Jane Austen 18th Century Quality of Classicism

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      The Direction of her Work. A cursory review of Jane Austen’s novels will give the reader a better and clear idea of the novelist’s tastes and the direction of her work. The first work of her early years Love and Friendship which was written in the early 1790’s although published in 1912 ridicules the sentimentalism of the new century already in vogue by this time, and the other Juveniles Volume the First, written contemporaneously with the first, parodies the stereotyped romantic fiction which was then a growing favourite. Lady Susan which is only a fragment, employs the newly discovered and popular method already resorted to by Richardson - the eighteenth century epistolatory or the letter form. Sense and Sensibility embodies an ideal which could be set forth with no lesser grace in Addison’s Spectator with the emotional self-indulgence of later eighteenth century sentimentalism. Northanger Abbey shows its writer’s strong distaste for the new literary fad of Gothicism. Pride and Prejudice familiarises us with an ironic, unillusioned and yet sufficiently sympathetic view of human nature with its aptitude for comic incongruity. Emma touches the climax of the novelist’s detachment in her portrayal of its heroine Emma Woodhouse; and in other two novels, Mansfield Park and Persuasion, the two respective heroines, Fanny Price and Anne Eliott are conceived in the eighteenth century vien in their quality of gentleness and their capacity for self-effacement.

      Her Literary Affinities. The environment she grew up in and the atmosphere of her family could not have encouraged any romantic trait. The reading of the Austen family included not only the classics of the eighteenth century fiction but such novelists as Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth also. The Austen's read and enjoyed, though they laughed at, Mrs. Radcliff and other explorers of terror and sentimentalism. From all the novelists that she read, and the list includes Walter Scott also, she learned one thing or the other of her craft—if not to borrow any thing at least to avoid something. From all great masters of the eighteenth century, Dr. Johnson, Crabbe, Cowper she learned much. But it must be remembered that she learned infinitely more by her own practice and by pursuing her own gut and inclination.

      Jane Austen, though living when the tide of romanticism was as its height, was never born upon it, nor did she ever sprinkle with its foam. The three most popular forms of this new romanticism in fiction — the Gothic, the historical and the doctrine—were paid the tribute of either indifference or burlesque by her. Scott’s poetry entertained her — but she mocked at it. Waverley she admired but reluctantly.

      Her Negative Indebtedness to Romanticism. To Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron and other stalwarts of Romanticism she was completely indifferent. Romanticism for her could be material for comedy, parody or burlesque and it gave her an opportunity to scoff at Mrs. Radcliff. It affected her only negatively and in no other way.

      Her Attitude to Romanticism. Thus, she is in perfect obedience to her taste and temperament and never distracts us by effusive descriptions as we find in Scott or Hardy, furnishes no inventory of her heroine’s charms or dresses, hardly keeps any record or details of travels and makes “exploring” immortally ridiculous in the person of Mrs. Elton. It was her deliberate avoidance of this material that provoked the critical remarks of Charlotte Bronte, another woman novelist of the mid-nineteenth century who has hardly to share anything with Jane Austen.

‘She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her.....even to the feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition.’

      A Literary Paradox. Owing to her “occasional graceful but distant recognition” of the most stirring and epoch-making events that were happening at the time, Jane Austen remains a paradox in her own age at least to the literary historian. She lived in one of the stormiest periods of European history but none of the terrible events, even the French revolution, could ruffle the calm atmosphere of her novels. She was the contemporary of great Romantic writers and poets but the temper of her work as well as her own is classic. She seems to be of a piece with the age that had just gone by rather than that which was coming into existence. She is not even of the Transitional Period and thus baffles all classifications of literary history.

      Femininely Augustan. Thus her tastes, grounded as they were upon Richardson, the essayist, Cowper and her “dear Dr. Johnson”, were so much of the eighteenth century that her mind has been called femininely Augustan. In the gentleness, the delicacy and subtlety of her touch, the feline irony and malice behind all the velvet, the womanly genius of a great writer can surely be detected. Indeed her resemblances with Dr. Johnson are apparent and have often been pointed out. She shares with him a distrust in any indulgence in emotion; her penetrative honesty in observing human nature enlivened by her wit and also her endeavours at a full and heightened though strained style.

      Detachment. Jane Austen classicism is further characterised by detachment and objectivity which are almost Shakespearean in their scope and quality. Even Dr. Johnson whom she admired unreservedly had his prejudices and predilections which always impinge upon his work and deteriorate the quality of his work. His judgement is therefore neither balanced nor dependable. But Jane Austen presents her plots and characters in a dispassionate spirit. Even the moral tone of her novels cannot be claimed to be her own: She borrows it largely from the society she was inhabiting and it may always remain a point of speculation as to what she thought privately of these matters.

      Comedy of Manners. Equally classical is the quality of her wit and satire in its detachment from those upon whom it is hurled. It is pure and never adulterated with the pathetic or the melodramatic as one often finds in Charles Lamb or Dickens. In satirising the manners and the acquired follies of this society, her novels acquire the tone of the Restoration Comedy. Her objective presentation of the character detaches her sympathies from the objects and the result is very often the same as Shakespeare achieved in caricaturing Malvalio yet with all his humanity and philanthropy in the piece. All the attributes of a Comedy of Manners — intelligent and witty male but particularly female characters, brilliant and sparkling conversation and a perspective social satire against growing sentimentalism and emotionalism — are present here.

      Style. And to crown all, it is her style — at once Flauberation in exactness and Congreve - like (though she may not have read Congreve) in brilliance—that completes her affinities with the Augustan age. The delicate precision, the nice balance, the seeming simplicity which often masks subtlety, the lucidity and vitality and ironic wit almost exclusively achieve that perfection of style which was sought after throughout the century and answers Pope’s ideal:

True wit is Nature to advantage dress’d
What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed

      Conclusion. Thus by the quality of her tone and temperament she remains the most accomplished artist of her time. She is no doubt the fine flower of the expiring eighteenth century: absolutely English in her instinct and standpoint and her scenery, Greek in her arrowy wit, her delicate irony and her absolute clearness.

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