(From The Short Oxford History of English Literature, by Andrew Sanders)
Wordsworth, goaded by the high poetic standing accorded to Crabbe by the critics of the great early nineteenth-century journals, consistently denigrated his rival's work. In one of his sharper asides he even ventured to compare Crabbe's poetry to Jane Austen's fiction. Though he admitted that her novels were 'an admirable copy of life', he nevertheless insisted that he could not be interested in 'productions of that kind' and, he protested, 'unless the truth of nature were presented to him clarified, as it were, by the prevailing light of imagination, it had scarce any attraction in his eyes'. Wordsworth's comment suggests something of the breadth of the gulf which seemed to separate the new poetry from the staid, older fashion of a literature which aspired merely to represent nature by copying it. The idea of the transforming power of the imagination, which was to become so much of a commonplace of subsequent criticism, cannot uniformly be applied to the literature of the English 'Romantic' period, nor can the absence of visionary gleams or pervading lights be now seen as crucially detrimental to a substantial portion of the poetry and the fiction of the period. Jane Austen (1775-1817) was, according to her first biographer, an admirer of Johnson in prose, Crabbe in verse, and Cowper in both; she 'thoroughly enjoyed' Crabbe's work and would sometimes say 'in jest' that if ever she married at all 'she could fancy being Mrs Crabbe'. Such conservative tastes in matrimony and literature should not be viewed as inconsistent either with Austen's own work or with the opinions of many of her original readers.
J. Austen-Leigh's memoir of his unmarried aunt assumes that she shared the feeling of 'moderate Toryism which prevailed in her family'. Austen's novels ostensibly suggest little active political commitment or deep involvement in national and international affairs. The class to which she belonged, and which her fiction almost exclusively describes, had largely remained unruffled and unthreatened by the ructions across the Channel, but the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, the long-drawn-out conflict between Britain and France and the active risk of a French invasion, left few families untouches by the Napoleonic Empire and the domestic and foreign policies of the succession of repressive Tory governments. Although a well-connected cousin of the Austens had died on the scaffold in France, and although the novelist's two yhounger brothers served as officers in the navy in the great campaign against Napoleon, any discussion of revolutionary politics is eschewed and the war remains a relatively marginal (or at least, largely male) concern, even in novels such as Mansfield Park and Persuasion which introduce naval officers as characters. The desperate domestic measures introduced by British governments to counter political dissent, notably the frequent suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act (which secured the liberty of the citizen against arbitrary imprisonment) and the emergency legislation aimed against all kinds of 'sedition' (such as the enforcement of the Combination Acts), are passed over silently. The agricultural depression which left many farm labourers destitute and the widespread evidence of rural pauperism is glanced at only as the occasion of genteel charity or, as in the case of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, as an occasion for scolding the poor 'into harmony and plenty'. The vast advances in industrialization and imperial expansion, and the social earthquake consequent upon both, elicit mere allusions. The upper-middle-class world of Austen's fiction is seen as secure in its values, its privileges, and its snobberies. It is a society which defines itself very precisely in terms of land, money, and class and it accepts that rank is an essential guinea-stamp. Its awareness of geographical space is generally revealed only with reference to far-flung estates and the incomes derived from them, and to forays into the fashionable society of London or Bath. Its attachment to nature and to natural scenery is expressed in transitory enthusiasms for picnics at Box Hill and trips to the seaside or for parkland disciplined and tidied up by landscape gardeners.
Jane Austen is far too subtle, challenging, and inventive a novelist to be usefully defined by negatives. Her work may seem to stand apart from the preoccupations of many of her literary contemporaries, but it remains very much of its time. It is, in many significant ways, defined in Christianly conservative, but not necessarily reactionary, terms against current radical enthusiasts. It should also be seen as standing in, and presenting variations on, an established fictional tradition. Where new writers who had espoused Jacobin libertarianism spoke of rights, Austen refers to duties; where they look for steady human improvement, she remains sceptical about the nature of the fallen human condition. The late eighteenth-century cultivation of sensibility and sentiment, and the new 'Romantic' insistence on the propirety of passion, are consistently countered in her novels by an ironic exposure of affectation and by a steady affirmation of the virtues of restraint. Austen chose her own literary limitations, not simply because she held that 'three or four families in a country village' were an ideal subject for the novel, but because her omissions were considered and deliberate. Her moral message is infused with an ideological insistence on the merits of good conduct, good manners, sound reason, and marriage as an admirable social institution. She never scorns love, but she balances its often disconcerting and disruptive nature with a firm advocacy of the complementary qualities of self-knowledge, self-discipline, and practicality. Her heroines can be as vivaciously intelligent as Elizabeth Bennett and as witty, egotistic, and independent as Emma Woodhouse, but both, like the essentially introspective Elinor Dashwood or the passive and self-effacing Fanny Price, are finally brought to mature judgement and, by proper extension, emotional fulfilment. The narrative line of Sense and Sensibility (1811), which balances maturity against impulsiveness, also systematically undermines the attractions of superficial glamour and contrasts conflicting value systems and ways of seeing. In the two other novels which were probably begun in the 1790s and later revised, Northanger Abbey (1818) and Pride and Prejudice (1813), first impressions, illusisons, and subjective opinions or prejudices give way to detachment, balance, reasonableness and, more painfully, to humiliating reassessment. Mere cleverness, wit, or spontaneity, though admirable in themselves, are never allowed to triumph without being linked to some steadier moral assurance.
The scrupulous pattern of education that Austen requires of her major characters (both male and female) is also required of her readers. Those who merely seek to escape into a delicately placid and undemanding fictional world wilfully misread her novels. Throughout her work, but especially in her three later novels, Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816), and Persuasion (1818), she obliges readers to participate in the moral processes of disciplined learning, weighing, and judging, and in the gradual establishment of the principle that judgement is contingent upon understanding. This is not to imply that Austen is either priggish or stridently polemic (she is, it should go without saying, one of the most calculatingly amusing of all English novelists), but to suggest that her readers have to be constantly alert to her tone and to her supple narrative method. The relatively restricted world of her novels, and the social and physical confines of her settings, define the limits in which opinions are formed and within which her fools and snobs, her bores and gossips, her prudes and poseurs, must be both endured and accepted. The illusion of actuality which she so succintly suggests also enforces a response to a society confident of its own codes and values. In Emma, for example, we follow the heroine in her often wayward exploration of manipulations, misapprehensions, niceties, complacencies, and lapses in judgement, but we also see her finding a personal liberation within the enclosure of the society whose rules she learns to respect and use. Austen's often astringent anti-romanticism is nowhere more evident than in Mansfield Park, a novel centred on a heroine suffering from what she admits are 'faults of ignorance and timidity', but also one who embodies, like the man she finally marries, a Christian forbearance which can be seen as informing her grasp of tact and decorum. If the values of the novel, most clearly expressed in the embarrassments surrounding the play-acting which so offend Sir Thomas Bertram, often seem to be at odds with twentieth-century preconceptions of character and social action, for Austen such values are projected as essential to the happy development of human affairs. The relatively sombre tone of Persuasion also emphasizes the importance of the process of learning and judging through which all her heroines pass. Anne Elliot is not only Austen's most astute literary critic (she finds it 'the misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely'), she is also her most discriminating woman character, the one whose intelligence most effectively balances the merits of conflicting opinions, ideas, impressions, and feelings. It is against Anne's sunny 'domestic' virtues that the world in which she moves so often seems shallow, worldly, petty, and vain. The freedom which all Austen's lovers attain is a freedom of action and moral decision worked out, not in a deceptively 'gracious' society, but in a post-lapsarian world often unaware that it is in constant need of grace.
SIR WALTER SCOTT