Literary Shelf

Jane Austen: The Grand Old Lady of English Novel

It is on 18th July, 1817 that Jane Austen, the universally acknowledged English novelist, died in Winchester at a very young age of 42. As the ceremonies associated with the 200th anniversary of her death came to an end, your most obedient joins the rest of Janeits in paying homage to her.

Jane Austen was born on December 16th 1775, the seventh of eight children of a clergyman in Hampshire, England. As her father felt it too expensive to send her to school, she instead educating herself in her father’s library started writing as a teenager. Her first novel, Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811. It was followed by Pride and Prejudice—which she described as her “own darling child”—in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814, and Emma in 1815. Her final two novels: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously. Jane Austen is one of those rarely endowed novelists who still enjoys enduring popularity both among academic and common readers.

During the last 200 years, her novels were sold in millions, been translated into many other languages, been adapted to make theatrical presentations, innumerable films and television serials. And in between many Pundits: the feminists, the realists, the moralists, the Marxists, the Freudians, the semioticians, including the deconstructors have all written so much about Austen—the “English spinster of the middle class” who “Revel so frankly and with such sobriety / The economic basis of society” — and her half-a-dozen novels that there is nothing left out for anyone to say anew.

Yet, your most obedient ventures to write a few paras not because he is bugged by Austen fever, or, colonial-hang-up but more out of eagerness to join the rest in paying tributes to the lady who so romantically narrated the society’s unabashed concern for rank, prestige and money that in effect defined the very relationships between men and women of Georgian era. And, it holds good for today too!

Obviously, her novels are romantic comedies: mostly about “tall, dark, handsome, brooding, clever, noble, and uninhibitedly rich” heroes owning “a vast estate, a house in town, a ‘clear’ ten thousand per annum”, and penniless but beautiful heroines except Emma with no liveable prospect other than a “comfortless spinsterhood” gatherings in the landscaped gardens of the Victorian mansions, opulent drawing rooms and revelling in house parties afforded by lots of stashed dough and unlimited leisure, of course with many written/unwritten ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’; suddenly an obstacle popping up between the hero and heroine, mostly money-related; no wonder if even a vamp comes up in between to harass the already heaving hero for some time; and somehow the hero and heroine finally working out their way to a merry conclusion—marriage.

Although some intellectuals speak of her novels in condescending terms—rubbishing them as routine stuff, even at times equating them with the paperbacks from Mills & Boons—yet they had a charm of their own: I believe they are pretty suckers. They amazingly suck you in under the panic of unsatisfied expectations: we wonder who would marry the poor heroine; we fret and fume at her confinement; we marvel at her candour in exchanges, which often times lands her into isolation from the hero even; we surprise at her self-repression; we get terrified at her all-pervading boredom while the “turns and twists in the dialogue keep us on the tenterhooks of suspense” and believe me when I say that this curiosity haunts you despite knowing the fact that all her novels are certain to end up in consummation.

Now the question is: why this panicky? The simple answer is: Jane Austen’s style of narrating the truth, truth behind the characters as is shared by them about their little self-delusions, their misjudgements, their errors and reflections thereof, all interlaced by a third-person perspective narrated in the style of ‘free indirect discourse’— all put together sucking in the reader by the strength of the slanted-truth of the narration and indeed making the reader a part of the social structure and its evolving dynamics.

To let you appreciate the effect of Austen’s style of narration of a third-party perspective, I may quote this sentence from Sense and Sensibility for you to read: “And among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreements between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.” And, won’t you think it is the phrase ‘though sisters’ that is the real sucker which keeps you turning the pages?

Although all that Charlotte Bronte could find in Austen’s writing is a mere “commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat boarders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, …” you are sure to feel in that vivid imagination of her about the society around the time which is steeped in reality as though you are sitting in that garden with the characters and enjoying their play. Why, no wonder, induced by her composition, if you were expanding those life scenes in your mind … musing over those apparently trivial scenes. For, as GH Lewes said what we after all “most hardily enjoy and applaud, is truth in the delineation of life and character: incidents however wonderful, adventures however perilous, are almost as naught when compared with the deep and lasting interest by anything like a correct representation of life.” And that’s what perhaps kept her novels “hang there complete by themselves” for the last two centuries holding mirror unto successive generations.

As Virginia Wolf said, Austen “knew exactly what her powers were, and what material they were fitted to deal with.” For instance, she seldom entered into a romantic moment whole-heartedly. She could make night appear “solemn, and soothing, and lovely” without of course, uttering the word moon even once, but by simply contrasting “the brilliancy of an unclouded night” with that of “the deep shade of the woods.” With “the extraordinary endowments of her mind”, had she not died at the height of her powers at that young age of 42, she would have certainly written more, and must have written differently too. At least that is what one is tempted to speculate reading her last novel, Persuasion.

There is a certain beauty, a certain newness in Persuasion, which made Pundits to recognise it as “the most beautiful of her works.” It is a novel about ‘second chance’ in the love of Anne, the heroine who is no longer in the bloom of her youth, nor quite in the autumn of her days, yet the mood is autumnal, for “she had been forced into prudence in her [very] youth” or, is it because of her silently regretting her lost love for eight and a half years, that too, while sympathising with the happiness and unhappiness of other women amidst the “the tawny leaves and withered hedges”?

Anne’s life looks horrible, for she, having made to reject her engagement to Captain Wentworth, the most dashing of Austen heroes, had nothing to look forward to. Watching her friend Mrs Smith living in penury and realizing what a few strokes of ill-luck can bring to people, Anne wonders if there is any alternative to live the rest of life as a miserable dependent of Lady Russel! She is thus deeply conscious of the complexities of life, particularly of the lot of dependent-women vis-à-vis the outgoing and enterprising men folk.

And this maturity of Anne—the understanding, sensible, and cultivated lady from a good family— well reflects in one of the moving scenes that comes towards the end of the novel, when Anne and Wentworth’s friend Captain Harville discuss animatedly the difference between male and female passion and the capacity for constancy of either sex. Harville says, “I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.” Listening to him, she replies: “Perhaps, I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.” Continuing rashly, in a heart-wrenching candour, Anne mutters: “All the privilege I claim for my own sex, is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.” This indeed is an unusual emotional scene where we see Jane Austen forthcoming to comment on aesthetic facts too. Overhearing this conversation and emboldened by it, Wentworth renews his proposal to Anne and thus her years of being bullied by her father and her sisters come to an end. As the melancholy terminates into their marriage, all ends well. No wonder, if Herald Bloom called Persuasion “the perfect novel”.

Through her novels, Jane Austen emerges as one of the finest observers of the human heart and social customs. Through her novels, she indeed analyses the issues of the day. Just look at some of her acute observations on life and living: “Give a girl an education and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody”; “It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy – it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others”; or this, “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.” As Virginia Wolf wrote, if Jane Austen had been alive to write more, she would have “devised a method, clear and composed as ever … for conveying not only what people say, but what they leave unsaid; not only what they are, but what life is.”

Before concluding, let me venture to say that most of her characters, at least to my mind, echo sentiments quite akin to an ordinary Indian reader: “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance…” says Charlotte in Pride and Prejudice, while Mary in Mansfield Park observes marriage as “a manoeuvring business.” Letting us know thus the economic status of women in the marriage market of the day, Jane firmly endorses the aim of marrying for love as Catherine declares in Northanger Abbey: “…to marry for money I think the wickedest thing in existence.” She is even more emphatic in Persuasion, when she opens the last chapter of the novel with the narration: “…When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other’s ultimate comfort.” And then comes Jane’s assertion in no uncertain terms: “This may be bad morality to conclude, but I believe it to be truth.” And interestingly, on getting the acceptance of a woman Jane’s hero must apply to her father for marriage as Darcy did in Pride and Prejudice. Once marriage is over, Jane Austen’s characters stand by it for ever believing it as well-nigh irreversible. “Being captivated by youth and beauty”, Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, having married could not but live with Mrs Bennet though “Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown”, by consoling himself from his error of choice by immersing himself in his books.

So, for now let me stop here…wishing that you all would enjoy “staying at home for real comfort”, perhaps, curling up on the divan with your choicest novel of the “most perfect artist among women” … re-reading Jane Austen to commemorate the 201st anniversary of her death.


More by :  Gollamudi Radha Krishna Murty

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