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Letters to Dead Poets: To Jane Austen

by Andrew Lang

Madam,—If to the enjoyments of your present state be lacking a view of the minor infirmities or foibles of men, I cannot but think (were the thought permitted) that your pleasures are yet incomplete.  Moreover, it is certain that a woman of parts who has once meddled with literature will never wholly lose her love for the discussion of that delicious topic, nor cease to relish what (in the cant of our new age) is styled “literary shop.”  For these reasons I attempt to convey to you some inkling of the present state of that agreeable art which you, madam, raised to its highest pitch of perfection.

As to your own works (immortal, as I believe), I have but little that is wholly cheering to tell one who, among women of letters, was almost alone in her freedom from a lettered vanity.  You are not a very popular author: your volumes are not found in gaudy covers on every bookstall; or, if found, are not perused with avidity by the Emmas and Catherines of our generation.  ’Tis not long since a blow was dealt (in the estimation of the unreasoning) at your character as an author by the publication of your familiar letters.  The editor of these epistles, unfortunately, did not always take your witticisms, and he added others which were too unmistakably his own.  While the injudicious were disappointed by the absence of your exquisite style and humour, the wiser sort were the more convinced of your wisdom.  In your letters (knowing your correspondents) you gave but the small personal talk of the hour, for them sufficient; for your books you reserved matter and expression which are imperishable.  Your admirers, if not very numerous, include all persons of taste, who, in your favour, are apt somewhat to abate the rule, or shake off the habit, which commonly confines them to but temperate laudation.

’Tis the fault of all art to seem antiquated and faded in the eyes of the succeeding generation.  The manners of your age were not the manners of to-day, and young gentlemen and ladies who think Scott “slow,” think Miss Austen “prim” and “dreary.”  Yet, even could you return among us, I scarcely believe that, speaking the language of the hour, as you might, and versed in its habits, you would win the general admiration.  For how tame, madam, are your characters, especially your favourite heroines! how limited the life which you knew and described! how narrow the range of your incidents! how correct your grammar!

As heroines, for example, you chose ladies like Emma, and Elizabeth, and Catherine: women remarkable neither for the brilliance nor for the degradation of their birth; women wrapped up in their own and the parish’s concerns, ignorant of evil, as it seems, and unacquainted with vain yearnings and interesting doubts.  Who can engage his fancy with their match-makings and the conduct of their affections, when so many daring and dazzling heroines approach and solicit his regard?

Here are princesses dressed in white velvet stamped with golden fleurs-de-lys—ladies with hearts of ice and lips of fire, who count their roubles by the million, their lovers by the score, and even their husbands, very often, in figures of some arithmetical importance.  With these are the immaculate daughters of itinerant Italian musicians—maids whose souls are unsoiled amidst the contaminations of our streets, and whose acquaintance with the art of Phidias and Praxiteles, of Dædalus and Scopas, is the more admirable, because entirely derived from loving study of the inexpensive collections vended by the plaster-of-Paris man round the corner.  When such heroines are wooed by the nephews of Dukes, where are your Emmas and Elizabeths?  Your volumes neither excite nor satisfy the curiosities provoked by that modern and scientific fiction, which is greatly admired, I learn, in the United States, as well as in France and at home.

You erred, it cannot be denied, with your eyes open.  Knowing Lydia and Kitty so intimately as you did, why did you make of them almost insignificant characters?  With Lydia for a heroine you might have gone far; and, had you devoted three volumes, and the chief of your time, to the passions of Kitty, you might have held your own, even now, in the circulating library.  How Lyddy, perched on a corner of the roof, first beheld her Wickham; how, on her challenge, he climbed up by a ladder to her side; how they kissed, caressed, swung on gates together, met at odd seasons, in strange places, and finally eloped: all this might have been put in the mouth of a jealous elder sister, say Elizabeth, and you would not have been less popular than several favourites of our time.  Had you cast the whole narrative into the present tense, and lingered lovingly over the thickness of Mary’s legs and the softness of Kitty’s cheeks, and the blonde fluffiness of Wickham’s whiskers, you would have left a romance still dear to young ladies.

Or, again, you might entrance fair students still, had you concentrated your attention on Mrs. Rushworth, who eloped with Henry Crawford.  These should have been the chief figures of “Mansfield Park.”  But you timidly decline to tackle Passion.  “Let other pens,” you write, “dwell on guilt and misery.  I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can.”  Ah, there is the secret of your failure!  Need I add that the vulgarity and narrowness of the social circles you describe impair your popularity?  I scarce remember more than one lady of title, and but very few lords (and these unessential) in all your tales.  Now, when we all wish to be in society, we demand plenty of titles in our novels, at any rate, and we get lords (and very queer lords) even from Republican authors, born in a country which in your time was not renowned for its literature.  I have heard a critic remark, with a decided air of fashion, on the brevity of the notice which your characters give each other when they offer invitations to dinner.  “An invitation to dinner next day was despatched,” and this demonstrates that your acquaintance “went out” very little, and had but few engagements.  How vulgar, too, is one of your heroines, who bids Mr. Darcy “keep his breath to cool his porridge.”  I blush for Elizabeth!  It were superfluous to add that your characters are debased by being invariably mere members of the Church of England as by law established.  The Dissenting enthusiast, the open soul that glides from Esoteric Buddhism to the Salvation Army, and from the Higher Pantheism to the Higher Paganism, we look for in vain among your studies of character.  Nay, the very words I employ are of unknown sound to you; so how can you help us in the stress of the soul’s travailings?

You may say that the soul’s travailings are no affair of yours; proving thereby that you have indeed but a lowly conception of the duty of the novelist.  I only remember one reference, in all your works, to that controversy which occupies the chief of our attention—the great controversy on Creation or Evolution.  Your Jane Bennet cries: “I have no idea of there being so much Design in the world as some persons imagine.”  Nor do you touch on our mighty social question, the Land Laws, save when Mrs. Bennet appears as a Land Reformer, and rails bitterly against the cruelty “of settling an estate away from a family of five daughters, in favour of a man whom nobody cared anything about.”  There, madam, in that cruelly unjust performance, what a text you had for atendenz-romanz.  Nay, you can allow Kitty to report that a Private had been flogged, without introducing a chapter on Flogging in the Army.  But you formally declined to stretch your matter out, here and there, “with solemn specious nonsense about something unconnected with the story.”  No “padding” for Miss Austen! in fact, madam, as you were born before Analysis came in, or Passion, or Realism, or Naturalism, or Irreverence, or Religious Open-mindedness, you really cannot hope to rival your literary sisters in the minds of a perplexed generation.  Your heroines are not passionate, we do not see their red wet cheeks, and tresses dishevelled in the manner of our frank young Mænads.  What says your best successor, a lady who adds fresh lustre to a name that in fiction equals yours?  She says of Miss Austen: “Her heroines have a stamp of their own.  They have a certain gentle self-respect and humour and hardness of heart . . . Love with them does not mean a passion as much as an interest, deep and silent.”  I think one prefers them so, and that Englishwomen should be more like Anne Elliot than Maggie Tulliver.  “All the privilege I claim for my own sex is that of loving longest when existence or when hope is gone,” said Anne; perhaps she insisted on a monopoly that neither sex has all to itself.  Ah, madam, what a relief it is to come back to your witty volumes, and forget the follies of to-day in those of Mr. Collins and of Mrs. Bennet!  How fine, nay, how noble is your art in its delicate reserve, never insisting, never forcing the note, never pushing the sketch into the caricature!  You worked, without thinking of it, in the spirit of Greece, on a labour happily limited, and exquisitely organised.  “Dear books,” we say, with Miss Thackeray—“dear books, bright, sparkling with wit and animation, in which the homely heroines charm, the dull hours fly, and the very bores are enchanting.”