Sunday, June 9, 2013


In primitive fiction plot is more important than character; as the art advances character becomes the chief interest, and the action is such as springs from it. In the old tales and romances there is no such thing as character in the modern sense; their readers were satisfied with what the heroes and heroines did and suffered.
When the desire for character arose, the novelists loaded their types with attributes; but still there was no character, which is rooted in personality. The novelist of to-day who has not conceived of this is as archaic as any romancer of the Middle Ages in his ideal of art. Most of the novels printed in the last year, in fact, are as crudely devised as those which have amused people of childish imagination at any time in the last thou­sand years; and it will always be so with most novels, because most people are of childish imagination. The masterpieces in fiction are those which delight the mind with the traits of personality, with human nature rec­ognizable by the reader through its truth to himself.
The wonder of Jane Austen is that at a time when even the best fiction was overloaded with incident, and its types went staggering about under the attributes heaped upon them, she imagined getting on with only so much incident as would suffice to let her characters express their natures movingly or amusingly. She seems to have reached this really unsurpassable degree of perfection without a formulated philosophy, and merely by her clear vision of the true relation of art to life; but however she came to be what she was, she was so un­questionably great, so unmistakably the norm and prophecy of most that is excellent in Anglo-Saxon fiction since her time, that I shall make no excuse for what may seem a disproportionate study of her heroines.
Emma Woodhouse, in the story named after her, is one of the most boldly imagined of Jane Austen's hero­ines. Perhaps she is the very most so, for it took su­preme courage to portray a girl, meant to win and keep the reader's fancy, with the characteristics frankly as­cribed to Emma Woodhouse. We are indeed allowed to know that she is pretty; not formally, but casually, from the words of a partial friend: "Such an eye!— the true hazel eye—and so brilliant!—regular features, open countenance, with a complexion—ah, what a bloom of full health, and such a pretty height and size; such a firm and upright figure." But, before we are allowed to see her personal beauty we are made to see in her some of the qualities which are the destined source of trouble for herself and her friends. In her wish to be useful she is patronizing and a little presumptuous; her self-suffi­ciency early appears, and there are hints of her willing­ness to shape the future of others without having past enough of her own to enable her to do it judiciously. The man who afterwards marries her says of her: ‘” She will never submit to anything requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understand­ing. . . . Emma is spoiled by being the cleverest of her family. At ten years old she had the misfortune of being able to answer questions which puzzled her sister at seventeen. She was always quick and assured . . . and ever since she was twelve Emma has been mistress of the house and you all.'"
An officious and self-confident girl, even if pretty, is not usually one to take the fancy, and yet Emma takes the fancy. She manages the delightful and whimsical old invalid her father, but she is devotedly and unself­ishly good to him. She takes the destiny of Harriet Smith unwarrantably into her charge, but she breaks off the girl's love-affair only in the interest of a better match. She decides that Frank Churchill, the stepson of her former governess, will be in love with her, but she never dreams that Mr. Elton, whom she means for Har­riet Smith, can be so. She is not above a little maneuvering for the advantage of those she wishes to serve, but the tacit insincerity of Churchill is intolerable to her. She is unfeelingly neglectful of Jane Fairfax and cruelly suspicious of her, but she generously does what she can to repair the wrong, and she takes her punishment for it meekly and contritely. She makes thoughtless and heartless fun of poor, babbling Miss Bates, but when Knightley calls her to account for it, she repents her unkindness with bitter tears. She will not be advised against her pragmatical schemes by Knightley, but she is humbly anxious for his good opinion. She is charm­ing in the very degree of her feminine complexity, which is finally an endearing single-heartedness.
Her character is shown in an action so slight that the novel of Emma may be said to be hardly more than an exemplification of Emma. In the placid circumstance of English country life where she is the principal social figure the story makes its round with a few events so unexciting as to leave the reader in doubt whether any­thing at all has happened. Mr. Elton, a clerical snob as odious as Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice is amusing, indignantly resents Emma's plan for supplying him with a wife in Harriet Smith, and marries a woman who has Emma's defects without their qualities. Frank Churchill keeps his engagement with Jane Fair­fax a secret till all the possible mischief can come from it, and then acknowledges it just when the fact must be most mortifying and humiliating to Emma. After she has been put to shame before Knightley in every way, she finds herself beloved and honored by him and in the way to be happily married. There are, meantime, a few dances and picnics, dinners and teas; Harriet Smith is frightened by gypsies, and some hen-roosts are robbed. There is not an accident, even of the mild and beneficent type of Louisa Musgrove's in Persua­sion; there is not an elopement, even of the bouffe nat­ure of Lydia's in Pride and Prejudice; there is noth­ing at all so tragic as Catharine Morland's expulsion by General Tilney in Northanger Abbey. Duels and abductions, of course, there are none; for Jane Austen had put from her all the machinery of the great and little novelists of the eighteenth century, and openly mocked at it. This has not prevented its being fre­quently used since, and she shows herself more modern than all her predecessors and contemporaries and most of her successors, in the rejection of the major means and the employment of the minor means to produce the enduring effects of "Emma." Among her quiet books it is almost the quietest, and so far as the novel can suggest that repose which is the ideal of art "Emma" suggests it, in an action of unsurpassed unity, con­sequence, and simplicity.
It is difficult to detach from the drama any scene which shall present Emma in a moment more characteristic than other moments; but that in which Knightley takes her to task for her behavior to Miss Bates can be chosen, because it illustrates the courageous naturalness with which she is studied throughout. "While waiting for the carriage, she found Mr. Knightley at her side. He looked around, as if to see that no one were near, and then said, ' Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do. . . .1 cannot see you acting wrong without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeel­ing to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation? Emma, I had not thought it possible!' Emma recollect­ed, blushed, was sorry, but tried to laugh it off. ' Nay, how could I have helped saying what I did? Nobody could have helped it. It was not so very bad. I dare say she did not understand me.' ' I assure you she did. She felt your full meaning. She has talked of it since. I wish you could have heard how she talked of it—with what candor and generosity. I wish you could have heard her honoring your forbearance . . . when her society must be so irksome.' 'Oh,' cried Emma, ' I know there is not a better creature in the world; but you must allow that what is good and what is ridiculous are most unfortunately blended in her.' 'They are blended, I acknowledge,' he said,' and were . . . she a woman of fortune, I would leave her every harmless absurdity to take its chance. . . . Were she your equal in situation—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case! She is poor; she is sunk from the com­forts she was born to; and if she should live to old age must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honor—to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her—and before her niece, too—and before many others, many of whom (certainly some) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her. This is not pleasant to you, Emma, and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will—I will tell you truths while I can . . . trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now.' While they talked, they were advancing towards the carriage; it was ready, and before she could speak again he had handed her in. He had misinterpreted the feelings which had kept her face averted and her tongue motionless. They were combined only of anger against herself, mortification, and deep concern. She had not been able to speak, and on entering the carriage, sunk back for a moment overcome; then reproaching herself for having taken no leave, making no acknowledgment, parting in apparent sullenness, she looked out with voice and hand eager to show a difference; but it was too late. He had turned away, and the horses were in mo­tion. . . . Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home, without being at any trouble to check them, extraordinary as they were."
It is not on such grounds, in such terms, that a heroine is often talked to in a novel, and it is not so that she commonly takes a talking-to. But it is to be remembered that Knightley is not only Emma's tacit lover; he is the brother of her sister's husband, and much her own elder, and as a family friend has some right to scold her. It is to be considered also that she is herself a singular type among heroines: a type which Jane Austen per­fected if she did not invent, and in that varied sister­hood she has the distinction, if not the advantage, of being an entirely natural girl, and a nice girl, in spite of her faults.
Sense and Sensibility is the most conventional, the most mechanical of the author's novels. The title, like that of Pride and Prejudice implies the task of developing two opposite characters in the antithesis which suggests itself; but Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are contrasted much more directly and obviously than Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. These, indeed, are often interchangeably proud and prejudiced; but Elinor is always a person of sense, and Marianne is always a person of sensibility. One sister always looks the facts of life in the face; the other always sees them through a cloud of romantic emotions. It is not pretended that the wise virgin escapes suffering any more than the foolish, and so far the novel attests itself the effect of Jane Austen's clear perception and faithful observation. It abounds in the truth and courage which distinguish everything she did, and it is perhaps more humorously just and more unsparingly exigent of true ideals than some other books of hers. But it is built more than her other books upon the lines of the accepted fiction of her time, or of the times before hers. In the affair of Marianne's false-hearted lover Willoughby there is al­most a reversion to the novel in which young men habit­ually sought the love of trusting girls and betrayed it. It was in fact her earliest novel and she first wrote it in the form of letters. Then, after she had practiced her 'prentice hand to mastery in Pride and Prejudice, she recast Sense and Sensibility in its present shape. It is only inferior to her other novels; compared with most of the novels that had gone before hers, this least of Jane Austen's is a masterpiece; and the romantic Marianne, even more than the matter-of-fact Elinor, is a picture of girlhood touched in with tender truth, and with the caressing irony which still leaves the character pleasing.
The story is distinctively modern in giving a de­scription of the sister heroines, which was probably an afterthought, and occurred to the author in the making over. "Miss Dashwood," she says, "had a delicate complexion, regular features, and a remarkably pretty figure. Marianne was still handsomer. Her form, though not so correct as her sister's, in having the ad­vantage of height, was more striking. . . . Her skin was very brown, but from its transparency, her com­plexion was uncommonly brilliant; her features were all good; her smile sweet and attractive, and in her eyes, which were very dark, there was a life, a spirit, an eager­ness, which could hardly be seen without delight." Marianne's mother is as romantic as the girl herself, and it is by her connivance that the girl thinks it a kind of merit to be a credulous simpleton, and to believe more in the love of the cruel scoundrel who flatters and jilts her than he openly asks her to do. When she finds her­self in London, shortly after their parting in the country with all the forms of tacit devotion, on his part, and he snubs her at their first meeting in society, she owns in her shame and grief, that there has been no engage­ment. "' It was every day implied, but never professed­ly declared. Sometimes I thought it had been—but it never was.' Yet with a faith in his unplighted truth as absolute as the sense of her own loyalty to him, she would have been ready to seize upon him, and claim all his remembered tenderness, if her sister had not prevented her.
"'Good Heaven!' she exclaimed, 'he is there, he is there! Oh! why does he not look at me? Why cannot I speak to him?' 'Pray, pray, be composed,' cried Elinor, ' and do not betray what you feel to every one present. Perhaps he has not observed you yet.' This, however, was more than she could believe herself, and to be composed at such a moment was not only beyond the reach of Marianne, it was beyond her wish. She sat in an agony of impatience that affected every feature. At last he turned round again, and regarded them both; she started up, and pronouncing his name in a tone of affection, held out her hand to him. He approached, and, addressing himself rather to Elinor than Marianne, inquired in a hurried manner after Mrs. Dashwood, and asked how long they had been in town. Elinor was robbed of all presence of mind by such an address. . . . The feelings of her sister were instantly ex­pressed. . . . ' Good God, Willoughby! what is the meaning of this? Have you not received my letters? Will you not shake hands with me?' He could not then avoid it, but her touch seemed painful to him, and he held her hand only for a moment. ' I did myself the honor of calling in Berkeley Street, last Tuesday. My card was not lost, I hope?' ' But have you not re­ceived my notes?' cried Marianne, in the wildest anx­iety. . . . 'Tell me, Willoughby—for Heaven's sake, tell me, what is the matter?' He made no reply; his complexion changed, and all his embarrassment re­turned ; but as if, on catching the eye of the young lady with whom he had been previously talking, he felt the necessity of instant exertion, he recovered himself again, and after saying, ' Yes, I had the pleasure of receiving the information of your arrival in town, which you were so good as to send me,' turned hastily away with a slight bow, and joined his friend. Marianne, now looking dreadfully white, and unable to stand, sunk into her chair. . . . 'Go to him, Elinor,'she said, as soon as she could speak,' and force him to come to me. . . . I cannot rest, I cannot have a moment's peace, till this is explained—some dreadful misapprehension or other. Oh, go to him this moment.' 'How can that be done? No, my dearest Marianne, you must wait. This is not a place for explanations ' . . . Marianne continued incessantly to give way ... in exclamations of wretchedness. In a short time Elinor saw Willoughby quit the room … and telling Marianne that he was gone, urged the impossibility of speaking to him again that evening."
In an earlier age of fiction, if not of society, the folly of Marianne would have meant her ruin; but in the wiser and milder aesthetics of Jane Austen it meant merely her present heart-break, with her final happiness through a worthier love. Hers is a very simple nature, studied with a simpler art than such an intricate charac­ter as Emma's. She has only at all times to be herself, responsive to her mainspring of emotionality; and a girl like Emma has apparently to be different people at different times, in obedience to inconsistent and un­expected impulses. She is therefore perhaps the great­est of Jane Austen's creations, and certainly the most modern; yet even so slight and elemental a character as Marianne is handled with the security and mastery, which were sometimes greater and sometimes less in the author's work.
Persuasion, which was the latest of her novels, is in places the poorest, and Sense and Sensibility, which is, on the whole, the poorest, has moments of being the greatest. There is no such meanness portrayed in all fiction as John Dashwood's, and yet you are made to feel that he would like not to be mean if only he could once rise above himself. In Marianne and her mother, who are such a pair of emotional simpletons, there are traits of generosity that almost redeem their folly, and their limitations in the direction of silliness are as dis­tinctly shown as their excesses. Willoughby himself, who lives to realize that he has never loved anyone but Marianne, and has been given to understand by the relation who leaves her money away from him, "that if he had behaved with honor towards Marianne, he might at once have been happy and rich," even he is not committed wholesale to unavailing regret. "That his repentance of misconduct, which thus brought its own punishment, was sincere, need not be doubted. . . . But that he was forever inconsolable—that he fled from society, or contracted a habitual gloom of temper, or died of a broken heart—must not be depended upon, for he did neither. He lived to exert, and frequently to enjoy himself. His wife was not always out of humor, nor his house always uncomfortable; and in his breed of horses and dogs, and in sporting of every kind, he found no inconsiderable degree of domestic felicity."
It was not Jane Austen's way to do anything whole­sale ; she was far too well acquainted with life, and of too sensitive an artistic conscience for that; and especially in Mansfield Park is one aware of the hand that is held from overdoing. As in Sense and Sensibility, and in fact all her other novels, the subordinate charac­ters are of delightful verity and vitality. Mrs. Norris is of a meanness which in its sort may almost match with John Dashwood's, and Lady Bertram's indolent affections and principles form a personality of almost unique charm. These sisters of Mrs. Price who made an unhappy love marriage beneath her, are of the same quality as she, and their differentiation by environment is one of the subtle triumphs of the author's art.
It is by the same skill that a character so prevalently passive as that of sweet Fanny Price is made insensibly to take and gently to keep the hold of a heroine upon the reader. It would have been so easy in so many ways to overdo her. But she is never once overdone, either when as a child she meets with the cold welcome of charity in her uncle's family, where she afterwards makes herself indispensable, or in her return to her childhood home, which has forgotten her in her long absence. It is not pretended that she is treated by her cousins and her aunts with active unkindness, and she suffers none of the crueler snubbing which cheaply wins a heroine the heart of the witness. When she goes back to Portsmouth on that famous visit, after nine years at Mansfield Park, it is not concealed that she is ashamed of her home, of her weak and slattern mother, of her drinky, smoky, and sweary father, of her rude little brothers and sisters, of the whole shabby and vulgar household. None of the younger children remember her; her father and mother, from moment to moment, in their preoccupation with her brother, who comes with her to get his ship at Portsmouth (we are again among naval people), fail to remember her. All the circumstances are conducive to disgust and resent­ment in a girl who might reasonably have expected to be a distinguished guest for a while at least. But once more that delicately discriminating hand of Jane Austen does its work; it presently appears that the Price house­hold is not so altogether impossible, and that a girl who wishes to be of use to others is not condemned to lasting misery and disgrace in any circumstances. Always the humorous sense of limitations comes in, but the human sense of good-will is there; the recognition of the effect of good-will is distinct but not elaborate. There is more philosophizing and satirizing than would be present in a more recent novel of equal mastery; but the characterization is as net as in the highest art of any time.
Sweet Fanny Price goes back to Mansfield Park with almost as little notice from her family as when she came to Portsmouth; but she has done them good, and is the better and stronger for her unrequited self-devotion. It is not pretended that she takes any active part in sup­porting the family at Mansfield Park under the dis­grace which has befallen them through the elopement of one daughter to be divorced and of another to be married. Her function is best suggested by the ex­clamation with which her aunt Bertram falls upon her neck, "Dear Fanny, now I shall be comfortable." To be a comfort, that has always been Fanny Price's rare privilege, and she imparts to the reader something of the consolation she brings to all the people in the story who need the help of her sympathy. Possibly there was never a heroine, except Anne Eliot, who was so passive, without being spectacularly passive, if it is permitted so to phrase the rather intangible fact; and yet who so endeared herself to the fancy.
One is not passionately in love with Fanny Price, as one is with some heroines; one is quite willing Edward Bertram should have her in the end; but she is one of the sweetest and dearest girls in the world, though these words, too, rather oversay her. She is another proof of Jane Austen's constant courage, which was also her constant wisdom, in being true to life. It is not only wit like Elizabeth Bennet’s, sensibility like Marianne Dashwood’s, complexity like Emma Woodhouse's, or utter innocence like Catharine Morland's that is charm­ing. Goodness is charming, patience, usefulness, for­bearance, meekness, are charming, as Jane Austen di­vined in such contrasting types as Fanny Price and Anne Eliot. If any young lady has a mind to be like them, she can learn how in two of the most interesting books in the world.
Some of the old English novels were amazing suc­cesses even when compared with the most worthless novels of recent days. Pamela, and Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison were read all over the Continent. The Vicar of Wakefield was the gospel of a new art to Germany, where Goethe said that it per­manently influenced his character. Evelina and Cecilia were the passions of people of taste every­where, and when their trembling author was presented to Louis XVIII. in Paris, he complimented her upon her novels, which were known also to the first Napoleon. No such glories attended Jane Austen in her lifetime. She found with difficulty a publisher for her greatest book, and a public quite as slow and reluctant. But her publishers and her public have been increasing ever since, and they were never so numerous as now. Whether they will ever be fewer, it would be useless to ask; what we know without asking, from the evidence of her work, is that in the real qualities of greatness she is still the most actual of all her contemporaries, of nearly all her successors.

Author: W. D. Howells
Book: Heroines of Fiction
KEYWODS: Jane austen, emma woodhouse, fanny price, marianna dashwood

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