Jane Austen: Modernist

“How Jane Austen can write!” — E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel 

Having been instructed by the Prince Regent to show Miss Jane Austen around the sumptuous Carlton House, the royal librarian, James Stanier Clarke, had not only been bold enough to suggest that her forthcoming novel, Emma (1815), be dedicated to the future King George IV (which it was), but he had taken to writing to her with suggestions for future projects. One suggestion was a romance story set amidst “the august House of Coburg”. Austen replied:

You are very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Coburg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life of country villagers as I deal in. But I could no more write a romance than an epic poem … No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.

Clarke was not the only adviser to Austen. Friends and relatives too were often free with well-meaning suggestions, and in response to these “helpers” she penned the unpublished short satirical piece “Plan of a Novel, According to Hints from Various Quarters” in 1816.

This appreciation appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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Unsurprisingly, the Plan reveals a rural setting, and a heroine who will be the daughter of a retired and widowed clergyman with “a very small fortune”. Austen suggests that both must be faultless; she beautiful and he a literary enthusiast. They will be bothered by an anti-hero in the shape of an undesirable and unprincipled young man who troubles both father and daughter with persistent expressions of unwanted love for the latter. This will drive them from their previous peaceful village existence, and force them to flit from one place to another with the dastardly suitor in pursuit. Eventually they will be forced to flee England for Europe (notes in the manuscript margin indicate that this was another one of Mr Clarke’s ideas) where they will experience many adventures. As soon as they enter various countries, a procession of cads fall in love with the heroine and press for her father’s consent in marriage. A life on the run and a shortage of funds considerably wear the two down, and the heroine being “now & then starved to death” soon resembles a skeleton. At their lowest ebb the fugitives are compelled to seek refuge in the arctic climes of the tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula in far eastern Russia, about as geographically distant from England as possible:

where the poor Father, quite worn down, finding his end approaching, throws himself on the Ground, and after 4 or 5 hours of tender advice and parental Admonitions to his miserable Child expires in a fine burst of Literary Enthusiasms intermingled with Invectives against holders of Tithes.

Naturally the heroine is shaken by this. After a time however, she “crawls back towards her former Country—having at least 20 narrow escapes” from falling into the hands of the original and determined lovestruck beau. Nevertheless, there is a bright side to all of this. The heroine has, at some point, met a real hero and at an appropriate juncture he will, with all haste, come to the rescue. One easily predicts the rest. Austen closes with: “The name of the work not to be Emma, but of the same sort as S&S [Sense and Sensibility] and P&P [Pride and Prejudice].”

Might we suggest Grime and Edginess? “Plan of a Novel” is Austen being wickedly funny. George Meredith might have later deemed it High Comedy.

Austen’s own expressed view of herself as a writer—the miniaturist with “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush”—should be taken not as a self-deprecatory remark by some sort of shrinking violet. On the contrary, it was a confident and honest self-appraisal by a mature novelist who had committed herself determinedly to write only about what she had personally observed or heard. Virginia Woolf puts it succinctly:

Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching … That was how Shakespeare wrote … If Jane Austen suffered in any way from her circumstances, it was in the narrowness of life that was imposed upon her. It was impossible for a woman to go about alone … But perhaps it was the nature of Jane Austen not to want what she had not. Her gift and her circumstances matched each other completely…

There is neither excessive wealth nor extreme poverty in Austen’s novels. We never hear men talk amongst themselves. An event may be a shower of rain, a catastrophe a cancelled dinner party. A conversation will centre around the postal service or how best to avoid the common cold. Something extraordinary might be the notion of a young gentleman (as in Emma) travelling sixteen miles to and from London for a haircut. The two constants in Austen’s novels are money and marriage (there are five weddings, either realised or prospective, in Emma alone), or, as David Cecil put it, the notion that while it may be wrong to marry for money, “it was silly to marry without it”. Or again, as Austen noted herself in a letter: “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.”

W.H. Auden’s “Letter to Lord Byron” (1937) addresses this Austen phenomenon more lyrically:

Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle-class
Describe the amorous effects of “brass”,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society …

So, what is it that makes Austen a great novelist? Walter Scott famously noted that Austen:

had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I have ever met with. The big bow-wow strain I can do myself like any going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.

Those whose knowledge of Austen’s books is based solely on the numerous films and television series adaptations, might be surprised by the fact that the works themselves are minimalist regarding description. Detail of dress, landscape and places of abode are merely outlined. In Pride and Prejudice (1813) it is enough that Mr Darcy is a “tall person” with “handsome features” and is capable of a “noble mien” or that Elizabeth Bennet in one instance may have dressed with “more than usual care” but that is it. George Eliot’s soulmate, George Henry Lewes, was so intrigued by the rationing out of physical description in Austen’s novels that he noted that he often wondered whether she had been short-sighted. Further to this, as John Wiltshire has pointed out, we do not precisely know where the Bennet seniors are, at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, when discussing the fact that Netherfield Park has at last been let. Are they taking a stroll, or seated by the fire, or has Mrs Bennet entered Mr Bennet’s hallowed library? Or are they in bed? 

And indeed, many critics have concentrated on what is not there in Austen’s novels. Lionel Stevenson made much of the lack of kissing. He came up with a meagre tally of sixteen and took particular delight in revealing that none of these were shared by lovers. Academics relish such things. In Emma, for instance, it has been noted that the words superior and inferior appear three times more often than in the other novels. Inspired by such endeavours, my own recent re-reading of Emma, on the lookout for the physical bits, amounted to the following short list:

♦ On occasions young ladies shake hands; “tender embraces” are exchanged only once.

♦ Mr Knightley is asked to assist Jane Fairfax by offering his arm.

♦ Mr Elton’s “violent love” is expressed only by his slightly inebriated speech.

♦ Mrs Weston kisses Emma with “tears of joy”.

♦ Mr Weston shakes Emma “heartily by the hand”.

♦ Mr Knightley is offered Emma’s hand, takes it, but thinks again about placing it to his lips.

This is not to support Stevenson’s accusation of an “absence of passion”, and that Austen was “suspicious of emotion”—or his extrapolation that these “omissions” should be labelled “grave limitations”. As we have seen in the “Plan of a Novel”, Austen viewed the sort of writing that over-emphasised the romantic and sentimental as the trite rubbish that it truly was—and furthermore, knew it to be undeserving of her skills. It is self-evident that her focus as a novelist lay elsewhere.

Much discussion has also centred on the war with Napoleon and the French Revolution being scarcely touched upon in the Austen novels. Though a “Janeite” himself—he attributed two A’s, Antibiotics and Austen, as getting him through a bout of influenza during the Second World War—Winston Churchill observed of Pride and Prejudice:

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.

Another British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, admitted to having read Pride and Prejudice seventeen times.

Somerset Maugham, in his essay “Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice” (1954), dismissed concerns about Austen’s apparent lack of interest in politics by declaring that most of the novels that had addressed historical issues in his own lifetime were already “as dead as mutton”, and had, in hindsight, been “as ephemeral as the newspapers that told us day by day what was happening”. In his view, she was wise to avoid them. As for Austen herself, even one of her more naive characters, Catherine Morland, in Northanger Abbey (completed in 1803 but published posthumously in 1817), observes that history:

tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome.

Paradoxically, the fascination with Austen, the great matchmaker of Regency England, has never waned. An intuitive realism that saw no need for laboured metaphors or symbols, and one which dealt rather with the intricacies of personal relationships, has given her novels a sense of timelessness present only in the highest art.

Emma, the novel whose heroine Austen feared nobody other than herself would “much like”, provides the best example of Austen as an experimental writer. An example:

The hair was curled, and the maid sent away, and **** sat down to think and be miserable.—It was a wretched business!—It was a wretched business indeed!—Such an overthrow of every thing she had been wishing for!—Such a development of every thing most unwelcome!—Such a blow for *******!—That was the worst of all.

With the names Emma and Harriet omitted here, could we be excused for taking this as a paragraph lifted from Madame Bovary (1856) perhaps? The incorporation of thought into the narrative structure of the novel may well be taken for granted as a literary device since Austen, but Emma can lay claim to being the most successful early example of a novel’s narrative developing in tandem with the consciousness of its central character (a feature emphasised by the fact that there are only four brief scenes in which Emma Woodhouse is not present).

Emma again—a group conversation on a hot day while picking strawberries:

The best fruit in England—every body’s favourite—always wholesome. These the finest beds and finest sorts.—Delightful to gather for one’s self—the only way of really enjoying them.—Morning decidedly the best time—never tired—every sort good—hautboy infinitely superior—no comparison—the others hardly eatable—hautboys very scarce—Chili preferred—white wood finest of all—prices of strawberries in London—abundance about Bristol—Maple Grove—cultivation—beds when to be renewed—gardeners thinking exactly different—no general rule—gardeners never to be put out of their way—delicious fruit—only too rich to be eaten much of—inferior to cherries—currants more refreshing—only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping—glaring sun—tired to death—could bear it no longer—must go and sit in the shade.

Austen’s style here provides the perfect model for the internal monologues of the principal characters of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) a century later. Her acute recognition of the importance of the commonplace is also evidenced by Emma’s observations and thoughts as she waits by a doorway while Harriet Smith attends to some shopping:

Mr Perry walking hastily by, Mr William Cox letting himself in at the office-door, Mr Cole’s carriage horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her eyes fell on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker’s little bow window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer. She looked down the Randalls road …

In Ulysses, we have:

By lorries along Sir John Rogerson’s Quay Mr Bloom walked soberly, past Windmill lane, Leask’s the linseed crusher, the postal telegraph office…He turned from the morning noises of the quayside and walked through Lime street. By Brady’s cottages a boy for the skins lolled, his bucket of offal linked, smoking a chewed fagbutt. A smaller girl with scars of eczema on her forehead eyed him.

The mood is different, the effect the same.

Joseph Conrad was one who simply never got Austen. In a 1901 letter to H.G. Wells he complained: “What is all this about Jane Austen? What is there in her? What is it all about?” Austen’s Emma may have provided a pragmatic answer: “One half of the world cannot understand the pleasure of the other.”

Meanwhile, we must assume that Austen’s father, the Reverend George, had more than an inkling of his young daughter’s talents: and here we must remind ourselves that the first version of Pride and Prejudice (First Impressions) was written when she had just turned twenty-one. Not only did he provide his daughter with a neat mahogany and leather-topped writing desk, and glass inkstand for her nineteenth birthday, but he had also inscribed for her an earlier gift, a new notebook, with the entirely appropriate title: Effusions of Fancy by a Young Lady Consisting of Tales in a Style Entirely New.

Barry Gillard, who lives in Geelong, is a frequent contributor. He wrote on P.G. Wodehouse in the July-August issue.


3 thoughts on “Jane Austen: Modernist

  • bomber49 says:

    Quoting Jane Austen, “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.” willI get me into a lot of trouble.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    I reread Pride and Prejudice at least once every year or so. It is without the slightest doubt the best book I’ve ever read.

  • Sindri says:

    “Is he married or single?”
    “Oh! Single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”
    “How so? How can it affect them?”
    “My dear Mr. Bennet,” replied his wife, “how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them.”
    “Is that his design in settling here?”


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