Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham


  I am sure that Mrs. Knight, Lady Bridges, Edward and his wife, were very kind to Jane, and liked her, as how could they fail to, but it is not unreasonable to suppose that they thought the two sisters not quite up to the mark. They were provincial. There was still in the eighteenth century a good deal of difference between the people who lived for at least part of the year in London and those who never left the country. The difference provided the writers of comedy with their most fruitful material. Bingley’s sisters in Pride and Prejudice despised the Misses Bennet for their want of style, and Elizabeth Bennet on the other hand had little patience for what she considered their affectations. The Misses Bennet were a step higher in the social scale than the Misses Austen, because Mr. Bennet was a landed proprietor, though not a rich one, whereas the Rev. George Austen was a poor country parson.

  It would not be strange if, with her upbringing, Jane was a trifle wanting in the elegances valued by the ladies of Kent; and if that were so, and it had escaped the sharp eyes of Fanny, we may be sure that her mother would have remarked on it. Jane was frank and outspoken, and I daresay often indulged in a blunt humour which those humourless females failed to appreciate. We can imagine their embarrassment if she said to them what she wrote to Cassandra, that she had a good eye for an adultress. She was born in 1775. That is only twenty-five years after the publication of Tom Jones, and there is no reason to suppose that in the interval the manners of the country had greatly changed. Jane’s may well have been such as Lady Knatchbull, fifty years later, considered, ‘below par as to good society and its ways.’ When Jane went to stay with Mrs. Knight at Canterbury, it is probable, from what Lady Knatchbull says, that the elder lady gave her hints on behaviour which made her more ‘refined’. It may be on that account that in her novels she lays so much stress on good breeding. A novelist to-day, writing of the same class as she did, would take that for granted. For my part, I can see nothing to blame in Lady Knatchbull’s letter. Her pen’s end ‘chose to come along and speak the truth’. And what of it? It does not offend me in the least to guess that Jane spoke with a Hampshire accent, that her manners lacked a certain polish, and that her home-made dresses were in bad taste. We know, indeed, from Caroline Austen’s Memoir, that the family were agreed that the sisters, notwithstanding their interest in clothes, did not dress well; but whether dowdily or unsuitably is not stated. The members of the family who have written about Jane Austen have been at pains to give it greater social consequence than in point of fact belonged to it. This was unnecessary. The Austens were nice, honest, worthy people, belonging to the fringe of the upper-middle class, and they were perhaps a little more conscious of their position than if it had been more assured. The sisters were at ease, as Lady Knatchbull observed, with the people with whom they chiefly consorted, and they, according to her, were not at all high-bred. When they were confronted with persons of somewhat higher station, like Bingley’s sisters, women of fashion, they were apt to protect themselves by being critical. Of the Rev. George Austen we know nothing. His wife seems to have been a good, rather silly woman, who was constantly troubled with ailments which her daughters appear to have treated with kindness not unmingled with irony. She lived to hard upon ninety. The boys, till they went out into the world, presumably indulged in such sport as the country provided and, when they could borrow a horse, rode to hounds.

  Austen Leigh was Jane’s first biographer. There is a passage in his book from which, by the exercise of a little imagination, we can get some idea of the sort of life she led during the long quiet years she spent in Hampshire. ‘It may be asserted as a general truth,’ he writes, ‘that less was left to the charge and discretion of servants, and more was done, or superintended by the masters and mistresses. With regard to the mistresses, it is, I believe, generally understood that … they took a personal part in the higher branches of cookery, as well as in the concoction of home-made wines, and distilling of herbs for domestic medicine … Ladies did not disdain to spin thread out of which the household linen was woven. Some ladies liked to wash with their own hands their choice china after breakfast and tea.’ From the letters one gathers that sometimes the Austens were without a servant at all, and at others had to make do with a slip of a girl who knew nothing. Cassandra did the cooking, not because ladies ‘left less to the charge and discretion of servants’, but because there was no servant to do it. The Austens were neither poor nor rich. Mrs. Austen and her daughters made most of their own clothes, and the girls made their brothers’ shirts. They made their mead at home, and Mrs. Austen cured the household hams. Pleasures were simple and the great excitement was a ball given by one of the more affluent neighbours. There were in England, in that long-past time, hundreds of families who lived such quiet, humdrum and decent lives: is it not strange that one of them, without rhyme or reason, should have produced a greatly gifted novelist?

  (3)

  Jane was very human. In her youth she loved dancing and flirting and theatricals. She liked young men to be good-looking. She took a healthy interest in gowns, bonnets and scarves. She was a fine needlewoman, ‘both plain and ornamental’ and this must have stood her in good stead when she was making over an old gown and using part of a discarded skirt to fashion a new cap. Her brother Henry in his Memoir says: ‘Jane Austen was successful in everything that she attempted with her fingers. None of us could throw spilikins in so perfect a circle, or take them off with so steady a hand. Her performances with cup and ball were marvellous. The one used at Chawton was an easy one, and she has been known to catch it on the point a hundred times in succession, till her hand was weary. She sometimes found a resource in that simple game, when unable, from weakness in her eyes, to read or write long together.’

  It is a charming picture.

  No one could describe Jane Austen as a blue-stocking, a type with which she had no sympathy, but it is plain that she was far from being an uncultivated woman. She was, in fact, as well instructed as any woman of her time and station. Dr. Champman, the great authority on her novels, has made a list of the books she is known to have read. It is an imposing one. Of course she read novels, the novels of Fanny Burney, Miss Edgeworth and those of Mrs. Radcliffe (of The Mysteries of Udolpho); and she read novels translated from French and German (among others, Goethe’s Sorrows of Werther); and whatever novels she could get from the circulating library at Bath or Southampton. But she was interested not only in fiction. She knew her Shakespeare well and, among the moderns, she read Scott and Byron, but her favourite poet seems to have been Cowper. It is natural that his cool, elegant and sensible verse should have appealed to her. She read Johnson and Boswell, and a good deal of history, besides miscellaneous literature of various kinds. She was fond of reading aloud, and is said to have had a pleasant voice.

  She read sermons, and was particularly fond of Sherlock’s, a divine born in the seventeenth century. That is not so surprising as at first sight appears. In my early youth I lived in a country vicarage, and in the study several shelves were closely packed with handsomely-bound collections of sermons. If they were published, it was presumably because they sold; and if they sold, it was because people read them. Jane Austen was pious without being devout. Of course she went to church on Sundays, and partook of communion; and doubtless both at Steventon and Godmersham family prayers were read morning and evening. But, as Dr. Chapman says: ‘It was admittedly not an age of religious ferment.’ Just as we take a bath every day and wash our teeth morning and evening, and only feel at ease if we have done so; so, I should think, Miss Austen, like most others of her generation, having with proper unction performed her religious duties, put away the matters with which religion is concerned, as one puts away an article of clothing one does not for the moment want, and, for the rest of the day and week, gave her whole mind with an untroubled conscience to secular affairs. ‘The evangelists were not yet.’ A gentleman’s younger son was properly provided for by taking orders and being given a family living. It was unnecessary that he shoul
d have a vocation, but desirable that the house he was to live in should be commodious and the income adequate. But, taking orders, it was only right that he should perform the duties of his profession. Jane Austen certainly believed that a clergyman should ‘live among his parishioners and prove himself by constant attention their well-wisher and friend’. That is what her brother Henry had done; he was witty and gay, the most brilliant of her brothers; he went into business and for some years greatly prospered; eventually, however, he went bankrupt. He then took orders, and was an exemplary parish priest.

  Jane Austen shared the opinions common in her day and, so far as one can tell from her books and letters, was satisfied with the conditions that prevailed. She had no doubt that social distinctions were of importance, and she found it natural that there should be rich and poor. Young men, as was right and proper, obtained advancement in the service of the King by the influence of powerful friends. A woman’s business was to marry, for love certainly, but in satisfactory conditions. This was in the order of things, and there is no sign that Miss Austen saw anything in it to object to. In one of her letters to Cassandra she remarks: ‘Carlo and his wife live in the most private manner imaginable at Portsmouth, without keeping a servant of any kind. What a prodigious amount of virtue she must have to marry under such circumstances.’ The vulgar squalor in which Fanny Price’s family lived, owing to her mother’s imprudent marriage, was an object-lesson to show how careful a young woman should be.

  (4)

  Jane Austen’s novels are pure entertainment. If you happen to believe that to entertain should be the novelist’s main endeavour, you must put her in a class by herself. Greater novels than hers have been written, War and Peace, for example, and the Brothers Karamazov; but you must be fresh and alert to read them with profit. No matter if you are tired and dispirited, Jane Austen’s enchant.

  At the time she wrote, it was thought far from ladylike for a woman to do so. Monk Lewis observed: ‘I have an aversion, a pity and contempt for all female scribblers. The needle, not the pen, is the instrument they should handle, and the only one they ever use dexterously.’ The novel was a form held in scant esteem, and Miss Austen was herself not a little perturbed that Sir Walter Scott, a poet, should write fiction. She was ‘careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants, or visitors, or any person beyond her family party. She wrote upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper. There was between the front door and the offices, a swing door which creaked when it was opened; but she objected to having this little inconvenience remedied, because it gave her notice when anyone was coming.’ Her eldest brother, James never even told his son, then a boy at school, that the books he read with delight were by his Aunt Jane; and her brother Henry in his Memoir states: ‘No accumulation of fame would have induced her, had she lived, to affix her name to any productions of her pen,’ So her first book to be published, Sense and Sensibility, was described on the title pages as ‘by a Lady’.

  It was not the first she completed. That was a novel called First Impressions. Her father wrote to a publisher offering for publication, at the author’s expense or otherwise, a ‘manuscript novel, comprising three volumes; about the length of Miss Burney’s Evelina’. The offer was refused by return of post. First Impressions was begun during the winter of 1796 and finished in August 1797; it is generally supposed to have been substantially the same book as sixteen years later was issued as Pride and Prejudice. Then, in quick succession she wrote Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey, but had no better luck with them, though after five years a Mr. Richard Crosby bought the latter, then called Susan, for ten pounds. He never published it, and eventually sold it back for what he had paid: since Miss Austen’s novels were published anonymously, he had no notion that the book with which he had parted for so small a sum was by the successful and popular author of Pride and Prejudice. She seems to have written little but a fragment, The Watsons, between 1798, when she finished Northanger Abbey, and 1809. It is a long time for a writer of such creative power to remain silent, and it has been suggested that the cause was a love affair that occupied her to the exclusion of other interests. We are told that, when staying with her mother and sister at a seaside resort in Devonshire, ‘she became acquainted with a gentleman, whose charm of person, mind and manners was such that Cassandra thought him worthy to possess and likely to win her sister’s love. When they parted he expressed his intention of soon seeing them again; and Cassandra felt no doubt as to his motives. But they never again met. Within a short time, they heard of his sudden death.’ The acquaintance was short, and the author of the Memoir adds that he is unable to say ‘whether her feelings were of such a nature as to affect her happiness’. I do not for my part think they were. I do not believe that Miss Austen was capable of being very much in love. If she had been, she would surely have attributed to her heroines a greater warmth of emotion than in fact she did. There is no passion in their love. Their inclinations are tempered with prudence and controlled by common sense. Real love has no truck with these estimable qualities. Take Persuasion: Jane states that Anne Elliot and Wentworth fell deeply in love with one another. There, I think, she deceived herself and deceives her readers. On Wentworth’s side it was certainly what Stendhal called amour passion, but on Anne’s no more than what he called amour goût. They became engaged. Anne allows herself to be persuaded by that interfering snob, Lady Russell, that it would be imprudent to marry a poor man, a naval officer, who might be killed in the war. If she had been deeply in love with Wentworth, she would surely have taken the risk. It was not a very great one, for on her marriage she was to receive her share of her mother’s fortune; this share amounted to rather more than three thousand pounds, equivalent now to over twelve thousand; so in any case she would not have been penniless. She might very well, like Captain Benwick and Miss Hargreaves, have remained engaged to Wentworth till he got his command and so was able to marry her. Anne Elliot broke off her engagement because Lady Russell persuaded her that she might make a better match if she waited, and it was not till no suitor, whom she was prepared to marry, presented himself that she discovered how much she loved Wentworth. We may be pretty sure that Jane Austen thought her behaviour natural and reasonable.

  The most plausible explanation of her long silence is that she was discouraged by her inability to find a publisher. Her close relations, to whom she read her novels, were charmed by them, but she was as sensible as she was modest, and she may well have decided that their appeal was only to persons who were fond of her, and had, perhaps, a shrewd idea who the models of her characters were. The author of the Memoir rejects emphatically that she had such models, and Dr. Chapman seems to agree with him. They are claiming for Jane Austen a power of invention which is frankly incredible. All the greatest novelists, Stendhal and Balzac, Tolstoy and Turgenev, Dickens and Thackeray, have had models from whom they created their characters. It is true that Jane said: ‘I am too proud of my gentlemen to admit that they were only Mr. A, or Colonel B.’ There the significant word is only. As with every other novelist, by the time her imagination had worked on the person who had suggested the character, he was to all intents and purposes her own creation; but that is not to say that he was not evolved from an original Mr. A. or Colonel B.

  Be that as it may, in 1809, in which year Jane settled with her mother and sister in the quiet of Chawton, she set about revising her old manuscripts, and in 1811 Sense and Sensibility at last appeared. By then it was no longer outrageous for a woman to write. Professor Spurgeon, in a lecture on Jane Austen delivered to the Royal Society of Literature, quotes a preface to Original Letters from India by Eliza Fay. This lady had been urged to publish them in 1792, but public opinion was so averse ‘to female authorship’ that she declined. But writing in 1816, she said: ‘Since then a considerable change has gradually taken place in public sentiment, and its development; we have now not only as in former days a number of women wh
o do honour to their sex as literary characters, but many unpretending females, who fearless of the critical perils that once attended the voyage, venture to launch their little barks on the vast ocean through which amusement or instruction is conveyed to a reading public.’

  Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813. Jane Austen sold the copyright for one hundred and ten pounds.

 
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