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Barron's Booknotes-Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

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If I am surprised to find myself lecturing to you, Jane Austen would have been still more surprised to find herself being lectured about. For-it is the most striking fact discovered by her life history-she did not take her work very seriously.

Hers was no career of solemn and solitary self-dedication. Neat, elegant and sociable, she spent most of her day sitting in the drawing-room of the parsonage which was her home, sewing and gossiping. From time to time, it is said, she would begin to laugh, and then, stepping across to the writing-table, she would scribble a few lines on a sheet of paper. But if visitors called she slipt the pages under the blotter, when the pages had accumulated into a story, she let it lie for years in a drawer unread. And when at last it did emerge to the public gaze, she refused in the slightest degree to modify the conventional order of her life to suit with the character of a professional authoress. As for the applause of posterity, she seems never to have given it a moment's thought: it was no part of her sensible philosophy to worry about admiration that she would not live to enjoy.

Yet one hundred and nineteen years have passed since her death, and yearly the applause of posterity has grown louder.... All discriminating critics admire her books, most educated readers enjoy them; her fame, if not highest
among English novelists, is of all the most secure.... Jane Austen was a comedian. Her first literary impulse was
humorous; and to the end of her life humour was an integral part of her creative process: as her imagination starts to function a smile begins to spread itself across her features. And the smile is the signature on the finished work. It is the angle of her satiric vision, the light of her wit that gives its peculiar glitter and proportion to her picture of the world.

Lord David Cecil, Jane Austen, 1935


Distance-from her subject and from the reader-was Jane Austen's first condition for writing.... Her temperament
chose irony at once: she maintained her distance by diverting herself and her audience with an unengaged laughter, by setting irony, the instrument-and, as it happened, the genius-of her temperament, to sharpen and expose all the incongruities between form and fact, all the delusions intrinsic to conventional art and conventional society.

If Jane Austen's irony appears at times almost inhumanly cold and penetrating,... it may be because we are accustomed to the soft or sentimental alloying of most irony. Sympathy is irrelevant to irony. Jane Austen's compulsion, and genius, is to look only for incongruity; and it delights her wherever she finds it...

It was Jane Austen's first choice to treat life, even in her letters, as material for comedy: not sentimentally, not morally, indeed not tied to any train of consequences, but with a detached discrimination among its incongruities. She was interested in a person, an object, an event, only as she might observe and recreate them free of consequences, as performance, as tableau: her frame was comedy, her defining artistic impulse was irony. Compulsion was also, or became, art. Everywhere she found incongruities between overt and hidden, between professed and acted upon, failures of wholeness which in life have consequences and must be judged but in comedy-and for Jane Austen-are relieved of guilt and responsibility at the moment of perception, to be explored and progressively illuminated by irony.

Marvin Mudrick, Jane Austen, Irony as Defense and Discovery, 1952


Jane Austen occupies an embarrassing position in literary history-embarrassing because never for a moment does she accommodate herself to the facile generalizations which are made about her contemporaries. Wordsworth and Coleridge can, though with some inaccuracy, be called Romantic; they were both born within five years of Jane Austen. But she is too little a writer of the nineteenth century to be called Romantic, too much a person of her time to be called Classic, too original and too great to be considered a precursor or an apotheosis: she is, however much indebted to her literary forebears..., unique. Working with materials extremely limited in themselves, she develops themes of the broadest significance; the novels go beyond social record... to moral concern, perplexity, and commitment.

The spinster daughter of a country parson, Jane Austen not only limits herself to the sphere which she understands, she even picks and chooses amongst the raw materials of experience available to her, eschewing what her genius cannot control: '3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.' she writes to her niece.

Andrew H. Wright, Jane Austen's Novels: A Study in Structure, 1953

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Barron's Booknotes-Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

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