Jane Austen not only limits herself to the sphere which she understands she even picks and chooses amongst the raw materials of experience available to her, eschewing what her genius cannot control. She deliberately leaves out of her works whatever she cannot personally know. She emphasizes what is most malleable to her talent. In her books we see men and women of a different age come alive with all their equipment of human interests, human moods, human fashions and ideas and movements – literary, artistic and cultural. We are shown their food, clothes, furniture and their fads – their superficial differences from us and fundamental kinship. For instance, in her novel ‘Mansfield Park’, she has described the lifestyle of the families living at Mansfield Park – especially Bertram family. The beginning of the first chapter gives an insight into the thirty years old history of marriages of Lady Bertram and her sisters. We are told of their interest for searching men of fortune for marriage (later, also when they marry their elder daughter):
as there are pretty women to deserve them."
Her best quality is her extraordinary attention to exactness of detail. The accuracy of details is only typical of a scrupulous realism in all similar things. On occasions she consulted stagecoach timetables, and use a calendar in constructing her time schemes to ensure that dates and days of the week matched. She describes the world she knows. It has often been noted, for example, that she does not give any conversation at which only men are present – never having heard such a conversation, she declines to invent one. For the most part her characters are from that level of society in which she and her family moved – the Bertram family in ‘Mansfield Park’, the Bennet family in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, the Woodhouse family in ‘Emma’, the Elliots in ‘Persuasion’ etc. She knew that limitation could mean concentration. This allows her to explore her characters and their relationships in greater depth. The relationship between Edmund and Fanny (‘Mansfield Park’), Edmund and Mary Crawford (‘Mansfield Park’), have been very systematically developed. From the very beginning of the novel, Edmund (among the other not so friendly members) has a very friendly attitude towards Fanny. He only has brotherly love for her, lends more support to her. Fanny too supports his decisions and line of thought. Gradually, their relationship develops and ends in marriage.
Life as we see it around us in not all sorrow or happiness. It is a strange compound in which common place acts are far more striking parts that heroic events or comic incidents. This middle region Jane Austen painted with a master-hand. Great calamities, heroic sorrows, adventures, and all that hangs upon them, she left to more gifted or to more ambitious painters. Neither did she touch on that other world of fiction where satire, ridicule and exaggerated characters are needed. She was satisfied with life and society, as she saw them around her, especially without exaggeration. Her men and women are neither very good nor very bad; nothing singular or very dramatic falls to their lot. They work up to gloomy interest, in order to suit the purposes of a tale. For it is plain that any such greater intrusion of public events into the novels would have damaged their quality. It would have overstrained their delicate fabric and disturbed their graceful proportion. Emma, the heroine of the novel ‘Emma’ is not perfect in character, she has her own faults. Even Fanny of ‘Mansfield Park’ has been regarded as a prig by some critics. A prig is a person with a keen sense of his or her own moral superiority, a person who tends to judge others by strict moral standards and assumes airs of importance on account of a feeling of moral superiority. Also in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ the negative trait of Mr. Darcy is his pride and that of Elizabeth Bennet is her prejudice against Mr. Darcy.
Jane Austen was far too conscientious an artist to compromise with truth. We may be sure that the facts she ignored, could be ignored by the kind of people she writes about. Her characters are none of them reformers. So it is not unnatural that they should shut their eyes to many of the evils of their times, the reform of which was indeed left mainly to a later generation. Moreover, as a literary artist she realized – though perhaps unconsciously – that people must always be more important and more interesting that conditions or events. She herself compared her art to that of a miniature painter. In a miniature there is no room for anything more than the subject and the immediate background.
Richard Simpson complains that there is nothing in her novels to prove that she had any conception of society itself, but only of the coterie of three or four families mixing together with differences of intellect, wealth or character, but without any grave social inequalities. Of organized society she manifests no idea. She had no interest for the great political debated, with so much blood in her day.
Jane Watt defends Jane Austen against this charge on the ground that she is a moralist rather than a realist. Jane Austen did not subscribe to the illusion that she was copying life. She told a friend that “it was her desire to create; not to reproduce.” Brigid Brophy declares that Jane Austen “…quite simply, almost without thinking, appropriated to herself the Shakespearean faculty of creation.”
It would be wrong to assume that her comedies exist in an artificial world insulated from the wider world or from economic pressures, from passion and pain. In ‘Mansfield Park’ the men hunt and shoot, or go on wartime cruises, or to college or to Parliament, but they do so off-stage as it were. The world of male activity is referred to rather that described, but it co-exists with that world of flirtation and hopeless love that Jane Austen describes. Even the war is an underlying presence in ‘Mansfield Park’. Lieutenant Price was wounded in this war, which resulted in economic difficulties of his family. William’s years at sea have been in time of war. Sir Thomas on his journey to Antigua is in danger not only from the tempest but from enemy ships.
Jane Austen also recognizes the importance of economic forces. The underlying cause of the Prices’ disorganized life is an economic one. The Portsmouth episode is a solid testimony of Jane Austen’s realism. A sentimental novelist would have thrown a veil over the poverty, the dirt and the rudeness of the Prices’ household. But Fanny finds a crampled house, the atmosphere of which is confused and inefficient; a bedraggled mother, a coarse-talking and foul-smelling father; and “two rosyfaced boys ragged and dirty”.
Economic facts are more important in ‘Mansfield Park’ than might at first be imagined. We learn that Sir Thomas is experiencing some financial difficulties, partly because of Tom’s extravagance and partly because of losses on his West India Estate in Antigua. Sir Thomas’s worries about his Antigua estate were in fact base on facts. During this period the islands on the British West Indies were suffering an economic and agricultural depression. Keeping all this in mind adds to the depth of her concerns her own realism.