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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

Irony is by no means a frequent feminine gift


something feminine about the

method, which, with the addition of a certain _nescio quid_, giving it its modern difference, may be said to combine the peculiarities of Fielding and of Richardson, though it works on a much smaller scale than either. It has the intense and pervading, though not the exuberant and full-blooded, _livingness_ of Fielding, and it also has something not unlike a feminine counterpart and complement of his pervading irony; while it is not unlike Richardson in building up the characters and the stories partly by an infinity of tiny strokes of detail, often communicated in conversation, partly by the use of an exceedingly nice and delicate analysis of motive and temperament. It is in the former respect that Miss Austen stands apart from most, if not from all, women who have written novels. Irony is by no means a frequent feminine gift; and as women do not often possess it in any great degree, so they do not as a rule enjoy it. Miss Austen is only inferior among English writers to Swift, to Fielding, and to Thackeray--even if it be not improper to use the term inferiority at all for what is after all not much more than difference--in the use of this potent but most double-edged weapon. Her irony indeed is so subtle that it requires a certain dose of subtlety to appreciate it, and it is not uncommon to find those who consider such personages as Mr. Collins in _Pride and Prejudice_ to be merely farcical, instead of, as they are in fact, preachers of the highest and most Shakespearian comedy.
But there would be no room here to examine Miss Austen's perfections in detail; the important thing for the purposes of this history is to observe again that she "set the clock," so to speak, of pure novel writing to the time which was to be nineteenth century time to this present hour. She discarded violent and romantic adventure. She did not rely in the very least degree on describing popular or passing fashions, amusements, politics; but confined herself to the most strictly ordinary life. Yet she managed in some fashion so to extract the characteristics of that life which are perennial and human, that there never can be any doubt to fit readers in any age finding themselves at home with her, just as they find themselves at home with all the greatest writers of bygone ages. And lastly, by some analogous process she hit upon a style which, though again true to the ordinary speech of her own day, and therefore now reviled as "stilted" and formal by those who have not the gift of literary detachment, again possesses the universal quality, and, save in the merest externals, is neither ancient nor modern.

For the moment, however, Miss Austen's example had not so much little influence as none at all. A more powerful and popular force, coming immediately afterwards and coinciding with the bent of general taste, threw for the time the whole current of English novel writing into quite a different channel; and it was not till the first rush of this current had expended itself, after an interval of thirty or forty years, that the novel, as distinguished from the romance and from nondescript styles partaking now of the romance itself, now of something like the eighteenth century story, engaged the popular ear. This new development was the historical novel proper; and the hand that started it at last was that of Scott. At last--for both men and women had been trying to write historical novels for about two thousand years, and for some twenty or thirty the attempts had come tolerably thick and fast. But before Scott no one, ancient or modern, Englishman or foreigner, had really succeeded. In the first place, until the


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