Jane Austen's novels which remind us of life that is all but extinct; they tell us, too, of a spirit which we hope will never be extinct: a spirit in which joy and wit, delight in humanity and ridicule of human foibles, combine to produce vibrant comic art. It is an art which possesses a deep sense of tradition, self-assured without being snobbish, and proper without being smug. The result is a perfect comedy of manners.
A WELL-ORDERED society is essential for such a comedy, and it was such a society in which Jane Austen lived. Her times were much different from ours. The Napoleonic wars were indeed taking place, but they were far distant from the pleasant countryside and the spacious manor houses of which she wrote. The wars to be sure impinged occasionally, as when a couple of young officers are stationed nearby, to the delight of the younger ladies; but otherwise, the wars were far away. Jane Austen's world is peaceful: the only problems are the ones that take place in the most everyday kind of life: the difficulties of living on one's income, the challenges of marriage and giving in marriage, the challenges of getting on with one's family and one's neighbours. It is a good world in which only the universal problems can cause us grave concern; our own tortured times needs this glimpse of human serenity.
Jane Austen is most typically concerned with young unmarried girls who must somehow be married off. Some of them are stupid or foolish, like Mr Bennet's young daughters; but the heroines always combine wit, womanly tenderness, and sound commonsense. Common sense directs them to pay conscious attention to a man's income and station, but he need not be wealthy. Their wit helps them avoid fools. And their womanly gentleness makes a marriage for anything but love quite impossible.
The world they live in is leisured. The men always follow one of the three recognised occupations: they are landowners, military men or clergymen. An independent income, even if a very small one, usually makes their lot an easy one. There always appear to be more girls than men about - was this effect of war or was it Jane Austen's spinsterish point of view? And the novels always deal with the quest of the girls or their mothers for husbands.
IT is a world of much visiting: one stays with friends for weeks on end. It is a world of endless entertainment, but entertainment which depends upon the efforts of the characters themselves. A ball at the nearest manor house is the grand occasion of the year. It is a leisured, charming, gracious world in which good talk is more common than elaborate social events; conversations take place as spontaneously as visits to the vicarage.
Among silly and hypocritical people, there are always the calm, sensible heroines, the Elizabeth Bennets and Elinor Dashwood.
" Elinor possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgement, which qualified her, though only 19, to be the counsellor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs Dashwood which much have generally have led to imprudence."
Good sense and intelligence: these are the virtues of Jane Austen's young ladies. That is why she is a classic, not a romantic writer: the people she admires have feelings, but they keep them carefully under control. A mishap occurs to those who don't.
The problems with which these heroines dealt were problems which yielded to the intelligence. Much of the modern despair is due to the questioning of the power of intelligence to grapple with human affairs. The affairs with which Jane Austen deals are, we must admit, scaled to human size; that is why she is attractive to us: her problems are comprehensibly human, not incomprehensibly complex. We long for her world, where issues were life-size.
But we do so in vain. It might be pleasanter for human beings if personal problems were all they had to deal with, but the fact is otherwise. And so the best we can do is perhaps to take her lesson of intelligence, attempting to apply it to our gigantesque and terrifying problems. Sense not sensibility is Jane Austen's lesson for the modern world.
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