The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

X. Jane Austen

§ 1. Early tales

THE LITERARY descent of Jane Austen’s fiction is plain to trace. Its ancestors were the work of Defoe, the Roger de Coverly papers in The Spectator, the fiction of Fielding and of Richardson, the poems of Cowper and the poetical tales of Crabbe. It belongs to the movement towards naturalism and the study of common life and character, without intrusion of the romantic and the heroic, which prevailed in England in the closing years of the eighteenth century. An impetus, together with a narrowing of its scope, was given to it by Fanny Burney. Of Fanny Burney, it was written in a previous volume of this History that she created the novel of home life. Jane Austen read her novels (in her twenty-first year (1796) she subscribed to Camilla); and, to them, with the works of Crabbe and Cowper, must be allowed an important share in determining the direction that her genius took. She could not, it might be said, have written otherwise than she did; but, from Fanny Burney, she may well have learned how much could be achieved in the novel of home life, and how well worth while was the chronicling of such “small beer.” Living a quiet and retired life, she found her material in beer even smaller than Fanny Burney’s, and her fine instinct moved her to keep to it. There is more oddity and nodosity of humorous character in Fanny Burney’s novels than in Jane Austen’s, to provide a relief from the main object. As Fanny Burney refined upon Smollett, so Jane Austen refined upon her; and, working rigidly within the limits of what she recognised as the proper field of her talents, she produced novels that came nearer to artistic perfection than any others in the English language.

There was nothing of the literary woman in the external affairs of her life and its conduct. Born on 16 December, 1775, at Steventon in Hampshire, of which her father was rector, and dying at Winchester on 18 July, 1817, she passed the intervening years almost entirely in the country. She lived with her family in Bath from 1801 to 1806, and at Southampton from 1806 to 1809. Later, she paid occasional visits to London where she went not a little to the play; but she never moved in “literary circles,” was never “lionised” and never drew much advantage from personal contact with other people of intellect. The moment of her greatest worldly exaltation occurred, probably, on 13 November, 1815, when, by order of the prince regent, his librarian, J.S. Clarke, showed her over the library of Carlton house, and intimated that she might dedicate her next novel to his royal highness. A few months later, Clarke, now chaplain and private English secretary to prince Leopold of Coburg, wrote to her suggesting that another novel should be dedicated to the prince, and adding that “any historical romance, illustrative of the history of the august House of Cobourg, would just now be very interesting.” Jane Austen replied:

  • You are very, very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up, and never relax into laughing at myself or at other people. I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way, and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.
  • The letter is full of touches characteristic of its author; but the immediate point is Jane Austen’s consciousness of her limits. Living a quiet life in the country or at Bath, she kept her eyes steadily upon the comedy and character about her; and, writing her novels in the common sitting-room of the family, or in the room which she shared with her beloved sister Cassandra, she gave herself no airs.

    Jane Austen was not a great or an adventurous reader. She told her younger days. She appears to have read what people in general were reading. Her admiration for Crabbe inspired a characteristically playful jest about her intending to become his wife; Richardson she studied closely. For the most part, she read, like other people, the current novels and poems. But, whatever she read, she turned to accoun—largely, it must be admitted, through her shrewd sense of humour. The aim of making fun of other novels underlay the first work which she completed and sold, Northanger Abbey; and burlesque and parody appear to have been the motives of most of the stories which she wrote while she was a young girl. They are extant in manuscript; and we are told that they

  • are of a slight and flimsy texture, and are generally intended to be nonsensical.… However puerile the matter, they are always composed in pure simple English, quite free from the over-ornamented style which might be expected from so young a writer.
  • Others of these early stories were seriously intended; and the opening of one of them Kitty, or The Bower, has the very manner of the opening of her published novels.

    The transition from these earliest efforts to her published work may be found in an unfinished story, which the author refrained from making public, but which was printed by J. E. Austen-Leigh in the second edition (1871) of his Memoir of Jane Austen. Somewhere, so far as can be ascertained, between 1792 and 1796, when Jane Austen was between seventeen and twentyone years old, she wrote this fragment, Lady Susan. The influence of Richardson upon its form is clear; the tale is written in letters. Possibly, too, Fanny Burney’s Evelina may have provided a hint for the situation of a young girl, Frederica. The chief character, Lady Susan Vernon, is a finished and impressive study of a very wicked woman—a cruel and utterly selfish schemer. Jane Austen left the tale unfinished, possibly because she found that Lady Susan was too wicked to be consonant with her own powers of character-drawing; possibly, because she felt hampered (brilliant letter-writer though she was in her own person, and in the persons of her creation) by the epistolary form. In either case, we see at work that severe artistic self-judgment which is one of the chief causes of her power. About the same time, she completed Elinor and Marianne, a first sketch for Sense and Sensibility, which, like Lady Susan, was written in letters. The author did not offer it for publication, and never afterwards attempted the epistolary form of novel.