To Jane Austen.
From Letters to Dead Authors
Andrew Lang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Letter (to Francoys Rabelais) | Letters to Dead Authors | Next Letter (to Isaak Walton)

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.