Books 61 through 70 - Austen to Hardy

[Note: this is part of Powys' One Hundred Best Books.]

Jane Austen 


Jane Austen’s delicate and ironic art will remain unassailable through all changes of taste and varieties of opinion. What she really possesses—what might be called the clue to her inimitable secret—is nothing less than the power of giving expression to that undying ironic detachment, touched with a fine malice but full of tender understanding, which all women, to some degree or other, share, and which all men, to some degree or other, suffer from; in other words, the terrible and beautiful insight of the maternal instinct. The clear charm of her unequalled style—a style quite classical in its economy of material and its dignified reserve—is a charm frequently caught in the wit and fine malice of one’s unmarried aunts; but it is, none the less, the very epitome of maternal humor. As a creative realist, giving to her characters the very body and pressure of actual life, no writer, living or dead, has surpassed her. Without romance, without philosophy, without social theories, without pathological curiosity, without the remotest interest in “Nature,” she has yet managed to achieve a triumphant artistic success; and to leave an impression of serene wisdom such as no other woman writer has equaled or approached.



Of all the books of all the Brontës, this one is the supreme masterpiece. Charlotte has genius and imagination. She has passion too. But there is a certain demonic violence about Emily which carries her work into a region of high and desperate beauty forbidden to the gentler spirit of her sister. The love of Heathcliff and Catherine breaks the bonds of ordinary sensual or sentimental relationship and hurls itself into that darker, stranger, more unearthly air, wherein one hears the voices of the great lovers; and where Sappho and Michelangelo and Swift and Shelley and Nietzsche gasp forth their imprecations and their terrible ecstasies. Crude and rough and jagged and pitiless, the style of this astounding book seems to rend and tear, like a broken saw, at the very roots of existence. In some curious way, as in Balzac and Dostoyevsky, emotions and situations which have the tone and mood of quite gross melodrama are so driven inwards by sheer diabolical intensity, that they touch the granite substratum of what is eternal in human passion. The smell of rain-drenched moors, the crying of the wind in the Scotch firs, the long lines of black rooks drifting across the twilight,--these things become, in the savage style of this extraordinary girl, the very symbols and tokens of the power that rends her spirit.



“Harry Richmond” is at once the least Meredithian and the best of all Meredith’s books. Meredith, though to a much less degree than George Eliot, is one of those pseudo-philosophic, pseudo-ethical writers, who influence a generation or two and then stem to become antiquated and faded.

It is when he is least philosophical and least moralistic—as in the superbly imaginative figure of Richmond Roy—that he is at his greatest. There is, throughout his work, an unpleasing strain, like the vibration of a rope drawn out too tight,--a strain and a tug of intellectual intensity, that is not fulfilled by any corresponding intellectual wisdom. His descriptions of nature, in his poems, as well as in his prose works, have an original vigor and a pungent tang of their own; but the twisted violence of their introduction, full of queer jolts and jerks, prevents their impressing one with any sense of calm or finality. They are too aphoristic, these passages. They are too clever. They smell too much of the lamp. The same fault may be remarked in the rounding off of the Meredithian plots where one is so seldom conscious of the presence of the “inevitable” and so teased by the “obstinate questionings” of purely mental problems.

Reading Henry James one feels like a wisp of straw floating down a wide smooth river; reading Meredith one is flicked and flapped and beaten, as if beneath a hand with a flail.



Henry James is the most purely “artistic” as he is the most profoundly “intellectual” of all the European writers of our age. His fame will steadily grow, and his extraordinary genius will more and more create that finer taste by which alone he can be appreciated.

No novelist who has ever lived has “taken art” so seriously. But it is art, and not life, he takes seriously; and, therefore, along with his methods of elaborate patience, one is conscious of a most delicate and whimsical playfulness—sparing literally nothing. In spite of his beautiful cosmopolitanism it must never be forgotten that at bottom Henry James is richly and wonderfully American. That tender and gracious “penchant” of his for pure-souled and modest-minded young men, for their high resolves, their noble renunciations, their touching faith, is an indication of how much he has exploited—in the completest aesthetic sense—the naive Puritanism of his great nation.

In regard to his style one may remark three main divergent epochs; the first closing with the opening of the “nineties,” and the third beginning about the year 1903. Of these the second seems to the present compiler the best; being, indeed, more intellectualized and subtle than the first and less mannered and obscure than the final one. The finest works he produced would thus be found to be those on one side or the other of the year 1900.

The subtlety of Henry James is a subtlety which is caused not by philosophical but by psychological distinctions and it is a subtlety which enlarges our sympathy for the average human nature of middle class people to a degree that must, in the very deepest sense of the word, be called moral.

The wisdom to be derived from him is all of a piece with the pleasure—both being the result of a fuller, richer, and more discriminating consciousness of the tragic complexity of quite little and unimportant characters. To a real lover of Henry James the greyest and least promising aspects of ordinary life seem to hold up to us infinite possibilities of delicate excitement. It is indeed out of excitement—partly intellectual and partly aesthetic,--that his great effects are produced. And yet the final effect is always one of resignation and calm—as with all the supreme masters.



[Editor's note - a discussion of Thomas Hardy may be found on the next page in this list.]



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