Austen, Jane: General Commentary

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SOURCE: Lascelles, Mary. "Style." In Jane Austen and Her Art, pp. 87-116. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939.

In the following excerpt, Lascelles discusses the origins and development of Austen's style.

[Austen] did not look to the novelists for direction as to style; and this was well, for the great novels of the mid-eighteenth century had too strong individuality, and their successor, the novel of sentiment, did not know its own business. It wanted, not merely a grand style for its more ambitious passages, but also an unaffected, level style for plain relation of fact and circumstance. This is Fanny Burney's notion of a matter-of-fact introductory statement:

'In the bosom of her respectable family resided Camilla. Nature, with a bounty the most profuse, had been lavish to her of attractions; Fortune, with a moderation yet kinder, had placed her between luxury and indigence. Her abode was the parsonage-house of Etherington.…The living, though not considerable, enabled its incumbent to attain every rational object of his modest and circumscribed wishes; to bestow upon a deserving wife whatever her own forbearance declined not; and to educate a lovely race of one son and three daughters, with that liberal propriety, which unites improvement for the future with present enjoyment.'1

Fanny Burney takes pains to be ridiculous. Her followers are often merely slovenly. Jane Austen neither strains after grandiloquence2 nor slips into slovenliness. She practises but one grammatical irregularity which is uncomfortable to the ear now—what may be called the dislocated clause.3 Of this I have found instances in the prose of every one of those writers who seem likely to have influenced her—as a slip; it is occasional, and usually to be found in casual writing—in Goldsmith's task-work, in Gibbon's letters. Jane Austen, however, uses it as freely as though she had never heard it condemned; and Beckford parodies it savagely as an habitual fault of style in women's novels.4 Was it a licence which had been tacitly permitted to them? Did James and Henry Austen regard it as a fault which they would not have allowed to stand had they noticed it in their own writings, but which might be passed over in their sister's with the apology that Fielding had offered for faults of style in David Simple?—'… some small Errors, which Want of Habit in Writing chiefly occasioned, and which no Man of Learning would think worth his Censure in a Romance; nor any gentleman, in the writings of a young Woman'.5 At all events, it may fairly be said that Jane Austen's sentences are rarely if ever ambiguous; a pronoun may sometimes go astray, but the drift of the paragraph always makes the writer's intention clear. Beckford's general satire of the novelists' style does not in fact apply to her.

To the essayists and historians, on the other hand (to adopt Henry Austen's division), his sister seems to have apprenticed herself, even in childhood. Already in Love and Freindship echoes of Goldsmith's voice are heard—echoes, at least, of some of those tones of his voice that belong to his task-work for booksellers. This summary account of Edward IV—'His best qualities were courage and beauty; his bad, a combination of all the vices'6—might equally well come from his History of England or from the pert little burlesque version of it in Love and Freindship, in which I seem to hear a tinkling echo of this very phrase: 'This Monarch [Edward IV] was famous only for his Beauty and his Courage, of which the Picture we have here given of him,7 and his undaunted Behaviour in marrying one Woman while he was engaged to another, are sufficient proofs.'8

This tone of sly simplicity is not, however, audible to me in Jane Austen's later writing. The simplicity of her novels, with that other quality, slyness or shrewdness, which gives this simplicity its value, seems to belong to another tradition and, even so, to belong with a difference. The essayists of the eighteenth century had been kindly masters to the young Jane Austen; the turn of wit, the phrasing, of their lighter moods had come easily to her—and this may perhaps account for that precocious assurance in style which has half hidden her later development. Even in her childish burlesque pieces every sentence is almost as deliberately and neatly turned (on its small scale) as are those of her masters. From the lightest piece of nonsense—'Our neighbourhood was small, for it consisted only of your Mother'9—to the sharpest prick of satire—'I expect nothing more in my wife than my wife will find in me—Perfection'10—each stands firmly, its weight exactly poised. Here already is the sharp definition of Lady Susan, and here the promise which Pride and Prejudice was to fulfil. 'Next to being married,' Mr. Bennet says to Elizabeth, when he hears of Jane's cross fortunes, 'a girl likes to be crossed in love a little now and then. It is something to think of, and gives her a sort of distinction among her companions. When is your turn to come? You will hardly bear to be long outdone by Jane. Now is your time. Here are officers enough at Meryton to disappoint all the young ladies in the country. Let Wickham be your man. He is a pleasant fellow, and would jilt you creditably.'

'Thank you, Sir, but a less agreeable man would satisfy me. We must not all expect Jane's good fortune.'11 This, like many other passages in Jane Austen's novels, tingles with a rhythm which stage comedy12 could never quite forget, though it might sound but faintly for a generation at a time—rhythm which is justified (as prose rhythm needs to be) by excitement. Instant perception of the absurd charges word and phrase with all the forces which in ordinary talk are dissipated, giving an impression of speed and simplicity not alien from the temper of verse. Such an impression must be elusive; no reader can vouch for more than his own experience. To me this rhythm seems audible in every one of Jane Austen's novels—even where I should least expect it, where no pulse of bodily well-being keeps time with it, in Sanditon. For it is appropriated by no one kind of comic dialogue. It tingles in the wit of Mr. Bennet—'Wickham's a fool, if he takes her with a farthing less than ten thousand pounds. I should be sorry to think so ill of him, in the very beginning of our relationship.'13 It is perceptible in the shrewd or droll saying that may be occasionally allowed to 'plain matter-of-fact people, who seldom aim at wit of any kind'—'And very nice young ladies they both are; I hardly know one from the other.'14 And yet it is not out of place in the merely absurd talk of fools. 'We ', Mr. Parker assures his wife, when she envies their more sheltered neighbours, 'have all the Grandeur of the Storm, with less real danger, because the Wind meeting with nothing to oppose or confine it around our House, simply rages & passes on.'15 For it is their creator's delight in absurdity that vibrates in their talk. But if Jane Austen learnt from the dramatists the turn of phrase proper to comedy she learnt also, in writing Pride and Prejudice, how to differentiate her dialogue from that sort she would associate with the stage; how to make it more reflective on the one hand, more inconsequent on the other, according to the bent of the speaker. And what she learnt from the essayists she likewise transmuted to her own use; that, indeed, is the way in which they were good masters, and she an apt pupil—they taught her to make something of her own. Lady Middleton and Mrs. Dashwood 'sympathised with each other in an insipid propriety of demeanour, and a general want of understanding'.16 That might come from one of the early periodical essays. It has the formality, the preponderance of general and abstract terms, which seems to have repelled Mrs. Meynell17—but which we are less likely to take amiss. To us Jane Austen appears like one who inherits a prosperous and well-ordered estate—the heritage of a prose style in which neither generalization nor abstraction need signify vagueness, because there was close enough agreement as to the scope and significance of such terms.18 Character and motive, for example, might be presented in them—a practice best illustrated, and very likely familiar to Jane Austen herself, in the Lives of the Poets. 'His mind was not very comprehensive, nor his curiosity active; he had no value for those parts of knowledge which he had not himself cultivated.'19 This, surely, and countless passages like it, represent the school in which she trained herself. Lady Russell forms and expresses her judgement on Mr. Elliot in these terms: 'Every thing united in him; good understanding, correct opinions, knowledge of the world, and a warm heart … He was steady, observant, moderate, candid'; he possessed 'sensibility', and 'a value for all the felicities of domestic life'20—and so on. Here, of course, the ear catches an inflexion of irony in the use of such exact and emphatic terms for a misapprehension; but that implies no dissatisfaction with the terms themselves. They are used to express the opinions on their fellow characters of all the reflective heroines (Catherine being a child, and Emma, as she calls herself, an 'imaginist'): for Elizabeth Bennet's criticism of her father's 'ill-judged … direction of talents … which rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife';21 for the shrewd observations of Elinor Dashwood and Charlotte Heywood; even for Anne Elliot's gentler judgements. But, more and more freely, they are combined with other kinds of expression in that interplay of formal and colloquial, abstract and concrete, general and particular, to whose interaction are due the firmness and suppleness of the style in which the great prose writers of the eighteenth century could address the Common Reader. Fanny Price, eager to find in her own shortcomings the reason for her mother's early neglect of her, supposed that 'she had probably alienated Love by the helplessness and fretfulness of a fearful temper, or been unreasonable in wanting a larger share than any one among so many could deserve'.22 Sometimes there is a humorous purpose in the juxtaposition: 'They had a very fine day for Box Hill; and all the other outward circumstances of arrangement, accommodation, and punctuality, were in favour of a pleasant party.…Nothing was wanting but to be happy when they got there.'23 Sometimes it marks the centre of a comic episode—as in Sir Thomas's attempt to give 'Mr. Rushworth's opinion in better words than he could find himself'—and his author's comment: 'Mr. Rushworth hardly knew what to do with so much meaning.'24 That commonplace turn of expression—the neutral verb mobilized by the preposition—goes with the grain of the language, would not be out of place in dialogue, yet is wholly in keeping with the narrative passage to which it belongs. Scott, the only one of Jane Austen's contemporaries who has a lively appreciation of the prose tradition they inherited, is at a drawback here: the language of his narrative passages must always remain distinct from the dialogue of his Scots-speaking characters, and from the Ossianic drone by which he distinguishes his Gaelic speakers.

If Jane Austen trained herself in Johnson's school, that was not, I think, the limit of her debt to him; something more personal remains—some tones of his voice seem to be echoed in her style. An echo is too elusive to be certainly identified; but conjecture may be worth offering. I think I see in her familiarity with, and love of, his work the explanation of her aptitude for coining pregnant abstractions—such phrases as Miss Bates's desultory good-will, of which the sounds pursued her visitors as they mounted her stairs;25 Mrs. Elton's apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and basket;26 and Sir Walter's advance towards his grand cousins 'with all the eagerness compatible with anxious elegance';27 these, surely, may be called Johnsonian phrases and may fairly remind us of such passages in The Rambler as the description of the leisurely travellers who 'missed … the Pleasure of alarming Villages with the Tumult of our Passage, and of disguising our Insignificancy by the Dignity of Hurry'.28 From Johnson she may have learnt also a liking for antithetic phrasing, coming to perceive his antitheses closing on his subject as large hands may close on a creature which must be held before it can be set free; coming to distinguish this formality as one congenial to English idiom. Anne Elliot, advising Captain Benwick, 'ventured to hope that he did not always read only poetry; and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly'.29 I will suggest another small accomplishment which Jane Austen may possibly owe to 'her dear Dr. Johnson': while he has been criticized for making all the fictitious correspondents in his periodical essays address him in his own stately language, his lively mimicry of idiom in oblique oration has passed unnoticed. Thus Anthea, who thought nothing so elegant as a display of timidity, 'saw some Sheep, and heard the Weather clink his Bell, which she was certain was not hung upon him for nothing, and therefore no Assurances nor Intreaties should prevail upon her to go a Step farther; she was sorry to disappoint the Company, but her Life was dearer to her than Ceremony'.30 Now Jane Austen has an aptitude, not very common among the earlier novelists, for these satirically reported conversations: Mrs. Elton on strawberries, and Lady Bertram on the ball, are probably the best-remembered; but these merely confirm impressions already made; her slighter essays in this kind are quite as shrewd, and, within small compass, create the impression in our minds of the talk of some minor character who would otherwise be silent—of Mrs. Philips with her promise of 'a little bit of hot supper',31 or Mr. Shepherd, with his account of his chosen tenant—'quite the gentleman'.32

Among these elusive echoes of the tones of voice of her favourites I seem to detect one that may be worth a moment's notice. The train of possibilities begins with Richardson's realization that a parenthetical phrase, most often built upon a present participle, if introduced abruptly into the midst of a speech—that is, not qualifying the introductory 'he said' or its equivalent, but indicating change of tone or gesture as a stage-direction might do—gives the air of eyewitness to any one who reports the speech; and since, in his novels, the narrator is always, for the moment, autobiographer, that reporter is always supposed to be an eyewitness, and therefore needs this illusion. (Thus, conversations reported by Miss Harriet Byron are not seldom interrupted by the parenthesis 'Snatching my hand'.) Fanny Burney appears to perceive this advantage and follow Richardson, so long as she also lets one of the characters tell the story—that is, in Evelina's letters. (Need it be said that here, too, 'Snatching my hand' is a not infrequent parenthesis?) But it seems to be Boswell who, in his own double character of author and eyewitness reporting an affair, introduces this device into direct narration, in his Tour to the Hebrides and, still oftener, in his Life of Johnson. Thus, in Johnson's speeches occur such parenthetical phrases as: '(looking to his Lordship with an arch smile)'. Whether or no Jane Austen's ear really caught from one of these three among her favourite authors the impression of immediacy which this device is able to lend to dialogue, her frequent and apt use of it is worth remarking. Nancy Steele's tale of her sister is brought within earshot by such parentheses as '(Laughing affectedly)' and '(giggling as she spoke)',33 and poor Miss Bates's of her niece by '(twinkling away a tear or two)';34 while we seem indeed to see Captain Harville's attention divided between Anne and Captain Wentworth: 'There is no hurry on my side', he tells Wentworth. '"I am only ready whenever you are.—I am in very good anchorage here," (smiling at Anne) "well supplied, and want for nothing.—No hurry for a signal at all.—Well, Miss Elliot," (lowering his voice) "as I was saying, we shall never agree I suppose upon this point."'35

Evidence as to Jane Austen's dislikes in word or phrase is less elusive, for it consists not only in her avoidance of such habits of expression but also in her ridicule of them in her burlesque writings, and in her warnings to Anna against them. Any close observer of her ways must have noticed that she is, so to speak, shy of figurative language, using it as little as possible, and least of all in her gravest passages. I do not think it extravagant to find some suggestion of the amusement and discomfort which idle use of figurative expressions caused her in this small quip to Cassandra: 'He … poor man! is so totally deaf that they say he could not hear a cannon, were it fired close to him; having no cannon at hand to make the experiment, I took it for granted, and talked to him a little with my fingers.…'36 For this use of stale, unmeaning figures of speech is a common mark of insincerity in her disagreeable people—in Mrs. Elton, with her borrowed plume of poetic image, her chatter of 'Hymen's saffron robe';37 in General Tilney, whose imagery belongs to the conventions of a heartless gallantry: '"I have many pamphlets to finish," said he to Catherine, "before I can close my eyes; and perhaps may be poring over the affairs of the nation for hours after you are asleep. Can either of us be more meetly employed? My eyes will be blinding for the good of others; and yours preparing by rest for future mischief"'38—a manner of speech that almost seems to excuse Catherine's suspicions; above all, in Mrs. Norris: 'Is not she a sister's child?' she asks, rhetorically, of Fanny Price; 'and could I bear to see her want, while I had a bit of bread to give her?'39 And one sees a grotesque vision of those two—the child and the woman—confronting one another across the shining expanse of the parsonage dining-table, with a 'bit of bread' between them. But Mrs. Norris did not see that vision; she saw nothing—metaphor was to her a screen for the meaninglessness of her generous words.

I suspect that it was Jane Austen's practice of denying herself the aid of figurative language which, as much as any other of her habits of expression, repelled Charlotte Brontë, and has alienated other readers, conscious of a dissatisfaction with her style that they have not cared to analyse. What prompted her to such a denial? Did she distrust all figurative language because she was sharply aware of the aptitude of the most languid figurative expressions for persisting as a mere habit of speech, after they have lost even the feeble life they had for the imagination?—a not unreasonable distrust, so large is the element of figurative idiom in our tongue. And was she further aware that, since such language commonly carries in the first using some emotional suggestion, it cannot fossilize without turning into a lie? Even if this should seem a rashly conjectural explanation of her apparent distrust of all figures of speech, her evident dislike of all that are ready made, it is certainly worth while to notice her quick ear for all those ready-made phrases, whether figurative or no, which creep so insidiously into our habitual speech. She had always held aloof from slang:40 'Miss Fletcher and I were very thick', she writes to Cassandra in Steventon days, 'but I am the thinnest of the two.'41 She makes fossil phrases the staple of Lady Bertram's accustomed style of letter-writing—'a very creditable, commonplace, amplifying style':42 'We shall greatly miss Edmund in our small circle', she writes to Fanny when he has gone to fetch his sick brother; 'but I trust and hope he will find the poor invalid in a less alarming state than might be apprehended …'43—a style that breaks up and dissolves under the influence of real feeling: 'He is just come, my dear Fanny, and is taken up stairs; and I am so shocked to see him, that I do not know what to do.'44 They are a mark also of the talk of Mr. Parker—who was not 'a man of strong understanding':45 'Here were we, pent down in this little contracted Nook, without Air or View, only one mile and 3 qrs from the noblest expanse of Ocean between the South foreland & the Land's end, & without the smallest advantage from it. You will not think I have made a bad exchange, when we reach Trafalgar House—which by the bye, I almost wish I had not named Trafalgar—for Waterloo is more the thing now.'46 And she is at pains to emphasize this habit: 'The Growth of my Plantations is a general astonishment'47that was substituted in revision for 'My Plantations astonish everybody by their Growth'.

What it is that disgusts in Mrs. Elton's speech is not so obvious. It is not merely the idle figurative expressions—the recluse torn reluctant from her instrument and crayons, and the rest, though they are many; nor the slang, with its uneasy pretensions, nor the wilful use of concrete and particular expressions where there is no occasion for them: 'A most pitiful business!—Selina would stare when she heard of it.'48 It is rather a general and insidious misuse of language in the interests of an ugly smartness, which produces much the same sort of unpleasant sensation as seeing a tool misused.

Jane Austen's sharpest critical satire is aimed, however, at the contemporary novelists' peculiar phraseology—commonly a rank weed in the aftermath of a great age of fiction. Miss Clavering, who was to have collaborated with her friend Miss Ferrier, noticed it. 'I don't like those high life conversations', she says shrewdly; 'they are a sort of thing by consent handed down from generation to generation in novels, but have little or no groundwork in truth … [they] could at best amuse by putting one in mind of other novels not by recalling to anybody what they ever saw or heard in real life.…'And she is pretty severe on her friend's more ambitious writing in this kind, 'which is the style of conversation of duchesses only in novels'.49 A conversational style handed down from one generation of novelists to another—that is a pitfall, as Jane Austen gently reminds Anna: 'I do not like a Lover's speaking in the 3d person;—it is too much like the formal part of Lord Orville, & I think is not natural.'50 She had made fun of fossilized phraseology in her earliest pieces, sometimes tilting a fragment of it gently to let the light fall on it: 'his Mother had been many years no more'.51 Even more unobtrusively it makes its way into her early novels: 'the lenient hand of time did much for [Catherine] by insensible gradations in the course of another day.'52 Beckford had parodied these stock phrases; but his hand had been heavy: '… the finer feelings of the celestial Arabella suffered a new and more terrible shock, which the lenient hand of time could alone hope to mollify. The original breaking of his collar bone, by the fall from his famous hunter, which had once so cruelly alarmed the ladies in the park, was no longer an object of material magnitude, but … the innumerable difficulties he might labour under, was indeed a stroke which required the utmost fortitude, and every religious consideration to combat and sustain.'53 Where he makes nonsense, Jane Austen with a lighter touch makes something that is almost sense. She sees where exaggeration is not needed, where demure imitation will serve. She allows Henry Tilney to hit off the style of Mrs. Radcliffe's descriptive passages in his mock forecast of Catherine's arrival at the Abbey,54 and of the novel of sentiment in his pretended investigation of Catherine's feelings upon the arrival of Isabel-la's letter.55 She never lost her taste for mimicry, but her later novels gave her less scope for it. Her consciousness of this particular pitfall is most forcibly expressed in her watchful avoidance of it, most pointedly in that stricture on Anna's novel in which she comes nearest to severity: 'Devereux Forester's being ruined by his Vanity is extremely good; but I wish you would not let him plunge into a "vortex of Dissipation". I do not object to the Thing, but I cannot bear the expression;—it is such thorough novel slang—and so old, that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened.'56

Behind this explicit expression of aversion we can perceive her steady rejection of 'novel slang', and behind this consistent practice her sensitiveness to the entity of the word. Her corrections show her mind moving among words, arranging and rearranging them, until she gets them phrased to her liking; and so every one of them remains exquisitely whole, like a falling drop of water, and no two or three are allowed to run together and settle into stagnant pools.

Delicate precision, resulting from control of the tools chosen—one could almost be content to claim no more than this for Jane Austen's style, surmising that she would hardly claim as much. She might have been willing to accept Richardson's compliment to Lady Bradshaigh: 'The pen is almost as pretty an implement in a woman's fingers as a needle.'57 She would probably have been puzzled by John Bailey's tribute: 'She wrote … well, because she could write well and liked it, and all the better because she did not know how well she wrote.'58 For I think that she would have been satisfied to transfer to her style her playful boast of her own manual dexterity: 'An artist cannot do anything slovenly.'59


  1. Camilla, ch. i.
  2. Her rare inversions sound to me Johnsonian; that is, an unconscious reflection of her reading.
  3. e.g. Lady Catherine, speaking of her daughter and Darcy, says: 'While in their cradles, we planned the union' (Pride and Prejudice, p. 355, ch. lvi).
  4. Modern Novel Writing (under the pseudonym of Lady Harriet Marlow), 1796.
  5. Sarah Fielding, David Simple, 1744 (2nd edit.)—with a preface by Henry Fielding, in which he mentions his correction of these errors. (They are seldom worse than colloquialisms or awkwardnesses.)
  6. Goldsmith, History of England (1771), ii. 250.
  7. i.e. one of Cassandra's medallions, made, perhaps, in playful imitation of those in the 1771 History.
  8. Love and Freindship, p. 86; Minor Works, pp. 140, 141.
  9. Ibid., p. 7; Minor Works, p. 78.
  10. Volume the First, p. 46; Minor Works, p. 26.
  11. Pride and Prejudice, pp. 137, 138, ch. xxiv.
  12. J. A. was probably an habitual reader of plays.
  13. Pride and Prejudice, p. 304, ch. xlix.
  14. Persuasion, p. 92, ch. x.
  15. Sanditon, p. 48; Minor Works, p. 381.
  16. Sense and Sensibility, p. 229, ch. xxxiv.
  17. Alice Meynell, 'The Classic Novelist' in The Second Person Singular (1921).
  18. It is, I believe, want of realization of this element in Jane Austen's style that has made critics such as Mr. Forster find a reflection of her point of view in the thoughts of all her heroines; see Abinger Harvest (1936), p. 149.
  19. Life of Shenstone.
  20. Persuasion, pp. 146, 147, ch. xvi.
  21. Pride and Prejudice, p. 237, ch. xlii.
  22. Mansfield Park, p. 371, ch. xxxvii.
  23. Emma, p. 367, ch. xliii.
  24. Mansfield Park, p. 186, ch. xix.
  25. Emma, p. 239, ch. xxvii. I think this is not a very common idiom in women's writings, though Mrs. Thrale learnt it from the same master.
  26. Ibid., p. 358, ch. xlii.
  27. Persuasion, p. 184, ch. xx.
  28. The Rambler, number 142.
  29. Persuasion, pp. 100, 101, ch. xi.
  30. The Rambler, number 34.
  31. Pride and Prejudice, p. 74, ch. xv.
  32. Persuasion, p. 22, ch. iii.
  33. Sense and Sensibility, pp. 274, 275, ch. xxxviii.
  34. Emma, p. 378, ch. xliv.
  35. Persuasion, p. 234, ch. xxiii.
  36. Letters, p. 242.
  37. Emma, p. 308, ch. xxxvi.
  38. Northanger Abbey, p. 187, ch. xxiii.
  39. Mansfield Park, p. 7, ch. i.
  40. It is Mary Crawford's slang that persuades me she was never meant to be very agreeable.
  41. Letters, p. 14.
  42. Mansfield Park, p. 425, ch. xliv.
  43. Ibid., p. 426, ch. xliv.
  44. Ibid., p. 427, ch. xliv.
  45. Sanditon, p. 23; Minor Works, p. 372.
  46. Ibid., p. 44; Minor Works, p. 380.
  47. Ibid., p. 46; Minor Works, p. 381.
  48. Emma, p. 484, ch. lv. I think that Jane Austen positively disliked this idiosyncrasy—of which she gives variants to Sir Edward Denham and John Thorpe.
  49. Memoir and Correspondence of Susan Ferrier, ed. J. A. Doyle, pp. 114-118 (letter of 10 May 1813).
  50. Letters, pp. 387, 388. Charlotte Brontë slipped back into this awkward practice.
  51. Love and Freindship, p. 10; Minor Works, p. 80.
  52. Northanger Abbey, p. 201, ch. xxv.
  53. Modern Novel Writing, ch. i.
  54. Northanger Abbey, ch. xx.
  55. Ibid., p. 207, ch. xxv.
  56. Letters, p. 404.
  57. Correspondence, ed. Barbauld (1804), vi. 120 (no date).
  58. Introductions to Jane Austen, 1931, p. 25.
  59. Letters, p. 30.


In referring to Jane Austen's six novels, I give the number of the page as it appears in Dr. Chapman's edition, followed by the number of the chapter as it would appear in any other modern edition. For her letters and other unpublished writings, I refer likewise to his editions. References to the letters are simple; those to the other writings require a little explanation. When I completed my book, Dr. Chapman had already edited (in separate volumes) practically all of Jane Austen's unpublished work other than those three note-books of juvenilia entitled Volume the First, Second, and Third; but of these we had only the First from his hand. Volume the Second had appeared (with a preface by G. K. Chesterton) under the title of its principal content, Love and Freindship, and it was by this name, therefore, that I referred to it, and to all that it contained. Volume the Third had not been printed, nor was it accessible to me in manuscript; it had therefore to be left out of my account. This latter note-book had since been edited by Dr. Chapman, who has moreover now gathered all these and some smaller pieces into a single volume of Minor Works. Thus, for Jane Austen's tales, fragments, and drafts, except the contents of Volume the Second, we have two earlier editions from his hand; differing in that the earlier records the traces of revision discernible in her manuscripts. Mindful of the diverse needs of readers possessing these different editions, I have retained my original page-reference for every passage quoted, but added another, to the Minor Works—except where the subject under discussion was Jane Austen's practice in revision.

For her brother's Biographical Notice and her nephew's Memoir also I refer to Dr. Chapman's editions, except in those instances where it was necessary to use the first edition of the Memoir, or a passage from that part of the second which his edition does not reproduce.

For other books I have, of course, referred to the first editions, except where an authoritative collected edition of the author's works seemed preferable. In references to novels, mindful of the difficulty of getting access to a first edition of many of those I cited, I have given the number not of the page but of the chapter.

In my necessarily brief account of Jane Austen's life (intended only as a foundation to the critical part of this book) I have, I hope methodically, preferred the earliest source of information, except where a later source of equal authority gave fuller detail—for example, where the Life was fuller that the Memoir.

Full Titles of References

H. Austen, A Biographical Notice of the Author prefixed to Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, 1818 (reprinted with slight alteration in Bentley's collected edition of J. A.'s novels; the version of 1818 reprinted in R. W. C.'s edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion).

J. E. Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen, 1870 (reprinted with parts of J. A.'s unfinished works, 1871; the second edition, with some of the additions, reprinted, R. W. C., 1926).

M. A. Austen-Leigh, Personal Aspects of Jane Austen, 1920.

R. A. Austen-Leigh and W. Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters, 1913.

A. C. Bradley, 'Jane Austen,' in Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, 1911.

E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, 1927.

H. W. Garrod. 'Jane Austen: A Depreciation,' in Essays by Divers Hands (Transactions of the Royal Society for Literature), 1928.

C. Hill, Jane Austen: Her Homes and Friends, 1902.

P. Lubbock, The Craft of Fiction, 1921.

W. Scott, review of Emma in the Quarterly Review, vol. xiv (for 1815; appeared 1816).

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, 1925.


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Early in her career, in the progress of her first removal, heroine must meet with the hero—all perfection, of course, and only prevented from paying his addresses to her by some excess of refinement. Wherever she goes somebody falls in love with her, and she receives repeated offers of marriage, which she always refers wholly to her father, exceedingly angry that he should not be first applied to. Often carried away by the anti-hero, but rescued either by her father or the hero. Often reduced to support herself and her father by her talents, and work for her bread; continually cheated and defrauded of her hire; worn down to a skeleton, and now and then starved to death. At last, hunted out of civilized society, denied the poor shelter of the humblest cottage, they are compelled to retreat into Kamschatka, where the poor father, quite worn down, finding his end approaching, throws himself on the ground, and, after four or five hours of tender advice and parental admonition to his miserable child, expires in a fine burst of literary enthusiasm, intermingled with invectives against holders of tithes. Heroine inconsolable for some time, but afterwards crawls back towards her former country, having at least twenty narrow escapes of falling into the hands of anti-hero; and at last, in the very nick of time, turning a corner to avoid him, runs into the arms of the hero himself, who, having just shaken off the scruples which fettered him before, was at the very moment setting off in pursuit of her. The tenderest and completest éclaircissement takes place, and they are happily united.

Austen, Jane. Excerpt from Plan of a Novel. In Sandition, The Watsons, Lady Susan, and Other Miscellanea, p. 5. London: Dent, 1934, 1979.

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Austen, Jane: General Commentary

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