"On the Dais and Under the Canopy"
A Posting of What Men Have
Said About Jane Austen—Continued
December 16, 1998
Revd Fulwar-Craven Fowle
Deirdre Le Faye quotes this neighbor in her The British Library Writer's Lives: Jane Austen, Oxford. He had this to say about our Lady:
"... she was pretty—certainly pretty—bright and good color in her face—like a doll—no that wd. not give at all the idea for she had so much expression--she was like a child—quite a child very lively & full of humor—most amiable—most beloved—"
Richard Whately (1787-1863) was a contemporary of Jane Austen, a scholar, and a churchman. He was professor of political economy at Oxford and would rise to the position of archbishop of Dublin. He is remembered as a critic of the use of dogma in theology. He also knew how to read as he demonstrated with this review of Jane Austen's last two novels. I will quote a very small part of the much longer essay. I recommend the full version to you; the essay was written over 175 years ago, but contains an excellent analysis of novels in general and Jane Austen's novels in particular. Among the many good things that I will not quote is the best analysis of Mansfield Park that I have ever seen. (I do not reproduce Whately's spelling of either "Shakspeare" or "Austin".)
"Among the authors of this school there is no one superior, if equal, to the lady whose last production is now before us, and whom we have much regret in finally taking leave of: her death (in the prime of life, considered as a writer) being announced in this the first publication to which her name is affixed. ...
Miss Austen has the merit (in our judgment most essential) of being evidently a Christian writer: a merit which is much enhanced, both on the score of good taste, and of practical utility, by her religion being not at all obtrusive. She might defy the most fastidious critic to call any of her novels...a 'dramatic sermon'. ...for when the purpose of inculcating a religious principle is made too palpably prominent, many readers, if they do not throw aside the book with disgust, are apt to fortify themselves with that respecful kind of apathy with which they undergo a regular sermon, and prepare themselves as they do to swallow a dose of mdicine, endeavoring to get it down in large gulps, without tasting it more than is necessary.
The moral lessons also of this lady's novels, though clearly and impressively conveyed, are not offensively put forward, but spring incidentally from the circumstances of the story; they are not forced upon the reader, but he is left to collect them (though without any difficulty) for himself: hers is that unpretending kind of instruction which is furnished by real life; and certainly no author has ever conformed more closely to real life, as well in the incidents, as in the characters and descriptions. Her fables appear to us to be, in their own way, nearly faultless ... the story proceeds without the aid of extraordinary accidents; the events which take place are the necessary or natural consequences of what has preceded; and yet ... the final catastrophe is scarcely ever clearly foreseen from the beginning, and very often comes, upon the the generality of readers at least, quite unexpected. We know not whether Miss Austen ever had access to the precepts of Aristotle; but there are few, if any, writers of fiction who have illustrated them more successfully.
[Miss Austen] has not been forgetful of the important maxim, so long ago illustrated by Homer, and afterwards enforced by Aristotle, of saying as little as possible in her own person, and giving a dramatic air to the narrative, by introducing frequent conversations which she conducts with a regard to character hardly exceeded even by Shakespeare himself. Like him, she shows as admirable a discrimination in the character of fools as of people of sense; a merit which is far from common. ...
...Those, again, who delight in the study of human nature, may improve in the knowledge of it, and in the profitable application of that knowledge, by the perusal of such fictions as those before us." [South-68, #16]
Richard Whately, review of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, 1821
Jane Austen died in 1817 and her last two novels appeared in 1818. So, you see, Whately was an early admirer indeed.
Twenty two years later, another male voice would come, independently, to remarkably similar conclusions including a handsome comparison of Jane Austen with Shakespeare. Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), the first Baron Macaulay, though a bit younger, was also a contemporary of Jane Austen. He left a remarkable record of accomplishment; a Liberal politician, educator, colonist, essayist, Cabinet Minister, historian—I likely have left out something. His History of England is read and appreciated to this day. However, someday, his fame must rest upon these very acute observations on Jane Austen. Southam informs us that this excerpt begins just after Macaulay has distinguished between caricature and the true representation of human nature, found supremely in the characters of Shakespeare.
"Shakespeare has had neither equal or second. But among the writers who, in the point which we have noticed, 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. There are, for example, four clergymen, none of whom we should be surprised to find in any parsonage in the kingdom, Mr Edward Ferrars, Mr Henry Tilney, Mr Edmund Bertram, and Mr Elton. They are all specimens of the upper part of the middle class. They have all been liberally educated. They all lie under the restraints of the same sacred profession. They are all young. They are all in love. Not one of them has any hobbyhorse...Not one has a ruling passion... Who would not have expected them to be insipid likenesses of each other? No such thing. ...[no characters in literature are more unlike] than every one of Miss Austen's young divines to all his reverend brethren. And all this is done by touches so delicate, that they elude analysis, that they defy the powers of description, and that we know them to exist only by the general effect to which they have contributed.
A line must be drawn, we conceive, between the artists of this class, and those poets and novelists whose skill lies in the exhibiting of what Ben Jonson called humours.... There are undoubtedly persons, in whom humors such as Ben described have gained ascendancy... avarice... insane desire... malevolence... The feeling which animated Clarkson and other virtuous men against the slave-trade and slavery, is an instance of a more honourable kind.
...But we conceive that the imitation of such humours, however skilful and amusing, is not an achievement of the highest order; and, as such humours are so rare in real life, they ought, we conceive, to be sparingly introduced into works which profess to be pictures of real life... The chief seats of all, however, the places on the dais and under the canopy, are reserved for the few who have excelled in the difficult art of portraying characters in which no single feature is extravagantly overcharged." [South-68, #26]
Thomas Macaulay, The Diary and Letters of Mme. D'Arblay, 1843
I like to think of Jane Austen on the dais and under the canopy—don't you? My biographical source is The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Fourth Edition.
Lord Morpeth, Lord-Lieutenant
Jane Austen's Grave Site
Alfred Lord Tennyson
Alfred Tennyson, first Baron Tennyson, (1809-1892) was eight years old when Jane Austen died. This great poet would eventually rise to the rank of poet laureate; but, before that, he would establish his credentials as an early Janeite of the first rank. My quotes are taken from the second volume of B. C. Southam's collections [South-87].
At the time, Jane Austen's letters had not been published. Macaulay regretted that fact, but Southam describes a different attitude for Tennyson: "Tennyson, equally devoted--'He would read and re-read the novels'--fulminated against such revelation. Cherishing her as 'next to Shakespeare', 'he thanked God Almighty that he knew nothing of Jane Austen, and that there were no letters preserved either of Shakespeare's or of Jane Austen's, that they had not been ripped open like pigs.' "
Tennyson is reported to have said
"Miss Austen understood the smallness of life to perfection. She was a great artist, equal in her small sphere to Shakespeare..."
Alfred Tennyson, 1870
That remark became so widely circulated that Tennyson thought to explain himself.
"I am reported to have said that Jane Austen was equal to Shakespeare. What I really said was that, in the narrow sphere of life which she delineated, she pictured her characters as truthfully as Shakespeare. But Austen is to Shakespeare as asteroid to sun. Miss Austen's novels are perfect works on small scale--beautiful bits of stippling."
The poet also admired George Eliot's genius and insight but maintained that she was not so truthful as Shakespeare or Jane Austen. In one version of this quote, it is maintained that Tennyson said this to George Eliot's face: confessing he greatly admired her insight into character, "but did not think her so true to nature as Shakespeare or Miss Austen".
I will first quote from a letter written in 1883; this is a letter in which James replies to a friend who had left a copy of his Harvard dissertation for the great man to read.
"My Dear Pellow,
...[Your dissertation] is interesting as an attempt in scientific criticism of the delightful Jane--though when I read the first page or two I trembled lest you should overdo the science. But you don't overdo anything--you are indeed, I think, a little too discreet, too mild. I could have found it in me to speak more of her genius--of the extraordinary vividness with which she saw what she did see, and on her narrow unconscious perfection of form. But you point out very well all that she didn't see...the want of moral illumination on the part of her heroines, who had undoubtedly small and second-rate minds and were perfect little she-Philistines. But I think that is partly what makes them interesting today. All that there was of them was feeling--a sort of undistracted concentrated feeling which we scarcely find any more. In of course an infinitely less explicit way, Emma Woodhouse and Anne Elliot give us as great an impression of 'passion'--that celebrated quality--as the ladies of G. Sand and Balzac. Their small gentility and front parlour existence doesn't suppress it, but only modifies the outward form of it. You do very well when you allude to the narrowness of Miss Austen's social horizon--of the young Martin in Emma being kept at a distance, etc.; all that is excellent. Also, what you say of her apparent want of consciousness of nature. ..." [South-87, #8]
Henry James, Letter to George Pellow 1883
Let me repeat "...Emma Woodhouse and Anne Elliot give us as great an impression of 'passion'--that celebrated quality—as the ladies of G. Sand and Balzac." - yes, exactly.
Next, I quote here from two essays by Henry James. The first excerpt is from 1905; I omit a portion of the quote which contains some condescending remarks about the rising estimate of Jane Austen's art a result, to some extent, of a marketing ploy. I couldn't force myself to type that. In general, one is tempted to agree with the opinion of that waggish, male voice who observed that James was giving "a pat for the giant Jane!"
"...Jane Austen, with all her light felicity, leaves us hardly more curious of her process, or of the experience in her that fed it, than the brown thrush who tells his story from the garden bough;...[she is] one of those in whose favour discrimination has long since practically operated. She is in fact a signal instance of the way it does, with all its embarrassments, at last infallibly operate...Practically overlooked for thirty or forty years after her death, she perhaps really stands there for us as the prettiest possible example of that rectification of estimate, brought about by some slow clearance of stupidity, the half-century is capable of working round to... The key to Jane Austen's fortune with posterity has been in part the extraordinary grace of her facility, in fact of her unconsciousness: as if, at the most, for difficulty, for embarrassment, she sometimes, over her work basket, her tapestry flowers, in the spare, cool drawing-room of other days, fell a-musing, lapsed too metaphorically, as one may say, into wool-gathering, and her dropped stitches, of these pardonable, of those precious moments, were afterwards picked up as little touches of human truth, little glimpses of steady vision, little master strokes of imagination." [South-87, #22]
Henry James, The Lesson of Balzac 1905
I suspect that this "little" praise could have been composed with fewer commas. It is difficult to believe that his sense of curiosity was so stunted - in either instance.
"So, to express it briefly, the possibility of hugging the shore of the real as it had not, among us, been hugged, and of pushing inland, as far as a keel might float, wherever the least opening seemed to smile, dawned upon a few votaries and gathered further confidence with exercise. Who could say, of course, that Jane Austen had not been close...Who could pretend that Jane Austen didn't leave much more untold than told about the aspects and manners even of the confined circle in which her muse revolved? Why shouldn't it be argued against her that where her testimony complacently ends the pressure of appetite within us presumes exactly to begin?"
Henry James, The New Novel 1914. [South-87, #22]
An irony here is that a number of literary people have decided that Jane Austen is the artistic mother of Henry James.
Sir Francis Darwin
Evolution and heredity were Darwin family preoccupations. Charles Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1732-1802) was from the same generation as Jane Austen's father. (Charles himself was about eight years old when the great Jane died.) Erasmus was a physician, naturalist, and writer of prose among other things. He recognized the implications of the fossil record, as did so many others, and published his own theory of evolution in Zoonomia (1794-96)—in plenty of time to have been read, perhaps, by the divine Jane. So you see, his more famous grandson, Charles Darwin (1808-82), did not invent the basic idea. What Charles did was supply a carefully constructed description of the fossil record, especially that significant portion he had assembled himself, and he described a plausible theoretical mechanism—natural selection. (Erasmus's theories depended upon mutation as the mechanism for evolution.) In the meantime, another grandson (the younger cousin of Charles Darwin), Francis Galton was expostulating on the related subject of heredity. Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) was a world traveler, anthropologist, meteorologist, applied statistician, writer, and what else.
Francis Galton's studies would take a slightly sinister turn when he founded the theory of eugenics. That certainly contributed to the furtherance of "social Darwinism", which contributed, in turn, to American racism and to justifications of English imperialism and the English class system. Also—it must be said—twentieth century fascist politics borrowed from the eugenics movement. Other than that, eugenics is not so bad—well. Galton has to take some of the blame for all that; read this quote from the great man: "[eugenics] has indeed, strong claims to become an orthodox religious tenet of the future, for Eugenics cooperates with the workings of Nature, by securing that humanity shall be represented by the fittest races. What Nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly". Hmmm, not so quickly there, Sir Francis!
The focus in this posting is on Sir Francis Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin. He greatly admired his father, of course, but he admired his father's cousin as well. He published a set of his own essays and speeches under the same cover in 1917. His Chapter V is titled Jane Austen and contains some interesting observations that I will quote. (That same chapter also contains some looney tunes.) I have read that Jane Austen was a family favorite with everyone including Charles but I have not, as yet, found a quote from him.
"The most obvious characteristic of English country life as described by Jane Austen, is a quietness such as even the elder generation now living have not experienced. ... It is, indeed hard to believe that life was once so placid, so stay-at-home, so domestic, so devoid, not merely of excitement, but of any change whatever. ... Emma never seems to leave home, she had not seen the sea, nor indeed had she (before a memorable occasion) seen Box Hill, a few miles away, although her father kept a carriage and a pair of horses. Nor is there any evidence of her going to London, a distance of sixteen miles. She did not engage in good works; there were no committees or meetings except those held at the 'Crown' at which Mr. Knightly and Mrs. Elton's cara sposo were the leaders, and where no ladies were admitted."
True enough but Sir Francis seems to confuse sedentary with quietude. He also does not seem to notice that the mobility of Emma's sister, Mrs. Elton, and Jane Fairfax destroys his idea of things. It is true that none of them traveled outside of England, but then there were those inconveniences thrown up by the French Army and the Irish patriots. In spite of even that, Mary Wollstonecraft and then her daughter traveled all over Britain and the continent. I should think that Emma, or any other gentlewoman, could have attended any meeting she wished and she would have chosen to attend any place where some of her own monies were being budgeted. I mean, can you imagine Lady Catherine being told that she couldn't attend a meeting because of her gender? I don't think so.
"...What strikes one is rather how much she conveys by touches which seem trifling until we realize the triumph of the result. The effect is not a miniature ... but something essentially broad in spite of its detail ... To discuss why Jane Austen's humour is admirable, or how she reaches such perfection in the drawing of a character, seems to me as hopeless as to ask by what means Bach or Beethoven wrote such divinely beautiful tunes ....
Jane Austen must surely be the most reread author of the last hundred years. ...In this frame of mind one longs for a new Miss Austen more than for a new symphony of Beethoven or a play of Shakespeare ... . The power of endlessly re-reading the novels of Miss Austen is the only advantage conferred by a bad memory. I do not imagine that Macaulay, greatly as he admired her, could have endured to read her as often as I have. Nor am I willing to allow that this is intellectual idleness, for her works like those of Nature, always yield something new to the faithful student.
And she, like Nature, has the power of creating in her devotees a minute interest which I rarely experience in other writers. ..."
Sir Francis Darwin Rustic Sounds
and Other Studies in
Literature and Natural History
Chapter V, 1917
That chapter concludes with some foolishness in which Sir Francis, among other things, arranges Jane Austen's characters into phyla.—Silly, silly eugenics.—Spare me, Sir Francis.
|D. H. Lawrence|
"We can hardly bear to recall the emotions of twenty or fifteen years ago, hardly at all, whereas we respond again quite vividly to the emotions of Jane Austen or Dickens, nearly a hundred years ago."
D. H. Lawrence, introduction to The Mother by Grazia Deledda, 1928
"This again, is the tragedy of social life today. In the old England, the curious blood-connection held the classes together. The squires might be arrogant, violent, bullying and unjust, yet in some ways, they were at one with the people, part of the same blood-stream. We feel it in Defoe or Fielding. And then, in the mean Jane Austen, it is gone. Already this old maid typifies 'personality' instead of character, the sharp knowing in apartness instead of togetherness, and she is, to my feeling, English in the bad, mean snobbish sense of the word, just as Fielding is English in the good generous sense."
D. H. Lawrence, Apropos of Lady Chatterley's Lover 1930
By all means, push me around all you want - as long as you feel at one with me - that will make all the difference. Well, Jane Austen's family was upwardly mobile beginning with her father; the Austens were seeking entrance and hardly had anything to be snobbish about unless it was their talents and accomplishments. I don't have the faintest glimmer of what the great man is suggesting.
"Most works in realism tell a succession of such abject truths; they are deeply in earnest, every detail is true, and yet the whole finally tumbles to the ground--true but without significance."
"How did Jane Austen save her novels from that danger? They appear to be compact of abject truth. Their events are excruciatingly unimportant; and yet, with R. Crusoe, they will probably outlast all Fielding, Scott, George Eliot, Thackeray, and Dickens. The art is so consummate that the secret is hidden; peer at them as hard as one may; shake them; take them apart; one cannot see how it is done."
Thornton Wilder, preface for Our Town, 1938
Winston Churchill authored a multi-volume History of the Second World War. This is from the fifth volume, Closing the Ring, Chapter 7. The Prime Minister was quite ill in December 1943 and found himself "on the flat of his back amid the ruins of ancient Carthage" (modern Tunisia). He was under the pressure of a great workload but was required to rest in order to restore his health. He says this:
"The days passed in much discomfort. Fever flickered in and out. I lived on my theme of the war, and it was like being transported out of oneself. The doctors tried to keep the work away from my bedside, but I defied them. They all kept on saying, 'Don't work, don't worry,' to such an extent that I decided to read a novel. I had long ago read Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, and now I thought I would have Pride and Prejudice. Sarah read it to me beautifully from the foot of the bed. I had always thought it would be better than its rival. What calm lives they had, those people! No worries about the French Revolution, or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars. Only manners controlling natural passion as far as they could, together with cultured explanations of any mischances. All this seemed to go very well with M and B."
Sir Winston Churchill, 1951
Acknowledgement to Kate2 (11/5/98). It was Kate2 who also informed us that "'M and B' refers to May and Baker, a well known pharmaceutical firm who supplied Churchill's anti-pneumonia drugs."
In December of 1943, America had passed the halfway point in its involvement in World War II. It is now clear that all the issues were settled by that time, the outcome was inevitable. However, many millions more would die before the war would end. And, before the end, all the world would learn particular place names - Dachau, Auschwitz, Dresden, and Hiroshima. And, in that same short time frame, the world would be introduced to new machines. Hitler called his rockets the "V2"; the "V" stood for "vengeance weapon". The same name could equally well have been applied to the other machines - the tools of the holocaust, the incendiary bombs of the British, the Kamikaze planes, and the atomic bomb. But, illness carries one benefit, it makes time stand still—stand still enough to allow a great man to dream of another reality, another time when a pair of fine eyes would first eagerly examine Darcy's letter.
Other Male Voices
If you are upset with Mark Twain and
Jane Austen's Time