Jane Austen: importance as a Novelist

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      Jane Austen (1775-1817) occupies a very unique place in the history of the English novel. She made fun of the passion for the novels of terror which continued to prosper in the first half of the nineteenth century. A direct literary descendant of Addison, Goldsmith and Miss Burney, and an admirer of Cowper and Crabbe, she produced between 1796 and 1816, during the wars against the French Revolution and Napoleon works that for calmness, delicacy and grace has no rival in the whole of English literature. She lived a quiet, sheltered existence and was curiously immune from the great movements of her time. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars swept by her without comment. In the half dozen novels she wrote, this daughter of a Hampshire rector set herself to study the ways of feminine affection, the delicacies and distresses of young passionate hearts, their mistakes and their sorrows in first love. She limited her writing to the 'comedy of sex'. What diverted her most were "follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies." Around the young ladies she placed with a lively thought restrained sense of comedy the various figures of the gentlefolk of a country neighbourhood. Within the narrow limits she set for herself, she achieved a finished realism, with qualities of the highest wit and elegance.

Jane Austen (1775-1817) occupies a very unique place in the history of the English novel. She made fun of the passion for the novels of terror which continued to prosper in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Jane Austen

      When Jane Austen was only twenty-one years of age, she completed her first novel Pride and Prejudice which is considered by many as her masterpiece. This novel was originally called First Impressions (1796). In the next year she wrote Sense and Sensibility in its present narrative form and in 1798 she completed her third novel, Norhanger Abbey, a satire on the novels of Mrs. Radcliffe. The composition of the next set of three novels takes up to a latter stage of Jane Austen's life. Between the years 1811 and 1816, three more novels were written - Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. Ten months after the writing of her last completed novel, Persuasion, her uneventful life ended. Before she died, four out of six novels had been published, only Nothanger Abbey and Persuasion being published posthumously in 1816. Though the public at large failed to recognise her merits immediately, yet discerning readers like Sir Walter Scott have spoken of her with regard and affection.

      Jane Austen is indeed a curious figure in the history of the English novel. She evolved an artistic pattern of her novels and was curiously alert to the novel as art form even before the Victorian age when novel as an art form came to be established. Henry James and Max Beerbeohm hailed her as the first modern novelist. But there are others like Mark Twain who decried her novels. It must however be said that Jane Austen achieved perfection as a miniaturist in fiction. In pure technical excellence, many of her novels are unsurpassed. In the construction of plot, in the development of characters and in the artistic display of dramatic situations, she ranks among the great masters. Bradley says of her : "Nobody ever opened a novel or managed an exposition better than Jane Austen, who would deserve immortality if she has written only the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice." Scott was slipshod in the construction of his novels, even Victorian novelists like Dickens, Thackeray and George Eliot were careless and prolix in the construction of their novels. There are authorial intrusions, supernumerary characters and extravagant situations in their novels. But Jane Austen's novels are remarkable for their taut and coherent structure and dramatic skill. There are no digressions, no intrusions by the author. Instead we are offered a life-like impression in which the movement of time is controlled. Secondly, there is the all - pervasive point of view, never obtrusive, but ironical and humorous in the best sense of the term. She looks at the manifold follies of life with a kindly smile of tolerance and it is this attitude that links her with the greatest masters like Chaucer and Shakespeare.

      It has been said of her novels that she never moved out of parlour. The world of her novels is, limited geographically, socially and even morally. Her characters do not move out of their country. The highlights of the life portrayed are little visits, morning calls, weddings, shopping expeditions. The climax of excitements is a ball, and the most terrible social scandal is an elopement. Her characters are all taken from the middle class ; the leaders of fashion do not appear in her pages ; the lower classes are likewise absent. We do not see extremes to love and hate, of righteousness and evil. She has no morbid hankering after splendid villains. Everything moves along in a placid groove. With "the heart of humming bird and a head as hard as a hailstone, she could never portray passion. Her novels are preoccupied with the business of making matches for her heroines. The plots are formalised into a pattern of which the purpose is match-making The heroine after a few false starts meets the right man, and a series of misunderstandings and frustrations proceeds to delay but never to prevent their union. She employs the dramatic form evolved by Fielding, but she refines it and gives it perfection. She catches the dynamic moment which precipitates the crisis and then within the scope of her psychology allows the donouement to proceed according to plan.

      Jane Austen stands apart, a solitary figure in her own age. The exciting movements of her age did not affect her. But she has her place secure for all time to come. Many neglect her; a few tuna her tiresome; but some venture to censure her as cynical, But to those who have discovered her works are precious and peerless. As an artist her fame is established. Her dramatic form has influenced Henry James who is the first exponent of the art of the novel. The taut coherent structure of her novels is set up as a contrast to the 'loose baggy monsters' of the Victorian novels. The single point of view technique has been first essayed by Jane Austen. The characters and situations in Pride and Prejudice are looked at from the point of view of Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of the novel, while Emma's point of view is the unifying factor of the events and characters in Emma. Thus the loss in the representation of life is amply compensated for by the gain in excellence of style and technique.

      Jane Austen is the painter of the everyday life - she saw around her and romance very rarely enters into her work (there is the only one elopement in Pride and Prejudice). Thus there is an intense realism in her novels. The pictures of domestic life in the countryside are the subjects she deals with in her four or five great novels. And she herself says, "I could not more write a romance than an epic poem." She deals with no social problem, like the later women novelists. Thus within the small compass of life, she works with unfailing art. It is said that "given two inches of ivory she works well", but if she ever takes up high romance she fails. Her minute observation of life, her quiet and delicate humour and irony, her wonderful insight into human character which helps her create living characters give the main charms to her novels. "Her female characters are almost unexceptional in perfection of finish". As the creator of domestic novel, she has a high place in the history of English fiction. Her position in the history of English novel is remarkable because she evolved a stringent dramatic pattern in her novels. Her novels have technical perfection which was something unusual in the age when the novel was yet to be established as form of art. She introduced the single point of view technique which was adopted as the fictional technique in the modern period by such writers as Henry James and Conrad.

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