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Jane Austen was a moralist, an eighteenth century moralist..... In some respects she was the last and finest flower of that century at its quintessential. She was born a few years later than Wordsworth, Coleridge and Scott. When she died, Byron was famous and Shelley  Keats had already published. She belongs to the period known as the Romantic Revival or Revival of Imagination, yet these titles do not suit her the least. Her novels, belong essentially to the age of Johnson and Cowper.  

Jane Austen's Classicism

She is indeed a classic novelist. Everything shows a delicacy of touch, a sense of balance, a severe reasonableness, a harmony of the mind in which intellect is Paramount. There is no unrestrained emotion or excess of passion as in the Romanticists. All these are disciplined by reason and intellect. This elegance is as much seen in her dialogues as in the structure. Some of the speeches of Elizabeth in their balance, in their anti-thesis are comparable to Pope's heroic couplets. The wit in her novels also belongs essentially to the eighteenth century mode. She writes as one who is entirely ignorant of the growing force of Romanticism. There is hardly any description of nature in Jane Austen, unlike in Wordsworth and Coleridge who deified nature. The tour to the Lake Districts in Pride and Prejudice is curtailed, and the description of the beautiful grounds of Pemberley is too brief and general to make any impact. Jane Austen's novels are also marked by a total concern with upper middle class which may be attributed to the fact that this was the class she knew intimately. 

There is thus an apathy towards the peasants and other lower classes. In Pride and Prejudice there is no reference to any servants or people of lower classes except the servant at Pemberley. This is totally unlike the age of Romantics who glorified poor characters like Michael, the Leech Gatherer. Thus, Jane Austen is more akin to the eighteenth century than the nineteenth century both in choice of subject and in her technique and excellent skill and precision in craftsmanship.

The Influence of the Eighteenth Century Nobelist    

It was from the eighteenth century novelists, who apart from Sterne were all moralists, that Jane Austen derived her concept of the novel. She admired Richardson the most and her heroes-----Knightley in Emma and even Darcy in Pride and Prejudice are Grandisonian figures. But she owed much more to Fielding. Her novels represent a feminization of Fielding's. In her own way, Jane Austen adapted and carried further Fielding's dramatic method of presenting action through a succession of short scenes and dialogue. Though keeping the right to comment she relied more on dialogue, but as with Fielding, the comment is not only direct but implicit in the turn of the language. Her fiction is as much steeped in irony, both in language and situation as his. Pride and Prejudice abounds in irony. Jane Austen like Fielding is a moralist and a satirist.

The Moral Vision

The chief aspect of Jane Austen's eighteenth century sensibility is the moralistic bias of her vision. As Walter Allen comments "she is, with Dr. Johnson, the most forthright moralist in English, and the authority which informs every sentence Johnson wrote, that authority which comes we feel, from vast experience of life, a massive common sense, and an integrity determined to face all the facts of life without seeking refuge in illusion is hers too." Indeed there is no hint of idealising or romanticising her characters. The heroines of all her novels are not perfect but have their share of human follies and contradictions which often make them absurd and objects of laughter. Thus, Elizabeth Bennet for all her wit and intelligence is blinded by prejudice and fails to comprehend the intricate characters. Jane Austen is concerned with the growth of an individual's moral personality measured by the most exacting standards of eighteenth century values. Popes dictum "Know Thyself" underlined the theme of each of her novels. The conclusions of Jane Austen's novels are always the achievement of self respect and a principal means of such an achievement is a league of perfect sympathy with another who is one's spiritual counterpart. Hence marriage is a major theme. In Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen traces Elizabeth's prejudice and her angushed recognition of her own blind prejudice before she is united with Darcy in a marriage based on mutual respect, love and understanding. 

Her moral concern though unobtrusive, is ever present. The marriage of Lydia and Wickham, Collins and Catherine and of the Bennets, serve to show by their failure the propriety of the Elizabeth-Darcy marriage. There is a condemnation too of the moral irresponsibility of Mr. Bennet and the vulgarity of Mrs. Bennet which makes them failures as parents and leads to the flightiness of their younger daughters. 

Her eighteenth century moral concern of man in relation to society is also evident in Pride and Prejudice. Unlike the Romanticists who emphasised the individual, Jane Austen in typical classical fashion upholds the organic unity of society. She stresses the duty human beings owe to others, to society and maintains that individual desires have to be sub-ordinated to the large social good, even love is to be interpreted less as an individual act than a social act. The Lydia----Wickham elopement, passionate and irresponsible is an example of how social harmony may be disrupted, and how other lives may be ruined by the selfish act of the individuals. That is why it is so vehemently denounced. The marriages which end the book are shown its the context of the families concerned. The marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Mr. Bingley brings happiness and stability to everyone, not simply to themselves. However, a complacent adherence to accepted social attitudes is not what Jane Austen emphasizes. In Pride and Prejudice Darcy and Elizabeth marry inspire of social pressure, embodied, in Lady Catherine. Thus, individual claims had their place as long as they did not disrupt the social harmony the way the Lydia-Wickham elopement could. 

Eighteenth Century Style   

Jane Austen's major affinities with the culture of the eighteenth century also extends to the stylistic modes it fostered. There is much use of ironic commentary and generalizations which deliberately create a tone of reserve, for reserve is the proof of decorum. There is limited use of figurative language as it would have invited emotional responses and shortciruited our sensible alignment with reality, and Jane Austen in the true eighteenth century style emphasizes 'reason' over 'passion', 'sense' , over 'sensibility'.  

Thus, in her moralistic vision, in her emphasis on organic unity of society, in her style and craftsmanship, in her diction, in her avoidance of romantic elements such as individualism and beauty of nature, she is truly the last exquisite blossom of the eighteenth century. She is more a child of the eighteenth century than a forerunner of the nineteenth century Romanticism.


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