Merits and Limitations of Jane Austen Novels

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      Titles for Her World. Miss Austen’s world has been called variously as “the two inches of ivory”, “Ivory-towered”, a “little bit of ivory”, “three or four families” and others. All these titles exhibit equally well the excellences as well as the limitations of her craft and of her outlook. Curiously enough most of these suggestions were made by the novelist herself and they may give a clear idea of the type of work she proposed to do with the fullest consciousness and estimate of her powers as a novelist and artist.

      Her Awareness of her Limitations. This awareness of the limitations of her genius and outlook imposed an artistic restraint upon her which she is only too willing to obey. There are, let it be granted frankly, many thing she cannot do but it implies no effrontery to her genius. She herself makes no pretensions about her capabilities and never for a moment feels tempted to go beyond them. Her occasional remarks are evidence enough.

      The consciousness of her limitations is implied in her advice given to her niece and also in her refusal to accepts from the
Regency to write a historical romance.
Limitations not without perfections. If a writer stays within his - limits it is always good for his art. One can hardly blame Miss Austen if she did not write like Brontes as it will be unwise to expect the latter to write like the former. It is always a matter of artistic judgement and the writer’s unerring instinct can be the only guide. The ungenerous criticism by Charlotte Bronte of Miss Austen’s range and powers, one often feels, can hardly be justified from aesthetic standards. By limiting her range she secures complete mastery over every inch of ground and achieves complete unity of effect. Her sphere may be narrow but within it she is perfect. What she loses in width she gains in depth. An examination of the various elements of her craft may be of direct usefulness.

      Plot-construction: her Limitation. The surface of Jane Austen’s novels is probably as devoid of any striking eventfulness as her own life. Great events and strong passions may be changing the course of history but they do not weave the plots of her novels. In their complete detachment from the outside world of humdrum life and in having the theme of love for the plots, these novels resemble the comedies of Shakespeare. But the comparison can not be pushed farther. “Three or four families in a country village” for her “is the very thing to work on” and she herself calls her work as “two inches of ivory.”

      Her Merits in Plot-Construction. But then she is equal not only to the comic part of characterization but also in choosing a plot which has potentialities for a successful comedy. Her plots are not only dramatically effective but are rich in psychological situations. Technically they are so perfect as can be divided into five acts with a lucid exposition and a crisis, a curious conflict and a climax resulting usually in a happy and satisfactory denouement. Pride and Prejudice has often been quoted as a perfect example in this regard. There are no loose ends any where and all the subordinate events and characters have been combined into a compact and well-knit whole.

      Her range is further circumscribed by her people. Those who move here are mostly middle class people, country gentry and clergymen. Peasants and farmers are as conspicuous in this world by their absence as the noble men. These are the people who are comfortably off and have not to worry for subsistence. Nothing but a ball now and then ruffles the noiseless tenor of their way. But these characters are never immortalized and are not remembered so well as the characters of Dickens whose memory we fondly cherish.

      Her Qualities in Characterization. But let it be remembered that her concern is not with the people but with those perplexities and in consistencies of their behaviour which reveal them before us unmistakably. We understand them much better than they ever understood themselves. The psychological profoundity and the comic flair that she brings to bear upon her art of characterization make her creatures not only vivid and realistic but also quite dear and lovable. To take a concrete example, a single novel will suffice. In Pride and Prejudice, we find the comic stupidity and servility of Collins, the snobbery of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and the pedantry of Mary Bennet. Such examples can always be multiplied. She sees her characters in their perspective also that is beyond their immediate occupation in the novel.

      Her Conditioned Outlook. Her world is further conditioned by her tastes and temperament. She has a classical detachment and reserve. Many are the pressing problems of the day which almost always leave her cold. Historical, political, religious and social problems meet her indifference only. The popular ‘genres’ of fiction are not even touched by her. She cannot write a historical romance like that of Scott nor even an epic in prose. So far as romanticism is concerned it could inspire her only negatively.

      Perfection in Range. But her literary affinities with the eighteenth century make her a perfect craftsman. She did not touch several popular types of fiction, one may suppose, only to realise perfection in others; for in Jane Austen the domestic novel and the novel of manners coincide and reach their perfection. The propriety of these forms can hardly be questioned after considering the kind of materials she wanted to use. Her literary sympathies and reading introduced such qualities of classical precision, exactness and grace as to allow her the enviable honour of being the last best flower of the indispensable eighteenth century.

      Limitation: Her Theme. She feels no temptation to violate her self-imposed restrictions even with regard to the choice of theme. Social problems fail to capture her attention and the course of poverty is nowhere seen in her word. We are equally immune, while studying her novels, to the grip of passions and the “stormy sisterhood” of the Brontes. Religious issues such as the Evangelical piety and philanthropy which were to figure so prominently in the fiction of subsequent writers is not mentioned even. Her clergymen are not too pious to grudge a comic or ironic smile.

      The Potentialities: Her Theme is Eternal. But those limitations are amply compensated by the minute study and observation of the themes she treats of. The theme of love is the nucleus of her novels and this theme has potential enough that about it not one but several novel can be written. This deliberate check on her choice of themes allows her ample scope to be a minute and shrewd critic of men, morals, manners and gestures which often go unnoticed but are pregnant with the possibilities of a comic laughter. Her novels are in effect a Comedy of Manners and are as perfect as the Restoration comedies.

      Comparison with Predecessors. Thus she remains true to her ideal of country aristocracy; and in this sphere she has never been matched either by her predecessors or by her successors. Other English writers like Richardson and Fielding had no doubt drawn upon the easy aimless life of rural gentility in those days which was securely well-to-do and complacently ambitious, disdaining business and untouched by ideas. But while these writers exploited these matters primarily for romantic purposes, it is to the credit of Miss Austen that she depicts these three or four families with the realism of Defoe and exactness of Crabbe.

      Comparison with Subsequent Writers. Besides this, by portraying the still life in country and country town she has supplied an ideal to a host of subsequent novelists. But it is an ideal which Mrs. Gaskell alone in Cranford and Wives and Daughters has been able to attain. George Eliot might be cited as a further instance. But there is so much beside this in her novels that the general effect is never quite the same.

      An Assessment. Thus it has been generally agreed by the best critics that Miss Austen has never been approached in her own domain. No one indeed has attempted any close rivalry. No other novelist has so exclusively concerned himself with the trivial daily comedy of small provincial life. Miss Austen has here achieved complete unity of effect, together with a mastery of her instrument such as few artists can claim to have approached. In this respect, it is hardly too much to say that by her most of the English novelists appear little better than burglars. Gustav Flaubert in France is the only name that occurs to claim rivalry with her.

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