Art & Artifact in Jane Austen’s Novels: Selected Scholarly Comments

Amateur Artists

[Most of Austen’s central figures] are amateur artists busy with the work of fiction-making and characterization. They invent plots, write letters of character analysis, read between the lines of other letters, play games with words and names, discuss absent friends, sketch portraits, collect literary extracts, put on plays, probe motives and arrange matches that have an aesthetic ‘rightness’ to them.

–A. Walton Litz, ” ‘A Development of Self’: Character and Personality in Jane Austen’s Fiction” In Juliet McMaster, ed. Jane Austen’s Achievement. (New York, 1976), 69.


Small things in Jane Austen’s world do not only evoke distant places.  They can also be the bearers of big emotions.

–Paula Byrne, The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things.  (New York, 2014), 10.


Her “labour” is to condense and point language that will convey essential images of what she quite accurately calls “little effect”: that understated but concentrated evocativeness which simultaneously provokes na directs, but does not dictate, distract, or overexplain.  This is the aesthetic Jane Austen shares with the portraitists Gainsborough and Cosway and, in a broader and more problematic way, with the major neoclassical theorists of the eighteenth century: an aesthetic that is at once an invitation to and a rigorous test of the reader’s power of creative response.

–Lance Bertelsen, “Jane Austen’s Miniatures, Painting, Drawing and the Novels.”  Modern Language Quarterly 45:4 (1984), 372.

Henry James can scarcely keep the note of self-congratulation out of his voice when, in his preface to The Portrait of a Lady, he states the problem from which he started as one of endowing ‘the mere slim shade of an intelligent but presumptuous girl . . . with the high attributes of a Subject’; but Jane Austen had tackled precisely that problem, and solved it triumphantly, seventy years earlier.

–Norman Page, “The Great Tradition Revisited,” In Juliet McMaster, ed. Jane Austen’s Achievement.  (New York, 1976), 53.


[Austen] saw environment as a case both forming and formed by people.  Her houses are animated, or fail to be animated, by the life led within their walls and beneath their roofs.  They are restored, improved, or left unimproved, by likely people.  Households, as well as owners, partake of this life of houses.  . . . Homes are significantly commodious or restricted, old or modern, elegant or heavy, big or small.  They are good shelters, hives with isolated cells, prisons or protections.  They stifle or facilitate life, welcome or fail to welcome the visitor. . . . In Jane Austen gardens are the woods where destinies are found and lost, in small evergreen shrubberies, ordered wildernesses, by dangerous ha-has and gates, in damp grounds and old temples, by rich lawns and fertile waters.  (80)

“The vivid account of moving through a sequence of large rooms with large windows extending over wide vistas also conveys the heroine’s elation.  Outisde and inside, Pemberley extends her acquaintance with Darcy, and in tangible or intangible ways it offers her a charm and a guarantee.  Jane Austen is creating the spirit of a place.”  (95)

The author’s dramatic self-effacement shows itself in her handling of things and places as much as in the handling of words.  The novels are full of encounters with objects, significant or casual.  (104)

–Barbara Hardy, “Properties and Possessions in Jane Austen’s Novels,” In Juliet McMaster, ed. Jane Austen’s Achievement.  (New York, 1976).


The focus of women’s musical instruction during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries helped reinforce this label. As Kathryn Libin notes, while daily practice on the piano, harp, and, less commonly, the guitar became the “hallmarks of a proper liberal education” (3) for genteel young women, cultural anxieties about the value and use of such accomplishments ran high: practicing too much or performing too well was believed detrimental to women, who foolishly risked making spectacles of themselves–or becoming mere entertainers–by exhibiting their talent too insistently, even in the relatively private sphere of the home. In order to retain their class status and reputations for modesty, it was imperative for women to remain amateurs and to avoid self-display, competition with other women, and the quest for admiration of their playing. Gillen D’Arcy Wood argues that during the Regency period, female amateurism was redefined, as the “new movement in serious music … embodied in Beethoven” (159) changed cultural perceptions of domestic performance. Instead of signifying an inappropriate allocation of time, women’s virtuosity, or “successful self-discipline in musical accomplishment” (158), revealed their corresponding psychological development and complex subjectivity, both of which made them suitable partners for the emerging class of male professionals.

–Linda Zionkowski and Mimi Hart, “Aunt Jane Began Her Day with Music.”  Persuasions 37 (2015), 165.

Jane Austen’s affectionate and disciplined attachment to music, which she cultivated throughout her life, is manifest in her novels, all of which contain scenes of music and dancing. Accomplished musicians appear in Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park; however, in Emma musical accomplishment reaches its peak in the person of Jane Fairfax, while musical symbols and implications lie at the heart of Austen’s narrative. In no other novel does Austen employ a musical instrument as a central plot device, and in no other novel do so many of the main characters reveal essential aspects of their personalities through their attitudes toward music. Indeed, musical affinities, or their lack, help to define character and to illuminate the true social hierarchy in Austen’s Highbury.

–Kathryn Libin, “Music, Character, and Social Status,” Persuasions 22 (2000), 15.

The full significance of Anne’s piano-playing–and, indeed, of any Austen heroine’s pursuit of the arts–becomes perceptible only when we move outside the boundaries of Austen’s novels and consider their social and biographical context. (1) As I will demonstrate in the next section, the emotional benefits that music and other artistic activities could offer the solitary woman were frequently extolled in the conduct and education literature of Austen’s day, even as these publications betrayed anxiety about the potential hazards of a woman’s excessive devotion to her artistic “accomplishments.”

–Juliette Wells, ” ‘In Music She Had Always Used to Feel Alone in the World,’: Jane Austen, Solitude, and the Artistic Woman.” Persuasions 26 (2004), 98.

When one begins to investigate the role that music plays beneath the polished surfaces of Austen’s drawing rooms–especially in courtships throughout the novels–a more nuanced, more ambiguous view begins to emerge, and we find that music actually functions in considerably less positive ways than one might at first imagine.  Music joined to an excess of sensibility becomes a kind of narcotic in the case of Marianne Dashwood, binding her to Willoughby while blinding her to his true character.

–Kathryn L. Libin, “Daily Practice, Musical Accomplishment, and the Example of Jane Austen,” IN Jane Austen & the Arts, ed. Natasha Duquette and Elisabeth Lenckos (Plymouth, 2014), 15.

Some of the songs are delightful but, in a way, unsurprising: they reflect the kind of humor that we might expect to appeal to Jane Austen. Others are surprising in two different ways. First, many of the lyrics explore veins of feeling that Austen did not often allow into her novels or her (surviving) letters. And secondly, a great many of them are startling when considered as songs to be sung by genteel ladies in a place and time when the behavior of such ladies was policed and circumscribed and subject to anxious national debate. Austen’s music collection shows that women could express in song, particularly songs in foreign languages or Scots dialect, all kinds of emotions that were otherwise forbidden: lust, sexual longing, rage, impatience with “imprisonment” and restraint, enthusiasm for drinking, etc. Women could temporarily take on male roles: soldiers and sailors departing for battle, shepherds desiring shepherdesses, gentlemen desiring gentlewomen, Cockney laborers making off-color jokes, and all kinds of unladylike personae (all scored for the female voice in the treble clef). They could explore political partisanship, not then considered appropriate for women. Yet singing at the piano was a sanctioned, almost a required “accomplishment” for genteel women, whose speech and actions were otherwise so constrained, at least if we judge from the dictates of conduct-book writers and the evidence of novels, letters, and diaries. Of course real, living women vary, and family standards vary (consider the Austens, those unapologetic novel-readers): we cannot assume that the narrow path marked out by the conduct literature was rigorously followed by every young lady in word, thought, and deed. But it is still curious that many of the songs “assigned” to young ladies were so much at variance with the modes of speech and behavior “assigned” by the same system.

–Mollie Sandock, “‘I Burn with Contempt for My Foes’: Jane Austen’s Music Collections and Women’s Lives in Regency England.”  Persuasions 23 (2001), 105

The ABA (ternary) form figures in Sense and Sensibility as Austen conjures up an idyllic home in Norland, only to whisk the Dashwood ladies off to the undulant landscape of Devonshire’s combes.

–Kelly M. McDonald, “‘A Reputation for Accomplishment’: Marianne Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse as Artistic Performers,” IN Jane Austen & the Arts.  Ed. Natasha Duquette and Elisabeth Lenckos.  (Plymouth, 2014), 23.



In major works of Austen, Eliot, Hardy, and Lawrence, the dance deepens our historical consciousness. The English country-dance, combining the individual pleasure of the single couple dance and the group solidarity of the choral dance, symbolizes the knowable community, especially in the novels of the first three writers. The pure play of flirtation, the country-dance emblemizes the principles of ‘fidelity and complaisance’ governing the serious game of courtship and marriage in the works of Jane Austen, and she uses the dance as one means of separating the past from the present, of showing relationships in a particular society and the degree of freedom the individual presumes, and of determining his real freedom.  [Abstract]

–Langdon Ellsbree, “The Purest and Most Perfect Form of Play: Some Novelists and the Dance,” Criticism 14 (1972), 361-372

In Persuasion, Austen depicts society as a set of separate closed circles, modeled on country-dance formations, and uses these to illustrate the possibilities for–and yet limitations of–individual mobility within established social structures.

–Cheryl Wilson, “Dance, Physicality, and Social Mobility in Jane Austen’s PersuasionPersuasions 25 (2003), 55.


What incites Miss Bingley to disturb the quiet contemplation of those around her is, in fact, boredom; and, according to Schimmelpenninck’s theories on beauty, it is this ennui that perverts Miss Bingley’s graceful carriage and elegant movement from the “sentimental” aesthetic to the “vapid,” and aesthetic category that Schimmelpenninck characterizes as “ceremonious, automatic, and fashioned by habit.”

–Erin Smith, “Miss Bingley’s Walk,” In Jane Austen & the Arts. Ed. Natasha Duquette and Elisabeth Lenckos.  (Plymouth, 2014), 44.


Aesthetic Taste

The idea that commonality of tastes is the tie that binds lovers is replciated in the story of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, who feel similarly united in their abhorrence of the aesthetics of Sir Walter, Bath, and the pump-room, and who rekindle their love in anticipation of the sublimity offered by an active life on the seas.  Art and aesthetics are shared experiences in Austen, and falling in love while enjoying predilections is the inspiration that motivates the creative side of her women.

Elisabeth Lenckos, “Portrait of a Lady (Artist)” In Jane Austen & the Arts, ed. Natasha Duquette and Elisabeth Lenckos.  (Plymouth, 2014), 77.


The heroines’ various but related uses of wit demonstrate its powerful aesthetic appeal as a vehicle for a kind of satirical criticism that eschews the savage indignation of Juvenal, as practiced by Swift, for instance, but still preserves the edge of ridicule, of the sort of incisive jesting that Addison and Steele hoped to discourage, if not outlaw.

–Belisa Monteiro, “Jane Austen’s Comic Heroines and the Controversial,” IN Jane Austen & the Arts, ed. Natasha Duquette and Elisabeth Lenckos.  (Plymouth, 2014), 93.

Landscape Aesthetics

Ann Radcliffe’s original and effective use of eighteenth-century landscape aesthetics to create a mood was an important contribution ot hte development of the English novel.  Jane Austen, too, drew on landscape aesthetics–not to create mood, but rather to create a recognizable fictional world full of vivid, multi-layered characters engaged in believable pursuits.

–Alice Davenport, “An Adaptable Aesthetic,” IN Jane Austen & the Arts, ed. Natasha Duquette and Elisabeth Lenckos.  (Plymouth, 2014), 108.


A professional actress can divest herself of her role at the end of the performance; it is the amateur who is in danger of not being able to distinguish between reality and illusion. Jane Austen’s readers knew enough about theatre–acting and the scenic arts–to comprehend this; theatricality was certainly a prominent part of late Georgian society’s way of life. Lady Bertram did not put her daughter on the stage at Mansfield Park; it was Maria who chose her own role and then committed herself to its performance. Her situation was, after all, extremely delicate, “considering every thing, extremely delicate.”

–Judith W. Fisher, Persuasions 22 (2000), 70.

The lesson of Mansfield Park, it seems, is that subversive theatricality can only be repressed, temporarily neutralized by a concerted effort of demystification.  This process can occur, however, precisely because theatricality is not a single, unitary phenomenon but an already self-divided set of practices capable of serving both reactionary and subversive causes.  If it can serve both, it can betray both, offering at best a precarious purchase on whatever interpretation of reality it has been recruited to promote.

–Joseph Litvak, “The Infection of Acting, Theatricality and Theatrical in Mansfield ParkELH 53:2 (331-355).

Emma is Jane Austen’s most sustained performance, her most technically brilliant work, at once her most dramatic and her least obviously theatrical work.  It assumes the centrality of watching, gazing, and judging in any community–and then plays with this, in order to destabilize the notion that ‘the structure of the gaze empowers the spectator over the spectacle.’

Penny Gay, Jane Austen and the Theatre (Cambridge, 2002), 127.


Though she does not satirize her clergymen-heroes Henry Tilney, Edward Ferrars, and Edmund Bertram as mercilessly as she does Mr. Collins, Austen does depict them as fallible human beings in need of significant growth and character development. . . . as an early nineteenth-century woman barred from gaining an official Oxbridge degree, never mind ordination in the Church of England, Austen places her strongest emphasis on character growth within the dynamics of familial relationships, on experiential knowledge that arises out of gracious release from the consequences of past errors, and on ethical extension outward–toward God, neighbor, “the orphan and widow . . . all captives and prisoners” (Jane Austen’s Prayers, 455).

–Frederick and Natasha Duquette, “‘Delicacy of Taste Redeemed'” IN Jane Austen & the Arts, ed. Natasha Duquette and Elisabeth Lenckos.  (Plymouth, 2014), 209, 220-221.