I wish Jane Fairfax very well; but she tires me to death.
How well I know the feeling. When I look at Jane Fairfax, all I see is a woman so obsessed with losing caste that she will gladly spend month after month sponging off her impoverished female relatives. When backed into a corner and forced to accept the position she has always known she must occupy, she collapses and becomes dangerously ill. On some level it is understandable—see elsewhere about “contemptible drudgery”—but that doesn’t make it admirable.
This is assuming, of course, that you have read Emma—possibly even read and re-read, returning every year or two. If you have never read Emma, you’re in for a different experience. The plot is regularly compared to a mystery: pick up the clues, sidestep the false leads, figure out what has been hidden.
List of Illustrations (below)
Emma was officially published “January 1816”. But as Austin Dobson’s introductory essay notes, it was in shops by the end of 1815. (Two years later, the same thing happened with Northanger Abbey.) Pre-publication copies must have been available still earlier, since the book gets a long writeup in the Quarterly Review for October 1815.
The edition used for this ebook was illustrated by Hugh Thomson (1860–1920). He was a popular and busy artist—seen elsewhere on this site as the illustrator of Evelina and co-illustrator (with Herbert Railton) of Coaching Days and Coaching Ways—with good reason. He is never less than delightful.
And better yet: Unlike so many novels one could name, the illustrations in this edition are evenly distributed from beginning to end. Nicely done, Hugh!
This ebook is based on the single-volume 1896 Macmillan edition illustrated by Hugh Thomson. I have broken it into three parts to agree with the original publication’s three volumes. I have also restored the original “double quotes”.
Page numbers in [brackets] indicate full-page illustrations that have been moved to the nearest paragraph break.
Typographical errors are marked with and are listed again at the end of each chapter. The word “invisible” means that the letter or punctuation mark is missing, but there is an appropriately sized blank space. “Corrected from 1816 edition” means that I had doubts, so I checked this edition’s reading against the first edition: Volume I, Volume II, Volume III.
ILLUSTRATED BY HUGH THOMSON
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY AUSTIN DOBSON
MACMILLAN AND CO., Ltd.
NEW YORK: THE MACMILLAN CO.
All rights reserved
Emma, a Novel: By the Author of Pride and Prejudice; 3 vols., 12mo, price One Guinea, was first announced in the Quarterly’s list of New Publications for January 1816—the year which appears upon its title-page. In common with Miss Austen’s previous efforts, it was anonymous; but whereas Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park had been obscurely put forth by the obscure Mr. Egerton of the “Military Library,” Whitehall, Emma was ushered into the world under the auspices of the great Mr. Murray. How this transfer of publishers came about is not stated; but from the fact that the announcement of Emma is immediately followed by that of the second edition of Mansfield Park, it must be assumed that the author’s fortunes were now wholly entrusted to the Albemarle Street house. Notwithstanding the date upon its title-page, it is clear that (as is often the case) Emma was actually in circulation in the December of the previous year, and at a still earlier date either the proofs or the MS. must have been in the hands of the Quarterly’s reviewers, since the book is noticed at considerable length in the number for October 1815. Upon the growth and progress of the story the published correspondence of the author, as usual, throws no light. It should have been begun, however, shortly after Mansfield Park was finished; and, in November 1815,—while Miss Austen was nursing her sick viii brother Henry at 23 Hans Place,—it was apparently passing through the press with all the tardiness traditionally attached to that operation. Proof of this may be said to be supplied by deprecatory explanations from Mr. Murray, and apologies from Mr. Roworth, the Quarterly printer. But before the leisurely letter which tells Cassandra Austen of these things was ended, the book was proceeding—again after the customary fashion of books at press—by leaps and bounds; and in the next bulletin the author is wrestling with the printer’s reader over the inevitable (and generally invaluable) marginal queries in proof. Before the middle of December, Emma was on the point of issue; and before the year had closed it was in the hands of some of the writer’s friends, including, of necessity, that distinguished Patron of Art and Letters, the Prince Regent, to whom, as already related in the Introduction to Pride and Prejudice,1 it had been inscribed by invitation. In writing to the Prince’s librarian, Mr. J. S. Clarke, on the subject of the presentation copy, which was to reach His Royal Highness three days before any one else, Miss Austen (much in the same way as she had done to her sister with regard to Pride and Prejudice) sets forth her own ideas of the new book—the last, as a matter of fact, which she was destined to behold in type. “My greatest anxiety at present is that this fourth work should not disgrace what was good in the others. But on this point (she says) I will do myself the justice to declare that, whatever may be my wishes for its success, I am strongly haunted with the idea that to those readers who have preferred Pride and Prejudice it will appear inferior in wit, and to those who have preferred Mansfield Park inferior in good sense.”
1 Pride and Prejudice (Macmillan’s Illustrated Standard Novels), 1895, xvii.ix
Upon any disparities between Emma and its immediate predecessor, Miss Austen must have derived but scant enlightenment from the notice in the Quarterly, which, by some mischance, while professing to summarise her former novels, is absolutely silent as to Mansfield Park. Of the story of Emma it gives a sufficient report, and an extract of considerable length in illustration of Mr. Woodhouse’s peculiarities. The merits of the author are declared to consist in the neatness and point of the narrative, and the quiet comedy of the dialogue, “in which the characters of the speakers evolve themselves with dramatic effect”; while the faults are said to lie in the minute detail of the plan, and in a certain tedium in the presentment of such “characters of folly and simplicity” as Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates. This latter deliverance, as may well be imagined, gave but qualified satisfaction to Miss Austen’s first biographer, Mr. Austen-Leigh, nor was it to the taste of her next critic, Dr. Whately, who, five years later, in the same periodical, traversed both these propositions, besides devoting several pages to special examination of the neglected beauties of Mansfield Park. Miss Austen’s minuteness, Dr. Whately argues, even if it can be characterised as tedious, is essential to that complete acquaintance with her characters which is necessary to interest the reader in them; and in regard to the strictures which his forerunner makes upon her fools, he roundly maintains that it requires more genius to paint a fool than a person of sense,—“that to the eye of a skilful naturalist, the insects on a leaf present as wide differences as exist between the elephant and the lion,”—and that the critics who find Miss Austen’s fools too like nature, must (whatever deference they may outwardly pay to received opinions) also find Twelfth Night and the Merry Wives of Windsor exceedingly x tiresome. In this, and in other parts of his paper, which unhappily was not published until after Miss Austen’s death, Dr. Whately struck the note of subsequent criticism, by which, with more or less emphasis, these opinions have been reasserted—the comparison with Shakespeare not omitted. “The hand which drew Miss Bates, though it could not have drawn Lady Macbeth, could have drawn Dame Quickly or the nurse in Romeo and Juliet.” So says Mr. Austen-Leigh’s latest successor, Prof. Goldwin Smith. Yet a genuine admirer may perhaps allow that some of the excellent Miss Bates’s speeches, even though they should be taken by the reader in double-quick time, would not be the worse for curtailment. “La nature est bonne à imiter, mais non pas jusqu’à l’ennui.” This, however, is the solitary concession we are disposed to make to the first critic of Emma, whose depressing remarks upon its humorous personages had probably their baneful effect upon the humorous personages of Persuasion.
The prolonged interval which lies between the composition of Mansfield Park and Emma and the composition of Miss Austen’s previously published novels has doubtless prompted the discovery of a difference between the styles of the earlier and later work—a difference which is perhaps more expected than apparent. For, if a comparison of style must be made, it should surely be between the books last written and Northanger Abbey, rather than between those books and Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, since both of these latter were revised by the author at Chawton, while Northanger Abbey was printed precisely as it had been left when the Bath bookseller buried it provisionally in his drawer. But without refining too nicely, it may be granted that the Chawton group of books exhibit just that progress towards perfection which should be expected xi when we contrast the efforts of a clever girl in her teens with the same person’s productions after she has gained experience of life. We have seen that Miss Austen herself was prepared to be told that Emma was less witty than Pride and Prejudice, and it is manifest that there is a prodigality of sparkle in the one which is—at least—subdued in the other. In Emma, indeed, Miss Austen appears to have adopted Mademoiselle de Lespinasse’s motto of Rien en relief. With the exception of the somewhat laboured outburst in Chapter III in favour of the old-fashioned boarding-school as against the new, the style is everywhere carefully subordinated to the needs of the narrative, while the slender thread of the intrigue is followed with the closest tenacity. The heroine, at first, is scarcely as winning as some of her predecessors, certainly she is not so clever. “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” said Emma’s creator at the outset, and in part she was right; for Emma’s devices to alienate Harriet from Robert Martin do, at first, create a positive prejudice against her. But her character is so subtly and gradually developed, that by the time she has come to see the errors of match-making, and has reached the luminous moment when “it darted through her with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself,” we are almost prepared to forgive her for being rude to Miss Bates. Whether Mr. Knightley really made an ideal husband is impossible to say, since Miss Austen, although she seems to have vouchsafed some supplementary particulars to her family respecting Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, has, on this topic, preserved a discreet silence. Lord Brabourne, who is only lukewarm about Emma as a novel, is distinctly of opinion that the marriage did not prove a success. But he is unreasonably xii prejudiced against Mr. Knightley, who, he says, “interfered too much.” Perhaps he does, but he loves Emma through all her faults, and all his fault-finding. Again, Lord Brabourne considers Mr. Knightley too old. But here he has Shakespeare against him:—
‘Let still the woman take
An elder than herself. So wears she to him,
So sways she level in her husband’s heart.’
Emma, let us hope, wore well, for she can only have been forty when her husband was fifty-six. Those, however, who regard Mr. Knightley as the Grandison of Miss Austen’s little gallery will do well to bear in mind her own warning words:—“They (Mr. Knightley and Edmund Bertram of Mansfield Park) are very far from being what I know English gentlemen often are.”
Of the remaining characters, Frank Churchill is of the race of the Willoughbys and Wickhams, though perhaps more genuinely agreeable; while of Jane Fairfax and blue-eyed Harriet Smith, with the vacuous “heart to let,” there is not much to say. The valetudinarian vagaries of Mr. Woodhouse, with his cultus of thin gruel (which once moved a noble Earl to poetry in a contemporary Keepsake), his horror of the deadly effects of wedding-cake, and his rigid views on the reckless circulation of the muffin, are certainly comic, if they do not even rise to tragedy at the point where poor Mrs. Bates is summarily deprived of her sweetbread because the attendant asparagus is decided to be imperfectly cooked. But according to our strenuous modern ideas, Miss Austen would have succeeded in attaching us more closely to Emma’s father if she could have given him some stronger rectifying qualities than amiability and politeness, and it is impossible not to be haunted by the feeling that he receives from those about him rather more consideration xiii and devotion than he rightly deserves. Of Miss Bates and her inimitable (if inordinate) babble enough has been said. But the Eltons are little masterpieces. The husband with his watery acquiescences and stereotyped “Exactly so’s,” and the flashy, rattle-pated wife with her Maple-Grove-and-barouche-landau background, are character-sketches of absolute fidelity to nature. Utterly commonplace they may be, but they are also undeniably alive.
Turning the pages of Emma as we close, we are reminded once again of the writer’s limitations, or, to speak with stricter accuracy, of the limitations within which she prefers to exercise her powers. Her characters, as before, are taken from the middle classes; they live in a country village, to which the story is confined; and they are exhibited in enterprises of no greater pith and moment than are involved in the arrangements for a subscription ball at the Crown, or the preliminaries to a picnic at Box Hill. They are unperplexed by problems, social or political: if they are interested in riddles,—transcribed upon hot-pressed paper “and ornamented with ciphers and trophies,”—the riddle of the painful earth has plainly no place in that elegant anthology. There is a clergyman of whose theology we know no more than that lists were made of his texts, not because the discourses thereon were good, but because he himself was good-looking; there are a barrister and a magistrate, to whose practice of their respective vocations about three lines are devoted in three volumes. Books must sometimes have been read even at Highbury; but the evidences of belles lettres are confined to three or four hackneyed quotations (two of which belong to Mrs. Elton) and the casual mention of certain unnamed authors who lie (like Baker’s Chronicle at Sir Roger de Coverley’s) in the window seat at Abbey-Mill Farm. There are references to parochial xiv meetings at the village inn, which must have brought out the relative positions of Mr. Knightley, Mr. Weston, and Mr. Elton, in a way that would have tempted the pen of Anthony Trollope. But all these things Miss Austen passes by. Doubtless, if she could have been interrogated upon the subject she would have replied—much as she did to the equally impertinent suggestions of the egregious Mr. Clarke—that they were, if not necessarily beyond her hand, at all events beside her matter; and that in any case they were by no means indispensable to the safe conduct of three or four couples towards that ultimate consummation which the high-flown Mrs. Elton describes as “Hymen’s saffron robe.” And whatever Miss Austen’s answer might have been, she is justified by her results. The candid reader of Emma—unless, of course, he chance to be the “severe, sour-complexioned man” whom Izaak Walton disallows as a competent judge of literary merit—must admit that the narrative, criticise it as he may, carries him on, interested and expectant, from the first page to the last.
There is another noticeable, and probably hitherto unnoticed, difference between Miss Austen’s work and the novel of to-day, and that is, her almost entire disregard of the servants’ hall as a source for her humorous character. It is true that the names of Mr. Woodhouse’s James, Mrs. Elton’s Wright, Mr. Knightley’s Larkins and Harry, reach us vaguely from the lower regions; but the persons themselves are never definitely presented. Yet, as Thackeray would certainly have hinted, James the coachman must have had his own private views as to the dangerous nature of the “corner into Vicarage Lane”; and George Eliot would scarcely have omitted to report at least one of the consultations between William Larkins and his master on the management of the Donwell Abbey Estate, besides letting us know pretty xv distinctly the opinion of the said William with respect to that master’s marriage. Nor can we help believing that Miss Bates’s Patty (if she had encountered her historian in Mrs. Gaskell) would also be found to have entertained from the first very sagacious and profound opinions as to Miss Jane Fairfax and the cause of her mysterious indisposition. The absence of such matters is to the full as remarkable as the sparing use, already referred to in a previous preface, of descriptive detail. Yet even in the present volume Miss Austen shows that she could, if she would, rival the best of the topographers. Take, for example, the following vignette of the village High Street. “Emma went to the door for amusement. Much could not be hoped from the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury;—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 only 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.” That, we submit, is not only clearly seen, but touched in with the true economy of line.
In Mr. Clement Shorter’s highly interesting Charlotte Brontë and her Circle is a hitherto unpublished letter from the author of Jane Eyre, which contains a passage relating to xvi the author of Emma. Although unjust to Miss Austen, it is so characteristic of the writer that, with Mr. Shorter’s permission, it is here reproduced:—
“I have likewise read one of Miss Austen’s works—Emma—read it with interest and with just the degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable. Anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heart-felt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstration the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré and extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well. There is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy, in the painting. She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood. Even to the feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition—too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress. Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands, and feet. What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study; but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of life and the sentient target of death—this Miss Austen ignores. She no more, with her mind’s eye, beholds the heart of her race than each man, with bodily vision, sees the heart in his heaving breast. Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete and rather insensible (not senseless) woman. If this is heresy, I cannot help it.”
noticed at considerable length in the number for October 1815
[I’ve included the full review below.]
the Quarterly, which, by some mischance, while professing to summarise her former novels, is absolutely silent as to Mansfield Park
[Are you absolutely positive it was mischance?]
Mr. Austen-Leigh’s latest successor, Prof. Goldwin Smith.
[Namesake of Cornell University’s Goldwin Smith Hall, at least until further notice. His name was recently removed from various professorships, whose holders objected to being associated with a man described as “racist, sexist and anti-Semitic”. (Query: Why would an avowedly sexist man choose to teach at a university that was coeducational from its inception? Answer: Oh, who knows.)]
|Emma was not sorry to have such an opportunity of survey||Frontispiece|
|“Two umbrellas for us”||8|
|With a slice of Mrs. Weston’s wedding-cake||14|
|Ready to jump up and see the progress||38|
|“Showing your picture to his mother and sisters”||47|
|Rode off in great spirits||58|
|“Tosses them up to the ceiling”||71|
|“Flying Henry’s kite for him”||84|
|She had never been able to get anything tolerable||93|
|As they walked into Mrs. Weston’s drawing-room||103|
|“Is this fair, Mrs. Weston?”||111|
|“A pert young lawyer”||121|
|“Oh, here it is”||136|
|“Miss Bates was very chatty and good-humoured”||149|
|“Who should come in but Elizabeth and her brother!”||156|
|In that very room she had been measured||165|
|He stopt to look in||175|
|Having his hair cut||182|
|Had secured her hand||203|
|Deeply occupied about her spectacles||213|
|“Oh, Mr. Knightley, one moment more”||218|
|xviii “He has asked her, my dear”||228|
|Mrs. Elton was first seen at church||240|
|Some vulgar, dashing widow||246|
|“You have heard those charming lines of the poet”||253|
|“I am very sorry to hear, Miss Fairfax, of your being out this morning in the rain”||264|
|“How my brother, Mr. Suckling, sometimes flies about”||275|
|“Well! This is brilliant indeed!”||288|
|Among the bulky forms and stooping shoulders||292|
|Harriet was soon assailed||300|
|Mr. Perry passed by on horseback||310|
|“Oh, now you are looking very sly”||320|
|Able to take an interest in their employment||329|
|Seen the Crown chaise pass by||346|
|Miss Bates came to the carriage door||353|
|He stopped to look the question||387|
|Walking away from William Larkins||404|
|“Such a dreadful broiling morning”||413|
|Emma hung about him affectionately||420|
|It passed to Mrs. Cole, Mrs. Perry, and Mrs. Elton||423|
Emma got a solid thirteen pages in the Quarterly Review for October 1815. Or, more accurately, The-Novel-in-general got five pages, with the remainder going first to Jane Austen’s earlier works and finally to Emma itself, winding up with a long quoted passage.
In case anyone wondered, the immediately following review (“Art. X.”) is of two works by William Wordsworth; the immediately preceding one (“Art. VIII.”) is of Elphinstone’s Account of Caubul. Or, in full, An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul and its Dependencies in Persia, Tartary, and India; comprizing a View of the Afghaun Nation, and a History of the Dooraunee Monarchy, by “the Hon. Mountstuart Elphinstone, &c. &c.” Whew.
THERE are some vices in civilized society so common that they are hardly acknowledged as stains upon the moral character, the propensity to which is nevertheless carefully concealed, even by those who most frequently give way to them; since no man of pleasure would willingly assume the gross epithet of a debauchee or a drunkard. One would almost think that novel-reading fell under this class of frailties, since among the crowds who read little else, it is not common to find an individual of hardihood sufficient to avow his taste for these frivolous studies. A novel, therefore, is frequently ‘bread eaten in secret;’ and it is not upon Lydia Languish’s toilet alone that Tom Jones and Peregrine Pickle are to be found ambushed behind works of a more grave and instructive character. And hence it has happened, that in no branch of composition, not even in poetry itself, have so many writers, and of such varied talents, exerted their powers. It may perhaps be added, that although the composition of these works admits of being exalted and decorated by the higher exertions of genius; yet such is the universal charm of narrative, that the worst novel ever written will find some gentle reader content to yawn over it, rather than to open the page of the historian, moralist, or poet. We have heard, indeed, of one work of fiction so unutterably stupid, that the proprietor, diverted by the rarity of the incident, offered the book, which consisted of two volumes in duodecimo, handsomely bound, to any person who would declare, upon his honour, that he had read the whole from beginning to end. But although this offer was made to the passengers on board an Indiaman, during a tedious q-189 outward-bound voyage, the ‘Memoirs of Clegg the Clergyman,’ (such was the title of this unhappy composition,) completely baffled the most dull and determined student on board, and bid fair for an exception to the general rule above-mentioned,—when the love of glory prevailed with the boatswain, a man of strong and solid parts, to hazard the attempt, and he actually conquered and carried off the prize!
The judicious reader will see at once that we have been pleading our own cause while stating the universal practice, and preparing him for a display of more general acquaintance with this fascinating department of literature, than at first sight may seem consistent with the graver studies to which we are compelled by duty: but in truth, when we consider how many hours of languor and anxiety, of deserted age and solitary celibacy, of pain even and poverty, are beguiled by the perusal of these light volumes, we cannot austerely condemn the source from which 1s drawn the alleviation of such a portion of human misery, or consider the regulation of this department as beneath the sober consideration of the critic.
If such apologies may be admitted in judging the labours of ordinary novelists, it becomes doubly the duty of the critic to treat with kindness as well as candour works which, like this before us, proclaim a knowledge of the human heart, with the power and resolution to bring that knowledge to the service of honour and virtue. The author is already known to the public by the two novels announced in her title-page, and both, the last especially, attracted, with justice, an attention from the public far superior to what is granted to the ephemeral productions which supply the regular demand of watering-places and circulating libraries. They belong to a class of fictions which has arisen almost in our own times, and which draws the characters and incidents introduced more immediately from the current of ordinary life than was permitted by the former rules of the novel.
In its first appearance, the novel was the legitimate child of the romance; and though the manners and general turn of the composition were altered so as to suit modern times, the author remained fettered by many peculiarities derived from the original style of romantic fiction. These may be chiefly traced in the conduct of the narrative, and the tone of sentiment attributed to the fictitious personages. On the first point, although
The talisman and magic wand were broke,
Knights, dwarfs, and genii vanish’d into smoke,
still the reader expected to peruse a course of adventures of a nature more interesting and extraordinary than those which occur in his own life, or that of his next-door neighbours. The hero no q-190 longer defeated armies by his single sword, clove giants to the chine, or gained kingdoms. But he was expected to go through perils by sea and land, to be steeped in poverty, to be tried by temptation, to be exposed to the alternate vicissitudes of adversity and prosperity, and his life was a troubled scene of suffering and achievement. Few novelists, indeed, adventured to deny to the hero his final hour of tranquillity and happiness, though it was the prevailing fashion never to relieve him out of his last and most dreadful distress until the finishing chapters of his history; so that although his prosperity in the record of his life was short, we were bound to believe it was long and uninterrupted when the author had done with him. The heroine was usually condemned to equal hardships and hazards. She was regularly exposed to being forcibly carried off like a Sabine virgin by some frantic admirer. And even if she escaped the terrors of masked ruffians, an insidious ravisher, a cloak wrapped forcibly around her head, and a coach with the blinds up driving she could not conjecture whither, she had still her share of wandering, of poverty, of obloquy, of seclusion, and of imprisonment, and was frequently extended upon a bed of sickness, and reduced to her last shilling before the author condescended to shield her from persecution. In all these dread contingencies the mind of the reader was expected to sympathize, since by incidents so much beyond the bounds of his ordinary experience, his wonder and interest ought at once to be excited. But gradually he became familiar with the land of fiction, the adventures of which he assimilated not with those of real life, but with each other. Let the distress of the hero or heroine be ever so great, the reader reposed an imperturbable confidence in the talents of the author, who, as he had plunged them into distress, would in his own good time, and when things, as Tony Lumkin says, were in a concatenation accordingly, bring his favourites out of all their troubles. Mr. Crabbe has expressed his own and our feelings excellently on this subject.
For should we grant these beauties all endure
Severest pangs, they’ve still the speediest cure;
Before one charm be wither’d from the face,
Except the bloom which shall again have place,
In wedlock ends each wish, in triumph all disgrace.
And life to come, we fairly may suppose,
One light bright contrast to these wild dark woes.
In short, the author of novels was, in former times, expected to tread pretty much in the limits between the concentric circles of probability and possibility: and as he was not permitted to transgress the latter, his narrative, to make amends, almost always went beyond the bounds of the former. Now, although it may be urged that the vicissitudes of human life have occasionally led an q-191 individual through as many scenes of singular fortune as are represented in the most extravagant of these fictions, still the causes and personages acting on these changes have varied with the progress of the adventurer’s fortune, and do not present that combined plot, (the object of every skilful novelist,) in which all the more interesting individuals of the dramatis personæ have their appropriate share in the action and in bringing about the catastrophe. Here, even more than in its various and violent changes of fortune, rests the improbability of the novel. The life of man rolls forth like a stream from the fountain, or it spreads out into tranquillity like a placid or stagnant lake. In the latter case, the individual grows old among the characters with whom he was born, and is contemporary,—shares precisely the sort of weal and woe to which his birth destined him,—moves in the same circle,—and, allowing for the change of seasons, is influenced by, and influences the same class of persons by which he was originally surrounded. The man of mark and of adventure, on the contrary, resembles, in the course of his life, the river whose mid-current and discharge into the ocean are widely removed from each other, as well as from the rocks and wild flowers which its fountains first reflected; violent changes of time, of place, and of circumstances, hurry him forward from one scene to another, and his adventures will usually be found only connected with each other because they have happened to the same individual. Such a history resembles an ingenious, fictitious narrative, exactly in the degree in which an old dramatic chronicle of the life and death of some distinguished character, where all the various agents appear and disappear as in the page of history, approaches a regular drama, in which every person introduced plays an appropriate part, and every point of the action tends to one common catastrophe.
We return to the second broad line of distinction between the novel, as formerly composed, and real life,—the difference, namely, of the sentiments. The novelist professed to give an imitation of nature, but it was, as the French say, la belle nature. Human beings, indeed, were presented, but in the most sentimental mood, and with minds purified by a sensibility which often verged on extravagance. In the serious class of novels, the hero was usually
‘A knight of love, who never broke a vow.’
And although, in those of a more humorous cast, he was permitted a license, borrowed either from real life or from the libertinism of the drama, still a distinction was demanded even from Peregrine Pickle, or Tom Jones; and the hero, in every folly of which he might be guilty, was studiously vindicated from the charge of infidelity of the heart. The heroine was, of course, still more immaculate; q-192 and to have conferred her affections upon any other than the lover to whom the reader had destined her from their first meeting, would have been a crime against sentiment which no author, of moderate prudence, would have hazarded, under the old régime.
Here, therefore, we have two essential and important circumstances, in which the earlier novels differed from those now in fashion, and were more nearly assimilated to the old romances. And there can be no doubt that, by the studied involution and extrication of the story, by the combination of incidents new, striking and wonderful beyond the course of ordinary life, the former authors opened that obvious and strong sense of interest which arises from curiosity; as by the pure, elevated, and romantic cast of the sentiment, they conciliated those better propensities of our nature which loves to contemplate the picture of virtue, even when confessedly unable to imitate its excellences.
But strong and powerful as these sources of emotion and interest may be, they are, like all others, capable of being exhausted by habit. The imitators who rushed in crowds upon each path in which the great masters of the art had successively led the way, produced upon the public mind the usual effect of satiety. The first writer of a new class is, as it were, placed on a pinnacle of excellence, to which, at the earliest glance of a surprized admirer, his ascent seems little less than miraculous. Time and imitation speedily diminish the wonder, and each successive attempt establishes a kind of progressive scale of ascent between the lately deified author, and the reader, who had deemed his excellence inaccessible. The stupidity, the mediocrity, the merit of his imitators, are alike fatal to the first inventor, by shewing how possible it is to exaggerate his faults and to come within a certain point of his beauties.
Materials also (and the man of genius as well as his wretched imitator must work with the same) become stale and familiar. Social life, in our civilized days, affords few instances capable of being painted in the strong dark colours which excite surprize and horror; and robbers, smugglers, bailiffs, caverns, dungeons, and mad-houses, have been all introduced until they ceased to interest. And thus in the novel, as in every style of composition which appeals to the public taste, the more rich and easily worked mines being exhausted, the adventurous author must, if he is desirous of success, have recourse to those which were disdained by his predecessors as unproductive, or avoided as only capable of being turned to profit by great skill and labour.
Accordingly a style of novel has arisen, within the last fifteen or twenty years, differing from the former in the points upon which the interest hinges; neither alarming our credulity nor amusing our q-193 imagination by wild variety of incident, or by those pictures of romantic affection and sensibility, which were formerly as certain attributes of fictitious characters as they are of rare occurrence among those who actually live and die. The substitute for these excitements, which had lost much of their poignancy by the repeated and injudicious use of them, was the art of copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him.
In adventuring upon this task, the author makes obvious sacrifices, and encounters peculiar difficulty. He who paints from le beau idéal, if his scenes and sentiments are striking and interesting, is in a great measure exempted from the difficult task of reconciling them with the ordinary probabilities of life: but he who paints a scene of common occurrence, places his composition within that extensive range of criticism which general experience offers to every reader. The resemblance of a statue of Hercules we must take on the artist’s judgment; but every one can criticize that which is presented as the portrait of a friend, or neighbour. Something more than a mere sign-post likeness is also demanded. The portrait must have spirit and character, as well as resemblance; and being deprived of all that, according to Bayes, goes ‘to elevate and surprize,’ it must make amends by displaying depth of knowledge and dexterity of execution. We, therefore, bestow no mean compliment upon the author of Emma, when we say that, keeping close to common incidents, and to such characters as occupy the ordinary walks of life, she has produced sketches of such spirit and originality, that we never miss the excitation which depends upon a narrative of uncommon events, arising from the consideration of minds, manners, and sentiments, greatly above our own. In this class she stands almost alone; for the scenes of Miss Edgeworth are laid in higher life, varied by more romantic incident, and by her remarkable power of embodying and illustrating national character. But the author of Emma confines herself chiefly to the middling classes of society; her most distinguished characters do not rise greatly above well-bred country gentlemen and ladies; and those which are sketched with most originality and precision, belong to a class rather below that standard. The narrative of all her novels is composed of such common occurrences as may have fallen under the observation of most folks; and her dramatis personæ conduct themselves upon the motives and principles which the readers may recognize as ruling their own and that of most of their acquaintances. The kind of moral, also, which these novels inculcate, applies equally to the paths of common life, as q-194 will best appear from a short notice of the author’s former works, with a more full abstract of that which we at present have under consideration.
‘Sense and Sensibility,’ the first of these compositions, contains the history of two sisters. The elder, a young lady of prudence and regulated feelings, becomes gradually attached to a man of an excellent heart and limited talents, who happens unfortunately to be fettered by a rash and ill-assorted engagement. In the younger sister, the influence of sensibility and imagination predominates; and she, as was to be expected, also falls in love, but with more unbridled and wilful passion. Her lover, gifted with all the qualities of exterior polish and vivacity, proves faithless, and marries a woman of large fortune. The interest and merit of the piece depend altogether upon the behaviour of the elder sister, while obliged at once to sustain her own disappointment with fortitude, and to support her sister, who abandons herself, with unsuppressed feelings, to the indulgence of grief. The marriage of the unworthy rival at length relieves her own lover from his imprudent engagement, while her sister, turned wise by precept, example, and experience, transfers her affection to a very respectable and somewhat too serious admirer, who had nourished an unsuccessful passion through the three volumes.
In ‘Pride and Prejudice’ the author presents us with a family of young women, bred up under a foolish and vulgar mother, and a father whose good abilities lay hid under such a load of indolence and insensibility, that he had become contented to make the foibles and follies of his wife and daughters the subject of dry and humorous sarcasm, rather than of admonition, or restraint. This is one of the portraits from ordinary life which shews our author’s talents in a very strong point of view. A friend of ours, whom the author never saw or heard of, was at once recognized by his own family as the original of Mr. Bennet, and we do not know if he has yet got rid of the nickname. A Mr. Collins, too, a formal, conceited, yet servile young sprig of divinity, is drawn with the same force and precision. The story of the piece consists chiefly in the fates of the second sister, to whom a man of high birth, large fortune, but haughty and reserved manners, becomes attached, in spite of the discredit thrown upon the object of his affection by the vulgarity and ill-conduct of her relations. The lady, on the contrary, hurt at the contempt of her connections, which the lover does not even attempt to suppress, and prejudiced against him on other accounts,—refuses the hand which he ungraciously offers, and does not perceive that she has done a foolish thing until she accidentally visits a very handsome seat and grounds belonging to her admirer. They chance to meet exactly as her prudence had begun to subdue her prejudice; q-195 and after some essential services rendered to her family, the lover becomes encouraged to renew his addresses, and the novel ends happily.
Emma has even less story than either of the preceding novels. Miss Emma Woodhouse, from whom the book takes its name, is the daughter of a gentleman of wealth and consequence residing at his seat in the immediate vicinage of a country village called Highbury. The father, a good-natured, silly valetudinary, abandons the management of his household to Emma, he himself being only occupied by his summer and winter walk, his apothecary, his gruel, and his whist table. The latter is supplied from the neighbouring village of Highbury with precisely the sort of persons who occupy the vacant corners of a regular whist table, when a village is in the neighbourhood, and better cannot be found within the family. We have the smiling and courteous vicar, who nourishes the ambitious hope of obtaining Miss Woodhouse’s hand. We have Mrs. Bates, the wife of a former rector, past every thing but tea and whist; her daughter, Miss Bates, a good-natured, vulgar, and foolish old maid; Mr. Weston, a gentleman of a frank disposition and moderate fortune, in the vicinity, and his wife an amiable and accomplished person, who had been Emma’s governess, and is devotedly attached to her. Amongst all these personages, Miss Woodhouse walks forth, the princess paramount, superior to all her companions in wit, beauty, fortune, and accomplishments, doated upon by her father and the Westons, admired, and almost worshipped by the more humble companions of the whist table. The object of most young ladies is, or at least is usually supposed to be, a desirable connection in marriage. But Emma Woodhouse, either anticipating the taste of a later period of life, or, like a good sovereign, preferring the weal of her subjects of Highbury to her own private interest, sets generously about making matches for her friends without thinking of matrimony on her own account. We are informed that she had been eminently successful in the case of Mr. and Weston; and when the novel commences she is exerting her influence in favour of Miss Harriet Smith, a boarding-school girl without family or fortune, very good humoured, very pretty, very silly, and, what suited Miss Woodhouse’s purpose best of all, very much disposed to be married.
In these conjugal machinations Emma is frequently interrupted, not only by the cautions of her father, who had a particular objection to any body committing the rash act of matrimony, but also by the sturdy reproof and remonstrances of Mr. Knightley, the elder brother of her sister’s husband, a sensible country gentleman of thirty-five, who had known Emma from her cradle, and was the q-196 only person who ventured to find fault with her. In spite, however, of his censure and warning, Emma lays a plan of marrying Harriet Smith to the vicar; and though she succeeds perfectly in diverting her simple friend’s thoughts from an honest farmer who had made her a very suitable offer, and in flattering her into a passion for Mr. Elton, yet, on the other hand, that conceited divine totally mistakes the nature of the encouragement held out to him, and attributes the favour which he found in Miss Woodhouse’s eyes to a lurking affection on her own part. This at length encourages him to a presumptuous declaration of his sentiments; upon receiving a repulse, he looks abroad elsewhere, and enriches the Highbury society by uniting himself to a dashing young woman with as many thousands as are usually called ten, and a corresponding quantity of presumption and ill breeding.
While Emma is thus vainly engaged in forging wedlock-fetters for others, her friends have views of the same kind upon her, in favour of a son of Mr. Weston by a former marriage, who bears the name, lives under the patronage, and is to inherit the fortune of a rich uncle. Unfortunately Mr. Frank Churchill had already settled his affections on Miss Jane Fairfax, a young lady of reduced fortune; but as this was a concealed affair, Emma, when Mr. Churchill first appears on the stage, has some thoughts of being in love with him herself; speedily, however, recovering from that dangerous propensity, she is disposed to confer him upon her deserted friend Harriet Smith. Harriet has, in the interim, fallen desperately in love with Mr. Knightley, the sturdy, advice-giving bachelor; and, as all the village supposes Frank Churchill and Emma to be attached to each other, there are cross purposes enough (were the novel of a more romantic cast) for cutting half the men’s throats and breaking all the women’s hearts. But at Highbury Cupid walks decorously, and with good discretion, bearing his torch under a lanthorn, instead of flourishing it around to set the house on fire. All these entanglements bring on only a train of mistakes and embarrassing situations, and dialogues at balls and parties of pleasure, in which the author displays her peculiar powers of humour and knowledge of human life. The plot is extricated with great simplicity. The aunt of Frank Churchill dies; his uncle, no longer under her baneful influence, consents to his marriage with Jane Fairfax. Mr. Knightley and Emma are led, by this unexpected incident, to discover that they had been in love with each other all along. Mr. Woodhouse’s objections to the marriage of his daughter are overpowered by the fears of house-breakers, and the comfort which he to derive from having a stout son-in-law resident in the family; and the facile affections of Harriet Smith are transferred, like a bank bill q-197 by indorsation, to her former suitor, the honest farmer, who had obtained a favourable opportunity of renewing his addresses. Such is the simple plan of a story which we peruse with pleasure, if not with deep interest, and which perhaps we might more willingly resume than one of those narratives where the attention is strongly riveted, during the first perusal, by the powerful excitement of curiosity.
The author’s knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting. The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader. This is a merit which it is very difficult to illustrate by extracts, because it pervades the whole work, and is not to be comprehended from a single passage. The following is a dialogue between Mr. Woodhouse, and his elder daughter Isabella, who shares his anxiety about health, and has, like her father, a favourite apothecary. The reader must be informed that this lady, with her husband, a sensible, peremptory sort of person, had come to spend a week with her father.
While they were thus comfortably occupied, Mr. Woodhouse was enjoying a full flow of happy regrets and fearful affection with his daughter.
‘My poor dear Isabella,’ said he, fondly taking her hand, and interrupting, for a few moments, her busy labours for some one of her five children—‘How long it is, how terribly long since you were here! And how tired you must be after your journey! You must go to bed early, my dear—and I recommend a little gruel to you before you go.—You and I will have a nice basin of gruel together. My dear Emma, suppose we all have a little gruel.’
Emma could not suppose any such thing, knowing, as she did, that both the Mr. Knightleys were as unpersuadable on that article as herself;—and two basins only were ordered. After a little more discourse in praise of gruel, with some wondering at its not being taken every evening by every body, he proceeded to say, with an air of grave reflection,
‘It was an awkward business, my dear, your spending the autumn at South End instead of coming here. I never had much opinion of the sea air.’
‘Mr. Wingfield most strenuously recommended it, sir—or we should not have gone. He recommended it for all the children, but particularly for the weakness in little Bella’s throat,—both sea air and bathing.’
‘Ah! my dear, but Perry had many doubts about the sea doing her any good; and as to myself, I have been long perfectly convinced, though perhaps I never told you so before, that the sea is very rarely of use to any body. I am sure it almost killed me once.’q-198
‘Come, come,’ cried Emma, feeling this to be an unsafe subject, ‘I must beg you not to talk of the sea. It makes me envious and miserable;—I who have never seen it! South End is prohibited, if you please. My dear Isabella, I have not heard you make one inquiry after Mr. Perry yet; and he never forgets you.’
‘Oh! good Mr. Perry—how is he, sir?”
‘Why, pretty well; but not quite well. Poor Perry is bilious, and he has not time to take care of himself—he tells me he has not time to take care of himself—which is very sad—but he is always wanted all round the country. I suppose there is not a man in such practice any where. But then, there is not so clever a man any where.’
‘And Mrs. Perry and the children, how are they? do the children grow?—I have a great regard for Mr. Perry. I hope he will be calling soon. He will be so pleased to see my little ones.’
‘I hope he will be here to-morrow, for I have a question or two to ask him about myself of some consequence. And, my dear, whenever he comes, you had better let him look at little Bella’s throat.’
“Oh! my dear sir, her throat is so much better that I have hardly any uneasiness about it. Either bathing has been of the greatest service to her, or else it is to be attributed to an excellent embrocation of Mr. Wingfield’s, which we have been applying at times ever since August.’
‘It is not very likely, my dear, that bathing should have been of use to her—and if I had known you were wanting an embrocation, I would have spoken to——’
‘You seem to me to have forgotten Mrs. and Miss Bates,’ said Emma, ‘I have not heard one inquiry after them.’
‘Oh! the good Bateses—I am quite ashamed of myself—but you mention them in most of your letters. I hope they are quite well. Good old Mrs. Bates—I will call upon her to-morrow, and take my children,—They are always so pleased to see my children—And that excellent Miss Bates—such thorough worthy people!—How are they, sir?’
‘Why, pretty well, my dear, upon the whole. But poor Mrs. Bates had a bad cold about a month ago.’
‘How sorry I am! But colds were never so prevalent as they have been this autumn. Mr. Wingfield told me that he had never known them more general or heavy—except when it has been quite an influenza.’
‘That has been a good deal the case, my dear; but not to the degree you mention. Perry says that colds have been very general, but not so heavy as he has very often known them in November. Perry does not call it altogether a sickly season.’
‘No, I do not know that Mr. Wingfield considers it very sickly, except—’
‘Ah! my poor dear child, the truth is, that in London it is always sickly season. Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be. It is a dreadful thing to have you forced to live there!—so far off!—and the air so bad!’q-199
‘No, indeed—we are not at all in a bad air. Our part of London is so very superior to most others!—You must not confound us with London in general, my dear sir. The neighbourhood of Brunswick Square is very different from almost all the rest. We are so very airy! I should be unwilling, I own, to live in any other part of the town;—there is hardly any other that I could be satisfied to have my children in:—but we are so remarkably airy!—Mr. Wingfield thinks the vicinity of Brunswick Square decidedly the most favourable as to air.’
‘Ah! my dear, it is not like Hartfield. You make the best of it—but after you have been a week at Hartfield, you are all of you different creatures; you do not look like the same. Now I cannot say, that I think you are any of you looking well at present.’
‘I am sorry to hear you say so, sir; but I assure you, excepting those little nervous head aches and palpitations which I am never entirely free from any where, I am quite well myself; and if the children were rather pale before they went to bed, it was only because they were a little more tired than usual, from their journey and the happiness of coming. I hope you will think better of their looks to-morrow; for I assure you Mr. Wingfield told me, that he did not believe he had ever sent us off all together, in such good case. I trust, at least, that you do not think Mr. Knightley looking ill,’—turning her eyes with affectionate anxiety towards her husband.
‘Middling, my dear; I cannot compliment you. I think Mr. John Knightley very far from looking well.’
‘What is the matter, sir?—Did you speak to me?’ cried Mr. John Knightley, hearing his own name.
‘I am sorry to find, my love, that my father does not think you looking well—but I hope it is only from being a little fatigued. I could have wished, however, as you know, that you had seen Mr. Wingfield before you left home.’
‘My dear Isabella,’—exclaimed he hastily—‘pray do not concern yourself about my looks. Be satisfied with doctoring and coddling yourself and the children, and let me look as I chuse.’
‘I did not thoroughly understand what you were telling your brother,’ cried Emma, ‘about your friend Mr. Graham’s intending to have a bailiff from Scotland, to look after his new estate. But will it answer? Will not the old prejudice be too strong?’
And she talked in this way so long and successfully that, when forced to give her attention again to her father and sister, she had nothing worse to hear than Isabella’s kind inquiry after Jane Fairfax;—and Jane Fairfax, though no great favourite with her in general, she was at that moment very happy to assist in praising.’—vol. i. pp. 212–220.
Perhaps the reader may collect from the preceding specimen both the merits and faults of the author. The former consists much in the force of a narrative conducted with much neatness and point, and a quiet yet comic dialogue, in which the characters of the speakers evolve themselves with dramatic effect. The faults, q-200 on the contrary, arise from the minute detail which the author’s plan comprehends. Characters of folly or simplicity, such as those of old Woodhouse and Miss Bates, are ridiculous when first presented, but if too often brought forward or too long dwelt upon, their prosing is apt to become as tiresome in fiction as in real society. Upon the whole, the turn of this author’s novels bears the same relation to that of the sentimental and romantic cast, that cornfields and cottages and meadows bear to the highly adorned grounds of a show mansion, or the rugged sublimities of a mountain landscape. It is neither so captivating as the one, nor so grand as the other, but it affords to those who frequent it a pleasure nearly allied with the experience of their own social habits; and what is of some importance, the youthful wanderer may return from his promenade to the ordinary business of life, without any chance of having his head turned by the recollection of the scene through which he has been wandering.
One word, however, we must say in behalf of that once powerful divinity, Cupid, king of gods and men, who in these times of revolution, has been assailed, even in his own kingdom of romance, by the authors who were formerly his devoted priests. We are quite aware that there are few instances of first attachment being brought to a happy conclusion, and that it seldom can be so in a state of society so highly advanced as to render early marriages among the better class, acts, generally speaking, of imprudence. But the youth of this realm need not at present be taught the doctrine of selfishness. It is by no means their error to give the world or the good things of the world all for love; and before the authors of moral fiction couple Cupid indivisibly with calculating prudence, we would have them reflect, that they may sometimes lend their aid to substitute more mean, more sordid, and more selfish motives of conduct, for the romantic feelings which their predecessors perhaps fanned into too powerful a flame. Who is it, that in his youth has felt a virtuous attachment, however romantic or however unfortunate, but can trace back to its influence much that his character may possess of what is honourable, dignified, and disinterested? If he recollects hours wasted in unavailing hope, or saddened by doubt and disappointment; he may also dwell on many which have been snatched from folly or libertinism, and dedicated to studies which might render him worthy of the object of his affection, or pave the way perhaps to that distinction necessary to raise him to an equality with her. Even the habitual indulgence of feelings totally unconnected with ourself and our own immediate interest, softens, graces, and amends the human mind; and after the pain of disappointment is past, those who survive (and by good fortune those are the greater number) are neither less q-201 wise nor less worthy members of society for having felt, for a time, the influence of a passion which has been well qualified as the ‘tenderest, noblest and best.’
the ‘Memoirs of Clegg the Clergyman’
[The book must really have sunk without a ripple. The only mentions I can now find of the title . . . are in quotations of this very review.]
she had been eminently successful in the case of Mr. and Miss Weston
text unchanged: error for Mrs.
[There is no Miss Weston—unless we count Baby Anna, born near the end of the book.]
vol. i. pp. 212–220.
[In the edition used for this ebook, pages 88-91.]