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Ritchie, Anne Thackeray / A Book of Sibyls Miss Barbauld, Miss Edgeworth, Mrs Opie, Miss Austen
This is
Cardinal Fesch, the uncle of Bonaparte. It is said that when Fox was
introduced to the First Consul he was warmly welcomed by him, and was
made to listen to a grand harangue upon the advantages of peace, to
which he answered scarcely a word; though he was charmed to talk with
Madame Bonaparte, and to discuss with her the flowers of which she was
so fond.' The Opies met Fox again in England some years after, when he
sat to Opie for one of his finest portraits. It is now at Holker, and
there is a characteristic description of poor Opie, made nervous by the
criticism of the many friends, and Fox, impatient but encouraging, and
again whispering, 'Don't attend to them; you must know best.'


VIII.

'Adeline Mowbray; or, Mother and Daughter,' was published by Mrs. Opie
after this visit to the Continent. It is a melancholy and curious
story, which seems to have been partly suggested by that of poor Mary
Wollstonecraft, whose prejudices the heroine shares and expiates by a
fate hardly less pathetic than that of Mary herself. The book reminds
one of a very touching letter from Godwin's wife to Amelia Alderson,
written a few weeks before her death, in which she speaks of her
'contempt for the forms of a world she should have bade a long
good-night to had she not been a mother.' Justice has at length been
done to this mistaken but noble and devoted woman, and her story has
lately been written from a wider point of view than Mrs. Opie's, though
she indeed was no ungenerous advocate. Her novel seems to have given
satisfaction; 'a beautiful story, the most natural in its pathos of any
fictitious narrative in the language,' says the 'Edinburgh,' writing
with more leniency than authors now expect. Another reviewer, speaking
with discriminating criticism, says of Mrs. Opie: 'She does not reason
well, but she has, like most accomplished women, the talent of perceiving
truth without the process of reasoning. Her language is often inaccurate,
but it is always graceful and harmonious. She can do nothing well that
requires to be done with formality; to make amends, however, she
represents admirably everything that is amiable, generous, and gentle.'

Adeline Mowbray dies of a broken heart, with the following somewhat
discursive farewell to her child: 'There are two ways in which a mother
can be of use to her daughter; the one is by instilling into her mind
virtuous principles, and by setting her a virtuous example, the other is
by being to her, in her own person, an awful warning!'

* * * * *

One or two of Opie's letters to his wife are given in the memoir. They
ring with truth and tender feeling. The two went to Norwich together on
one occasion, when Opie painted Dr. Sayers, the scholar, who, in return
for his portrait, applied an elegant Greek distich to the painter. Mrs.
Opie remained with her father, and her husband soon returned to his
studio in London. When she delayed, he wrote to complain. 'My dearest
Life, I cannot be sorry that you do not stay longer, though, as I said,
on your father's account, I would consent to it. Pray, Love, forgive
me, and make yourself easy. I did not suspect, till my last letter was
posted, that it might be too strong. I had been counting almost the
hours till your arrival for some time. As to coming down again I cannot
think of it, for though I could perhaps better spare the time at present
from painting than I could at any part of the last month, I find I must
now go hard to work to finish my lectures, as the law says they must be
delivered the second year after the election.'

The Academy had appointed Opie Professor of Painting in the place of
Fuseli, and he was now trying his hand at a new form of composition, and
not without well-deserved success. But the strain was too great for
this eager mind. Opie painted all day; of an evening he worked at his
lectures on painting. From September to February he allowed himself no
rest. He was not a man who worked with ease; all he did cost him much
effort and struggle. After delivering his first lecture, he complained
that he could not sleep. It had been a great success; his colleagues
had complimented him, and accompanied him to his house. He was able to
complete the course, but immediately afterwards he sickened. No one
could discover what was amiss; the languor and fever increased day by
day.

His wife nursed him devotedly, and a favourite sister of his came to
help her. Afterwards it was of consolation to the widow to remember that
no hired nurse had been by his bedside, and that they had been able to
do everything for him themselves. One thing troubled him as he lay
dying; it was the thought of a picture which he had not been able to
complete in time for the exhibition. A friend and former pupil finished
it, and brought it to his bedside. He said with a smile, 'Take it away,
it will do now.'

To the last he imagined that he was painting upon this picture, and he
moved his arms as though he were at work. His illness was inflammation
of the brain. He was only forty-five when he died, and he was buried in
St. Paul's, and laid by Sir Joshua, his great master.

The portrait of Opie, as it is engraved in Alan Cunningham's Life, is
that of a simple, noble-looking man, with a good thoughtful face and a
fine head. Northcote, Nollekens, Horne Tooke, all his friends spoke
warmly of him. 'A man of powerful understanding and ready apprehension,'
says one. 'Mr. Opie crowds more wisdom into a few words than almost
anybody I ever saw,' says another. 'I do not say that he was always
right,' says Northcote; 'but he always put your thoughts into a new
track that was worth following.' Some two years after his death the
lectures which had cost so much were published, with a memoir by Mrs.
Opie. Sir James Mackintosh has written one of his delightful criticisms
upon the book:--

The cultivation of every science and the practice of every art are
in fact a species of action, and require ardent zeal and unshaken
courage.... Originality can hardly exist without vigour of
character.... The discoverer or inventor may indeed be most
eminently wanting in decision in the general concerns of life, but
he must possess it in those pursuits in which he is successful.
Opie is a remarkable instance of the natural union of these
superior qualities, both of which he possesses in a high
degree.... He is inferior in elegance to Sir Joshua, but he is
superior in strength; he strikes more, though he charms less....
Opie is by turns an advocate, a controvertist, a panegyrist, a
critic; Sir Joshua more uniformly fixes his mind on general and
permanent principles, and certainly approaches more nearly to the
elevation and tranquillity which seem to characterise the
philosophic teacher of an elegant art.


IX.

Mrs. Opie went back, soon after her husband's death, to Norwich, to her
early home, her father's house; nor was she a widow indeed while she
still had this tender love and protection.

That which strikes one most as one reads the accounts of Mrs. Opie
is the artlessness and perfect simplicity of her nature. The deepest
feeling of her life was her tender love for her father, and if she
remained younger than most women do, it may have been partly from the
great blessing which was hers so long, that of a father's home. Time
passed, and by degrees she resumed her old life, and came out and about
among her friends. Sorrow does not change a nature, it expresses certain
qualities which have been there all along.

So Mrs. Opie came up to London once more, and welcomed and was made
welcome by many interesting people. Lord Erskine is her friend always;
she visits Madame de Staël; she is constantly in company with Sydney
Smith, the ever-welcome as she calls him. Lord Byron, Sheridan, Lord
Dudley, all appear upon her scene. There is a pretty story of her
singing her best to Lady Sarah Napier, old, blind, and saddened, but
still happy in that she had her sons to guide and to protect her steps.
Among her many entertainments, Mrs. Opie amusingly describes a dinner at
Sir James Mackintosh's, to which most of the guests had been asked at
different hours, varying from six to half-past seven, when Baron
William von Humboldt arrives. He writes to her next day, calling her
Mademoiselle Opie, 'no doubt from my juvenile appearance,' she adds,
writing to her father. It is indeed remarkable to read of her spirits
long after middle life, her interest and capacity for amusement. She
pays 4_l._ for a ticket to a ball given to the Duke of Wellington; she
describes this and many other masquerades and gaieties, and the blue
ball, and the pink ball, and the twenty-seven carriages at her door, and
her sight of the Emperor of Russia in her hotel. When the rest of the
ladies crowd round, eager to touch his clothes, Mrs. Opie, carried away
by the general craze, encircles his wrist with her finger and thumb.
Apart from these passing fancies, she is in delightful society.

Baron Alderson, her cousin and friend, was always kind and affectionate
to her. The pretty little story is well known of his taking her home in
her Quaker dress in the Judges' state-coach at Norwich, saying, 'Come,
Brother Opie,' as he offered her his arm to lead her to the carriage.
She used to stay at his house in London, and almost the last visit she
ever paid was to him.

One of the most interesting of her descriptions is that of her meeting
with Sir Walter Scott and with Wordsworth at a breakfast in Mount
Street, and of Sir Walter's delightful talk and animated stories. One
can imagine him laughing and describing a Cockney's terrors in the
Highlands, when the whole hunt goes galloping down the crags, as is
their North-country fashion. 'The gifted man,' says Mrs. Opie, with her
old-fashioned adjectives, 'condescended to speak to me of my "Father and
Daughter." He then went on faithfully to praise his old friend Joanna
Baillie and her tragedies, and to describe a tragedy he once thought of
writing himself. He should have had no love in it. His hero should have
been the uncle of his heroine, a sort of misanthrope, with only one
affection in his heart, love for his niece, like a solitary gleam of
sunshine lighting the dark tower of some ruined and lonely dwelling.'

'It might perhaps be a weakness,' says the Friend, long after recalling
this event, 'but I must confess how greatly I was pleased at the time.'
No wonder she was pleased that the great wizard should have liked her
novel.

It would be impossible to attempt a serious critique of Mrs. Opie's
stories. They are artless, graceful, written with an innocent good faith
which disarms criticism. That Southey, Sydney Smith, and Mackintosh
should also have read them and praised them may, as I have said, prove
as much for the personal charm of the writer, and her warm sunshine of
pleasant companionship, as for the books themselves. They seem to have
run through many editions, and to have received no little encouragement.
Morality and sensation alternate in her pages. Monsters abound there.
They hire young men to act base parts, to hold villainous conversations
which the husbands are intended to overhear. They plot and scheme to
ruin the fair fame and domestic happiness of the charming heroines, but
they are justly punished, and their plots are defeated. One villain, on
his way to an appointment with a married woman, receives so severe a
blow upon the head from her brother, that he dies in agonies of fruitless
remorse. Another, who incautiously boasts aloud his deep-laid scheme
against Constantia's reputation in the dark recesses of a stage-coach,
is unexpectedly seized by the arm. A stranger in the corner, whom he had
not noticed, was no other than the baronet whom Constantia has loved all
along. The dawn breaks in brightly, shining on the stranger's face:
baffled, disgraced, the wicked schemer leaves the coach at the very next
stage, and Constantia's happiness is ensured by a brilliant marriage
with the man she loves. 'Lucy is the dark sky,' cries another lovely
heroine, 'but you, my lord, and my smiling children, these are the
rainbow that illumines it; and who would look at the gloom that see the
many tinted Iris? not I, indeed.' 'Valentine's Eve,' from which this is
quoted, was published after John Opie's death. So was a novel called
'Temper,' and the 'Tales of Real Life.' Mrs. Opie, however, gave up
writing novels when she joined the Society of Friends.

For some years past, Mrs. Opie had been thrown more and more in the
company of a very noble and remarkable race of men and women living
quietly in their beautiful homes in the neighbourhood of Norwich, but
of an influence daily growing--handsome people, prosperous, generous,
with a sort of natural Priesthood belonging to them. Scorning to live
for themselves alone, the Gurneys were the dispensers and originators of
a hundred useful and benevolent enterprises in Norwich and elsewhere.
They were Quakers, and merchants, and bankers. How much of their strength
lay in their wealth and prosperity, how much in their enthusiasm, their
high spirits, voluntarily curbed, their natural instinct both to lead
and to protect, it would be idle to discuss. It is always difficult for
people who believe in the all-importance of the present to judge of
others, whose firm creed is that the present is nothing as compared to
the future. Chief among this remarkable family was Elizabeth Gurney,
the wife of Josiah Fry, the mother of many children, and the good angel,
indeed, of the unhappy captives of those barbarous days, prisoners, to
whose utter gloom and misery she brought some rays of hope. There are
few figures more striking than that of the noble Quaker lady starting on
her generous mission, comforting the children, easing the chains of the
captives. No domineering Jellyby, but a motherly, deep-hearted woman;
shy, and yet from her very timidity gaining an influence, which less
sensitive natures often fail to win. One likes to imagine the dignified
sweet face coming in--the comforting Friend in the quiet garb of the
Quaker woman standing at the gates of those terrible places, bidding the
despairing prisoners be of good hope.

Elizabeth Fry's whole life was a mission of love and help to others; her
brothers and her many relations heartily joined and assisted her in many
plans and efforts.

For Joseph John Gurney, the head of the Norwich family, Mrs. Opie is
said to have had a feeling amounting to more than friendship. Be this as
it may, it is no wonder that so warm-hearted and impressionable a woman
should have been influenced by the calm goodness of the friends with
whom she was now thrown. It is evident enough, nor does she attempt to
conceal the fact, that the admiration and interest she feels for John
Joseph Gurney are very deep motive powers. There comes a time in most
lives, especially in the lives of women, when all the habits and
certainties of youth have passed away, when life has to be built up
again upon the foundations indeed of the past, the friendships, the
memories, the habits of early life, but with new places and things to
absorb and to interest, new hearts to love. And one day people wake up
to find that the friends of their choice have become their home. People
are stranded perhaps seeking their share in life's allowance, and
suddenly they come upon something, with all the charm which belongs to
deliberate choice, as well as that of natural affinity. How well one
can realise the extraordinary comfort that Amelia Opie must have found
in the kind friends and neighbours with whom she was now thrown! Her
father was a very old man, dying slowly by inches. Her own life of
struggle, animation, intelligence, was over, as she imagined, for ever.
No wonder if for a time she was carried away, if she forgot her own
nature, her own imperative necessities, in sympathy with this new
revelation. Here was a new existence, here was a Living Church ready to
draw her within its saving walls. John Joseph Gurney must have been a
man of extraordinary personal influence. For a long time past he had
been writing to her seriously. At last, to the surprise of the world,
though not without long deliberation and her father's full approval, she
joined the Society of Friends, put on their dress, and adopted their
peculiar phraseology. People were surprised at the time, but I think it
would have been still more surprising if she had not joined them. J. J.
Gurney, in one of his letters, somewhat magnificently describes Mrs.
Opie as offering up her many talents and accomplishments a brilliant
sacrifice to her new-found persuasions. 'Illustrations of Lying,'
moral anecdotes on the borderland of imagination, are all that she is
henceforth allowed. 'I am bound in a degree not to invent a story,
because when I became a Friend it was required of me not to do so,' she
writes to Miss Mitford, who had asked her to contribute to an annual.
Miss Mitford's description of Mrs. Opie, 'Quakerised all over, and
calling Mr. Haydon 'Friend Benjamin,' is amusing enough; and so also
is the account of the visiting card she had printed after she became
a Quaker, with 'Amelia Opie,' without any prefix, as is the Quaker
way; also, as is not their way, with a wreath of embossed pink roses
surrounding the name. There is an account of Mrs. Opie published in the
'Edinburgh Review,' in a delightful article entitled the 'Worthies of
Norwich,' which brings one almost into her very presence.

Amelia Opie at the end of the last century and Amelia Opie in the
garb and with the speech of a member of the Society of Friends
sounds like two separate personages, but no one who recollects the
gay little songs which at seventy she used to sing with lively
gesture, the fragments of drama to which, with the zest of an
innate actress, she occasionally treated her young friends, or the
elaborate faultlessness of her appearance--the shining folds and
long train of her pale satin draperies, the high, transparent cap,
the crisp fichu crossed over the breast, which set off to
advantage the charming little plump figure with its rounded
lines--could fail to recognise the same characteristics which
sparkled about the wearer of the pink calico domino in which she
frolicked incognito 'till she was tired' at a ball given by the
Duke of Wellington in 1814, or of the eight blue feathers which
crowned the waving tresses of her flaxen hair as a bride.

Doctor Alderson died in October 1825, and Mrs. Opie was left alone. She
was very forlorn when her father died. She had no close ties to carry
her on peacefully from middle age to the end of life. The great break
had come; she was miserable, and, as mourners do, she falls upon herself
and beats her breast. All through these sad years her friends at Northrepps
and at Earlham were her chief help and consolation. As time passed her
deep sorrow was calmed, when peaceful memories had succeeded to the keen
anguish of her good old father's loss. She must have suffered deeply;
she tried hard to be brave, but her courage failed her at times: she
tried hard to do her duty; and her kindness and charity were unfailing,
for she was herself still, although so unhappy. Her journals are
pathetic in their humility and self-reproaches for imaginary omissions.
She is lonely; out of heart, out of hope. 'I am so dissatisfied with
myself that I hardly dare ask or expect a blessing upon my labours,' she
says; and long lists of kind and fatiguing offices, of visits to sick
people and poor people, to workhouses and prisons, are interspersed with
expressions of self-blame.

* * * * *

The writer can remember as a child speculating as she watched the
straight-cut figure of a Quaker lady standing in the deep window of an
old mansion that overlooked the Luxembourg Gardens at Paris, with all
their perfume and blooming scent of lilac and sweet echoes of children,
while the quiet figure stood looking down upon it all from--to a
child--such an immeasurable distance. As one grows older one becomes
more used to garbs of different fashions and cut, and one can believe in
present sunlight and the scent of flowering trees and the happy sound of
children's voices going straight to living hearts beneath their several
disguises, and Mrs. Opie, notwithstanding her Quaker dress, loved bright
colours and gay sunlight. She was one of those who gladly made life
happy for others, who naturally turned to bright and happy things
herself. When at last she began to recover from the blow which had
fallen so heavily upon her she went from Norwich to the Lakes and Fells
for refreshment, and then to Cornwall, and among its green seas and
softly clothed cliffs she found good friends (as most people do who go
to that kind and hospitable county), and her husband's relations, who
welcomed her kindly. As she recovered by degrees she began to see
something of her old companions. She went to London to attend the May
meetings of the Society, and I heard an anecdote not long ago which must
have occurred on some one of these later visits there.

One day when some people were sitting at breakfast at Samuel Rogers's,
and talking as people do who belong to the agreeable classes, the
conversation happened to turn upon the affection of a father for his
only child, when an elderly lady who had been sitting at the table, and
who was remarkable for her Quaker dress, her frills and spotless folds,
her calm and striking appearance, started up suddenly, burst into a
passion of tears, and had to be led sobbing out of the room. She did not
return, and the lady who remembers the incident, herself a young bride
at the time, told me it made all the more impression upon her at the
time because she was told that the Quaker lady was Mrs. Opie. My friend
was just beginning her life. Mrs. Opie must have been ending hers.
It is not often that women, when youth is long past, shed sudden and
passionate tears of mere emotion, nor perhaps would a Quaker, trained
from early childhood to calm moods and calm expressions, have been so
suddenly overpoweringly affected; but Mrs. Opie was no born daughter of
the community, she was excitable and impulsive to the last. I have heard
a lady who knew her well describe her, late in life, laughing heartily
and impetuously thrusting a somewhat starched-up Friend into a deep
arm-chair exclaiming, 'I will hurl thee into the bottomless pit.'


X.

At sight of thee, O Tricolor,
I seem to feel youth's hours return,
The loved, the lost!

So writes Mrs. Opie at the age of sixty, reviving, delighting, as she
catches sight of her beloved Paris once more, and breathes its clear
and life-giving air, and looks out across its gardens and glittering
gables and spires, and again meets her French acquaintances, and throws
herself into their arms and into their interests with all her old warmth
and excitability. The little grey bonnet only gives certain incongruous
piquancy to her pleasant, kind-hearted exuberance. She returns to
England, but far-away echoes reach her soon of changes and revolutions
concerning all the people for whom her regard is so warm. In August,
1830, came the news of a new revolution--'The Chamber of Deputies
dissolved for ever; the liberty of the press abolished; king, ministers,
court, and ambassadors flying from Paris to Vincennes; cannon planted
against the city; 5,000 people killed, and the Rue de Rivoli running
with blood.' No wonder such rumours stirred and overwhelmed the staunch
but excitable lady. 'You will readily believe how anxious, interested,
and excited I feel,' she says; and then she goes on to speak of
Lafayette, 'miraculously preserved through two revolutions, and in
chains and in a dungeon, now the leading mind in another conflict, and
lifting not only an armed but a restraining hand in a third revolution.'

Her heart was with her French friends and intimates, and though she kept
silence she was not the less determined to follow its leading, and,
without announcing her intention, she started off from Norwich and,
after travelling without intermission, once more arrived in her beloved
city. But what was become of the Revolution? 'Paris seemed as bright and
peaceful as I had seen it thirteen months ago! The people, the busy
people passing to and fro, and soldiers, omnibuses, cabriolets, citadenes,
carts, horsemen hurrying along the Rue de Rivoli, while foot passengers
were crossing the gardens, or loungers were sitting on its benches to
enjoy the beauty of the May-November.' She describes two men crossing
the Place Royale singing a national song, the result of the
Revolution:--

Pour briser leurs masses profondes,
Qui conduit nos drapeaux sanglants,
C'est la Liberté de deux mondes,
C'est Lafayette en cheveux blancs.

Mrs. Opie was full of enthusiasm for noble Lafayette surveying his court
of turbulent intrigue and shifting politics; for Cuvier in his own
realm, among more tranquil laws, less mutable decrees. She should have
been born a Frenchwoman, to play a real and brilliant part among all
these scenes and people, instead of only looking on. Something stirred
in her veins too eager and bubbling for an Englishwoman's scant share
of life and outward events. No wonder that her friends at Norwich were
anxious, and urged her to return. They heard of her living in the midst
of excitement, of admiration, and with persons of a different religion
and way of thinking to themselves. Their warning admonitions carried
their weight; that little Quaker bonnet which she took so much care of
was a talisman, drawing the most friendly of Friends away from the place
of her adoption. But she came back unchanged to her home, to her quiet
associations; she had lost none of her spirits, none, of her cheerful
interest in her natural surroundings. As life burnt on her kind soul
seemed to shine more and more brightly. Every one came to see her, to
be cheered and warmed by her genial spirit. She loved flowers, of which
her room was full. She had a sort of passion for prisms, says her
biographer; she had several set in a frame and mounted like a screen,
and the colour flew about the little room. She kept up a great
correspondence; she was never tired of writing, though the letters on
other people's business were apt to prove a serious burden at times.
But she lives on only to be of use. 'Take care of indulging in little
selfishnesses,' she writes in her diary; 'learn to consider others
in trifles: the mind so disciplined will find it easier to fulfil
the greater duties, and the character will not exhibit that trying
inconsistency which one sees in great and often in pious persons.' Her
health fails, but not her courage. She goes up to London for the last
time to her cousin's house. She is interested in all the people she
meets, in their wants and necessities, in the events of the time. She
returns home, contented with all; with the house which she feels so
'desirable to die in,' with her window through which she can view the
woods and rising ground of Thorpe. 'My prisms to-day are quite in their
glory,' she writes; 'the atmosphere must be very clear, for the radiance
is brighter than ever I saw it before;' and then she wonders whether the
mansions in heaven will be draped in such brightness; and so to the last
the gentle, bright, _rainbow_ lady remained surrounded by kind and
smiling faces, by pictures, by flowers, and with the light of her
favourite prismatic colours shining round about the couch on which she
lay.




_JANE AUSTEN._

1775-1817.

'A mesure qu'on a plus d'esprit on trouve qu'il y a plus d'hommes
originaux. Les gens du commun ne trouvent pas de différence entre
les hommes.'--PASCAL.


'I did not know that you were a studier of character,' says Bingley to
Elizabeth. '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 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,' Elizabeth answers, 'that there is
something new to be observed in them for ever.'

'Yes, indeed,' cried Mrs. Bennet, offended by Darcy's manner of
mentioning a country neighbourhood; 'I assure you that we have quite as
much of _that_ going on in the country as in town.'

'Everybody was surprised, and Darcy, after looking at her for a moment,
turned silently away. Mrs. Bennet, who fancied she had gained a
complete victory over him, continued her triumph.'

These people belong to a whole world of familiar acquaintances, who are,
notwithstanding their old-fashioned dresses and quaint expressions, more
alive to us than a great many of the people among whom we live. We
know so much more about them to begin with. Notwithstanding a certain
reticence and self-control which seems to belong to their age, and with
all their quaint dresses, and ceremonies, and manners, the ladies and
gentlemen in 'Pride and Prejudice' and its companion novels seem like
living people out of our own acquaintance transported bodily into a
bygone age, represented in the half-dozen books that contain Jane
Austen's works. Dear books! bright, sparkling with wit and animation, in
which the homely heroines charm, the dull hours fly, and the very bores
are enchanting.

Could we but study our own bores as Miss Austen must have studied hers
in her country village, what a delightful world this might be!--a world
of Norris's economical great walkers, with dining-room tables to dispose
of; of Lady Bertrams on sofas, with their placid 'Do not act anything
improper, my dears; Sir Thomas would not like it;' of Bennets, Goddards,
Bates's; of Mr. Collins's; of Rushbrooks, with two-and-forty speeches
apiece--a world of Mrs. Eltons.... Inimitable woman! she must be alive
at this very moment, if we but knew where to find her, her basket on her
arm, her nods and all-importance, with Maple Grove and the Sucklings in
the background. She would be much excited were she aware how she is
esteemed by a late Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is well acquainted
with Maple Grove and Selina too. It might console her for Mr. Knightly's
shabby marriage.

All these people nearly start out of the pages, so natural and
unaffected are they, and yet they never lived except in the imagination
of one lady with bright eyes, who sat down some seventy years ago to an
old mahogany desk in a quiet country parlour, and evoked them for us.
One seems to see the picture of the unknown friend who has charmed us so
long--charmed away dull hours, created neighbours and companions for
us in lonely places, conferring happiness and harmless mirth upon
generations to come. One can picture her as she sits erect, with her
long and graceful figure, her full round face, her bright eyes cast
down,--Jane Austen, 'the woman of whom England is justly proud'--whose
method generous Macaulay has placed near Shakespeare. She is writing
in secret, putting away her work when visitors come in, unconscious,
modest, hidden at home in heart, as she was in her sweet and womanly
life, with the wisdom of the serpent indeed and the harmlessness of a
dove.

Some one said just now that many people seem to be so proud of seeing
a joke at all, that they impress it upon you until you are perfectly
wearied by it. Jane Austen was not of these; her humour flows gentle and
spontaneous; it is no elaborate mechanism nor artificial fountain, but
a bright natural stream, rippling and trickling over every stone and
sparkling in the sunshine. We should be surprised now-a-days to hear a
young lady announce herself as a studier of character. From her quiet
home in the country lane this one reads to us a real page from the
absorbing pathetic humorous book of human nature--a book that we can
most of us understand when it is translated into plain English; but
of which the quaint and illegible characters are often difficult to
decipher for ourselves. It is a study which, with all respect for Darcy's
opinion, must require something of country-like calm and concentration
and freedom of mind. It is difficult, for instance, for a too impulsive
student not to attribute something of his own moods to his specimens
instead of dispassionately contemplating them from a critical distance.

Besides the natural fun and wit and life of her characters, 'all
perfectly discriminated,' as Macaulay says, Jane Austen has the gift of
telling a story in a way that has never been surpassed. She rules her
places, times, characters, and marshals them with unerring precision.
In her special gift for organisation she seems almost unequalled. Her
picnics are models for all future and past picnics; her combinations of
feelings, of conversation, of gentlemen and ladies, are so natural and
lifelike that reading to criticise is impossible to some of us--the
scene carries us away, and we forget to look for the art by which it is
recorded. Her machinery is simple but complete; events group themselves
so vividly and naturally in her mind that, in describing imaginary
scenes, we seem not only to read them, but to live them, to see the
people coming and going: the gentlemen courteous and in top-boots, the
ladies demure and piquant; we can almost hear them talking to one
another. No retrospects; no abrupt flights; as in real life days and
events follow one another. Last Tuesday does not suddenly start into
existence all out of place; nor does 1790 appear upon the scene when we
are well on in '21. Countries and continents do not fly from hero to
hero, nor do long and divergent adventures happen to unimportant members
of the company. With Jane Austen days, hours, minutes succeed each other
like clockwork, one central figure is always present on the scene, that
figure is always prepared for company. Miss Edwards's curl-papers are
almost the only approach to dishabille in her stories. There are
postchaises in readiness to convey the characters from Bath or Lyme to
Uppercross, to Fullerton, from Gracechurch Street to Meryton, as their
business takes them. Mr. Knightly rides from Brunswick Square to
Hartfield, by a road that Miss Austen herself must have travelled in the
curricle with her brother, driving to London on a summer's day. It was
a wet ride for Mr. Knightly, followed by that never-to-be-forgotten
afternoon in the shrubbery, when the wind had changed into a softer
quarter, the clouds were carried off, and Emma, walking in the sunshine,
with spirits freshened and thoughts a little relieved, and thinking of
Mr. Knightly as sixteen miles away, meets him at the garden door; and
everybody, I think, must be the happier, for the happiness and certainty
that one half-hour gave to Emma and her 'indifferent' lover.

There is a little extract from one of Miss Austen's letters to a niece,
which shows that all this successful organisation was not brought about
by chance alone, but came from careful workmanship.

'Your aunt C.,' she says, 'does not like desultory novels, and is rather
fearful that yours will be too much so--that there will be too frequent
a change from one set of people to another, and that circumstances will
be sometimes introduced of apparent consequence, which will lead to
nothing. It will not be so great an objection to me. I allow much more
latitude than she does, and think nature and spirit cover many sins of a
wandering story....'

But, though the sins of a wandering story may be covered, the virtues of
a well-told one make themselves felt unconsciously, and without an
effort. Some books and people are delightful, we can scarce tell why;
they are not so clever as others that weary and fatigue us. It is a
certain effort to read a story, however touching, that is disconnected
and badly related. It is like an ill-drawn picture, of which the
colouring is good. Jane Austen possessed both gifts of colour and of
drawing. She could see human nature as it was; with near-sighted eyes,
it is true; but having seen, she could combine her picture by her art,
and colour it from life. How delightful the people are who play at
cards, and pay their addresses to one another, and sup, and discuss each
other's affairs! Take Mr. Bennet's reception of his sons-in-law. Take
Sir Walter Elliot compassionating the navy and Admiral Baldwin--'nine
grey hairs of a side, and nothing but a dab of powder at top--a wretched
example of what a seafaring life can do, for men who are exposed to
every climate and weather until they are not fit to be seen. It is a
pity they are not knocked on the head at once, before they reach Admiral
Baldwin's age....' Or shall we quote the scene of Fanny Price's return
when she comes to visit her family at Portsmouth; in all daughterly
agitation and excitement, and the brother's and father's and sister's
reception of her.... 'A stare or two at Fanny was all the voluntary
notice that her brother bestowed, but he made no objection to her kissing
him, though still entirely engaged in detailing further particulars of
the "Thrush's" going out of harbour, in which he had a strong right of
interest, being about to commence his career of seamanship in her at
this very time. After the mother and daughter have received her, Fanny's
seafaring father comes in, and does not notice her at first in his
excitement. "Captain Walsh thinks you will certainly have a cruise to
the westward with the 'Elephant' by ---- I wish you may. But old Scholey
was saying just now that he thought you would be sent first to the
'Texel.' Well, well, we are ready whatever happens. But by ---- you lost
a fine sight by not being here in the morning to see the 'Thrush' go out
of harbour. I would not have been out of the way for a thousand pounds.
Old Scholey ran in at breakfast time to say she had slipped her moorings
and was coming out. I jumped up and made but two steps to the platform.
If ever there was a perfect beauty afloat she is one; and there she lies
at Spithead, and anybody in England would take her for an
eight-and-twenty. I was upon the platform for two hours this afternoon
looking at her. She lies close to the 'Endymion,' between her and the
'Cleopatra,' just to the eastward of the sheer hulk."'

'"Ha!" cried William, "_that's_ just where I should have put her myself.
It's the best berth in Spithead. But here is my sister, sir; here is
Fanny, turning and leading her forward--it is so dark you do not see
her."'

'With an acknowledgment that he had quite forgot her, Mr. Price now
received his daughter, and having given her a cordial hug and observed
that she was grown into a woman and he supposed would be wanting a
husband soon, seemed very much inclined to forget her again.'

How admirably it is all told! how we hear them all talking!

From her own brothers Jane Austen learned her accurate knowledge of
ships and seafaring things, from her own observation she must have
gathered her delightful droll science of men and women and their ways
and various destinations. Who will not recognise Mrs. Norris in that
master-touch by which she removes the curtain to save Sir Thomas's
feelings, that curtain which had been prepared for the private
theatricals he so greatly disapproved of? Mrs. Norris thoughtfully
carries it off to her cottage, where she happened to be particularly in
want of green baize.


II.

The charm of friends of pen-and-ink is their unchangeableness. We go to
them when we want them. We know where to seek them; we know what to
expect from them. They are never preoccupied; they are always 'at home;'
they never turn their backs nor walk away as people do in real life, nor
let their houses and leave the neighbourhood, and disappear for weeks
together; they are never taken up with strange people, nor suddenly
absorbed into some more genteel society, or by some nearer fancy. Even
the most volatile among them is to be counted upon. We may have
neglected them, and yet when we meet again there are the familiar old
friends, and we seem to find our own old selves again in their company.
For us time has, perhaps, passed away; feelings have swept by, leaving
interests and recollections in their place; but at all ages there must
be days that belong to our youth, hours that will recur so long as men
forbear and women remember, and life itself exists.



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