The Art of Fiction in Jane Austen's Novels

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      Her Perfection of Art. Jane Austen occupies a prominent place in the history of the art of fiction. Though she was a contemporary of Sir Walter Scott, she is more in line with her predecessors in this art than with him. She widened the scope of fiction in almost all its directions. No writer, It may be presumed, is so conscious of her limitations as Jane Austen but never does she feel the temptation of essaying beyond her range. The result is nothing short of perfection. This is evident by such epithets as “two inches of ivory” or “Ivory- towered” employed by the critics to indicate the perfection attained by her in her small world of the country bourgeoise.

      Plot Construction. Thus completely sure of her material and undistracted by external events and interests, she writes with a singular freedom from uncertainty. She possesses one rich talent of the artist in abundance: her cocksureness over her material, and her novels have, in consequence, an exactness of structure and a symmetry of form which are found more often in French literature. There is usually a tangle of emotions of which her plots are made. The essentials of her art are often the same: a well defined story growing naturally out of the influence of character on character, and developed in the midst of a society which is full of mild provincial ‘humours’. She manages all this so perfectly as no praise of her art of plot-construction can ever be overmuch. These plots are dramatically as perfect as the five act comedies of the Restoration period. Like the situations in the Comedy of manners, the situations in her novels also are ironic as well as psychological. Placed in a particular situation, the character almost unconsciously starts revealing the inconsistencies of his behaviour which are immediately exposed to the ridicule of the readers. Juxtaposed with her dramatic plots is the dramatic quality of her dialogues. They are brilliant and have a ringing charm about them. They expedite the movement of events and help in imparting clarity and precision to her characters. They equate the place of several events and situations in the writings of a feebler genius. No less remarkable are her dramatic settings, which are brief, concise and to the purpose.

      Thus, her plots are organic and well-knit. There are no loose ends anywhere and each character finds a suitable place. She is very keen not to lose the unity of her plots and often achieves it by focussing our attention at it from a variety of angles. Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park may be quoted as illustrations.

      She thus perfected the Domestic novel as it was given to her by Maria Edgeworth and Fanny Burney. She did to the Domestic novel what Johnson had done for the English prose: she found it brick and left it marble. Of course, other great English writers of fiction before her like Richardson and Fielding had drawn upon the easy aimless life of rural gentility to those days which were securely well-to-do and complacently ambitious, disdaining ideas. But while these writers exploited this material for romantic purposes, it must be said to the credit of Jane Austen that she depicts her “three or four families” with the realism of Defoe and exactness of Crabbe. Her portraiture of still life in the country has supplied an ideal to a host of subsequent novelists but few have been able to achieve it. Mrs. Gaskell has tried to attain it in Cranford and Wives and Daughters. George Eliot may be cited as another but there are so many other preoccupations with these writers that the result is not quite the same. Thus, Jane Austen, it has been agreed by the best critics, remains unrivalled and inaccessible in her own domain.

      Her Art of Characterisation. As for her art of characterisation she learned much from her predecessors but more from her own practice. She borrows the realism of Defoe and the psychological grasp of Richardson and the comic aptitude of Fielding. Her characters grow out of her plot just as her plot is the result of the psychological conflict and involvement of her characters. Her characters are therefore, complex and round. Her hold upon the psychology of her “dramatics presonae” is born of her habit of minute observation as well as her intuitive understanding of the traits of a character. Her significant contribution to the art of characterisation in fiction lies in her suggesting the perspective: that is, her characters are known to us not only by their role in the fiction but more fully also by her suggestion through them of a wider perspective of life which is not covered by the story. As an illustration, we may take Elizabeth Bennet who is not only the heroine of the story but also an anxious neighbour, an affectionate sister and a responsible member of the Bennet family. Jane Austen’s psychological realism was appreciated by Sir Walter Scott also:

      “That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements, feelings and characters are ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I have ever met with. The big bow-vow strain I can do myself like anyone going; but the exquisite touch which renders commonplace things and characters interesting from the worth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me.”

      Her Realism. Jane Austen therefore combined the Domestic novel and the novel of manners and brought them to perfection. Richardson had explored the minds and hearts of his characters while Fielding had parodied the heated atmosphere of Richardsonian fiction. By a sheer stroke of artistry, she combines the good points of Richardson and Fielding and sketches events, characters and dialogues which are psychologically true and perfect. She possesses in a remarkable degree all those qualities which are needed to impart realism to her world: her sense of the comic, her affinities with and conscious apprenticeship of the eighteenth-century masters, her fairness and detachment, her limited world where the Comic Spirit stalks with a rod in her hand correcting the follies of the people and her anti-romantic and anti-sentimental attitude coupled with those merits of style which any great writer of the eighteenth century in England and France would be jealous of cultivating are here displayed to their best advantage.

      Prose-style. Finally, her prose is an aggregate of all those qualities which were highly prized by the classical age the qualities of precision, exactness and truth. The temper of the twentieth century which seeks a conscious revival of these classical graces has been unsparing in the praise of the prose-style of Jane Austen. In fact considerably because of her style, she is considered to be the fine flower of the eighteenth century. She describes the minute shades and psychological involvements primarily because of a forceful style and fulfills the idea of “what off was thought but ne’er so well express’d.”

      Conclusion. It is not insignificant to know that some of her works as her Juvenilia and others which were not published during her life time and which remained sullied in some obscure comer have been published only in our own century. The existing century has discovered in her a kindred spirit. Although throughout the nineteenth century, she did not become a common and household word yet she extracted encomiums from all the great writers of the last century. She was once unduly criticised by Charlotte Bronte but the list of her admires during the nineteenth century is not a short one: Coleridge, Tennyson, Macaulay, Scott, Smith, Disraeli and Whately are all representative figures who have unsparingly praised her craftsmanship.

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