“À propos to novels, I have discovered that our great favourite, Miss Austen, is my countrywoman; that mamma knew all her family very intimately; and that she herself is an old maid (I beg her pardon – I mean a young lady) with whom mamma before her marriage was acquainted. Mamma says that she was then the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers;… ( Mary Russell Mitford, 1815 )
That Jane Austen’s life was singularly uneventful is a cliché as dear to her admirer’s as to her detractors. But what exactly is meant by uneventful? It is true that she never lost her virginity, never met a celebrity, never traveled farther from her native Hampshire than Lyme Regis, Bath, and London, never left the genteel circle of upper middle-class society- though she had a few glimpses into the world of fashion and the world of squalor-, never sought nor enjoyed publicity, and never underwent a spiritual crisis or experienced anything in the least bit sensational.
Except for the hours Jane Austen stole for her writing, the forty-two years of her life were devoted to her family; and it was not until her thirty-sixth year that her writing gained a wider audience than her family circle. Her first three published novels-”Sense and Sensibility”, “Pride and Prejudice”, and “Mansfield Park” – appeared anonymously; only in 1816, the year before her death, did her name become known to the public. She died a professional aunt rather than a professional author. Her total earnnigs from the four novels published in her lifetime amounted to less than a 1000 pounds, and even the warmest admirers of these novels could find no higher praise than to esteem them worthy of being placed next to the works of Fanny Burney and of Maria Edgeworth.
…and a friend of mine, who visits her now, says that she has stiffened into the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece of “single blessedness” that ever existed, and that, till ‘Pride and Prejudice’ showed what a precious gem was hidden in that unbending case, she was no more regarded in society than a poker or a fire-screen, or any other thin upright piece of wood or iron that fills its corner in peace and quietness…. ( Mitford )
The most noteworthy incidents impinging on Jane’s existence were either undramatic or peripheral: her cousin Eliza, Comtesse de Feuillide, lost her husband to the guillotine in the Reign of Terror. Her aunt, Mrs. Leigh Perrot, was ludicrously arrested for shoplifting in Bath, risked a death sentence, since the amount involved exceeded five shillings, and spent several miserable months as a prisoner in the lodgings of the jailer of Ilchester before being acquitted. Her brother Henry, turned banker after an abortive military career, went bankrupt but cheerfully transcended that disaster by taking holy orders and entering the ministry. Another brother, Edward, who had been adopted by a childless landowner named Knight, lost part of his very large inheritance to some of Mr. Knight’s relatives when they sued him.
Austen’s brother Francis, captain of the H.M.S. Canopus, almost took part in the Battle of Trafalgar but missed it by a few hours. Jane herself was almost engaged to one young man, whom she appears to have loved very much but who died before the engagement became formal, and was actually engaged for half a day to another young man, until her doubts as to whether she really loved him made her break off the engagement and fly to Bath- the only impulsive action in her life.
…The case is very different now; she is still a poker – but a poker of whom every one is afraid. It must be confessed that this silent observation from such an observer is rather formi
e. Most writers are good-humoured chatterers – neither very wise nor very witty: – but nine times out of ten (at least in the few that I have known) unaffected and pleasant, and quite removing by their conversation any awe that may have been excited by their works. But a wit, a delineator of character, who does not talk, is terrific indeed!” ( Mitford )
To those who regard experience as a necessary prerequisite for the unfolding of genius, Jane Austen must appear as hopelessly handicapped. To some of her contemporaries- and to a number of her critics ever since- her novels appeared to be “mean” : all they deal with is young girls trying to get married and, by some improbable denouement, attaining their goal despite themselves; no hero or heroine is ever introduced without a precise statement of his or her annual income and future expectations. Violent passions are absent from her world.
The most catastrophic incidents in her novels are Marianne Dashwood’s attack of influenza- Sense and Sensibility- and Louisa’s fall down the stone steps at Lyme Regis-Persuasion. In her novels as well as in her letters any demonstrative form of enthusiasm for music and poetry , any symptom of religious zeal or metaphysical uneasiness; in short, any romantic notion, is treated as an utterly suspect pretension. In her hatred, and perhaps also her fear of sentimentality in any form, Jane Austen bordered on Philistinism at one extreme and on cynicism at the other. Equally striking is the virtual absence of references to the world-shaking events and developments of her day: not only in her fiction but also in her letters. The French Revolution is never alluded to anywhere. The rise of industrialism seems to have escaped her notice. The reawakening of religious conscience that characterized her age finds no echo whatever in her fiction.
The period of Jane Austen’s creative activity was the era of the Napoleonic wars, of England’s struggle for national survival. With two of her brothers serving in the Navy, both of them later attaining the rank of Admiral, one might suppose that she would not ignore these events completely. Nor did she; yet only a few allusions to military events stand out in her work. In “Persuasion” , for example, she at last comes to grips with the Napoleonic wars. The time is 1814; Sir Walter Elliott of Kellynch Hall, having squandered a great deal of money, is obliged to consider letting his ancestral home; his solicitor is on hand one morning following the conclusion of the peace: after twenty-two years of war.
Laying down his newspaper, the solicitor says: “I must take leave to observe, Sir Walter, that the present juncture is much in our favor. This peace will be turning all our rich naval officers ashore. They will be all wanting a home. Could not be a better time Sir Walter, for having a choice of tenants, very responsible tenants. Many a noble fortune has been made during the war.” It is submitted that nowhere in literature have the blessings of peace been understated more emphatically.
“The want of elegance is almost the only want in Miss Austen. I have not read her ‘Mansfield Park;’ but it is impossible not to feel in every line of ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ in every word of ‘Elizabeth,’ the entire want of taste which could produce so pert, so worldly a heroine as the beloved of such a man as Darcy. Wickham is equally bad. Oh! they were just fit for each other, and I cannot forgive that delightful Darcy for parting them. Darcy should have married Jane. He is of all the admirable characters the best designed and the best sustained. I quite agree with you in preferring Miss Austen to Miss Edgeworth. If the former had a little more taste, a little more perception of the graceful, as well as of the humorous, I know not indeed any one to whom I should not prefer her. There is not of the hardness, the cold selfishness, of Miss Edgeworth about her writings; she is in a much better humour with the world; she preaches no sermons; she wants nothing but the beau-idéal of the female character to be a perfect novel writer; and perhaps even that beau-idéal would only be missed by such a petite maîtresse in books as myself…” (Mary Russell Mitford, 1814 )