‘The Janeites’ must be Kipling’s least popular story (though there is competition). Written in 1924 and published in Debits and Credits two years later, it is an abrupt, allusive yarn about a group of English officers and men in northern France near the end of the First World War; and it is narrated by one of them, a large working-class innocent called Humberstall, in peacetime a hairdresser. An alcoholic young lieutenant, Macklin, arrives in the battery and starts up a Jane Austen Society. Its effects embrace even the bewildered Humberstall – they save his life. The battery is wiped out by enemy action. Humberstall staggers shell-shocked away, muttering about Miss Bates, and finds the name acts like a password on a bookish senior nurse, who hauls him aboard a packed hospital train. Looking back years later, the still dazed narrator remembers his time as a Janeite as the happiest of his life.

This is a story rarely mentioned by critics, and when mentioned not much liked. The writer’s official biographer, Carrington, says levelly that it might as well have been called ‘The Trollopians’, and the editor of the recent Penguin Debits and Credits shows signs of agreeing. There is sense in their feeling. Moreover, ‘The Janeites’ is so full of ironies and ambiguities as to leave no reader quite lucid as to its merits. But the undoubted Kipling genius does glimmer somewhere in it; and depends on the unexpected light it casts on its subject. Kipling adored Jane Austen. And his story is, in its freakish, wilful, bitterly humorous way, almost a critical fiction, with something valuable to say about the novelist at its centre.

The story seems likely to have been sparked off by the first appearance of the Oxford edition of Jane Austen in 1923. It was in her review of it that Virginia Woolf referred to her distinguished predecessor as, of all writers, ‘the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness’: one even culpably reserved and reticent. Woolf is hardly a Humberstall. Yet Kipling’s character finds it hardest to grapple with Austen’s sheer smallness of scale, her apparent irrelevance to anything he thinks important. In its shrugging, elusive way the story seems to be finding its own answer to Woolf’s brilliant criticism.

That answer has some particular interest now, given that we appear to be in the middle of a second Janeite movement. And the second, quite as much as the first, raises the permanent question of what it is we admire the novelist for. The first Janeites (and it is unclear whether Kipling counted himself among them) were Edwardian connoisseurs, scholars and writers, some men of real distinction like A.C. Bradley. They protested against what struck them as a mean reductiveness of judgment in the academic image of Jane Austen. They admitted no faults. Their commitment they defined by stress on the human quality of their feeling: they loved the work as they loved the woman. Edwardian gentlemen acknowledging social facts of gender, they affiliated themselves to ‘Jane’: a name of course with regrettable tones of the domestic, even patronising.

Our own movement is populist where Kipling’s was patriarchal. But its sources are comparable. During the last few decades literary criticism has dehumanised itself, seeking new sharpness in contexts of history and politics. The academic Jane Austen is conservative or radical, significant as she represents her period or not. It may be that the great new fashion in Jane Austen is a protest by ordinary readers, buying her fiction in staggering numbers, that the writer is not like that: she is only definable as a presence supremely capable of giving large pleasure. Unsurprisingly, the boom extends beyond the bookshop into the visual media which dominate the age. Most Janeites now get their most pleasure from television. If the Edwardian gentleman patronises, then the entertainment industry of course corrupts; and it is possible to feel that a Regency nightdress cut surprisingly low can’t be what Jane Austen’s art is all about. And yet the compromises of film are perhaps as tolerable as Edwardian courtlinesses. Affection always has its rights, however inaccurate its forms.

Affection is what Kipling’s story is about. It begins with a group of male workers together, one Saturday afternoon, in a churchy Masonic Lodge. To interest his friends and share his memories Humberstall starts to tell this quiet audience about a different, more extreme and desperate camaraderie, which he experienced in his last weeks as a fighting-man. This narrative insetting has effect, and is reflected in the explicitnesses of the frame Kipling gave his story when he published it in Debits and Credits. There, he prefaces it with a graceful Horatian ode, a meditation on the strange and touching survival of small things through history: ‘Mere flutes that breathe at eve ... Endure, while Empires fall.’ The story is followed by an agreeable Georgian ballad about Jane Austen going to Heaven and being joined there by her own true love.

The prose story between these two dulcet poems is something else again: obscure, funny and cruel. Humberstall passes his last few weeks in a murderous war to end wars acquiring the benefits of civilisation from a blind-drunk despairing aficionado. Hopeful of reward, like a good child, he chalks onto the great guns of the battery given names: ‘The Reverend Collins’, ‘General Tilney’, ‘Lady Catherine de Bugg’. Something in the image hints at the mingling of pastoral and violence, of passion and illiteracy which can go to make up both human bonding and human learning, especially in Kipling’s late stories of love. The writer lost his only son in the war, and many of his dark late stories mix tenderness and pain in a way that seems to relate back to his dead children.

‘The Janeites’ is at its strongest where feeling for people tangles with attachment to art or literature, with an effect of complication, pain and balancing humour. And this is precisely the point at which ‘The Janeites’ seems most to focus on its subject, the writer herself. The tribute Kipling makes to her is the bond he finds with her, that of a shared and difficult art: the art that does trivial things at most need (like the jokes of the military Janeites, which keep them sane and together).

Jane Austen made herself an artist of trivial romances, ‘the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness’. Humberstall, who has to read the stuff, says resentfully: ‘Twasn’t as if there was anythin’ to ’em, either. I know. I had to read ‘em.’ But in the course of time, because the books are involved with the memory of the only class-free absolute friendship he has known, he comes to like them, and in peacetime to reread them. There is a Janeite in every reader, even the most technically sophisticated, an aspect of the mind that reads the deft and light symbolism of feeling; for this reason we respond to the simple romance of Jane Austen’s novels. We need these books to end with happy marriage, as we don’t need thousands of trivial love-fictions which were written contemporaneously or before her or after her. As we don’t, for instance, strictly need either the Regency nightdresses or the political contexts which may have generated them. Neither the nightdress nor the political explanation need be a bad thing, but both are expendable. They wear out. Jane Austen has made her romances hard, or essential – hard in other senses too: resistant, tough-minded, impartial and impassive.

Probably before the major novels, though the work is undatable, Austen wrote an excellent unromantic story. ‘Lady Susan’ is the epistolary account, at novella length, of a charming and rather brilliant (though bad) woman’s amatory adventures in stuffy aristocratic households. Like and unlike a foreshadowing of Henry James’s The Awkward Age, ‘Lady Susan’ perhaps startles most by the fact that it doesn’t seem, with all its marvellous originality, quite to come off; it leaves a reader cold. And it does so, because the story is cold. Where Henry James balances the wicked and fascinating Mrs Brookenham with her unloved but loveable daughter, Nanda, whose silences we come to understand deeply, Lady Susan’s daughter is an invisible nonentity. As a result, the whole is strangely unAustenian, because there is nothing to feel. Austen’s real novels make her a Romantic artist, and the first true 19th-century novelist. She learned a reticent symbolism of society, which holds and involves the reader; she tells little love-stories with oddly profound implications, and invents heroines who seem to matter.

Jane Austen’s poems are negligible. But her worldly comedies work like poems. She activates imagination in the reader while seeing to it that the imagined is solid, factual and just. It may be this special balance in her, of imagination against observation, which leads a poet like Tennyson to compare her to Shakespeare: a juxtaposition which is, on the face of it, and given their relative scale, as surprising in a different way as the junction with Kipling. But if we call Shakespeare our greatest literary artist, what makes him so is the equipoise his mind always held between inner and outer worlds.

The same is true of Jane Austen. What counted was not the quantity of her knowledge of her world (possibly large in itself), but the use she could make of it. Her art becomes recognisable when her crisply social novels take on a formidable and elusive power of suggestion: the prosaic grew poetic in them, and the poetic grew hard. The chief medium for these continual transactions of inner and outer was her vital irony. When Jane Austen said that she depended on her readers’ ingenuity, she meant something not far from Shakespeare’s ‘Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.’ Virginia Woolf meant kindly when she wished that her predecessor as female artist had lived longer and seen the world, so as to devise a method ‘deeper and more suggestive, for conveying ... what life is’. I want to touch on a method, perhaps hinted at in Kipling’s story, by which Jane Austen did indeed ‘convey ... what life is’; going further, it may be, than Woolf herself ever did in her fictions.

Charlotte Brontë was perhaps like Woolf in seeing only what one might call the outside of these romances, given that she defined their writer as cold and passionless. If she had been these things, Jane Austen would probably not have spent a brilliant adolescence so plainly fighting off the task of writing feeling. Only with her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, does this private and reticent writer begin to make herself fully vulnerable: to incur that bond with the reader which depends on sensibility as well as sense, that dangerous exchange of feeling between life and literature which makes the Janeites what they are.

This very impressive and original but uneasy work of art, Sense and Sensibility, is still at a stage of struggling to find a balance between what is romantic in itself, and what is hard. It is understandable that, from its first contemporary reviews to current studies, the novel has tempted readers as uncertain as itself to locate that balance in an easier because external context. The book is still regularly described as a schematic, didactic, moral or political struggle between two sisters, one representing sense and the other representing sensibility. And its plot is seen as climaxing that struggle with a punishing rebuke to the younger and more passionate of the women, who is made to marry a man she does not love.

A number of good critics have remarked that both women are as it happens given a blend of the titular qualities. To this one might add that Austen herself would, surely, have found the posited schema repellent, even sadistic. She could be hard herself in a good cause. But to frame two good and sympathetic women – sisters, to boot – in a struggle for moral status is not a good cause. Definitively neither lesbian nor incestuous, Austen reserves the excitement of conflict for those characters erotically attracted: Elizabeth and Darcy, Emma and Knightley.

But these arguments are unnecessary given a simple fact. Sense and Sensibility is not about two sisters; it is about three sisters. 19-year-old Elinor and 17-year-old Marianne have a sister, the 13-year-old Margaret. Margaret Dashwood is so consistently invisible to criticism, that it can seem a special quality in an essay to notice Margaret. Much of the very best recent criticism of Jane Austen has been in essays (those by John Bayley and by Peter Conrad stand out) but there is one brilliant full-length study, Roger Gard’s Jane Austen’s Novels, that serves as the best possible introduction to her work. And Gard does notice Margaret: he calls her ‘the one completely superfluous figure in Jane Austen’s novels’. He is supported, moreover, by an equally classic account of the writer, Reginald Farrer’s 1917 essay, which remarks: ‘Never again does the writer introduce a character so entirely irrelevant as Margaret Dashwood.’ They are right, of course. But such fighting terms from critics so unsafe to disagree with are useful in themselves. Terms like ‘superfluity’, ‘irrelevance’, valuably hold open the whole question of how it is we think Jane Austen’s romance actually works, beyond plot: how significant the romance element is, and what precisely it is doing.

The three daughters of the widowed Mrs Dashwood are perhaps three because the woodcutter, in folk tale, has three sons, who set out to make their fortunes in life. Margaret exists to complete the folk tale, and therefore to intensify our sense of the importance of the romance element of feeling. ‘When Cassandra had attained her 16th year, she was lovely & amiable and chancing to fall in love with an elegant Bonnet, her mother had just compleated bespoke by the Countess of — she placed it on her gentle Head and walked from her Mother’s shop to make her Fortune’: so ‘The Beautiful Cassandra’, a hard romance written by the very young Jane Austen. It was easy for her to be funny about the oafish and heartless milliner’s daughter; more complicated to be serious and funny about the immeasurably nicer, more intelligent and more feeling Elinor, Marianne and Margaret, who comparably must go out and make their fortunes. Or at least Elinor and Marianne must. Margaret is still a child, not knowing and not having to know what life is like – though at the end of the book she is getting there. Mean while, her natural childishness is both comfort and irritant, as home always is – thereby demarcating what calls us from outside: something which matches the naturalness of children’s growing, with the civilisation which is natural (or was thought so, in late Renaissance culture) for adult human beings. And civilisation costs money. Margaret is given extremely few speeches, but one is memorable in its relevant childishness: ‘ “I wish,” said Margaret, striking out a novel thought, “that somebody would give us all a large fortune apiece.” ’

I am suggesting that Sense and Sensibility is, like the novels which follow, strikingly original in substance and form. It is a romance which speaks to the feelings of the reader. But that folktaleish romance is lived out in a world of money. It might even be added that Margaret’s childish irrelevance is defined by her inability to understand the rules of that world of money. The three girls and their mother begin the novel disinherited. Their funds are dependent on the generosity of the girls’ half-brother, John. But John’s weak gestures towards self-respect are cumulatively beaten down by his rapacious wife. This finely lethal scene fills the second chapter of the book, a chapter universally admired though often called strictly irrelevant, like Margaret. As a number of critics have pointed out, the source for this chapter is a drama similarly with folk tale in its origins and three daughters in its plot: Act II, Scene iv of King Lear. What linked the two irrelevances in Jane Austen’s mind must have been the three folk-tale daughters; and the fact suggests the importance of these almost thematic opening statements of the novel.

Those who describe its substance as a schematic battle are losing the virtue of a structure in itself striking enough. Without much exaggeration, Sense and Sensibility could be described as a story whose heroine starts by being disinherited and ends by seeing her fiancé disinherited. The recurrence can hardly be accidental. Fifteen or twenty years later, Jane Austen herself seems to have experienced some form of disinheritance: the two sisters and their mother were led to hope for family money which would substantially case their later years, and the hope was disappointed so sharply as to produce what appears real shock and misery in the writer at least. Jane Austen was as truthful about money as Elinor Dashwood, and perhaps also knew that one way to forget it is to possess it.

One of the complicating, even contradictory touches added by Kipling’s Humberstall describing the puzzling innocence of these stories about the wooing of 17-year-olds, is the thoughtful: ‘They’re all on the make, in a quiet way, in Jane.’ These are folk or fairy stories in which cash has a real presence. In the satire ‘The Beautiful Cassandra’, or in ‘Lady Susan’, it is easy for writer and reader to distinguish between love and money. Sense and Sensibility starts off the career we honour by making it clear that to choose between love and money is over-easy, is anyway dishonest: we are all on the make, in a quiet way, really, and to be grown-up is to know how to live honourably with that fact. Margaret Dashwood is a child. Elinor and Marianne have to find out how to betray neither the self nor the world, neither sense nor sensibility.

When colours are mixed by young painters, the result can be dirty grey. Sense and Sensibility is dense with luminous intelligence, often savagely witty, and certainly absorbing as it portrays love struggling to survive in a world of money. But it is also undeniably a grey book, harsh in tone, as if the confrontation of love with the world had brought all shades into one colour. The single thoroughly good person outside the family and their men is Mrs Jennings, who is also inarguably and fatly vulgar; the most vicious person, Lucy Steele, is also inarguably the most successful. The crowd of remorselessly boring human beings who constitute the world of this novel is also, with Sir John Middleton at their fore, the most voraciously social: ‘There was a kind of cold hearted selfishness on both sides, which mutually attracted them’ – the friendship of Lady Middleton with Mrs John Dashwood.

Sense and Sensibility has never been much loved, lacking as it does the clear composure and high spirits of both Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice. But perhaps their existence depends on this first novel, which taught its author how to reconcile her perceived extremes, love and money – here given so much hardness of outline as to make them difficult to harmonise. Elinor and Marianne seek their romance in a mean and moneyed world; and they are given therefore depths of character which strengthen them, more rational in the elder and more passionate in the younger. But from the beginning they are alike in being involved with men who have simply to be called Jane Austen’s dullest and weakest. I have mentioned the charge that Marianne is only punitively married to Colonel Brandon. Brandon strikes me as hardly worse than his rival, the knitting-pattern pretty Willoughby. And, for all his mild and sane decency, dullest and weakest of all is surely Edward Ferrars, for most of the novel in thrall to vile relatives and cunning hangers-on.

Reginald Farrer interestingly complained that Brandon is ‘so remote in the story’. There may be a purpose here: Brandon’s real self is his estate Delaford, its fruitfulness described by Mrs Jennings with a curiously deep magic (‘quite shut in with great garden walls ... in an old yew arbour behind the house, you may see all the carriages that pass along’). These romantic women will only survive almost out of this world, Elinor in her rectory, Marianne in her secret garden. The limitation of the men, in short, is a condition of the women’s strength; and the strength of the women has its conditions too. Elinor and Marianne, strong in sense and sensibility, do in their different ways survive and make their fortunes. They find a place in life lovingly suited to them. But it is hard that strong women should be suited by such men, and such fortunes, and such lives. The ineffably confused but real Mrs Palmer at one point burbles of Colonel Brandon: ‘He is such a charming man, that it is quite a pity that he should be so grave and dull.’ The joke is not only, or entirely, on her.

Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice are far blither works, with these signs of difficulty charmed beneath their surface. Yet even they have the same doubtful resonances in their humour. The delightful young Catherine Morland suffers nothing but the loss of a few literary illusions and a rather gruelling cross-country journey, before her prize of being proposed to by the clever, funny, entertaining, well-born and even well-off Henry Tilney, in himself the strongest contrast to Brandon and Ferrars. And yet it is a mark of his moral integrity that he proposes to Catherine (we are told clearly) out of kindness and gratitude, and remorse at his father’s behaviour. Austen’s own teasing remark about our choice of ‘parental tyranny’ or ‘filial disobedience’ as theme settles an uncertainty at the heart of her smiling romance. Perhaps Prince Charming only meant to be kind.

Pride and Prejudice, too, has reservations so implicit as to be part of the book’s brilliant dramatic economy. Here, the military are encamped only on the edges of the action; the real danger is indoors, within love and marriage. The book’s only villains are those who may not be called so, the two heroines’ parents and their variously awful sisters. The one practical villain, Wickham, rather coincidentally enters the family himself as Lydia’s husband. Apart from their serious love for the heroines, and Darey’s grand capacity to improve his soul, he and Bingley might be said to accept the social problems of marriage to the Bennets by the realisation that their own relatives are very horrible too. Lady Catherine in fact provides the action’s climax by her authoritarianism; Mrs Bennet’s vulgarity is at least limited in its power. Even Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth’s closest friend, is by another coincidentality worked into another disgusting marriage, with Darcy’s aunt’s chaplain and Mr Bennet’s heir, Mr Collins. As Shakespeare’s Beatrice says in a comedy which plainly influenced the novel: ‘Thus goes everyone to the world.’ There is real erotic as well as warmly sympathetic interest in the gradual coming-together of Elizabeth and Darcy, and all the charm of a social dance. In this most-liked of all the novels, there is a wonderfully accessible romance in the lovers’ progress towards marriage. But a novel with the Bennets and the Collinses in it sees that marriage is grim too. Its romance is a hard romance.

Humberstall began by failing to see that the novels have ‘anythin’ to ’em’, slowly changing his mind as he came to associate with them emotional experience of complex kinds, painful as well as happy. His education is in itself something like an image for the actual reading process, and writing too. By an analogy which suggests the quality of Kipling’s story as a critical fiction. Austen’s romances are structures which come to have formidably much ‘to ’em’. Retaining the parallel with Shakespeare, it could be said that in her romances, as in his, the pastoral transforms into the natural.

And this is of course truest of the great second phase of writing, Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. There is still a good deal unknown about the biography of Jane Austen and the dating of the earlier novels, which went through a number of rewritings. But clearly a pause of ten, even fifteen years divided the two phases. It was possibly marked by the sense of different kinds of defeat: not merely the problems of publication met by this superlative writer, but a blankness in her own emotional life. This silent period holds both the death of her beloved sister’s fiancé, and seemingly of a man Jane herself could and would have loved; in addition, the acceptance of a proposal from a man she did not love, like Charlotte Lucas, and the startlingly indecorous refusal of it 12 hours later.

Painful mistakes, angularities and inner conflicts of this kind move into the later novels. One index of the change is the character of the heroines. Everyone knows, and most agree with, Austen’s own cheerful claim that Elizabeth Bennet is incomparably likeable; and Catherine, Elinor and Marianne have at least something of this essentially heroic quality. Fanny Price is the focus of the debate that marks the critical reception of Mansfield Park, some of it very hostile to Fanny and the book. Austen’s own stance towards both her and Emma was protective but ironic, and Anne Elliot she called ‘almost too good for me’. It might be said that all are less heroines (though they do have heroic qualities) than natural forces which serve the writer’s need in her hard romance: presences whose reflective feelings come to be the true substance of the book.

Fanny Price begins her own story a child, and more, a stranger, wandering round the great Augustan spaces of Mansfield like a feeling ghost, even like Housman’s phrase for the inner self, ‘Lonely and afraid / In a world I never made’. But to that self-pity Fanny adds real conscience, if impaired by anxiety and social damage: ‘Whatever she touched she expected to injure.’ This social limitation, like that of a mouse with quivering whiskers, she retains up to a point for the whole of her story. She is the only approach to the spiritual Mansfield is going to know, and when she comes home to it, a Proserpine coming back to the Earth, the entire landscape greets this dull determined virtuous little person and ignites into spring.

There is no schematic answer which justifies Fanny’s opposition to the play-acting which makes a central crux, one of the book’s surrogates for the life of social passion. Fanny can’t and won’t act, beyond the charities of family love, because she has (for good and for bad) the unchangeability of the innocent self, the ‘animula’ which is valuable, is not social, and watches the play. It reads but does not enter.

The sympathy of the book is with Fanny, because it could be nowhere else. But this is hard – which is to say natural or doubtful – romance. Just as there are equally intelligent accounts of the book which love or hate Fanny, so there are at the centre of the story itself long sequences when a reader really cannot say what is going to happen: whether the mouse Fanny can conceivably hold out against those large bold gifted superbly handsome cats, the Bertrams and the Crawfords. Mrs Norris states savagely that ‘had Fanny accepted Mr Crawford, this’ – the adulterous scandal and débâcle – ‘could not have happened.’ This doesn’t have to be true, but she has an important point. The active, attractive and powerful Crawford does nearly win Fanny: we are actually told that, given this or that condition, he would have done so. Comparably Edmund admits his mixed feelings about Mary: ‘I have since – sometimes – for a moment – regretted that I did not go back.’

It is this new intermingling of rigidities and uncertainties which may explain the hostility felt by some able readers for this remarkable novel. The inhabitants of Mansfield and its rectory are in their impressive way Austen’s most inflexible creations, like those brittle objects which the child Fanny fears to injure. Or they are like cut-outs in a cardboard theatre, images of English county types at their merely social best. Among them, only Fanny, cursed by impotence and limitation, can ‘read’, can watch and understand and thereby to some extent change and grow. Her happy ending, the book does what it can to defend or protect. But its most serious defence is that very openness of truth which brings uncertainty with it, like the space between the railings looking onto the park at Sotherton. Fanny is strongest in her negatives, as when she observes that women shouldn’t have to marry the men who happen to like them – and it is a part of the story’s grim humour that Henry is finally ditched by the adultery he didn’t much feel like. The real hardness of hard romance is the refusal of conclusive proof that romance is actually romantic.

This natural openness reaches its crown in Emma. Persuasion, which many readers find most romantic of all, I want to touch on only briefly. The book is extremely fine. But it slightly lacks the element of what Blake called ‘mental fight’; its romance is only just not mood music (the touching absurdity of the fall at Lyme Regis has its place in this). Conceivably a symptom of that sense of defeat in life which may psychosomatically have induced Austen’s fatal illness, there is in the novel some faint evidence of lapsing apart. Beautiful as the ending is, Anne and Frederick climb up Union Street to nowhere – they have no home; it is as if the integrity of the hero and heroine peacefully sails out to sea, leaving the city in its own quiet self-consuming hellishness. Sir Walter goes on for ever reading his own life in the Baronetage; William Walter Elliot is for ever defined as bad by the simple statement that too many people like him – he lives as social image. Like Henry James’s Madame Merle, he is the great round world in person. And that remarkable fragment Sanditon perhaps takes this ebbing of hope further. The infinitely mean Lady Denham has one oddly haunting sentence in it, explaining why she won’t invite her own relations: ‘If people want to be by the Sea, why don’t they take lodgings?’ The novel itself ‘takes lodgings’ – is briefly, hauntingly, painfully there and gone.

It is Emma which brings to most fruitfulness that sense of the naturally open. Jane Austen herself recorded that there were readers within her own circle who turned over the pages and put the book aside because they could not discover what its story was. And the story of this fiction is certainly moot. A reader who wanted to be quixotic might point out an action in it not usually included by critics detailing the narrative. I started thinking about these novels by suggesting the need to exist of that minimal character, Margaret Dashwood. As many commentators have said, Emma is a book magnificently equipped with minor characters, a whole village society of them, and some are more than minor: they are invisible, like the indispensable William Larkins. I will add one who is something more surprising even than invisible: she is incipient. On the first page of the novel the heroine and her father sit depressed in their drawing-room, feeling the loss of Emma’s governess (really a surrogate mother), that very day happily joined in marriage with the cheerfully social upwardly-mobile Mr Weston. On that opening page, or at some time within the next few fictive weeks, things get under way. Later in the story we are told lightly in passing that Mrs Weston has hopes. Not long before its end we hear of the birth of little Anna: who before the book is finished has entirely outgrown her first caps. Non-existent at the beginning, the child becomes an almost thrusting, bustling presence before the close.

This novel is a romance, in a sense which delights the Janeite in every reader. Emma, ‘handsome, clever and rich’, is the queen of a pastoral kingdom. Her house is Hartfield, her village Highbury, and the very names suggest ideality: not much can spoil the field of the heart or touch the high citadel. A moral dimension, often taken to be the story of the novel, satisfactorily deepens this supremely pleasure-giving affair, sometimes called the happiest of all Jane Austen’s pastorals. Emma, like a Maeterlinck heroine, finds the Blue Bird of happiness is at home all the time, and it only requires a small change and improvement in her moral character to make her discover it.

But few children are actually carried and born in pastoral. What, then, is Anna Weston doing forging her way through this one? The book has, as it happens, death as well as birth in it. Its penultimate (or perhaps only) plot-climax is the off-stage departing of the imperious Mrs Churchill, fortunately overruled for once by death: a death which – as balancing factor in this finely balancing book – serves to bring Jane Fairfax, Emma’s alter ego, her short period of intense happiness as the wife of Frank Churchill, and a child with it.

To say ‘short’ and to speak of the child is of course improper. Jane Austen (the other Jane) told her family of the young woman’s fate, soon to die in childbirth, but the telling is hearsay, and the knowledge is in any case out of court. But it is also unsurprising. Jane Fairfax is so much the reverse of the Frank Churchill she adores, described as a ‘child of good fortune’. An orphan, her mother early dead and her relatives frightened for her. Jane wears through the book a fine withdrawnness, a delicate irritated unhappy silence. Her beautiful white face and her music and her migraine (which Austen herself seems to have shared) make her more than frail, more than unlucky – almost what the Middle Ages called ‘fey’, meaning spellbound, under a shadow, death-touched. Unlike the bonny and sturdy if very different Emma and Harriet, not to mention the horrible survivor Augusta Elton, she isn’t going to make old bones. Just as the infant Anna heads unreckoned-with towards the daylight, so Jane like some Eurydice moves through the novel darkwards.

Neither of these actions has much place in the happy pastoral Emma. Birth and death are natural or nothing. Moving from pastoral to natural, this romance has its own alternative to ordinary plot: a dense thicket of human movements which have the same imaginative, almost poetic resonance as the paths followed by Anna and Mrs Churchill and Jane Fairfax. Going down a city street, Keats said with sad disaffection of the crowd of faces hurtling past: ‘The creature has a purpose, and its eyes are bright with it.’ Plot in Emma tacitly transmutes into human and creaturely purpose, and the ‘handsome, clever and rich’ young heroine settles for something more human and creaturely.

In the pastoral. Emma is queen of Hartfield and Highbury. The reader expects to have to forgive her for being all we are of will and decisiveness: this is, after all (as the charade tells us), a story of Courtship. Or this is how things are supposed to be. Emma herself is full of ideas and plans, certainly. But by comparison with, say, the Eltons, she does little or nothing. Augusta Elton gets a husband in three weeks and commandeers Highbury, socially speaking, in about the same length of time. In Emma, by contrast, the only real activity is that of imagination, perhaps rather of fantasy; and sentences like, ‘She had always wanted to do everything’ take on a peculiar significance, and even finally pathos.

Those who ‘want to do everything’, with the ordinary romanticism of the ordinary novel-reader or Janeite, perhaps do it only in pastoral. But Highbury is not a pastoral place. It is a romance place. Given an exact topography, as if locatable on a map – 16 miles from London, nine from Richmond – its locations turn out to be self-contradictory; so that, like the island in The Tempest, Highbury is real, but nowhere. Its reality is that the people in it live naturally: ‘The creature has a purpose and its eyes are bright with it.’ Almost everybody in the novel lives like Anna Weston, and heads for the daylight. That daylight is late Renaissance, Augustan – social and civilised: it means socially going up in the world, as the Coles are manifestly going up in the world. The earth Highbury people live on is rich, and is made to yield; the women marry and bear. Emma, whose gifts and blessings together detach her, watches it all.

In a characteristic moment, Mr Woodhouse and Emma’s visiting elder sister, married with five children, sit by firelight, snug and happy, and begin a duet of praise for what seems their finest experience: ‘A basin of nice smooth gruel, thin, but not too thin’. The two of them, gentle and good and civilised creatures as they are, are like Fanny, but with less justification, simply frightened to death of existence. ‘It rained dreadfully hard for half an hour, while we were at breakfast. I wanted them to put off the wedding’; and ‘Once I felt the fire rather too much; but then I moved back my chair a little.’ With one of the complex compensations of the book, it is Mr Woodhouse’s fear of invading thieves which permits the entry of Mr Knightley into his household.

There is a modern reworking of an old Jewish legend about the coming to heavenly judgment of the world’s most virtuous man: an infinitely enduring clerk who, when offered as reward anything in creation for his own for the whole of eternity, musters his nerve and, with eyes shining, asks if he could conceivably have hot bread-rolls for his breakfast. Mr Woodhouse is a both sad and funny expression of what is helplessly, naturally small in life, for those who do not have the muscle of an extreme egoism to see them through. His female twin is Miss Bates, for whom the absolute unmanageability of existence turns into poems very like the Wood-houses’ gruel-song. Deprived of money, of social standing, of personal dignity and of every trace of power, she sometimes cannot even impose conclusion on a sentence: ‘ “Oh! Mrs Stokes,” said I – but I had not time for more.’ Emma’s snub to her on Box Hill is intolerable but understandable, like our all but ineradicable fear of harmless spiders and mice around the feet. Miss Bates reflects back to Emma something in her own life which she is coming to understand, and be horrified by: an inescapable mundanity, as of the experience of endlessly swimming through gruel.

It is this wholly tacit sense of the trivial within the romance which casts a faint shadow behind the blissful ending. Concluding the story of Dorothea Brooke, with its strong echoes of Emma, George Eliot in marrying her heroine off to Will Ladislaw rounds on the reader and asks: ‘What else could she have done?’ In the happy ending of Emma that question is latent, like little Anna at the beginning. The prospect of loneliness, and perhaps, too, the natural flow of a farming community, moves Emma towards marriage. There are, it is clear, only three men in Highbury. The clergyman Mr Elton is a snake who only wants Emma for her fortune and status: even so, it is he who has to marry her in a different sense. The glamorous stranger Frank Churchill does not take her seriously; every gesture of flirtation exists only as a ‘child’s play, chosen to conceal a deeper game’ on his part; Emma comes wisely not to want him because of the developing evidence of just how much he does not want her.

At the centre of the intricate, evolving plot of the novel, revealed by the gradual shift of its different levels, like the shape of a tree in winter, is a kind of collapsingness or void in Emma’s future. Things slide, and there is only Mr Knightley – and because of Harriet, her own invention, there is (it wildly seems for a moment) only no Mr Knightley. And it is that fear which raises something not too unlike love in Emma, her father’s daughter after all. Mr Knightley is an authentically likeable, good and masculine man, despite his gaiters and William Larkins. Emma and he are plainly aware of each other from the beginning, and he loves her. And behind him is the great presence of Donwell Abbey, the only answer to Mrs Elton. But he is Emma’s father and brother; certainly not within the forbidden degrees, and their relationship has no whiff of incest. But at the age of 14 she was calling him George. For romance, this may not be too thin. But it is thin.

The strange fragment Sanditon has, for the last paragraph Jane Austen ever wrote, a sudden image (like a thought) recorded by the sensible narrator, Charlotte. Looking through a gap in the elms and ‘old thorns’ which surround an estate, she sees, over a low fence, what seems an assignation on a park-bench of two of her acquaintance, thus revealed as secret and possibly unhappy lovers: Clara Brereton, the romantic and pathetic young companion, and Sir Edward Denham, a would-be rake. ‘Closely engaged in gentle conversation’, they are glimpsed for a moment before Charlotte compassionately retreats, leaving the lovers still fenced in, with the swirling sea-mist, ‘a great thickness of air, in aid’ to hide them. The final mysteriously romantic image, in what seems to be setting out to be a cool and glittering satire, sums up a whole career of profound fictions. The figure of Charlotte, drawing away, leaving the lovers in the sea-mist, might have said that romance is hard to destroy and hard to achieve.

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