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The author's delineation of Mrs. Norris is very spirited. She is the representative of an unfortunately large class of women. Narrow-minded and parsimonious, she mistakes officiousness for benevolence, and meanness for economy. She is always bustling without being useful; she delights to plan, but leaves others to execute; she is never happy unless the prime mover in every project; and by the force of much boasting she manages to convince others, as well as herself, that she is a marvel of self-sacrifice and devotion.
The plot of “ Emma” is still more contracted than that of “ Mansfield Park,” being confined entirely to the little country town of Hartville. But within these narrow limits there is a quick succession of scenes, the curtain rising and falling with the rapidity of light comedy. “Emma” is remarkable for liveliness of dialogue and delicate shading of character. Each member of the little circle at Hartville has a decided individuality. There is the valetudinarian Mr. Woodhouse, with his faith in his apothecary, his fondness for gruel, and horror of hearty suppers and all change; his clear-headed, slightly ungracious son-in-law, and amiable daughter Isabella, humoring him in the matter of gruel, but clinging to her own physician. In connection with the Woodhouses we have the ! showy, would-be fashionable Mrs. Elton, who is that insufferable thing, a pretentiously vulgar woman; simple-minded Miss' Bates, inspiring regard in spite of her rambling, disconnected mode of speech; pretty, sentimental Harriet Smith, quite ready to love and un-love, as circumstances or her strong-minded friend, Miss Woodhouse, may dictate. Emma Woodhouse, the heroine, is as fascinating a person as Elizabeth Bennet, and even more lovable. Her faults bring out in strong relief the essential nobility of her nature. They are mere blemishes, and, being more the result of education and of her position than of natural disposition, are gradually eradicated. As far above the most of her associates in mental capacity as she is in rank, she has become a little self-sufficient and conceited. But her vanity never deadens her kindliness of heart, or renders her selfish. She plans for others, rarely for herself, and while she seldom takes the advice of her best friend, Mr. Knightley, she never resents his interference or betrays an
unamiable temper. In her match-making, – of which she is only cured by a series of mortifications and failures, - Emma displays more zeal than judgment. Her surprises and perplexities are graphically described, and the by-play between Frank Churchill and Jane Halifax is most ingeniously contrived and executed.
“Persuasion” is in a different vein from its predecessors. Its tone is more subjective and thoughtful. There is less representation and more description; hence what it gains in sentiment it loses in individuality. The conception of the plot is less strikingly original, but it is carried out with equal ability. Anne Elliot has greater tenderness of nature than either Elizabeth or Emma, but she is more of an abstraction and less of a reality. We remember her rather from what the author says of her, than for what she says or does herself. This could scarcely be avoided, as her character is entirely emotional, and consequently does not admit of analysis. Her long attachment to Captain Wentworth, her alternations of fear and hope, and the revival of his old love for her, are naturally and powerfully depicted. Admiral and Mrs. Croft and the worldly Mr. Elliot are clever sketches; but the most suggestive character in the book is Anne's married sister, who is developed in Miss Austen's best style. Her petty prejudices and weak resentments, her peevishness and pride, are constantly betrayed in her conversation, of which this is a specimen :
“So you are come at last! I began to think I should never see you. I am so ill I can hardly speak. I have not seen a creature the whole morning!
“I am sorry to find you so unwell,' replied Anne. “You sent me such a good account of yourself on Thursday.
“Yes. I made the best of it, - I always do; but I was very far from well at the time ; and I do not think I ever was so ill in my life as I have been all this morning, — very unfit to be left alone, I am sure. Suppose I were to be seized of a sudden in some dreadful way, and not able to ring the bell! So Lady Russel would not get out. I do not think she has been in this house three times this summer.'
" Anne said what was proper, and inquired after her husband. O,
Charles is out shooting. I have not seen him since seven o'clock. He would go, though I told him how ill I was. He said he should not stay out long; but he has never come back, and now it is almost one. I assure you I have not seen a soul this whole long morning.'
“• You have had your little boys with you?'
“ Yes, as long as I could bear their noise; but they are so unmanageable that they do me more harm than good. Little Charles does not mind a word I say, and Walter is growing quite as bad.'
“« Well, you will soon be better now,' replied Anne, cheerfully. • You know I always cure you when I come. How are your neighbors at the Great House ?'
“I can give you no account of them. I have not seen one of them to-day, except Mr. Musgrove, who just stopped and spoke through the window, but without getting off his horse; and though I told him how ill I was, not one of them have been near me. It did not happen to suit the Miss Musgroves, I suppose, and they never put themselves out of their way.'
“. You will see them yet, perhaps, before the morning is gone. It is early.'
“I never want them, I assure you. They talk and laugh a great deal too much for me. O Anne, I am so very unwell! It was quite unkind of you not to come on Thursday.'
“My dear Mary, recollect what a comfortable account you sent me of yourself! You wrote in the cheerfullest manner, and said you were perfectly well, and in no hurry for me; and that being the case, you must be aware that my wish would be to remain with Lady Russel to the last; and besides what I felt on her account, I have really been so busy, have had so much to do, that I could not very conveniently have left Kellynich sooner.'
“Dear me! what can you possibly have to do?' “A great many things I assure you.' .....
“50, well,' and after a moment's pause, “but you have never asked me one word about our dinner at the Pooles yesterday.'
“ • Did you go then? I have made no inquiries, because I concluded you must have been obliged to give up the party.'
“O yes! I went. I was very well yesterday ; nothing at all the matter with me till this morning. It would have been strange if I had not gone.'
“I am very glad you were well enough, and I hope you had a pleasant party.
“ • Nothing remarkable. One always knows beforehand what the dinner will be, and who will be there ; and it is so very uncomfortable
not having a carriage of one's own. Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove took me, and we were so crowded! They are both so very large and take up so much room; and Mr. Musgrove always sits forward. So, there was I, crowded into the back seat with Henrietta and Louisa ; and I think it very likely that my illness to-day may be owing to it.'
“ A little further perseverance in patience and forced cheerfulness on Anne's side produced nearly a cure on Mary's. She could soon sit upright on the sofa, and began to hope she might be able to leave it by dinner-time. Then, forgetting to think of it, she was at the other end of the room, beautifying a nosegay; there she ate her cold meat; and then she was well enough to propose a little walk.
66 Where shall we go?' said she, when they were ready.
“« I suppose you will not like to call at the Great House before they have been to see you?'
6 • I have not the smallest objection on that account,' replied Anne. • I should never think of standing on such ceremony with people I know so well as Mrs. and the Miss Musgroves.'
“« 0, but they ought to call upon you as soon as possible. They ought to feel what is due to you as my sister. However, we may as well go and sit with them for a little while, and when we have got that over, we can enjoy our walk.”” — Chap. VI.
Beyond a few barren facts, very little is personally known of Miss Austen. Her life has never been written, and the biographical sketches of her are meagre and unsatisfactory. The daughter of a country clergyman, she led a quiet, uneventful life, and died at the age of forty-one. She is described as attractive in person and manners, and brilliant in conversation. According to Appleton's Encyclopædia, an early disappointment in love determined her against matrimony. But neither in the Encyclopædia Britannica nor in the “ Memorial” attached to the English editions of her writings is there any intimation of this. Nor is it to be inferred from the tone of her works. They are all remarkable for their genuine and unforced cheerfulness, and the entire absence of morbid feeling. Still this is very negative proof, as Miss Austen never revealed herself in her writings. Retiring in disposition, she studiously avoided publicity. A nobleman, who suspected her to be the author of “Mansfield Park," proposed to her through a friend to join a literary circle at his house, and meet Madame de Staël, but she declined the invitation at once; and she could never be persuaded to affix her name to her publications.
To judge from the eulogies passed upon Miss Austen, her character must have been as harmonious and well-proportioned as her intellect. It is much to be regretted that none of her letters have been published, as they would be invaluable in throwing light, not only upon her tastes and feelings, but her life. It is probable her family were as reticent as herself, and did not wish to give them publicity ; but the world has been the loser. That there were letters is evident from the “Memorial,” which says:
“ The style of her familiar correspondence was in all respects the same as that of her novels. Everything came finished from her pen ; for on all subjects she had ideas as clear as her expressions were well chosen. It is not too much to say, that she never despatched a note or letter unworthy of publication.”
A few extracts of about a half-dozen lines in length are all that are given. These, of course, are too short to be very characteristic, and only excite without gratifying curiosity. During her last illness she writes :
“My medical attendant is encouraging, and talks of making me quite well. I live chiefly on the sofa, but am allowed to walk from one room to another. I have been out once in a sedan-chair, and am to repeat it, and be promoted to a wheel-chair, as the weather serres. On this subject I will only say further, that my dearest sister, my tender, watchful, indefatigable nurse, has not been made ill by her exertions. As to what I owe to her, and to the anxious affection of all my beloved family on this occasion, I can only cry over it, and pray God to bless them more and more.”
Miss Austen is described as an eminently religious person. That she had high moral principle is clearly apparent in her writings. “Miss Austen," says Archbishop Whately, “introduces very little of what is technically called religion in her books, yet that must be a blinded soul which does not recognize the vital essence everywhere present in her pages of a deep and enlightened piety.” Unlike her contemporary, Miss Edgeworth, Miss Austen never sacrificed artistic truth in order to inculcate a moral. She was too great an artist to allow the purpose of her works to destroy their essential unity.