Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2898
In a letter written to her nephew several months before her death, Austen referred to her writing as “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush,” a description of her work that conveys its essence with remarkable precision. Austen is not a writer whose books are characterized by sweeping dramatic action unfolding against a vivid historical backdrop; nor are her novels treatises on social ills or controversial contemporary issues. Austen wrote instead about the world she knew—a world of country villages, of polite middle-class society, of family life, of love and courtship—and her books offer a portrait of life as it was lived by a small segment of English society at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries.
Yet so great is her talent and her insight into the complexities of human nature that the seeming simplicity of her books belies the universality of their perceptions. In turning her writer’s gaze on the world around her, Austen reveals deeper truths that apply to the world at large. Her portraits of social interaction, while specific to a particular and very carefully delineated place and time, are nevertheless the result of timeless human characteristics. If one looks beneath the details of social manners and mores that abound in Austen’s novels, what emerges is their author’s clear-eyed grasp of the intricacies of human behavior.
What is also readily apparent is that human behavior was a source of great amusement to Austen. Her novels are gentle satires, written with delicate irony and incisive wit. The famous opening lines of Pride and Prejudice capture her style at its best: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Courtship and marriage are the subject of all six of Austen’s completed novels, and she treats the topic with a skillful balance of humor and seriousness. The elaborate social ritual of courtship and the amount of time and energy expended on it by the parties involved provide Austen with an ideal target for her satirical portraits. Dances, carriage rides, and country walks are the settings for the romances that unfold in her books, and the individual’s infinite capacity for misconceptions and self-delusions provide the books’ dramatic structure. Her heroes and heroines misjudge each other, misunderstand each other, and mistake charm for substance and reserve for lack of feeling with a determination that seems likely to undermine their chances for happiness—until at last they find their way through the emotional mazes they have built for themselves and emerge with the proper mate.
Yet while Austen is happy to amuse her readers with her characters’ foibles and missteps, she brings an underlying empathy to her creations as well. Her heroines are never figures of fun—that role is left to the stories’ supporting characters—but are instead intelligent, sensitive, amiable young women who are eminently likable despite the flaws they may exhibit. It is human nature in all its complexity that fascinates Austen, and she is capable of providing her novels with interesting, well-developed central characters who are believable precisely because they are flawed. Her amusement is not scorn but rather a tolerant awareness of the qualities, both good and bad, that constitute the human character. It is this awareness that lends Austen’s work its relevance and contributes to her stature in the hierarchy of English literature.
Also central to the high critical regard in which she is held is Austen’s extraordinarily eloquent and graceful literary style. Austen’s use of language is as sure and as precise as her character development; indeed, the two are inseparable. Whether she is depicting the selfish, greedy Mrs. John Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, who says of a proposed yearly allowance for her widowed mother-in-law, “people always live forever when there is any annuity to be paid them,” or characterizing Edmund Bertram’s pursuit of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park with the observation, “She was of course only too good for him; but as nobody minds having what is too good for them, he was very steadily earnest in the pursuit of the blessing,” Austen sketches her characters and relates their stories with the elegance and wit that are the unmistakable hallmarks of her style.
Austen’s work offers ample proof that, in the hands of a gifted writer, stories of ordinary lives filled with everyday events can transcend their outward simplicity and capture the intricacies of human nature. Austen’s ironic portraits of the world she knew are both a revealing look at her own time and a perceptive examination of the workings of the human heart and mind.
Sense and Sensibility
First published: 1811
Type of work: Novel
Two sisters, very different in nature, face obstacles as they find love.
Sense and Sensibility is a novel that is best understood within the context of the era in which it was written. Austen lived in that period of English history when eighteenth century rationalism was giving way to the increasing popularity of nineteenth century romanticism, as typified by William Wordsworth and the Romantic poets. The open embrace and deliberate cultivation of sensibility—deep feelings and passionate emotions—were perhaps a natural reaction to the admiration of reserve and practicality that had typified the preceding decades.
Austen’s novel, her first published work, offers a portrait of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, who embody the two qualities set forth in the title. Elinor, the elder of the two, is intelligent, loving, and wise enough to see the potential folly in failing to temper emotion with good sense. Marianne, although sharing many of these qualities, lacks her sister’s wisdom; she is, as Austen describes her, “everything but prudent.”
Marianne’s insistence on giving her emotions free rein leads her into an unhappy romance with the fortune-hunting Willoughby when she mistakes his false expressions of sentiment for love. Although Marianne’s own excessive displays of emotion spring from genuine feeling, they blind her to the realization that less fervently expressed emotions may also be heartfelt and true. Waiting patiently throughout the book is the quiet, steadfast Colonel Brandon, a man of deep but reserved feelings who loves Marianne and whose true worth she comes to recognize only after she is forced by her failed romance with Willoughby to reassess her views.
Elinor remains her sister’s mainstay throughout her unhappy first love, assisting her toward maturity with patience and tenderness. She, too, is ín love, with her selfish sister-in-law’s brother, Edward Ferrars. Both are restrained in their expressions of their feelings, Elinor out of modesty and a sense of propriety and Edward because he is secretly and unhappily engaged to another woman favored by his snobbish mother. Yet adherence to principles of rational thought and good sense does not prevent Elinor from suffering greatly when she believes that her hopes of marrying Edward are impossible. Their eventual union is as happy and full of emotion as that of any two people in love.
Although her own sympathies are perhaps most closely aligned with those of Elinor, Austen writes with affection for both sisters and her message is one of compromise. She is careful to show that a balance of both heart and intellect is necessary for a full life—a blending of sense and sensibility that both Elinor and Marianne possess by the novel’s close.
Pride and Prejudice
First published: 1813
Type of work: Novel
A man and woman must reassess their first impressions of each other before they are able to find love.
Pride and Prejudice is the best known of Austen’s six novels and ranks among her finest work. As in Sense and Sensibility, its story centers on two sisters, Jane and Elizabeth Bennet. Jane falls in love early in the book with the amiable, wealthy Charles Bingley. Bingley returns her sentiments but is temporarily persuaded to abandon the romance at the urging of his friend, Mr. Darcy, who does not detect love in Jane’s discreet manner.
The book’s true center, however, is the complex relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy. Both are intelligent and forthright, but their initial impressions blind them to the qualities in each other that will eventually form the basis for their love. Darcy is indeed proud and feels himself above the less refined country families in whose company he finds himself during his visit to Bingley. Elizabeth’s mother, a vain, silly woman who is often a source of embarrassment to her daughter, is also an object of Darcy’s scorn. When she overhears Darcy’s assessment of her and her family, Elizabeth’s own pride is wounded; she dismisses him as a proud, disagreeable man and is more than willing to believe the lies she is told about him by the charming, deceitful Wickham. For his part, Darcy’s pride in his position and his family cause him at first to resist his attraction to Elizabeth and later to propose to her in a manner that she finds even more offensive than his initial hauteur.
Yet as time passes and their interest in each other continues, both Elizabeth and Darcy begin to see beyond their original judgments of the other’s personality and character. Both possess a measure of pride and prejudice that must be overcome before they will fully understand one another, and Elizabeth’s younger sister, Lydia, is unintentionally a catalyst for the change. Foolish and headstrong, Lydia runs away with Wickham, and it is only through Darcy’s intervention that the two are married and the Bennet family is saved from disgrace. Elizabeth has already learned the truth behind Wickham’s slander toward Darcy, and Darcy’s willingness to help her family despite her own stinging refusal of his proposal offers her a glimpse of the true nature of his character. Darcy, too, has changed, losing some of the stiffness and pride that accompanied his wealth and social standing.
The substantial emotional shift experienced by Darcy and Elizabeth is indicated by Mr. Bennet’s reaction to the news of Darcy’s second proposal: “’Lizzy,’ said he, ’what are you doing? Are you out of your senses, to be accepting this man? Have you not always hated him?’” Mr. Bennet’s reaction is understandable, given the disdain with which Elizabeth had expressed her initial reaction to Darcy. What her father has not been witness to—and the reader has—is Austen’s gradual revelation of the qualities that Darcy and Elizabeth share and the manner in which each has come to appreciate these qualities in the other.
That theirs is a meeting of the mind and heart is clear, and those qualities that at last draw them to each other and impel them to overcome their early misunderstandings will form the basis for a strong and happy marriage.
First published: 1814
Type of work: Novel
A timid young girl living with wealthy relations falls in love with her cousin.
There are several points that set Mansfield Park apart from the rest of Austen’s work. Chief among them is Austen’s depiction of her heroine, Fanny Price, a frail, quiet young woman who has none of the high spirits or wit of Elizabeth Bennet or Marianne Dashwood. Reared from the age of ten among wealthy relatives, Fanny is an unobtrusive presence in the household at Mansfield Park, useful and agreeable to everyone and steadfast in her secret affection for her cousin, Edmund Bertram.
Fanny’s manner contrasts sharply with the livelier, sometimes careless behavior of her cousins and their friends. Only Edmund spends time with the gentle Fanny, although his own affections have been captivated by the sophisticated Mary Crawford. With Fanny’s uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, away on an extended stay in the West Indies, the cousins and their friends decide to put on an amateur theatrical production of a scandalous French play. Only Fanny refuses to participate, out of natural modesty and a certainty that her absent uncle would not approve. Sir Thomas returns unexpectedly and does not approve, much to his children’s chagrin, but Fanny quickly falls from his favor when she refuses the proposal of Mary Crawford’s brother, Henry, who had begun an unwelcome flirtation with her after Fanny’s cousin Maria married another man.
Distressed by her uncle’s disapproval, Fanny visits her parents and her eight brothers and sisters, only to discover that her years at Mansfield Park have left her unable to fit easily into her noisy, often vulgar family. She is summoned back by Sir Thomas when Maria leaves her husband for Henry Crawford and Maria’s sister, Julia, elopes. Now fully appreciated by her uncle, Fanny comes into her own, winning the love of Edmund Bertram.
Because Austen’s novels often adopt the tone of their heroines, Mansfield Park is a more somber, less satirical book than Pride and Prejudice. Fanny is a young woman who has been shaped by both her separation from her family and her awkward position as a poor relation in a wealthy household. Yet, it is her alienation from her cousins that has perhaps saved her from taking on their faults. They have been spoiled while she has been grateful; she has grown in sensitivity and moral strength while they have been indulged. In Austen’s world, true worth is always recognized in the end, and Fanny’s resistance to the more worldly pursuits of her cousins and their friends wins for her the love of her adored Edmund.
Fanny is also alone among Austen’s heroines in her uncertainty as to her position in society. Catherine Moreland of Northanger Abbey may visit wealthy friends, but she enjoys a secure place in her own family, as do the Dashwood and Bennet sisters and Emma Woodhouse of Emma. Only Anne Elliot of Persuasion, unappreciated by her self-centered father and sister, somewhat approximates Fanny’s experience. It is a situation that lends great poignancy to Fanny’s experiences and one which Austen conveys with great feeling and perception.
Mansfield Park is perhaps the most controversial of Austen’s novels. While some critics fault its author for abandoning the irony and elegant wit that characterize most of her work, others praise her for her willingness to undertake a variation on her usual themes. In Fanny Price, Austen has created a heroine who must engage the reader through her gentleness rather than her spirit, and Fanny does that with admirable success.
First published: 1815 (dated 1816; book came out in December, 1815)
Type of work: Novel
A good-hearted but indulged young heiress misguidedly plays matchmaker for her friends.
The forces that shape the dramatic action in Emma are described by Austen in the book’s opening paragraphs; they are the qualities possessed by Emma Woodhouse herself. In this novel, Austen turns her satiric talents to a portrait of a wealthy young woman with “a disposition to think a little too well of herself,” who has yet to acquire the sensitivity to realize that the emotional lives of her companions are not toys for her own amusement.
With an adoring, widowed father and an indulgent companion, Emma has reached early adulthood secure in the belief that she knows what is best for those around her. When her companion marries, Emma replaces her with Harriet Smith, an impressionable young girl from a local school, and quickly decides that the girl’s fiancé, a farmer, is beneath her. Persuading Harriet to break off the engagement, despite the misgivings of Emma’s admiring friend, Mr. Knightley, Emma sets in motion a chain of romantic misunderstandings that will come close to ruining Harriet’s chances for happiness. After playing with the romantic futures of several of her acquaintances, Emma at last recognizes the dangers of her interference and realizes that her own chance for happiness has existed within her grasp for some time in the person of Mr. Knightley.
Emma is one of Austen’s best novels, with some critics holding it in higher regard than Pride and Prejudice. In Emma Woodhouse, Austen has created one of her most memorable heroines, a willful, headstrong, yet fundamentally well-intentioned young woman whose intelligence and energy need the tempering of experience before she can be judged truly mature. She gains this experience through her relationship with Harriet when her manipulations backfire and she finds that Harriet believes herself to be in love with Mr. Knightley. With the force of a revelation, the truth of what she has done comes to Emma, along with the realization that she loves Knightley herself. As Austen writes, “Her own conduct, as well as her own heart, was before her in the same few minutes.” Seeing herself and her actions clearly for the first time, Emma is forced into difficult but necessary self-doubt and self-examination, a new but ultimately valuable experience for a young woman who has never before had cause to doubt her own judgment.
That Emma will learn from her mistakes is clear, and her happiness with Knightley, who has known and admired her since childhood, seems assured. Emma is Austen’s commentary on how little anyone knows about the workings of another’s heart and affections, and her heroine’s painful lesson is evidence of her creator’s wisdom.
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