The Romantics

“I did not know before,” continued Bingley immediately, “that you were a studier of character. It must be an amusing study.”

“Yes, but intricate characters are the most amusing. They have at least that advantage.”

“The country,” said Darcy, “can in general supply but a few subjects for such a study. In a country neighbourhood you move in a very confined and unvarying society.”

“But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever.”

“Yes, indeed,” cried Mrs. Bennet, offended by his manner of mentioning a country neighbourhood. “I assure you there is quite as much of that going on in the country as in town.”

Pride and Prejudice (9.15)

It is difficult not to understand this interchange between Elizabeth and Darcy as an anticipation of the debate within Austen criticism as to whether the restriction of her range reflected a limitation of the novelist, and—more to the point—whether this limitation should be reflected in the novels’ status in the canon. This debate will no doubt run and run, but there can be little doubt that this was a choice of Austen’s, a reflection of the judgement that the middle-range rural domestic arena—the familiar and the universal—was the place to be. And it has provoked a reaction from the Romantics reminiscent of Mrs Bennet’s, Charlotte Brontë’s witty response to George Henry Lewes’s provocations speaking for many:

Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say that you would have rather written Pride and Prejudice or Tom Jones, than any of the Waverley Novels?

I had not seen Pride and Prejudice till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses. These observations will probably irritate you, but I shall run the risk.

Now I can understand admiration of George Sand; for though I never saw any of her works which I admired throughout (even Consuelo, which is the best, or the best that I have read, appears to me to couple strange extravagance with wondrous excellence), yet she has a grasp of mind which, if I cannot fully comprehend, I can very deeply respect: she is sagacious and profound; Miss Austen is only shrewd and observant.

Am I wrong; or were you hasty in what you said? If you have time I should be glad to hear further on this subject; if not, or if you think the question frivolous, do not trouble yourself to reply.

( Indisputably ‘commonplace’ engraved portraits of Elizabeth Bennet face the reader on the title-pages of Bentley’s 1833 edition of Pride and Prejudice.)

— Letter from Brontë (1848) to G. H. Lewes

Here we have the abiding paradox in Austen criticism in the passions that this most rationalistic of authors arouses, not least from the romantics when confronted with gushing praise from her fan club (according to Lewes (1859) he, and presumably is partner, George Elliot, listened to all of Austen’s novels being read aloud four times.)

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