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

X. Jane Austen

§ 7. Persuasion

After Emma, Jane Austen published nothing in her lifetime. The posthumous novel Persuasion was begun in the spring or summer of 1815 and finished in July, 1816, the last two chapters being written a little later, to take the place of the original last chapter, which did not satisfy the author. Then she put the manuscript by; and her ill-health and death caused it to remain unpublished. Signs of failing energy and spirits have been observed by some in Persuasion. The interpolated story told to Anne Eliot by Mrs. Smith may be admitted to be dull, for Jane Austen; and some weight may be attached to her statement that Anne Eliot was “almost too good for me.” The tone of the novel, as a whole, is graver and tenderer than that of any of the other five; but woven in with its gravity and tenderness is the most delicate and mellow of all Jane Austen’s humour. Such imperfections as the novel may have may be interpreted with equal fairness as signs of growth rather than of decay. Jane Austen was changing her tone, and had not yet completely mastered the new conditions. Whether Anne Eliot was “too good” for her or not, she achieved the difficult feat of making her interesting from start to finish. The same may be said of captain Wentworth. In himself, he is an interesting personage; but, in Persuasion, Jane Austen accomplishes more perfectly than in any other of her novels the task of revealing the interest which lies in the interplay of ordinary persons. All the characters in Persuasion are less sharply accentuated than those in the other novels. In Sir Walter Eliot and Miss Eliot, Mrs. Clay and Mr. and Mrs. Charles Musgrove, Jane Austen is making milder fun than usual of less prominent “humours” than usual. The charm of the novel lies in the luminous reactions of one character upon another, and of all upon each; and, considering its difference from the other novels, it suggests that Jane Austen, had she lived, would have excelled in fiction of another kind than that which she had hitherto practised.

From one point of view, then, Persuasion may be regarded as Jane Austen’s most characteristic novel. If it lacks the sharp wit and the high spirits of Pride and Prejudice, and the wide scope of Mansfield Park, it reveals more than they do of the interest which the seeing eye may find in ordinary people. Therein lies Jane Austen’s individual quality. We have seen how conscious she was of her peculiar bent, and how resolute to keep to it. Maria Edgeworth, as Scott remarked, can offer us higher life, more romantic incident and broader comedy. Of romance, Jane Austen has none, either in character or in setting. The rocks and streams, the forests and castles, which form the furniture of the romantics, have no place in her novels. This was due to no want of appreciation of natural beauty. The opening of chapter IX of Sense and Sensibility would be sufficient to prove the contrary. Elinor, Marianne and Edward’s talk on the picturesque in chapter XVIII of the same novel reveals once more the justice, the Greek sense and balance, that determine all Jane Austen’s work; and, in chapter VIII of Mansfield Park, we find her giving the capital example of her principle. The party approaching Sotherton discusses its appearance; yet, the prominent interest of the scene is not the picturesqueness of Sotherton, but the relation of Sotherton and of its owner, Mr. Rushworth, to the hopes and fears of women among the visitors. In her reaction from romance, Jane Austen dispensed with all aids borrowed from romance. The fall of Louisa Musgrove from the steps on the Cobb at Lyme Regis (an incident strictly consonant with the character and aims of Louisa); the fall of Marianne on the hill at Barton; the sudden return of Sir Thomas Bertram to Mansfield park—these are the most exciting incidents in the six novels. The very elopements are contemplated indirectly, and used, not for their own dramatic force, but for their effect upon the lives of others than the runaways. Character, not incident, was Jane Austen’s aim; and, of character, whether in itself marked, or interesting only in its interactions, she found enough in the narrow circle and the humdrum life encountered by her immediate view. Humdrum, it certainly was. During Jane Austen’s working years, while England was fighting for existence or newly triumphant, while the prince regent was in the heyday of his luxury and while revolutionary ideas were winning for poets and reformers present shame and future glory, there can have been no lack of bright colour and sharp contrast in life. Local humours, ripe and rich in the days of Fielding, can hardly have been planed away by the action of the growing refinement. Jane Austen, as novelist, is blind to all this multicoloured life. There are no extremes, social or other, in her books. The peasantry is scarcely mentioned; of noblemen, there is not one. Of set purpose, she keeps her eye fixed upon the manners of a small circle of country gentlefolk, who seem to have nothing to do but to pay calls, picnic, take walks, drive out, talk and dance. Of dancing, Jane Austen herself was fond; private theatricals are considered a little too heady an amusement for that circle. It is a world of idle men—her clergy are frequently absentees—and of unoccupied women, not one of whom is remarkable for any fineness or complexity of disposition or intellect, or for any strong peculiarity of circumstance. She shows, moreover, no ardent moral purpose or intellectual passion which might lend force where force was not to be found; she never uses her characters as pegs for ethical or metaphysical doctrines. Newman remarked of her that she had not a dream of the high catholic. There are no great passions in her stories. She rarely appeals to her reader’s emotions, and never by means of the characters that she most admires or likes. It may be said that, on the whole, she appears to trust and to value love—it was observed by Whately that all Anne Eliot’s troubles arose from her not yielding to her youthful love for Wentworth—but, beyond that, it would be unsafe to go.

With these limitations, natural and chosen, and out of these unpromising materials, Jane Austen composed novels that come near to artistic perfection. Her greatest gift was that sense of balance and proportion to which reference has been already made. To everything that she saw, she applied this touchstone of good sense. Next came her extraordinarily perspicacious and sensitive understanding, not of women only, but of men as well. Notwithstanding her sheltered life and the moderate amount of her learning, she saw deeply and clearly to the springs of action, and understood the finest shades of feeling and motive. She was sensitive to the slightest deviation from the standard of good breeding and good sense; and any deviation (there can be no doubt of it) appealed to her sense of fun. Gossip by Miss Mitford and, perhaps, others, brought her a reputation for acerbity and spleen. She reveals scarcely a hint of either in her writings; she is scrupulously fair even to Mrs. Norris and to Mr. Collins. Her attitude as satirist is best explained by a quotation from chapter XI of Pride and Prejudice. Says Darcy:

  • “The wisest and the best of men—nay, the wisest and best of their actions—may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke.”
  • “Certainly,” replied Elizabeth—“there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.”
  • And her sense of fun was proportioned to the follies which diverted her. Gross humours she disliked in other writers’ novels, and never attempted in her own. With the sharpest and most delicate of wit, as deft in expression as it was subtle in perception, she diverted herself and her readers with the fine shades of folly in a circle of which the rudest member might be called refined. Her fun, moreover, was always fair, always good-tempered and always maintained in relation to her standard of good sense and good manners. To her delicate perception and her fairness, combined, is due what Whately called her Shakespearean discrimination in fools. Mr. Collins could not be confused with Mr. Elton, nor Lucy Steele with Mrs. Elton, nor the proud Miss Eliot with the proud Misses Bertram. Jane Austen clings to her fairness even when it seems to tell against her favourite characters. She makes Fanny Price unhappy in her parents’ home at Portsmouth, where a feebler novelist would have attempted to show her heroine in a light purely favourable; she attributes to Emma Woodhouse innumerable little failings. This just and consistent fidelity to character plays a large part in the subtlety of her discrimination, not only in fools but in less obviously diverting people. Her clarity of imaginative vision and her fidelity to what she saw with it make her characters real. Imagine Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood, Emma Woodhouse to be living women to-day, and at a first meeting in a drawing-room we might not know which was which. After seeing them through Jane Austen’s eyes, we know them as thoroughly as we know the characters of Shakespeare; for, like Shakespeare, she knew all about the creatures of her observation and imagination. It is not only that she could tell her family and friends particulars of their lives which did not appear in the novels, or that she left their natures so plain that later writers may amuse themselves by continuing their histories. They are seen in the round, and are true, in the smallest details, to the particular nature.

    Modest as she was, and working purposely in a very restricted field, Jane Austen set herself a very high artistic aim. To imagine and express personages, not types; to develop and preserve their characters with strict fidelity; to reveal them not by external analysis but by narrative in which they should appear to reveal themselves; to attain, in the construction of her novels, as near as might be, to a perfection of form that should be the outcome of the interaction of the natures and motives in the story: these were her aims, and these aims she achieved, perhaps, with more consistency and more completeness than any other novelist except, it may be, de Maupassant. In the earlier novels, her wit diverts her readers with its liveliness; her later work shows a tenderer, graver outlook and a deepening of her study of character. Through all alike, there runs the endearing charm of a shrewd mind and a sweet nature.