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Jane Austen. (1775–1817). Pride and Prejudice.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Criticisms and Interpretations. VI. By F. W. Cornish

JANE AUSTEN needs no testimonials; her position is at this moment established on a firmer basis than that of any of her contemporaries. She has completely distanced Miss Edgeworth, Miss Ferrier, Fanny Burney, and Hannah More, writers who eclipsed her modest reputation in her own day. The readers of “Evelina,” “Ormond,” “Marriage,” or “Caelebs” are few; but hundreds know intimately every character and every scene in “Pride and Prejudice.” She has survived Trollope and Mrs. Gaskell: one may almost say that she is less out of date than Currer Bell and George Eliot. It was not always so. In 1859 a writer in “Blackwood’s Magazine” spoke of her as “being still unfamiliar in men’s mouths” and “not even now a household word.”

The reason for this comparative obscurity in her own time, compared with her fame at the present day, may in some measure be that in writing, as in other arts, finish is now more highly prized than formerly. But conception as well as finish is in it. The miracle in Jane Austen’s writing is not only that her presentment of each character is complete and consistent, but also that every fact and particular situation is viewed in comprehensive proportion and relation to the rest. Some facts and expressions which pass almost unnoticed by the reader, and quite unnoticed by the other actors in the story, turn up later to take their proper place. She never drops a stitch. The reason is not so much that she took infinite trouble, though no doubt she did, as that everything was actual to her, as in his larger historical manner everything was actual to Macaulay.

It is easier to feel than to estimate a genius which has no parallel. Jane Austen’s faults are obvious. She has no remarkable distinction of style. Her plots, though worked out with microscopic delicacy, are neither original nor striking; incident is almost absent; she repeats situations, and to some extent even characters. She cared for story and situation only as they threw light on character. She has little idealism, little romance, tenderness. Poetry, or religion. All this may be conceded, and yet she stands by the side of Moliere, unsurpassed among writers of prose and poetry, within the limits which she imposed on herself, for clear and sympathetic vision of human character.

She sees everything in clear outline and perspective. She does not care to analyze by logic what she knows by intuition; she does not search out the grounds of motive like George Eliot, nor illumine them like Meredith by search-light flashes of insight, nor like Hardy display them by irony sardonic or pitying, nor like Henry James thread a labyrinth of indications and intimations, repulsions and attractions right and left, all pointing to the central temple, where sits the problem. She has no need to construct her characters, for there they are before her, like Mozart’s music, only waiting to be written down.—From “Jane Austen” in “English Men of Letters.”