Jane Austen confines her creative activity to the depiction of whatever fell within her range of personal experience. While her range of observation in life is not so wide her work has been variously called as the “Two inches of ivory” and “three or four families”. All these titles exhibit the excellence as well as the limitations of her craft and outlook.
Although she works on a very small canvas, yet she has widened the scope of fiction in almost all its directions. Her stories mostly have indoor actions where only family matters especially love and marriages are discussed. However, her plots are perfect and characterization is superb.
All of her six novels, including Pride and Prejudice, have been controversial since their publication, on account of Austen’s limited range. The critical view is divided in two groups – detractors and admires. The former group had criticized her on various points.
Critics object that her novels present a certain narrow physical setting. It was the period of American War of Independence and of Napoleonic Wars, but the characters of Austen are blissfully unaware of all these tumultuous events. Whole of the story of Pride and Prejudice revolves around Neitherfield Park, Longbourne, Hunsford Parsonage, Meryton and Pemberley.
Nature does not play any specific role in her novels. It seems to be an irony of the history of English literature that when writers like Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge and others were discovering the beauties of nature / outer world, Austen confines her characters within the four walls of the drawing room or Hall. Edward Fitzgerald states:
She never goes out of the Parlour.
Austen avoids the sense of passions described by the romantics, because of her classical views of order and control. Bronte condemns her:
… the passions art completely unknown to her.
Critics have complained that her subject matters are very much the same in all her novels and she writes the same sort of story and also that she does not introduce any great variety in her characters.
All of her six novels deal with same theme of love and marriages. There are pretty girls waiting for eligible bachelors to be married to. The opening line of Pride and Prejudice is the theme of her six novels. She writes:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
Another limitation of Jane Austen is the feminization of her novels. Men never appear except in the company of women. All the information about Darcy is proved through Elizabeth’s point of view. Hence, the reader looks at Darcy through Elizabeth’s eye.
Even in her limited world, Austen restricts herself to the depiction of a particular class of country gentry. She excludes the matters of lower class and hardly touches aristocracy. For instance she has discussed Lady Catherine only for the purpose of satire.
There is no terrible happening in her novels. Everything happens in a civilized manner. The extreme severity in Pride and Prejudice is elopement of Lydia with Wickham.
Wickham may elope with Lydia.
A famous critic, Charlotte Bronte believes that Austen has no concern with the morals and she is an author of the surface only:
Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eye, mouth, hands and feet.
A. H. Wright remarks-
There is very little religion in her novels. Politics is not mentioned too. There are no adventures found in her books, no abstract ideas and no discussion of spiritual or metaphysical issues.
The defence of Jane Austen’s limited range comes from the nature of her novels, the situation of her time and her physical surroundings. Austen’s novels are termed as “domestic novels”. She belongs to the era when neither the girls were allowed to be admitted to universities nor to be intermingled freely with men. So it is natural that her range is limited.
Austen was a daughter of a country clergyman. She has very less exposure to the world except her short visits to London and a few years study at Bath. Hence the world she experienced was very small. In a letter to her niece, Austen wrote:
There are four families in a country village is the very thing to work on.
Though Austen’s limitations are very self imposed yet within her deliberately restricted field, her art is perfect. Realization of one’s limitations is a positive virtue. The restricted social setting and purely interests, lend a sense of discipline to her art.
Within the limits she is superb.
She gains in depth, what she loses in broadness of canvas. Her characters stem from a class which she knows well and hence they are very realistic and life-like. Elizabeth Bennet is one of the most delightful heroines one could come across in literature. Wordsworth remarks:
Her novels are an admirable copy of life.
It would be wrong to say that her novels lack passion and profundity. Her themes are love, courtship and marriage and it is impossible to keep the feelings out from such a novel. Besides love, there are also significant emotions, like jealousy of Bingley’s, cunningness of Wickham, snobbery of Lady Catherine – all are depicted by Austen with perfect sincerity and conviction.
She also holds a definite moral concern in her novels. She laughs at the shortcomings of people to correct their behaviours. Beneath the theme of love and marriage, she deals with manners to correct the conduct of the middle class country gentry. She preaches the dictum of “know thyself”. Hence she aims at high morality. She also depicts the merits and strength of a marriage based on understanding through the wedding of Elizabeth and Darcy. The nature of her craft is defined by Austen herself as:
With bit of irony on which I work with so fine brush to produce little effect after much labour.
Within her theme and subject matter, Jane Austen is unparalleled in her skill and plot construction. The sub-plots of Jane-Bingley, Lydia-Wickham, Charlotte-Collins all are closely linked to the main Elizabeth-Darcy plot and highlight the theme of good marriage. Even in her limits, no two of her characters are repeated. G. H. Lewis remarks:
Her circle may be restricted but it is complete. Her world is perfect orb and vital sphere.
Thus it may be concluded that within her limited range Austen handles all the characters, events, dialogues and the plot of her novels in a very exquisite manner. Her art is fine, perfect and distinguishable. No doubt she is a fine flower of the expiring 18th century.