All her adventures were by proxy, through her pen; and even there she needed few, since she found sufficient fascination in the ordinary life of genteel, but educated and sensitive, women like herself. Her father was rector of Steventon parish in Hampshire. She was born in the parsonage, and lived there till she was twenty-six. In 1809 her brother Edward provided his mother and sisters with a home in Chawton. There she lived till her final year, varying her simple routine with visits to her brothers and a stay in London. In May, 1817, she went to Winchester for medical treatment, and there, on July 18, she died, unmarried, aged forty-one.
She gave suspense and meaning to her life by the sisterly love that warms her letters; by her subtle and slightly sardonic humor, which caught the absurdities and hidden anxieties of life, and portrayed them without bitterness; and by her enjoyment of the rural scenery and easy tempo of provincial days. She had enough of London to dislike it; she gave no fond picture of it, as a cross between dingy poverty and well-bred decay; it was a place where bored country girls came to be seduced. The finer sort of English living, she felt, was in the lower aristocracy of the countryside; in their homes family discipline and a treasured tradition generated stability and a quiet content. In those pockets of peace one seldom heard of the French Revolution, and Napoleon was too distant a bogey to take one’s mind off the more urgent business of getting a fit partner for the dance or for life. Religion had its place in those homes, but kept it, and had been pared of its terrors by a secret sophistication, such as might well flourish in a parsonage. The Industrial Revolution had not yet reached into the countryside to embitter the classes and sully scene and air. We hear Jane Austen’s authentic voice in her commiseration with Fanny Price, who had to spend some unwilling months in London:
It was sad to Fanny to lose all the pleasures of spring…. She had not known before how much the beginnings and progress of vegetation had delighted her. What animation, both of body and mind, she had derived from watching the advance of that season which cannot, in spite of its capriciousness, be unlovely, seeing its increasing beauties from the earliest flowers in the warmest divisions of her aunt’s garden, to the opening leaves of her uncle’s plantations and the glory of his woods.1
It was such an environment—a comfortable home, a fragrant garden, an evening walk with gay sisters, an encouraging word from a father who praised and peddled her manuscripts—that put into Jane Austen’s novels a fresh air of peace, health, and goodwill, and that gives to her unhurried readers a quiet satisfaction hardly to be found in any other novels. She had learned that the day itself is blessing enough.
So she wrote her six novels, and waited patiently for that unhurried public. In 1795, aged twenty, she composed the first form of Sense and Sensibility, but it did not satisfy her, and she laid it aside. In the next two years she labored over Pride and Prejudice, revised it and revised it, and sent it to a publisher, who returned it as promising no profit. In 1798–99 she put into shape Northanger Abbey; Richard Crosby bought it, but let it lie unpublished. Then came a barren interlude, disturbed by change of residence, and perhaps by discouragement. In February, 1811, she began Mansfield Park; and in November Sense and Sensibility, rewritten, reached print. Then, in her last five years, came a rich harvest: Pride and Prejudice found a publisher in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814,Emma in 1816; and in 1817, after her death, Northanger Abbey surfaced, and soon Persuasion appeared.
Pride and Prejudice offers at the outset a bevy of five sisters, all ready and eager for marriage. Mrs. Bennet is a flighty, exclamatory soul, whose morning prayer and hourly thought are to find husbands for her brood. Mr. Bennet has learned to retire from his wordy wife to his library, where the words make no noise, and he has quite given up the problem of providing five dowries of land or pounds. He holds his home only till his death; thereafter it goes by entail to the Reverend Mr. Collins, the still unmarried parson of a nearby town. If one of those five sisters could snare that dominie!
The oldest and loveliest, Jane, has set her aim on the rich and handsome Mr. Bingley, but he seems to prefer another candidate, and Jane hardly hides her grief. Elizabeth, next in age, is proud not of her face or form but of her independent, self-reliant character; she thinks for herself, and is not to be auctioned off; she has read widely, and can handle any man in a duel of mind or wit, without being aggressively intellectual; her author frankly admires her. The third sister, Mary, is eagerly nubile, and frets over the long time her predecessors are taking in clearing her way. Lydia, the youngest, wonders why a girl has to wait for the magic formula of marriage before being allowed to explore the mysteries of sex.
The household is brightened by the news that Mr. Collins is planning to pay it a visit. He is a man proudly conscious of his sanctity, but carefully cognizant of class distinctions and material interests; in him the author presents a merciless picture of the caste subservience into which the lower Anglican ministry had fallen; the satire seems extreme, but it is as clean and thorough as a guillotine.
The young reverend comes, sees that lovely Jane is immune, and offers his hand to Elizabeth, who demoralizes the family by refusing him, loath to be imprisoned in his perfections. Mary, feeling that for the third of five sisters to be first to get a husband would be quite a trick, sets her eyes and smiles and delicate attentions upon the fated heir to the property, and charms him into asking Mr. and Mrs. Bennet for her hand.
All seems well, but Lydia, fearing senile virginity, runs off, unwed, with the dashing Mr. Wickham. The entire family is tarnished with her sin, and is shunned by nearly all the neighbors. The Reverend Mr. Collins sends a reproving word to Mr. Bennet: “The death of your daughter would have been a blessing compared with this…. Who will connect themselves with such a family?”2 Elizabeth saves all by alluring the class-prejudiced Mr. Darcy with her proud inaccessibility; he lays his millions at her feet, compels Wickham to cleanse Lydia with marriage, and, by the magic hand of the authoress as a dea ex machina, all problems are solved; even Mr. Bingley discovers that he has always loved Jane.
Mansfield Park is better built: the final solution is forecast near the outset, and is step by step prepared by almost every incident. The characters are not puppets in a plot but souls wondering their way through life, and properly illustrating the remark of Heracleitus (which should be the guide of all fiction), that “a man’s character is his fate.” The Park is the handsome domain of Sir Thomas Bertram, who is a much more solicitous father than Mr. Bennet. He too, however, makes surprising mistakes: absorbed in pursuit of wealth and honor, he lets his eldest son disintegrate morally and physically, and allows his daughter to prolong their vacation in a London society where all the morals of the countryside are the butt of humor instead of the staff of life. It is to his credit that he adopts into his family the modest and sensitive Fanny Price, the impoverished niece of his wife. His consoling pride is his younger son Edmund, who is dedicated to the Church, and is described as all that a future clergyman should be; he is an apology for Mr. Collins. It takes Edmund several hundred pages to realize that his affection for Fanny is more than brotherly love; but in its leisurely course their rising attachment is a pleasant romance in a classic tale.
For even in her studies of love Jane Austen is and was a classic—a lasting excellence and a sober mind. In an age of Udolphian mysteries and Walpolian castles she remained a realistic and rational observer of her time. Her style is as chaste as Dryden’s; her piety is as unemotional as Pope’s. Her scope is narrow, but her probe is deep. She perceives that the basic aspect of life is the conscription of the individual into the service of the race; that the crises of government, the conflicts of power, even the cries for social justice are not as fundamental as the repeated, unconscious effort of youth to mature and be used and consumed. She takes both aspects—female and male —of the human mystery quietly; its ills beyond her curing, its goal beyond her ken. She never raises her voice, but we follow it willingly, so far as the rapids of life will allow; and we can be captured by her calm. Today there is hardly a village in England but has her worshipers.