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JANE AUSTEN'S PRIDE AND. PRE']UDICE IN THE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY MODE SAMUEL KLJGER I JT is no 'difficult task to cull from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice passages reflecting the period's taste in art and employing a critical terminology made widely current throughout the eighteenth century by ma~y formal discussions of aesthetics. Thus, for example> two performances at the piano by Elizabeth Bennet~ the heroine, and her sister Mary, are evaluated in terms of. the familiar antithesis, drawn in innumerable essays of the period, between "art" and "nature." Elizabeth performs first and the author comments: "Her performance was pleasing, though by no means capital. After a song or two, and before she could reply to the entreaties of several that she would sing ·again, she was eagerly succee'ded at the instrument by her sister Mary, who having, in consequence of being the only plain one in the family, worked hard for knowledge and accomplishments , was always impatient for display." As for the sister, however: '- 'Mary had neither genius nor taste; and though vanity had given her application, it had given her likewise a pedantic air and conceited manner_, which would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached. Elizabeth, easy and unaffected, had been listened to with much more pleasure, though not playing half so well.''1 A century-long discussion, particularly ofShakespeare, is neatly summar ized in this passage. Shakespeare, the period agreed, "wanted art"; but, his natural genius offsetting his neglect of art, he was exonerated. Mrs. Griffith, for- example, condemned those "mechanists in criticism" who judged Shakespeare "by the cold rules of artful construction." She remarked further: "Would they restrain him within the precincts of art, the height, the depth.of whose imagination and creative genius found even the extent of Nature too streightly bounded for it to move in ?"2 Pope, earlier in the century, had also declared for the "grace beyond the reach of art": "A cooler Judgment may commit fewer Faults, and be more approv'd in. the Eyes of One Sort of Criticks: but that Warmth of Fancy w111 carry the loudest an·d more universal Applause's which holds the Heart of a Reader under the strongest Enchantment."3 I 1Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, ed. by F. Sicha Jr. (Boston, 1945), chap. vx, 24. 2Mrs. Elizabeth Griffith, The Morality of Shakespeare's Drama Illustrated (London, 1775), 26; cf. R. W. Babcock, The Genesis of Shakespeare Idolatry (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1931), 124-5. 3Pope, Preface to the .translation of the Iliad; in W. H. Durham, Critical Essays of the Eighteenth Century (New Haven, 1915), 341. 357 358 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY These were critical commonplaces of the period. The con.,.temporary reader of Jane Austen's: novel would recognize at once the critical distinctions between "art" and "nature" involved and would concur; perhaps, in extending the palm not to Mary's artful yet unpleasing rendition' but to Elizabeth's ((natural" singing despite its obvious failures in the "art" of voice cultivation. On the other hand, however, although Jane Austen's partiality for Elizabeth's vivid style is obvious, it would be a serious mistake to conclude that it was possible for either Jane Austen or her period to deprecate "art" altogether. Nothing could be further from the truth of eighteenth-century aesthetic standirds, generally speaking. The whole point of the art-nature antithesis was that it was usable as a basis for erecting _an apparatus for the critical analysis of painting, literature, and the fine arts, which by manipulation of the two contraries, Hart" and "nature," found excellence in a just mixture of these two opposing qualities. In this kind of analysis, faults were identified with excesses in any one extreme or exclusive emphasis on one extreme of style. The ratlonalistic temper of the period required that excellence be found in a mean between two extremes.4 Only those ·readers persuaded by the false classie-romantic dichotomy embalmed in the simpler sort of literary text-books. will find in Jane Austen's relative partiality for Elizabeth an absolute condemnation of Mary's "art." As a matter of fact, those who read the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 357-370
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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