The scenes of her stories are laid for the most part in small Hampshire villages, with which she was thoroughly familiar, the characters being taken from the middle class and the gentry with whom she was thrown. Simple domestic episodes and ordinary people, living somewhat monotonous and narrow lives, satisfy her. She exhibits wonderful skill in fashioning these into slight but entertaining narratives. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, she creates some refreshing situations by opposing Philip Darcy’s pride to Elizabeth Bennet’s prejudice. She manages the long-delayed reconciliation between these two lovers with a tact that shows true genius and a knowledge of the human heart.
[Illustration: JANE AUSTEN’S DESK.]
A strong feature of Jane Austen’s novels is her subtle, careful manner of drawing character. She perceives with an intuitive refinement the delicate shadings of emotion, and describes them with the utmost care and detail. Her heroines are especially fine, each one having an interesting individuality, thoroughly natural and womanly. The minor characters in Miss Austen’s works are usually quaint and original. She sees the oddities and foibles of people with the insight of the true humorist, and paints them with most dexterous cunning.
William D. Howells, the chief American realist of the nineteenth century, wrote in 1891 of her and her novels:—
“She was great and they were beautiful because she and they were honest and dealt with nature nearly a hundred years ago as realism deals with it to-day. Realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material.”
She was, indeed, a great realist, and it seems strange that she and Scott, the great romanticist, should have been contemporaries. Scott was both broad and big-hearted enough to sum up her chief characteristics as follows:—
“That young lady has a talent for
describing the involvements of
feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most
wonderful I ever met with. The big bow-wow strain I can do myself,
like any one going; but the exquisite touch which renders
commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the
description and the sentiment is denied to me.”
She died in 1817 at the age of forty-one and was buried in Winchester Cathedral, fourteen miles from her birthplace. The merit of her work was apparent to only a very few at the time of her death. Later years have slowly brought a just recognition of the important position that she holds in the history of the realistic novel of daily life. Of still greater significance to the majority is the fact that the subtle charm of her stories continues to win for her an enlarged circle of readers.
[Illustration: WILLIAM WORDSWORTH. After the portrait by B.R. Haydon.]