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

X. Jane Austen

§ 4. Sense and Sensibility

With Sense and Sensibility, we revert to the chronological order of publication. Elinor and Marianne, a first sketch of the story, written in the form of letters, appears to have been read aloud by Jane Austen to her family about 1795; in the autumn of 1797, she began to write the novel in its present form; and, after laying it aside for some years, she prepared it for publication in 1809, when, after several changes of abode, she had settled at Chawton in Hampshire. Begun before Northanger Abbey, it lacks the youthful spirit of that novel, while betraying, in a different manner, the inexperience of its author. In construction and characterisation, it is the weakest of Jane Austen’s novels. The hearty, vulgar Mrs. Jennings, her bearish son-in-law, Mr. Palmer, her silly daughter, Mrs. Palmer, provide comedy, it is true; but this comedy is mere “comic relief”—a separate matter from the story; and it is not fitted to the story with perfect adroitness. In the conduct of the novel, the feebleness of Edward Ferrars, the nonentity of colonel Brandon and the meanness of the Steels sisters are all a little exaggerated, as if Jane Austen’s desire to make her point had interfered with her complete control of her material. It is, to some extent, the same with Mrs. Dashwood and her two elder daughters. Anxiety to demonstrate that strong feelings are not incompatible with self-restraint, and to show the folly of an exaggerated expression of sentiment, has resulted in a touch of something like acerbity in the treatment of Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne (suggesting that Jane Austen was personally angry with them), and in a too rarely dissipated atmosphere of reproof about Elinor. The spirit of pure comedy is not so constant in Sense and Sensibility as in any other novel that Jane Austen wrote; though the second chapter, which describes the famous discussion between John Dashwood and his wife, is, perhaps, the most perfect to be found in any of her novels.

Jane Austen’s next novel, Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, is her most brilliant work. The wit in it sparkles. She herself thought that it needed more relief. She wrote to her sister, Cassandra, with a characteristic couching of sober sense in playful exaggeration:

  • The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story; an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparte, on anything that would form a contrast, and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and epigrammatism of the general style.
  • She did not perceive, perhaps, how the story gains in gravity and quiet when it comes to the change in Elizabeth Bennet’s feeling for Darcy. This part of the book offers a foretaste of the sympathetic understanding which, later, was to give its peculiar charm to Persuasion; and, besides supplying the needed relief to the flashing wit with which Jane Austen reveals her critical insight into people with whom she did not sympathise, it affords a signal example of her subtle method. The story is seen almost wholly through the eyes of Elizabeth Bennet; yet, without moving from this standpoint, Jane Austen contrives to show what was happening, without Elizabeth’s knowledge, in Elizabeth’s mind. To a modern reader, the great blot on the book is the author’s neglect to lift Darcy sufficiently above the level of aristocratic brutality: it has constantly to be remembered that, in Jane Austen’s day and social class, birth and fortune were regarded with more respect than they are now. Darcy’s pride was something other than snobbishness; it was the result of a genuinely aristocratic consciousness of merit, acting upon a haughty nature. To Jane Austen herself, Elizabeth Bennet was “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print”; and Pride and Prejudice (immediately upon its publication) was “her own darling child.” With subsequent generations, it has been the most popular of her novels, but not because of Elizabeth or Darcy, still less for sweet Jane Bennet and her honest Bingley. The outstanding merit of the book is its witty exposition of foolish and disagreeable people: Mr. Bennet (he must be included for his moral indolence, however he may delight by his humour), Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth’s younger sisters, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, best of all, Mr. Collins. Taken by itself, this study of a pompous prig is masterly; but, in Pride and Prejudice, nothing can be taken by itself. The art of the book is so fine that it contains no character which is without effect upon the whole; and, in a novel dealing with pride and with prejudice, the study of such toadyism and such stupidity as that of Mr. Collins gives and gains incalculable force.