تتمتع الروائية جين أوستن (1775-1817) بمكانة عالية ومنزلة رفيعة بين الأدباء الإنجليز ولا يفوقها مكانة سوى الشاعر والمسرحي العظيم وليم شكسبير، ومنذ النصف الثاني من القرن العشرين ازدادت الدراسات الأكاديمية المهتمة بدراسة عالمها الروائي ومن زوايا مختلفة. امتاز أسلوبها برقي الكلمة وسمو الأسلوب مع النقد البنَّاء، وإن كان لاذعاً، للظواهر الاجتماعية الخاطئة وذلك في إطار من الكوميديا الاجتماعية.
إنَّ من أسباب تفوِّق جين أوستن في عالم الأدب الانجليزي عبقريتها في مجال عرض الشخصيات بواقعية غير مسبوقة مما جعل الرواية الانجليزية ترتدي ثوب الحداثة. ومن أهم عناصر واقعيتها في تصوير الشخصيات الرئيسة في رواياتها تأكيدها إظهار الجوانب النفسية المختلفة لهذه الشخصيات بإعطاء الفرصة لبطلاتها للبوح عن الذات سواء للنفس أو للآخرين.
وقد ظهرت موهبة أوستن في التأليف والكتابة منذ سن مبكَّر وبالتحديد منذ الرابعة عشرة ولم يكن بالطبع ما خطَّته من قصص قصيرة وحكايات فكاهية ومسرحيات هزليَّة قصيرة بالأعمال الأدبية الناضجة ولكنَّها ساعدتها على التمرُّس والمران وتشكيل الأسلوب الذي اشتهرت به لاحقاً.
من أعمالها المبكرة التي تظهر الحسَّ الفكاهي لديها العمل الذي أسمته “تاريخ بريطانيا” ولكنَّ كتاباتها الباكرة لم تكن جميعها هازلة بل نجد أنَّها تناولت فيها بعض الموضوعات أو التيمات التي عادت لاحقاً لتتناولها بعمق أكبر في رواياتها المعروفة والمنشورة. فمثلاً في روايتها غير المكتملة “كاثرين” أبدت جهداً ملحوظاً لتناول موضوع معرفة الذات معرفة تدريجية ثمَّ عادت و تناولته باقتدار وتميز في أعمالها اللاحقة.
وقد كتبت ست روايات نُشرت منها أربع في حياتها هي: “العقل والعاطفة”، “التحامل والكبرياء”، “مانسفيلد بارك” و”إيما”، واثنتان بعد وفاتها هما “الإقناع” و”ديرنورثانقير”. وإنَّ المتأمَّل لعنوانات الروايات يجد اهتماماً واضحاً من أوستن بالقيم الاجتماعية، وليس ذلك بمستغرب منها فهي قد عُرفت بأنَّها كاتبة تمثِّل التيار الأخلاقي. وقد يخدع البعض بكون أعمالها تدور حول قصص الحب والزواج ويخيَّل لهم أنَّها بعيدة عمَّا كان يمور به العصر من مشكلات وتغيرات سياسية وأنَّها لم تتناول ذلك سوى في آخر رواياتها “الإقناع”، لكنَّ قصص الحب والزواج لم تتخذها أوستن إلَّا وسيلة لموضوعات اجتماعية مهمَّة و تناولها لها لم يكن بصورة سطحية بل بصورة عميقة جسدتها بكلام يدل على تواضعها وهي تصف عملها بأنَّه عمل صغير مثل قطعة عاج لا يزيد عرضها عن بوصتين نقشت عليها بفرشاة دقيقة بحرص وجهد، فكانت النتيجة عملاً ذا أثر بسيط مقارنة بالجهد المبذول.
بعيداً عن أسلوب الوعظ المباشر أو المثالية المفرطة ركَّزت أوستن في أعمالها على الكثير من القيم الاجتماعية مثل العفاف والاستقامة، الصراحة والوضوح ، طاعة الوالدين وإعلاء قيمة الأسرة، إيثار الغير وتغليب المصلحة العامة على المصلحة الخاصة، التواضع مساعدة الآخرين؛ يتوِّج ذلك كله معرفة الذات معرفة حقيقية.
Jane Austen: The Writer Who Defies Time1 From the writer’s MA Thesis: Khawandanah, Nadia. Jane Austen’s Techniques of Character Presentation in Emma and Persuasion. 2001. (Unpublished).
Jane Austen (1775-1817) is considered the first great woman novelist in English literature who gave the English novel its distinct modern character through her elevated treatment of ordinary people in everyday life which asserted the significance of domesticity in fiction. Being realistic, she derived her characters from the society, which she carefully observed and presented in such a way that amused her readers and, at the same time, transmitted “true pictures of human life and artistic achievements of a Mozartian perfection” (Cecil 8). Her characters, especially the heroines are so vivid that the reader is drawn into the circle of their existence and by suspending disbelief, cannot help but share with them their happiness as well as their sorrow.
It is both interesting and significant to give a general background of the age in which Jane Austen lived and to show how her novels reflected the values and morals of that age and how the moral criterion was an important factor in Austen’s analysis of the characters.
Austen’s life covered the period from the last twenty-five years of the eighteenth century to the first seventeen of the nineteenth century. The researcher will try to shed some light on the political and social conditions of England at Austen’s time for a better understanding of Austen’s novels.
During Austen’s lifetime, England fought a war with America and some wars with France. Nevertheless, those wars did not affect all the citizens. For the Aristocracy and the gentry, nothing in their everyday life is disturbed. Hence, readers of Austen’s novels can easily sense stability and assuredness, which made up the atmosphere of the lives of her fictional people. This stability was destined to gradual change due to two important events that changed with different degrees the wellbeing of England and the structure of its society. Those consequential events were the Industrial Revolution (c.1750) and the French Revolution (1789). The latter had its supporters and its opponents in England. The first group thought hopefully that it might be adopted to bring democracy to their country. The second group stood for their existing authority not because it was quite fair, but because they feared to change, they feared to take the risk of fighting the Monarchy for the sake of an obscure future. The following lines sum up some aspects of the influence of the French and the Industrial Revolutions on England at the end of the eighteenth century:
The old aristocracy was giving way to a rising
middle class, and there was increasing sympathy for the
underprivileged classes. Ideas of political freedom, of
independence, of human brotherhood and ‘natural rights’
had become more and more widespread. (Keach et al. 347)
The political atmosphere of her time was not present in Austen’s novels except in small traces in Persuasion (1818). Austen referred to the West Indies and the fact that the naval characters were ashore because the war had been over but there was fear that war might break out again: “the dread of a future war all that could dim [Anne’s] sunshine” (1047). Austen did not discuss any political views as being her characters’. The reason could be that, because she wrote about what she knew, the subject of revolution and wars was for her something masculine. Besides, the country gentry was not disturbed by the political situation in England or abroad. The members of that upper-middle class were leading their quiet, easy lives without any fear or anxiety at all.
Austen’s main concern was people, their personalities, and the relations among them. Since the natural place for human relationships to be manifested is society, Austen gives us a real presentation of her society. A closer look at the type of that society shows that it is the country gentry to which her own family belongs. That upper-middle class consisted of landowners and respectful Reverend parsons, the graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, and later of the rising class of naval and military officers. As depicted in Austen’s novels, society was marked by the differences among people; class and rank were stressed. In other words, it was a hierarchic society. The aristocracy represented by the “[m]onarch, Peerage and lesser titled ranks and gentlemen” dominated the top. The “middle ranks” were engaged by people of “commerce, professions and agriculture.” The rest were “labouring poor” (Royle 80-81).
Moreover, as David Cecil explains in A Portrait of Jane Austen, those “distinctions” were “accepted as part of the natural order as ordained by God”(14). Nevertheless, as human societies are never static, there had been always chances for bold, hardworking people to raise their place in society by the means of their professions, such as trade or the navy. Consequently, becoming wealthy enabled them to join a higher class than their natural one. In Emma (1816), for example, the Coles are accepted as respected members in Highbury society. The reason for their acceptance was not because they descended from a noble family or from a family which boasted its name and property for generations like the Woodhouses. It was simply because they could build themselves a good name and become rich enough to invite the top families in Highbury with sufficient confidence that their invitation would not be rejected. Jane Austen’s novels mirrored that sort of social dichotomy as an aspect of her realism to set her ordinary people in their natural places. Furthermore, she criticized the follies and errors of judgment committed by an upper-class character or a very common one wherever they occurred.
Eighteenth century society had a rational, realistic attitude towards its members. People were looked at as human beings with humane needs, merits, and flaws. However, this understanding of human needs had its limits; balance was always required. Money, for instance, should not have been a sole aim for a man to live for although it had been taken for granted that money was, and still is, something very essential. This theme of economy is successfully treated in Austen’s novels. On the other hand, money is sometimes regarded trivial especially when associated with the marriage theme, but it has established itself to be a crucial element and indispensable in everyone’s life.
This realistic perception of society’s members had another important characteristic. Morality was of utmost importance. To secure a morally well-grounded society, one must consider the smallest and the most central unit of its structure: the family. Familial relations, rights, and obligations were emphasised. Influential parents who managed successfully in their children’s upbringing were those who made their offspring appreciate the value of “benevolence, prudence, honesty,” and “politeness” (Cecil 16-17), which were recognised as means of judging human behaviour. Caring about parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and neighbours could train the individual to be, later in a bigger circle, an honest, effective, and good citizen who considers his manners and conduct. Austen’s novels have reserved for generations of readers the moral codes of the eighteenth century.
Jane Austen was born at Steventon where her father, the Rev. George Austen worked as a rector. She was the seventh child among five brothers and one sister who were to welcome the arrival of the newcomer. Her father was the graduate of Tonbridge School and St. John’s College, Oxford. He was able to enrol in those famous educational institutions with the help of some of his relatives. In the introduction of Jane Austen: Selected Letters 1796-1817, Marilyn Butler mentions that George’s uncle, Francis Austen, a well-known lawyer and landlord, sponsored his education at Tonbridge and later provided him with the living of the Hampshire parish of Deane. When George Austen was in Oxford, another relative, Thomas Knight I helped him become the clergyman of Steventon (xi). George Austen did not descend from a rich family, but he was lucky to have good connections. One can understand why Lady Russell persuaded Anne to refuse Captain Wentworth in Persuasion. She urged Anne not to “throw herself away” on such a man who was involved in “uncertain profession, and no connection to secure even his further rise in that profession” (942).
Jane Austen’s mother, Cassandra Leigh, was not the daughter of an aristocratic family, either, but belonged to a higher class than the Austens. Her father was also a clergyman and former Fellow of All Souls College in Oxford. Jane Austen’s being the granddaughter, the daughter, and the sister of four parsons enabled her to write about this profession. She presented the clergyman in all her novels in various roles and different characters. To name a few, one may refer to Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice (1813) who maybe the most famous of all Austen’s clergymen. In Sense and Sensibility (1811), the hero himself is a clergyman. In Emma, the first suitor of Emma Woodhouse, Mr. Elton is a churchman, too. However, Austen’s grandfather, the parson, did not leave his family any wealth but good connections. Cassandra’s uncle was a master of Balliol College, Oxford and she was the great niece of “a Duke of Chandos.” William Pitt the Younger, the “Tory Prime Minister” for two terms, was one of Cassandra’s relations (Myer, Obstinate Heart 15). Those rich relatives of Austen’s mother and her father’s relatives and acquaintances such as his patron Thomas Knight II who adopted Jane’s brother Edward, the Earl of Portsmouth who usually invited the Austens to his annual ball were of the aristocratic families from which Austen could have derived her notions about the lifestyle of the class they presented.
Mr. and Mrs. Austen were both a loving couple and loving parents. They were successful in keeping a family whose members were so attached to each other that they enjoyed their family life more than social life. The brothers and sisters enjoyed their intimate conversations in a soft manner with rare dispute. George Austen and his wife did their best to treat their sons and daughters alike; love, care, intellectual equality were provided to all children. In Austen’s times, many fathers did not like the idea of sending their daughters to schools. Girls were to be taught by their mothers or governesses if their parents could afford such a luxury. Nevertheless, George Austen was keen on his daughters’ education. When Cassandra, Jane’s elder sister, was nine and Jane was seven he sent them to a boarding school at Oxford. Later they were sent to the Abbey School at Reading where they studied “writing, spelling, French, needlework, drawing, music and dancing” (Myer, Obstinate Heart 35). The Austen sisters enjoyed their stay at that school only for two years because their father could not provide the fees anymore.
Mr. Austen had a leading role in the formation of the literary interests of his daughter Jane. He always encouraged his children to read and sometimes he and his wife read aloud to them. Being a devout religious figure did not mean that he restricted his children’s readings to moral or religious works. On the contrary, it was through his library that they were introduced to English literature, and he did not prevent them from reading what they wanted to read, even if it was “sensational Gothic novels” (Letters xviii). Despite their limited income in proportion to their large number, Mr. Austen did not hesitate to buy books constantly for his family. From such a healthy relationship between Mr. Austen and his children, the novelist knew very well the consequence of a father’s role. All her fiction reflected this theme presenting a wide range of various images of the father.
The Austens used to gather to enjoy watching some of them dramatise some “light comedies” (Letters xviii). A practice deepened Jane Austen’s sense of humour and enhanced her capacity of dramatic characterisation. Besides, she was privileged with a family whose literary taste was excellent. Their conversations usually had quotations from famous writers, e.g. Shakespeare, Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and Laurence Sterne (1713-68). Jane and her sister Cassandra, for example, used to refer to their youngest brother Charles as their “particular little brother.” They intentionally misquoted from Fanny Burney’s (1752-1840) Camilla (1796) where the heroine is the object of “my own particular little niece” (Myer, Obstinate Heart 26). As a result, it is no wonder to find some literary allusions in Austen’s novels, as well.
Jane Austen’s readings were comprehensive. She read history and politics but wrote humorously about the former and avoided the latter. Her reading interests in English literature included Shakespeare, eighteenth century and contemporary productions as well. In prose, she read Samuel Johnson (1709-84) and Henry Fielding (1707-54). She was fascinated by Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) and almost memorised his Sir Charles Grandison (1754), which she was delighted to act out some of its incidents. Her enthusiasm for reading had not been devoted only to the works of the past, but she also showed her concern with the contemporary literary works especially in fiction. She read Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) and was a subscriber to Burney’s novels and she expected from her readers to be of enough knowledge of current works.
In verse, Austen read Alexander Pope (1688-1744), William Cowper (1731-1800) and George Crabbe (1754-1832). Reading the latter’s poetry was an absolute pleasure for her that she would amuse by saying that she loved to be “Mrs. Crabbe” (Sanders 368). She admired his estimation of reason, sound judgment, and balance. His inclination to deal in depth with human relations was inspiring for her. Jane’s joking about fancying herself the wife of Crabbe brings in focus the reality that she remained unmarried although her novels were full of love stories which ended in happy marriages. Jane Austen, like her heroines, did fall in love. According to her biographer, Valerie Grosvenor Myer, when Austen was in her mid-twenties, she became acquainted at the seaside of Sidmouth or possibly Teignmouth or Dawlish with a man who expressed his love to her. In her sister Cassandra’s opinion, had not that man died soon afterwards, Jane would have married him (Obstinate Heart 57). Her fate was not to marry the man she loved, as Anne Elliot’s fate seemed to be at first. But Austen drew another scheme for her heroine of Persuasion; she made her reunite with her beloved to compensate for lost years.
In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas marries the ridiculous Mr. Collins although that marriage was not based on affection as Austen has always recommended. However, she does not leave her readers in confusion because she allows some characters to practice what is not permitted for some others. The author analyses Charlotte’s motives for her acceptance of Mr. Collins; she was already twenty-seven, not beautiful and without money. In her private life, Austen could not force herself to accept a very rich suitor even though she was as penniless and as old as Charlotte was. In her refusal, Austen was more like her favourite, Elizabeth Bennet who rejected Mr. Collins because she neither loved him nor found him suitable. Austen accepted a marriage proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither, the brother of two of her intimate friends, Althea and Catherine, only to make up her mind the following morning. It was true that he was a very wealthy gentleman and could secure her a better position in society, but she found him intellectually unequal to her.
Austen paid a high price for that rejection, especially after her father’s death. Unmarried women, who were without sufficient income, suffered a lot in Austen’s society. Marriage was almost the only respectable career available for women. Single women had to depend on other male relatives whether they were fathers, brothers, or uncles. Miss Bates in Emma is a touching, true example of how a poor spinster might face life. What is more, dependent daughters could not object to family decisions even if they did not like them. When Mr. Austen retired in 1800, he decided to move with his wife and his two unmarried daughters to Bath. Jane had visited that town before and enjoyed the urban society there, but she did not like the idea of leaving permanently her birthplace at Steventon where she was able to be always with her friends. Her reluctance to leave the family house was later repeated by Anne who was equally unwilling to quit Kellynch Hall for Bath.
After the Austens had settled in Bath, Jane found solace in frequent going to the theater. Among the performances she attended was The Birthday (1799), of the German August von Kotzebue (1781-1819). Jane Austen did not like Kotzebue’s delineation of his female characters because he does not depict them “as full human beings accountable for their actions, but as relative creatures whose highest moral function is to excite compassion in men” (Kirkham 97). Still, Austen was stirred to some extent by the theme of The Birthday, which presented a twin who quarrelled over the ownership of a garden and avoided contact with each other for many years. Finally, they were reconciled when the daughter of one of them, Emma, fell in love with the son of the other, Harry. The two Emmas, in Kotzebue’s play, and in Austen’s novel are dutiful daughters who could not imagine themselves leaving their fathers’ houses to a husband’s. Like Mr. Knightley, Harry does not mind moving into his uncle’s residence to be a loving spouse and a devoted son, too. Austen’s readers are lucky, because what irritated her in Kotzebue’s presentation of his Emma was sensibly avoided when she drew her Emma. Austen strove and was successful in portraying her heroine “as [a] full human being” as much as possible with all her faults and merits, a “creature” whose “moral function” can be developed from within to achieve a satisfying stage of self-respect.
It is believed that Jane Austen disliked living in Bath for the insincere, parade ambiance, and the superficiality of its society. This makes one comprehend her satirical treatment of Sir Walter and Elizabeth Elliot. At any rate, she could not but let Bath be present in all her novels. In Northanger Abbey (1818) and Persuasion, this very location marks a crucial part of the setting. Some of the characters in the rest of the works showed as various reactions toward Bath as their personalities differed. The possible reasons for this paradoxical attitude might be that Austen, as a realistic writer depicting with much honesty the life of the English gentry in the South, could not close the eyes to Bath as a trendy social scene. As an alert reader of the contemporary literature, she noticed the dominant reference of the city in much of the literary output of that period.
Austen’s living in Bath came to an end by her father’s death in 1805. The three women moved to Southampton in 1806. Another change of residence took place in 1809 when Jane’s aristocratic brother, Edward Knight, took his mother and sisters to live in Chawton. He offered them a cottage in his estate in Hampshire. Feeling settled and well cared for, Austen was able to resume her writings, which were brought to a halt after her father’s death.
In 1816, Austen’s health started to weaken. The local doctors could not find out the reasons of her pains and she was advised to consult a famous physician in Winchester. Accompanied by her affectionate, devoted sister, Cassandra, Austen went to Winchester hoping to find a cure of her ailment, which is now diagnosed as Addison’s disease. Cassandra and the brothers Henry, James and his wife, Mary, surrounded Jane with all possible comfort and passion. Their true feelings made it possible for her to endure sickness with cheerfulness and courage. A letter to her nephew Edward shows how she felt in some of her late days:
God bless you, my dear Edward. If ever you are ill, may
you be as tenderly nursed as I have been, may the same
blessed alleviations of anxious sympathising friends be
yours and may you possess – as I dare say you will- the
greatest blessing of all, in the consciousness of not being
unworthy of their love. I could not feel this. (qtd. in Cecil
Austen remained modest till her final days. She appreciated her siblings’ tender care and continuous love and felt that it was too much. But it was very comforting that she wished her beloved ones to be equally lucky to find the same attention and sympathy that she had received to the last moment in her life.
On 18 July 1817, the life of one of the great artists in English literature came to its natural end. The person is gone but what had been achieved has remained, offering an endless literary source for readers, deepening one’s understanding of oneself and of others, as well as for scholarly criticism and academic research.
- Austen, Jane. The Complete Novels. New York. Gramercy.1981.
- —-. Selected Letters. R.W. Chapman, ed. Oxford. Oxford
- Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford: Claredon, 1976.
- Cecil, David. A Portrait of Jane Austen. London: Penguin, 1980.
- Keach, William et. al. Adventures in English Literature New York: Holt, Rinehart and Wonston, 1996.
- Kirkham, Margaret. Jane Austen Feminism and Fiction. London: Athlone, 1997.
- Myer, Valerie Grosvenor. Authors in Their Age: Jane Austen. London: Blackie. 1980.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- *Material should not be published in another periodical before at least one year has elapsed since publication in Whispering Dialogue. *أن لا يكون النص قد تم نشره في أي صحيفة أو موقع أليكتروني على الأقل (لمدة سنة) من تاريخ النشر. *All content © 2021 Whispering Dialogue or respective authors and publishers, and may not be used elsewhere without written permission. جميع الحقوق محفوظة للناشر الرسمي لدورية (هَمْس الحِوار) Whispering Dialogue ولا يجوز إعادة النشر في أيّة دورية أخرى دون أخذ الإذن من الناشر مع الشكر الجزيل