It has been widely acknowledged that, as far as her novels are concerned, Jane Austen expressed little interest in the national and international events that colored the social and political climate of the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries and with which the Romantic poets were particularly preoccupied.
The repercussions of the French Revolution produced a spirit of change that William Hazlitt, in 1825, and later writers identified as having a formative influence on the poetic achievements of the period. New perspectives were examined and man, the individual, was seen as a boundless reservoir of potentials that needed only the right conditions to be realized.
Jane Austen confined her examination of human nature to small groups of individuals drawn from a social circle similar to her own. She chiefly retained the neoclassical view of the individual as a more limited being (i.e. one who ought to aim for accessible goals), who was an integral part of an ordered society.
Bearing these fundamental differences of interest and perspectives in mind, and allowing for the diversity in the scale of their considerations, the novels of Jane Austen nevertheless do reflect some of the essential preoccupations and concerns of the poets of the same period.
It was a period of spiritual insecurity and doubt that was one of the consequences of the scientific revolution and the last firm anchor remaining was the individual self. The poetry of the period in particular reflects the shift in views of man’s essential nature and the contemporary preoccupation with the powers of the imagination and the realm of feeling. One effect of this shift was the belief that man, being part of an organic universal order that was purposeful and harmonious towards all sensitive creatures, was naturally benevolent and possessed of an innate moral faculty that could be realized spontaneously through personal relations (as explored by such prolific poets as Wordsworth and Coleridge). It is with issues of personal autonomy and specific views of mortality that Jane Austen is especially concerned in Sense and Sensibility and Emma.
The extreme assertion of self and individual experience is what Keats, referring to Wordsworth, termed ‘the egotistical sublime’. The poets believed the imagination to be the source of insight and truth. To curb the imagination would deny the poet’s vital creativity and retard his personal development. Coleridge refers to the imagination as his ‘shaping spirit’ in his Dejection ode; it is an inherent gift, given by nature and as such should be celebrated and remain unfettered. And Wordsworth mourns the loss of the spontaneous creativity or ‘celestial light’ of the imagination, without which life is reduced to mere ‘endless imitation’ in his Ode on Intimations of Immortality. In Emma and Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen is concerned to refute this view by showing how an unfettered imagination can create distortions and illusions that can lead to moral flaws in the individual. She aims to show that her heroines must learn to temper their imaginative energy by the application of reason. In this way, she expresses her doubt in the contemporary view that has abandoned the hierarchical view of human nature, which produces a different hierarchy of faculties.
Wordsworth, in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, defined a poet as a man ‘endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness’ than is common, and with this assertion, the poets of the Romantic period were unequivocally in agreement. It is this assertion of sensibility that Austen parodies in Sense and Sensibility – her aim being to show the dangers of living according to the general tenets of the doctrine of benevolence. An aspect of this is exemplified by Marianne Dashwood’s response to an accusation of improper conduct: ‘If there had been any impropriety in which I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong.’ (Chapter 13). Austen attacks this belief squarely by demonstrating, through Marianne’s misfortunes, how self-regarding impulses can confound moral judgement, and how emotional self-indulgence leads to various kinds of selfishness. The message is rendered more effective by the author’s dismissal of sentimentality in presenting human feelings.
Like the Romantic poets, Jane Austen was interested in the contrary qualities of nature. Good poetry, according to Coleridge in his Biographia Literata, requires the coexistence of ‘opposite or discordant qualities’, which he claimed must fuse or be ‘reconciled’ into unity. As the poetry reflected the poet’s mind, so human nature must also encompass these dualities. In The Prelude, Wordsworth takes up this theme:
…there is a dark/Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles/Discordant elements, makes them cling together/In one society.
Blake also wrote of the dualities in human nature in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
Without contraries there is no progression./Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy,/Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
Jane Austen recognized these discordant elements in human nature and pursued them in her novels to show the need for balance if the individual is to develop and achieve harmony within himself and society. Many of her heroines fall chiefly into two main categories that bear some resemblance to Blake’s suggestion that:
Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.
‘Evil’, however, is too strong an adjective to apply to any of Austen’s characters, but on the whole, a parallel can be made. Elinor Dashwood can be described as good and passive, being emphatically so because she obeys reason. In Elinor, sense (or the correct application of reason) is her inherent virtue, and this virtue reaps its own rewards—not merely in the winning of the husband of her choice—but also in the steady support it provides her and that she provides for others in times of difficulty and unhappiness. The suggestion here would seem to be that Austen viewed virtues not as fixed quantities but as fluid qualities that expand as a result of continual struggle with and opposition to their contraries. It could, however, be argued that this does not dispute the passive qualities of the virtues, but rather suggests the greater flexibility of one quality to fuse with or reconcile itself to its contrary. Nevertheless, this is perhaps as far as this specific parallel can safely be taken. Jane Austen used Elinor Dashwood as an example of correct balancing between sense and sensibility, but through Marianne’s misjudgement of her sister, we can see how delicate this balance is. With a little more rigid discipline of sense over sensibility, Elinor would be in danger of possessing all the coldness of Lady Middleton, a caricature displayed for this purpose.
Marianne Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse seem to belong to the category of active, or energetic characters. They are by no means evil, but they do have their moral flaws in the form of ignorance of self and misjudgement of others. Because of their flaws, these characters possess a propensity to cause active mischief in their own destinies and in those of others. They must develop by a process of critical self-examination and discovery to allow their intrinsic virtues to achieve fruition. As Lady Middleton relates to Elinor, so Charlotte Palmer and Mrs Elton offer warnings to Marianne and Emma by depicting the extreme consequences of the heroines’ follies, should these remain uncorrected. In Emma, the good Miss Bates serves a similar purpose, as is unconsciously registered by Emma in her description to Harriet of her declining years as a spinster, living life vicariously through her nephews and nieces.
The delineation of the process of self-discovery is not unlike the course of the individuals in the epic poems of the Romantic poets and there is a common theme of endurance and hope through disappointments and despair.
The poets frequently chose the structure of the ballad and the image of a journey to reflect the slow process of the inner journey towards self-discovery. In Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the mariner, on his actual journey, by an impulsive, irrational act alienates himself by committing a sin against his fellow creatures, and in order to resume his place in the community, he must first expiate his sin. For him, this is both a physically and spiritually agonising process. Moral issues abound in Wordsworth’s poems and he also traces the painful process of self-discovery through his epic, meandering journey in The Prelude. He refers to himself as ‘A Traveller’ and traces the journey on several levels, actual excursions, progress through time and the process of development of the poet’s imagination – all of which interact. The ultimate goal of these journeys is the rediscovery of nature working within himself, which answers the quest for harmony and leads to redemption.
Redemption for Marianne Dashwood lies in conquering the self-regarding impulses of extreme sensibility. Illness and reflections on her own mortality occasioned the painful but necessary process of self-discovery. Despite earlier glimpses into her errors, for Emma, enlightenment, in a moment of clarity ‘darted through her with the speed of an arrow’ (Chapter 47), revealing to her the full import of her conduct and the state of her heart.
Jane Austen clearly demonstrates her concern for harmony and her belief that this can be achieved through the reconciliation of the discordant qualities of nature which are manifest in the individual and in society as a whole. Unity with society requires unity within the individual. Human virtues and their contraries are presented and represented through a fine structure of characterization and plot. Caricatures are used to parody or act as foils to her central characters; to reflect or refract the moral nature of each heroine. It is true that these minor characters are not fully developed. They do not take on unexpected traits, but remain the same throughout. Nothing and no one, however, is incidental to the whole scheme. The miniature worlds of Jane Austen’s creation, within the confines of her chosen framework, encompass a broad spectrum of human folly and virtue. These communities cannot be taken as images of the real world, but they are nevertheless complete in many details. At the end of every novel, Austen effects a balancing or rounding-off procedure, in which every action is accounted for, no little justice left unchecked and no question left unresolved. This attention to detail and symmetry therefore creates a final effect of harmony in the comic writer’s novels.
This striving for harmony pervades much of the poetry of the period. Wordsworth, in particular, draws heavily on metaphors of music and harmony in his language. Harmony is usually associated with reconciling outward reality to inward reflection and Wordsworth achieved this by communing with the forms of nature in the country which had not been trespassed on by the artificial inventions of man. In this pure state, nature was most beneficial to man, leading, through the poet’s reflections, to its harmonious dispositions.
On a final note, it cannot here be ignored that in Jane Austen’s novels, artifice and corruption are often associated with the towns or cities separate from the places the central characters inhabit. In Sense and Sensibility, the ‘villains’ come from outside the small community of Barton and much of Marianne’s unhappiness and Elinor’s confusion occur in London. In Emma, the intrigue that confounds the heroine’s judgement had already taken place in Weymouth, far from the simple world of Highbury, and Frank Churchill’s excursions from Highbury serve only to add to the confusion. Another antagonist, Mrs Elton, is also brought in from the ‘outer world’, the values of which she introduces for the purpose of contrast. To the poets, however, harmony was associated with a yearning for a state of oneness with nature; an organic unity in which nature was part of man and man part of nature, with a sympathetic soul, meaning and purpose.
Lynette Sofras is a former Head of English at a London High School. She now divides her work days between editing and writing (mainly) women’s fiction. You can read about her novels on her website: http://www.lynettesofras.com
Copies of Emma and Sense and Sensibility are available from Amazon - check out Jane Austen's author page.
Sources mentioned (all online sources accessed June 2016):
William Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Dejection: An Ode
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Biographia Literata
Samuel Taylor Colerdige: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
William Wordsorth: Ode on Intimations of Mortality
William Wordsworth: Preface to the Lyrical Ballads
William Wordsworth: The Prelude
The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, P.P. Howe (ed.) 21 vols., New York: AMS Press, 1967, xviii:6
Further online essays on Jane Austen's novels:
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