So it is quite diverting to hear critics hail her as a great writer (of course) but then go into scathing detail about her "limitations". "Well now!", they may say, "Here is a writer who lived during the time of the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Terror, the rise and fall of Napoleon, and does not devote a single paragraph to them!"
W. Somerset Maugham answers,
She could not have acted more wisely than she did in avoiding to deal with affairs which from the literary standpoint were of passing interest. Already the novels concerned with the Great War that have been written in the last few years are as dead as mutton.
On the other hand, JA's novels are fresh as daisies because she placed her focus on the enduring idea of how to live. And as she takes her "fine brush" in hand and draws the picture of her own world, we begin to see ours clearly.
Alain de Botton observes,
There are books that speak to us of our own lives with a clarity we cannot match. They prevent the morose suspicion that we do not fully belong to the species, that we lie beyond comprehension. Our embarrassments, our sulks, our envy, our feelings of guilt, these phenomena are conveyed in Austen in a way that affords us bursts of almost magical self-recognition. The author has located words to depict a situation we thought ourselves alone in feeling, and for a few moments, we see ourselves more clearly and wish to become whom the author would have wanted us to be.
As true as this statement is, did she only write about the actions and feelings of her characters? Was there "no blood" as Leithart remarked (see his intro. to Miniatures and Morals)?
A critic, Arnold Kettle, writes,
The silliest of all criticisms of Jane Austen is one which blames her for not writing about the Battle of Waterloo and the French Revolution. She wrote about what she understood and no artist can do more. But did she understand enough?...
Donald Greene answers,
How do we know that Jane Austen did not understand the French Revolution and the Napoleonic War- she lost a relation to the guillotine in the first and had two brothers on active service for many years in the second- as well as Tolstoy, say, who was not born until they were over, or as Arnold Kettle?
Surely, even as a mere movie-goer, one cannot miss the soldiers mentioned on every other page of Pride and Prejudice. And what of our great Captain Wentworth of Persuasion who gives an account of his touch-and-go with death during his navel career one evening to the Musgrove ladies? I wonder, have any of these critics read Mansfield Park? If so, how is it possible to miss the ongoing discussion during the whole of the novel of England and France? The debate over- are we to stay true to our England or be sucked into the French ways of the Crawfords? As Henry Tilney tells Catherine in Northanger Abbey, "Remember that we are English, that we are Christians." This mindset pitted against the French phrases (her menus plaisirs and her tout ensemble) and morals that Mary Crawford seductively tosses around.
Another criticism of JA, perhaps one remembers it well for having been given by Charlotte Bronte who stated, "The passions are perfectly unknown to her." To which Lionel Stevenson adds that JA avoids narrating "scenes of strong feeling". This all quite baffles me. By all accounts, Elizabeth Bennet is a passionate person, and for that matter, so is Darcy. I believe Marianne frequently allowed herself to be quite carried away by the passions on several occasions. Some of the heroines are quieter about it, true. But just because Elinor or Anne Eliot doesn't slam the door on their way out and remember to mind their social manners, doesn't exclude them from passion or strong feeling. Virginia Woolf observes that, "Jane Austen stimulates us to supply what is not there." Even our meek and mild, Fanny Price, has her moments of strong feeling when Henry Crawford is once again being himself. JA tells us, "Now she was angry...Here was again a want of delicacy and regard for others which had formerly so struck and disgusted her. (emphasis mine)
Perhaps, JA agrees with Lady Philosophy. When Lady Philosophy finds Boethius weeping (in his Consolation of Philosophy),the Muses of Poetry with him, she becomes angry.
"Who," she demanded, her piercing eyes alight with fire, "has allowed these hysterical sluts to approach this sick man's bedside? They have no medication to ease his pains, only sweetened poisons to make them worse. These are the very creatures who slay the rich and fruitful harvest of Reason with the barren thorns of Passion. They habituate men to their sickness of mind instead of curing them."
According to Dorothy Van Ghent there are key ingredients when mixing up a novel. She says,
It is the frequent response of readers who are making their first acquaintance with Jane Austen that her subject matter is itself so limited- limited to the manners of a small section of English country gentry, who apparently never have been worried about death or sex, hunger or war, guilt or God- that it can offer no contiguity with modern interests. This is a very real difficulty in an approach to an Austen novel, and we should not obscure it.
Let's see... death, sex, hunger, war, guilt, God...that comes out to six ingredients. I am at a loss to know which of JA's books Professor Van Ghent could have possibly read. It is true that the modern novel one reads now are written more often than not with vividly depicted sex-scenes and blood splattered everywhere. Perhaps that is one of the reasons the subtly of JA is missed. The other reason must be thick-headedness.
Despite the fact that I cannot agree with the "necessary six ingredients", I must point out that these themes are in JA's novels. (Shocking, I know.) Sense and Sensibility begins with the death of Mr Dashwood which shapes the entire story. The death of Mrs Eliot overshadows the beginning story of Persuasion as it overshadows the life of Anne. You also sense this in Northanger Abbey when talking with Elinor Tilney. And let us not forget Mansfield Park and poor Tom, who's impending doom was much talked of within the walls of both Mansfield houses. And who's recovery disappointed one young lady's hopes for a rich husband and large dinner parties.
Jumping right into the discussion of the second ingredient, one can only wonder how it was missed. Illicit sex occurs in 4 of her 6 books. The exceptions being Emma (though it is discussed at length in reference to Harriet Smith's parentage) and Northanger Abbey. Though in NA it isn't absolutely clear that it did not (think Isabella Thorpe and Capt. Tilney), just perhaps more probable. I did not think Lydia and Wickham or Maria Bertram and Crawford possible to miss, even for the naive! Donald Greene wonders if these things are often overlooked because JA "often takes such matters in her stride." W.H.Auden certainly didn't miss it. He told Lord Byron,
You could not shock her more that she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems as innocent as grass.
As for hunger (the third ingredient), the Dashwood ladies are quite at a loss at what they are to do after the death of Mr Dashwood until they are met with the kindness of John Middleton. Jane Fairfax is in an even lower state and tells Mrs Elton so when she talks to her of what she dubs the "governess-trade". She talks of "the sale, not quite of human flesh, but of human intellect." Fanny Price is also faced with this in contemplating to her future life when sent by her uncle to the broken-down home of her parents in Portsmouth.
We have already talked of war and rumor of war, but there are so many references here! JA must have received her firsthand information of the royal navy from her brothers, Frank and Charles. All through the book, Persuasion, war (Admiral Croft, Wentworth, Harville), death (Fanny Harville, Lousia), hunger (Mrs Smith), and love (Benwick, Anne) are a fundamental part of the story. Another example is Fanny in Mansfield Park, who worries over her brother, William, going to sea.
As to guilt, JA is, to quote Donald Greene again,
...one of the great portrayers of guilt, to be ranked with Sophocles and Dostoyevsky- guilt and its consequences in the way of misery; guilt and its redemption by remorse, self-examination, the acquisition of new insight, expiation. I can think of few English novelists in whose works the word itself occurs more frequently, except her mentor, Richardson. There are no finer self-recognition scenes in literature than those of Marrianne Dashwood and Elizabeth Bennet-
"How despicably have I acted! I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable distrust. How humiliating is this discovery! yet, how just a humiliation!...Till this moment I never knew myself"
Recall Emma Woodhouse who had
never felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck. The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates!... Time did not compose her. As she reflected more, she seemed to feel it more. She had never been so depressed... Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home, without being at any trouble to check them, extraordinary as they were.
Emma again has a moment of self-realization when Harriet thinks she'll have Mr Knightly for herself.
Every moment had brought a fresh surprise; and every surprise must be a matter of humiliation to her. How to understand it all! How to understand the deceptions she had thus been practicing on herself, and living under! The blunders, the blindness of her own head and heart! She sat still, she walked about, she tried her own room, she tried the shrubbery- in every place, every posture, she perceived that she had acted most weakly
As Donald Greene writes,
Few other pens have dwelt so long and so convincingly on guilt and misery as Jane Austen's. If the literal-minded critic asks in bewilderment, "Why then does she confuse us by making the statement (Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious objects as soon as I can.) that she does at the end of Mansfield Park?
Jane Austen's reply might once again be, "I do not write for such dull elves/ As have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves" (from her Letters).
I would like to further point the reader to an essay by C.S.Lewis, A Note on Jane Austen, in which he develops this (guilt and misery in JA) more fully. http://www.amazon.com/Selected-Literary-Essays-C-Lewis/dp/052107441X