An Critical Evaluation on Jane Austen Novels

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      Jane Austen occupies an ambivalent position in literary history. She is too little a writer of the nineteenth century to be called Romantic, too much a person of her time to be called Classical. Critical opinion has for long been divided. Her contemporaries like Wordsworth and Charlotte Bronte found in her works a want of feeling, passion and imagination. Edward Fitzgerald complains that “she never goes out of the Parlour.” The twentieth century however, has seen Jane Austen elevated by critics of diverse hues, to being one of the best female novelists and of the six novels she wrote, all are deemed classics, with atleast three of them being counted among the best in English fiction. Below, we trace in some detail critical opinions over the ages—from her contemporaries, down to the twentieth century.

      Jane Austen and the Nineteenth Century: Her reputation was in the ascendant in her own age. The Prince Regent was obviously a great admirer of her novels and Emma was in fact dedicated to the Prince. Yet she was not widely known because she wrote not in the popular vein of Gothic and sentimental novelists like Ann Radcliffe but rather in the style of her classical predecessors like Johnson. Austen Leigh wrote: “I doubt, whether it would be possible to mention any other author of note whose personal obscurity was so complete.”

      Her Contemporaries on her limited World and Lack of Passions. Her contemporaries found in her novels a want of idea heightening, moral and emotional — that elevation of virtue, something beyond nature that gives the greatest charm to a novel. Nearly all of Jane Austen’s readers — admirers and detractors alike — see in her choice of subject matter a deliberate limitation, a smallness of range. But those who like her find her scope quite adequate to the exposition of important themes; those who dislike her complain that the country gentry cannot possibly yield anything of surpassing value.

      The Critical Dicta of her Contemporaries: Sir Walter Scott, her contemporary was one of her earliest and most intelligent admirers. He has dilenated her materials “...keeping close to common incidents, and to such characters as occupy the ordinary walks of life, she has produced sketches of such spirit and originality....”; and he very accurately describes the social class to which she limits herself; “Jane Austen confines herself chiefly to the middling classes of society; her most distinguished characters do not rise greatly above well-bred gentlemen and ladies; and those which are sketched with most originality and precision, belong to a class rather below that standard.” And he: recognizes her merit within this limited world: “That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements, and feelings, and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-Wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary common place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me.” Sir Walter Scott then clearly sums up the case for a generous interpretation of Jane Austen’s limited range as a novelist.

      Miss Sara Coleridge, on the other hand praises Jane Austen’s gentle satire and decorous humour. Writing to Miss. E. Trevellan on women writers in general, she says of Jane Austen, “Last, not least, the delicate mirth, the gently hinted satire, the feminine decorous humour of Jane Austen, who, if not the greatest, is surely the most faultless of female novelists”.

      Macaulay, like others before him and after has compared Jane Austen to Shakespeare. He says, “Shakespeare has had neither equal nor second. But among the writers who...have approached nearest to the manner of the great master, we have no hesitation in placing Jane Austen, a woman of whom England is justly proud. She has given us a multitude of characters, all, in a certain sense, common place, all such as we meet every day. Yet they are all as perfectly discriminated from each other as if they were the most eccentric of human beings.”

      Her Detractors: Wordsworth, on the other hand while acknowledging the accuracy of her delineations, dislikes them for he could not be attracted to any work unless the truth of nature was presented to him clarified, as it were, by the pervading light of imagination.

      At about the same time Charlotte Bronte dismissed Jane with-considerable disdain. Like, Wordsworth, she praises Jane Austen for her accuracy and like him, she feels in her a want of passion. Writing to S. Williams about Emma she says, “She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well. There is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting. She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her....Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands and feet.”

      This is one of the most renowned attacks ever made upon Jane Austen and this dissent persists to the present day. Even though she wrote in the Romantic age, Jane Austen totally eschewed the wild violent passions, the melancholy, surfeit of imagination and the pre-occupation with nature and landscape, which so characterized her contemporaries and those who immediately followed her. But it is wrong to say that there are no feeling or emotions in her works. She presents feelings within the social context and hence they are controlled. As Andrew Wright - a critic of the twentieth century has said “what Miss Bronte confuses is the distinction between dispassion and superficiality.” Jane Austen writes with a calmness and this leads Charlotte Bronte to believe that Jane Austen is an author of the surface only. But the passions, though not directly dealt with, are every where recognized and implied. Charlotte Bronte has also overlooked Jane Austen’s moral concern, which definitely goes beyond a mere accurate but surface delineation of character.

      Edward Fitzgerald is even more critical. He finds Jane Austen, “quite capital in a Circle I have found quite unendurable to walk in.” In his references to her, scattered through his letters, he complains that “she never goes out of the parlour...”

      A Review of the Nineteenth Century Criticism. Jane Austen had many admiring readers in the nineteenth century like Scott, and Robert Southey. Macaulay and Tennyson even compared her to Shakespeare. Despite such homage, Jane Austen’s position in the world of early 19th century letters was relatively obscure. The romantic movement and its Victorian aftermath was in general unlikely to be favourable to Jane Austen’s classical sense of order and control. All the Romantics were seeking, in some way, to transcend the limitations of actuality, to go beyond the bounds of society, reason and individual experience. Therefore, June Austen’s Domestic Comedy exploring the individual within a social frame work offended both the imaginative sensibility which yearns to transcend common experience and the passionate temperament impatient of restraints with which it is often combined. Among the Victorians, Carlyle’s summary dismissal of Jane Austen’s novels us mere “dish-washings” can be attributed to his desire for a more heroic way of life transcending the everyday realities of Jane Austen’s world. Wordsworth’s and Charlotte Bronte’s criticism may also be attributed to a similar origin.

      Her detractors, too, however praise her for her realistic portrayal of her limited world. The critical attitude of the nineteenth century, both of her admirers and detractors, we may then say, stopped at their enthusiasm for Jane Austen’s scrupulous fidelity to the ordinary social experience. They did not see that the tiny stage of Jane Austen’s novels — the microcosm, infact reflected a larger moral universe.

      Jane Austen and the Twentieth Century: In the twentieth century, the literary and critical climate became more favourable to Jane Austen. The Victorians had gone out of fashion and the writers of the so called Bloomsbury Group (Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, James Joyce, Leonard Woolf etc.) were warm advocates of the eighteenth century view of life, and of the values of wit, style, restraint, reason, scepticism and consequently were great admirers of Jane Austen, who exemplified these values in all her novels. Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf were both devotees; but it is in E.M. Forster that Jane Austen found one of her most unqualified admires, and certainly her greatest literary disciple.

      Her Growing Reputation among Professional Scholars and Critics: Her reputation grew rapidly among professional scholars and critics and her admirers came to be called the Janeites. A.C. Bradley’s essay on Jane Austen which appeared in 1911 is the first large-scale critical work on Jane Austen. Bradley, the great Shakespearean critic, reviewed especially Jane Austen’s irony and her narrative point of view: “In all her novels, though in varying degrees, Jane Austen regards the characters, good and bad alike, with ironical amusement, because they never see the situation as it really is and as she sees it. We constantly share her point of view, and are aware of the amusing difference between the fact and its appearance to the actors”. Bradley, thus, distinguished between Jane Austen’s own values and those of the characters she portrays. It was the same critical tradition that Richard Simpson had developed forty years before and Reginald Farrer in the July 1917 Quarterly Review emphasized this same tradition. Reginald Farrer is among the many critics who regard Emma as Jane Austen’s supreme achievement.

      E. M. Forster on Jane Austen: Forster was Jane Austen’s most unqualified admirer. In three short reviews of editions of Jane Austen collected in Abinger Harvest, Forster confessed to being a Jane Austenite and, therefore, slightly imbecile about Jane Austen “.... She is my favourite author. I read and re-read the mouth open and the mind closed.” In Aspects of the Novel (1927) E.M. Forster discusses Jane Austen’s skill in characterization and this is of much critical interest. He praises the way the characters in Jane Austen’s novels are organically related to their environment and to each other; and takes her skill as an example of how to create what he calls “round” as opposed to “flat” characters, that is, characters who are three dimensional enough to develop, or to surprise us convincingly: Forster says, “All her characters we round or capable of rotundity.” E.M. Forster not only admires her but is also her literary disciple. Both Jane Austen and E.M. Forster attempt to reconcile the claims of the head and the heart, and make that conflict a central issue in their novels. In an interview in 1953, Forster had stated that Jane Austen and Proust were the authors from whom he learned the most and that from Jane Austen he had “learned the possibilities of domestic humour”

      Other Critical Works on Jane Austen in the Twenties: R.W. Chapman carefully edited and annotated Jane Austen's Writings and his edition of her six novels appeared in 1923. These scholarly editions provided the basis for a fuller understanding of Jane Austen. Chapman further brought out with extensive editorial work the letters and Juvenilia in 1932 and the unfinished works of Jane Austen in 1951. His works provided the basis for other critics writing on Jane Austen.

      In the years which followed Chapman’s definitive edition of Jane Austen novels, critical discussions increased. Edwin Muir’sThe Structure of the Novel (1928) is particularly noteworthy. He conceived his book as an answer to Forster’s Aspects of the Novels, yet he completely agrees with Forster’s high estimate of Jane Austen’s importance in the tradition of the novel. He sees her as “the first novelist who practised (the dramatic novel) with consummate success in England”.

      The Janeites: Jane Austen’s popularity with the middle brow reading public also scaled new heights in the twentieth century resulting in the cult of “The Jancites”. Obviously, these admires were interested in the more non literary aspects; they found the world of Jane Austen refreshing in its calm orderliness and social stratification. Henry James, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster made this new cult a target of their irony. Rudyard Kipling too satirizes this cult in his story “The Jancites” published in 1924.

      The Freudian Interpretation during the Thirties and Forties: D.W. Harding’s “Reflated Hatred: An aspect of the Works of Jane Austen (1940) has Freudian interpretation of certain elements in Jane Austen’s novels, which have been usually overlooked by other critics and admirers of Jane Austen. The anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer’s essay “The Myth in Jane Austen” also attributes a Freudian pattern to the four central novels, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma; in all of them there is a reversal of the Oedipal situation; the heroine hates her mother, loves her father, rejects a worthless suitor who stands for reprehensible sexual prowess and eventually accepts a dependable lover who is really a father-substitute.

      Jane Austen as a Marxist. There is surprisingly enough, a school of critics who think that Jane Austen’s text is money. Logan Pearsall Smith finds Pride and Prejudice ‘both didactic and mercenary’ Leonard Woolf writing in 1942 on the, ‘Economic Determinism of Jane Austen’, alleges that her ‘social and economic standards...(are), except in one important particular (she is against ‘work’: her heroes, he says do not work), those which we associate with a capitalist burgeoise rather than with country gentlemen and aristocrats...The social standards are almost entirely those of money and snobbery. It is remarkable to what an extent the plots and characters are dominated by question of money.’ David Daiches holds a similar view. In his essay ‘Jane Austen, Karl Marx, and the Aristocratic Dance’, 1948, he says Jane Austen is “the only English novelist of stature who was in a sense a Marxist before Marx. She exposes the economic basis of social behaviour with an ironic smile”

      However, such a position can be taken only if the novels are misread. Her characters’ opinion are not to be taken as Jane Austen’s own standards and further, Dr. Chapman repudiates such an interpretation by pointing out that frequently Jane Austen’s heroines — Elizabeth Bennet, Anne, Fanny Price reject matrimonial snatches based purely on the economics and wait for true love.

      Critical Trends since the 50s: Since the 50s there has been a spurt in historical scholarship with studies of Jane Austen’s position in her immediate social, political and literary world gaining importance. In this regard D. J. Greene’s exploration of Jane Austen’s class affiliations and Alan D. Mckillop who placed Jane Austen in the context of her immediate literary traditions is noteworthy.

      An important critical work of this period is Marvin Mudrick’s Jane Austen: Irony as Defence and Discovery. It evaluates in great detail Jane Austen’s technique of using irony for contrasting what is with what should be. It is important also in that Marvin Mudrick is among the critics who see Jane Austen as having no moral concern. Leonie Villard had said, “Merely an amused and attentive spectator Jane Austen does not seek to interpret life, she is content to observe it...” Similarly, Professor Mudrick makes amorality central to Jane Austen’s irony and says, “She observes and defines, without moral or emotional engagement, the incongruities between pretense and essence, between the large idea and the inadequate ego.” Thus interpreted, Jane Austen’s novels are merely the detached record of some commonplace incidents amongst the gentry of her time and place. However, such an interpretation is wrong.

      Many critics, including her detractors like H. W. Garrod, have inferred a scheme of values from her works. Andrew H. Wright in his book Jane Austen Novels - A study in structure (1953) shows that Jane Austen’s irony “is the instrument of a moral vision, it is not a technique of rejection” He goes on to say that her novels can be interpreted on three levels, first the purely local, second as broad allegories in which sense, sensibility, pride, prejudice and a number of other virtues and defects are set forth in narrative form and commented on in this way. Third the ironic level whereby incidents, characters etc. imply more than what they embody; thus they are symbolic.

      Similarly, Lord David Cecil interprets Jane Austen’s universal standard of values as a “moral-realistic view” and Elizabeth Bowen too credits Jane Austen with a rigid and conventional sense of values. Bradley too speaks of her “Moralizing tendency” and we may agree with Andrew Wright that it is Jane Austen’s moral complexity which gives sharpness to her themes.

      The New Critics considered literary works as autonomous verbal structures and this school of Criticism is represented by Reuben Brower’s demonstrations of the complexity of verbal structure and psychological implications in Pride and Prejudice.

      Among recent criticism, several essays by Lionel Trilling on Jane Austen’s novels throw light on the profound conflicts in the values of Western civilization and the individual moral life.

      Critical Survey of Jane Austen Novels: Jane Austen’s career spans a very brief time. Her six novels were published within seven years, although she had been writing some years before her first publication. ‘Sense and Sensibility’, was published in 1811; ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was published next in 1813 though it was actually written earlier in 1796. (under the title, First impressions) ‘Mansfield Park’ came out in 1814 and ‘Emma’ in December 1815. ‘Persuasion’ was published in 1817 and so also ‘Northanger Abbey’ though it had been written much earlier in 1798-1799 under the title ‘Susan’: A measure of her artistic reputation is that atleast three of these novels (Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma) are frequently considered among the best novels ever written.

      In all her novels, we see only a limited range of human society. Most of her characters are the kind of people she knew intimately, the landed gentry, the upper class, the lower edge of the nobility, the lower clergy, the officer corps of the military. Her novel excludes the lower classes - both the industrial masses of the big cities and the agricultural labourers in the countryside. ‘3 or 4 Families in a country village is the very thing to work on,’ Jane Austen writes to her niece and even within this narrow range she limits herself to the sphere which she understands and which she can control as an artist. She does not show any of the great agonies or darker side of human experience. There is no hunger, poverty, misery or terrible vices and very little of the spiritual sphere of experience. Nor do we see any political dimension or even discussions regarding major political happenings in any of her novels. Nature too, is rarely described and her characters are usually presented indoors with an occasional expedition or picnic thrown in.

      Her theme — her subject matter revolves round courtship and marriage in each of her novels. By the time we have reached the end of one of Jane Austen’s novels, not only the hero and heroine but most of the other young people in the story have succeeded in pairing off in marriage. And it is from the courtship of the hero and heroine that the stories derive much of their tension. Marriages both good and bad, as well as the right and wrong reasons for marrying, are discussed. The happy marriage is rarely seen until the hero and heroine marry and this is based on proper judgement and self knowledge. The ability to judge is particularly important to the heroines, for it is upon this ability that their choice of a suitable husband depends. Therefore, they need to undergo a process of education whereby they overcome their sensibility (Marianne) or prejudice (Elizabeth Bennett) or delusion (Emma) or prudence (Anne Elliot) before they can make correct judgements and marry the man of their choice.

      According to Andrew H. Wright the novels of Jane Austen can be considered on three levels of meaning: first, the purely local - illustrative of country life among the upper middle classes at the end of eighteenth century in Southern England. Second they can be taken as broad allegories, in which Sense, Sensibility, Pride, Prejudice, and a number of other virtues and defects are set forth in narrative form and commented on in this way. Third is the ironic level whereby the incidents, situations and characters in a novel imply something more than what they seem.

      Conclusion: In general, the criticism of Jane Austen in the last two decades, is incomparably the richest and most illuminating that has appeared. Since her first published work in 1813, (Sense and Sensibility) reactions to Jane Austen’s novels has oscillated between the extremes of approbation and disdain, of adoration and condescension. The recent years however, have seen her advance to a level of esteem much higher than the one accorded to her by most of her contemporaries.

      Her contemporaries found in her a limited range of materials and themes, and though they acknowledged the fineness and fidelity with which these were realistically portrayed, they find her novels lacking in passion and emotion. The twentieth century readers and critics however, find that her limited materials do not in any way limit her as an artist and that she is superb in technique, style, craftsmanship and the narrative art of the novel. They see too that her irony, her detached style, her humour go beyond a mere surface delineation to a profound moral vision. We may then agree with Andre Gide’s opinion that Jane Austen exhibits “an exquisite mastery of whatever can be mastered.”

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