Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham


  3

  Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice

  (1)

  The events of Jane Austen’s life can be told very briefly. The Austens were an old family whose fortunes, like those of many of the greatest families in England, had been founded on the wool trade, which was at one time the country’s staple industry; and having made money, again like others of greater importance, they had bought land and so, in course of time, joined the ranks of the landed gentry. But the branch of the family to which Jane Austen belonged seems to have inherited very little of such wealth as its other members possessed. It had come down in the world. Jane’s father, George Austen, was the son of William Austen, a surgeon of Tonbridge, a profession which at the beginning of the eighteenth century was regarded no more highly than the attorney’s; and, as we know from Persuasion, even in Jane Austen’s day an attorney was a person of no social consequence. It shocks Lady Russell, ‘the widow only of a knight’, that Miss Elliot, the daughter of a baronet, should have social relations with Mrs. Clay, daughter of an attorney, ‘who ought to have been nothing to her but the object of distant civility.’ William Austen, the surgeon, died early, and his brother, Francis Austen, sent the orphaned boy to Tonbridge School and afterwards to St. John’s College, Oxford. These facts I learn from Dr. R. W. Chapman’s Clark Lectures, which he has published under the title Jane Austen Facts and Problems. For all that follows I am indebted to this admirable book.

  George Austen became a Fellow of his college and, on taking orders, was presented with the living of Steventon, in Hampshire, by a kinsman, Thomas Knight of Godmersham. Two years later, George Austen’s uncle bought him the near-by living of Deane. Since we are told nothing of this generous man, we may surmise that, like Mr. Gardner in Pride and Prejudice, he was in trade.

  The Rev. George Austen married Cassandra Leigh, the daughter of Thomas Leigh, a Fellow of All Souls and incumbent of the living of Harpsden near Henley. She was what was known in my youth as well-connected; that is to say, like the Hares of Hurstmonceux, she was distinctly related to members of the landed gentry and the aristocracy. It was a step up for the surgeon’s son. Eight children were born of the marriage: two daughters, Cassandra and Jane, and six sons. To add to his income, the rector of Steventon took pupils, and his sons were educated at home. Two went to St. John’s College, Oxford, because through their mother they were founder’s Kin; of one, George by name, nothing is known, and Dr. Chapman suggests that he was deaf and dumb; two others entered the Navy and had careers of distinction: the lucky one was Edward, who was adopted by Thomas Knight and inherited his estates in Kent and Hampshire.

  Jane, Mrs. Austen’s younger daughter, was born in 1775. When she was twenty-six, her father resigned his living in favour of his eldest son, who had taken orders, and moved to Bath. He died in 1805, and some months later his widow and daughters settled in Southampton. It was while there that, after paying a call with her mother, Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra: ‘We found only Mrs. Lance at home, and whether she boasts any offspring besides a grand pianoforte did not appear … They live in a handsome style and are rich, and she seems to like to be rich; we gave her to understand that we were far from being so; she will soon feel that we are not worth her acquaintance.’ Mrs. Austen was indeed left badly off, but her sons added enough to her income to enable her to live in tolerable comfort. Edward, after making the Grand Tour, married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Brook Bridges, Bart., of Goodnestone; and three years after Thomas Knight’s death in 1794, his widow made over to him Godmersham and Chawton and retired to Canterbury with an annuity. A good many years later, Edward offered his mother a house on either of his estates; she chose Chawton; and there, with occasional visits, sometimes lasting for many weeks, to friends and relations, Jane lived till illness obliged her to go to Winchester in order to put herself in the hands of better doctors than could be found in the country. At Winchester in 1817 she died. She was buried in the Cathedral.

  (2)

  Jane Austen is said to have been in person very attractive: ‘Her figure was rather tall and slender, her step light and firm, and her whole appearance expressive of health and animation. In complexion she was a clear brunette with a rich colour; she had full round cheeks with mouth and nose small and well-formed, bright hazel eyes, and brown hair forming natural curls close round her face.’ The only portrait of her I have seen shows a fat-faced young woman with undistinguished features, large round eyes and an obtrusive bust; but it may be that the artist did her less than justice.

  Jane was greatly attached to her sister. As girls and women they were very much together and, indeed, shared the same bedroom till Jane’s death. When Cassandra was sent to school, Jane went with her because, though too young to profit by such instruction as the seminary for young ladies provided, she would have been wretched without her. ‘If Cassandra were going to have her head cut off,’ said her mother, ‘Jane would insist on sharing her fate.’ ‘Cassandra was handsomer than Jane, of a colder and calmer disposition, less demonstrative and of a less sunny nature; but she had the merit of always having her temper under command, but Jane had the happiness of a temper that never required to be commanded.’ Most of Jane’s letters that have remained were written to Cassandra when one or other of the sisters was staying away. Many of her warmest admirers have found them paltry, and have thought they showed that she was cold and unfeeling and that her interests were trivial. I am surprised. They are very natural. Jane Austen never imagined that anyone but Cassandra would read them, and she told her just the sort of things that she knew would interest her. She told her what people were wearing, and how much she had paid for the flowered muslin she had bought, what acquaintances she had made, what old friends she had met and what gossip she had heard.

  Of late years, several collections of letters by eminent authors have been published, and for my part, when I read them, I am now and then disposed to suspect that the writers had at the back of their minds the notion that one day they might find their way into print. And when I learn that they had kept copies of their letters, the suspicion is changed into certainty. When André Gide wished to publish his correspondence with Claudel, and Claudel, who perhaps didn’t wish it to be published, told him that Gide’s letters had been destroyed, Gide answered that it was no matter as he had kept copies of them. André Gide has told us himself that when he discovered that his wife had burned his love letters to her, he cried for a week, since he had looked upon them as the summit of his literary achievement and his chief claim on the attention of posterity. Whenever Dickens went on a journey, he wrote long letters to his friends in which he described eloquently the sights he had seen; and which, as John Forster, his first biographer, justly observes, might well have been printed without the alteration of a single word. People were more patient in those days; still, one would have thought it a disappointment to receive a letter from your friend, who gave you word pictures of mountains and monuments when you would have been glad to know whether he had run across anyone of interest, what parties he had been to and whether he had been able to get you the books, neck-clothes or handkerchiefs you had asked him to bring home.

  In one of her letters to Cassandra, Jane said: ‘I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth. I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter.’ Of course she was quite right; that is the art of letter-writing. She attained it with consummate ease, and since she says that her conversation was exactly like her letters, and her letters are full of witty, ironical and malicious remarks, we may be pretty sure that her conversation was delightful. She hardly ever wrote a letter that had not a smile or a laugh in it, and for the delectation of the reader I will give some examples of her manner:

  ‘Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.’

  ‘Only think of Mrs. Holde
r being dead! Poor woman, she has done the only thing in the world she could possibly do to make one cease to abuse her.’

  ‘Mrs. Hale, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.’

  ‘The death of Mrs. W. K. we had seen. I had no idea that anybody liked her, and therefore felt nothing for any survivor, but I am now feeling away on her husband’s account and think he had better marry Miss Sharpe.’

  ‘I respect Mrs. Chamberlayne for doing her hair well, but cannot feel a more tender sentiment. Miss Langley is like any other short girl with a broad nose and wide mouth, fashionable dress and exposed bosom. Admiral Stanhope is a gentlemanlike man, but then his legs are too short and his tail too long.’

  ‘Eliza has seen Lord Craven at Barton, and probably by this time at Kentbury, where he was expected for one day this week. She found his manners very pleasing indeed. The little flaw of having a mistress now living with him at Ashdown Park seems to be the only unpleasing circumstance about him.’

  ‘Mr. W. is about five or six and twenty, not ill-looking and not agreeable. He is certainly no addition. A sort of cool, gentlemanlike manner, but very silent. They say his name is Henry, a proof how unequally the gifts of fortune are bestowed. I have seen many a John and Thomas much more agreeable.’

  ‘Mrs. Richard Harvey is going to be married, but as it is a great secret, and only known to half the neighbourhood, you must not mention it.’

  ‘Dr. Hale is in such very deep mourning that either his mother, his wife or himself must be dead.’

  Miss Austen was fond of dancing and she gave Cassandra an account of the balls she went to:

  ‘There were only twelve dances, of which I danced nine, and was merely prevented from dancing the rest by want of a partner.’

  ‘There was one gentleman, an officer of the Cheshire, a very good-looking young man, who, I was told, wanted very much to be introduced to me; but as he did not want it quite enough to take much trouble in effecting it, we never could bring it about.’

  ‘There were few beauties, and such as there were, were not very handsome. Miss Iremonger did not look well and Mrs. Blunt was the only one much admired. She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband and fat neck.’

  ‘Charles Powlett gave a dance on Thursday to the great disturbance of all his neighbours, of course, who you know take a most lively interest in the state of his finances, and live in hopes of his being soon ruined. His wife is discovered to be everything that the neighbourhood would wish her to be, silly and cross as well as extravagant.’

  A relation of the Austens seems to have given occasion to gossip owing to the behaviour of a certain Dr. Mant, behaviour such that his wife retired to her mother’s, whereupon Jane wrote: ‘But as Dr. M. is a clergyman their attachment, however immoral, has a decorous air.’

  Miss Austen had a sharp tongue and a prodigious sense of humour. She liked to laugh, and she liked to make others laugh. It is asking too much of the humorist to expect him – or her – to keep a good thing to himself when he thinks of it. And, heaven knows, it is hard to be funny without being sometimes a little malicious. There is not much kick in the milk of human kindness. Jane had a keen appreciation of the absurdity of others, their pretensions, their affectations and their insincerities; and it is to her credit that they amused rather than annoyed her. She was too amiable to say things to people that would pain them, but she certainly saw no harm in amusing herself at their expense with Cassandra. I see no ill-nature even in the most biting of her remarks; her humour was based, as humour should be, on observation and mother-wit. But when there was occasion for it, Miss Austen could be serious. Though Edward Austen inherited from Thomas Knight estates in Kent and in Hampshire, he lived for the most part at Godmersham Park, near Canterbury, and here Cassandra and Jane came in turn to stay, sometimes for as long as three months. His eldest daughter, Fanny, was Jane’s favourite niece. She eventually married Sir Edward Knatchbull, whose son was raised to the peerage and assumed the title of Lord Brabourne. It was he who first published Jane Austen’s letters. There are two which she wrote to Fanny, when that young person was considering how to cope with the attentions of a young man who wanted to marry her. They are admirable both for their cool sense and their tenderness.

  It was a shock to Jane Austen’s many admirers when, a few years ago, Mr. Peter Quennell published in The Cornhill a letter which Fanny, by this time Lady Knatchbull, many years later wrote to her younger sister, Mrs. Rice, in which she spoke of her famous aunt. It is so surprising, but so characteristic of the period, that, having received permission from the late Lord Brabourne to do so, I here reprint it. The italics mark the words the writer underlined. Since Edward Austen in 1812 changed his name to Knight, it may be worth while to point out that the Mrs. Knight Lady Knatchbull refers to is the widow of Thomas Knight. From the way the letter begins, it is evident that Mrs. Rice was uneasy about some things she had heard that reflected on her Aunt Jane’s gentility, and had written to enquire whether they were by any frightful chance true. Lady Knatchbull replied as follows:

  ‘Yes my love it is very true that Aunt Jane from various circumstances was not so refined as she ought to have been from her talent, and if she had lived fifty years later she would have been in many respects more suitable to our more refined tastes. They were not rich & the people around with whom they chiefly mixed, were not at all high bred, or in short anything more than mediocre & they of course tho’ superior in mental powers cultivation were on the same level as far as refinement goes – but I think in later life their intercourse with Mrs. Knight (who was very fond & kind to them) improved them both & Aunt Jane was too clever not to put aside all possible signs of “commonness” (if such an expression is allowable) & teach herself to be more refined at least in intercourse with people in general. Both the aunts (Cassandra and Jane) were brought up in the most complete ignorance of the World & its ways (I mean as to fashion etc.) & if it had not been for Papa’s marriage which brought them into Kent, & the kindness of Mrs. Knight, who used often to have one or other of the sisters staying with her, they would have been, tho’ not less clever and agreeable in themselves, very much below par as to good society and its ways. If you hate all this I beg yr’ pardon, but I felt it at my pen’s end & it chose to come along & speak the truth. It is now nearly dressing time …

  ‘… I am ever beloved Sister yours most affec.

  ‘F.C.K.’

  This letter has excited the indignation of Jane’s devotees, and they have claimed that Lady Knatchbull was senile when she wrote it. There is nothing in the letter to suggest that; nor, surely, would Mrs. Rice have written to make the enquiry had she thought her sister in no condition to answer it. It has seemed to the devotees dreadfully ungrateful that Fanny, whom Jane doted on, should have expressed herself in such terms. There they show themselves ingenuous. It is regrettable, but it is a fact, that children do not look upon their parents, or their relations belonging to another generation, with the same degree of affection as their parents, or relations look upon them. Parents and relations are very unwise to expect it. Jane, as we know, never married, and she gave Fanny something of the mother-love she would, had she married, have bestowed on her own children. She was fond of children, and was a favourite with them; they liked her playful ways and the long circumstantial stories she told them. She and Fanny became fast friends. Fanny could talk to her in a way that perhaps she couldn’t with her father, occupied with the pursuits of the country squire that he had become, or with her mother, who was continuously giving birth to offspring. But children have sharp eyes, and are apt to judge cruelly. When Edward Austen inherited Godmersham and Chawton, he rose in the world, and his marriage allied him with the best families of the County. We know nothing of what Jane and Cassandra thought of his wife. Dr. Chapman tolerantly suggests that it was her l
oss which made Edward feel ‘that he ought to do more for his mother and sisters, and induced him to offer them a cottage on one or other of his estates’. He had been in possession of them for twelve years. It seems to me more likely that his wife thought they did enough for the members of his family if they were asked at intervals to pay them visits, and did not welcome the notion of having them permanently settled on her doorstep; and it was her death that freed him to do what he liked with his own property. If this were so, it cannot have escaped Jane’s sharp eyes, and may well have suggested those passages in Sense and Sensibility in which she describes John Dashwood’s treatment of his stepmother and her daughters. Jane and Cassandra were poor relations. If they were asked to spend long periods with their rich brother and his wife, with Mrs. Knight at Canterbury, with Lady Bridges, Elizabeth Knight’s mother, at Goodnestone, it was a kindness of which their hosts were not improbably conscious. Few of us are so well constituted that we can do others a good turn without taking some credit to ourselves. When Jane went to stay with the elder Mrs. Knight, she always gave her a ‘tip’ at the end of her visit, which Jane accepted with alacrity, and in one of her letters to Cassandra she tells her that her brother Edward had given Fanny and her a present of five pounds. Quite a nice little present to give to a young daughter, kindly to give to a governess, but only patronising to give to a sister.

 
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