieu. They have a timeless inner life to which considerations of war and poverty are to totally alien. Unsentimental, unromantic, unillusioned, Jane Austen fixed her gaze upon conduct, not condition. She is not class-conscious. Neither the rural aristocracy nor the rural proletariat appears in her novels. There is just one class for her, that of the rural gentry and their hanger-on.
Since theirs is aprosperous as well as a socially desirable world, many are trying to buy into it. It is a world of upward mobility. The question of who is in, or not quite in, becomes therefore, ver exacting. And how suited it is to her comice genius! "Confusion of rank," reflects the heroine of Emma, "borders too much on inelegance of mind." Emma Woodhouse is quite unaware of the irony in this remarkably worded reflection. She is a clasical example of self-deception: she has been inventing a marriage between her protegee, the illegitimate Harriet Smith, and a local clergyman of uncertain social background, who happens to be flying at higher game, namely Emma herself. The result of this double "confusion of rank" is one of the finest comedy scenes in English literature. The irony here is light; it is also devastating.
The secret of ther comic and mimetic genius lies in the fact that (as Cecil demonstrates) her characters are universal types. She brings them into a world of discrete particulars, invests them with the manners and mannerisms of Regency England, and subjects them to three standards of conduct. In Cecil's judicious words, these are "virtue, sense and taste." Virtue is the highest, and of her manly heroes and delicious heroines, however fervent their feelins, virtue is expected. The comedy exists in their falling short of the other two. For lesser characters, the standards may be interchangeable. With Mary Crawford who, though coming from a landed Norfolk family, insidiously imports the manners of smart London into the rural world of Mansfield Park, it is impossible to decide whether she offends against virtue or against taste. One thing, however, is certain. Although Jane Austen's irony can be pitiless, and she is very religious in a an unobtrusive Anglican way, she is far too realistic to trangsgress the laws of probability. She never demands of her characters more than is likely or less than is reasonable.
Deeply serious, irresistibly entertaining, with her unique mixture of robustness and delicacy, her wit, her humor, and her subtle insight into the moral nature of man, Jane Austen has justly been acclaimed one of the great realists of English fiction. It is a delight to meet her again in this fine, sensitive, perceptive book.