Persuasions #10, 1988 Pages 27-30
Jane Austen in Scotland: Part Two
Department of English, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon S7N 0W0
In a previous article in Persuasions,1 I discussed the early reception of Jane Austen’s novels in the Scots Magazine (1818), Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (1824), and Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine (1833), as well as the well-known review of Emma written by Walter Scott for the English Quarterly Review of 1815. New evidence will now help to identify the author of the first of those reviews, and to introduce one other of Jane Austen’s earliest supporters in Edinburgh.
The review of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in the Scots Magazine was in fact written by Robert Morehead (1774-1842),2 who edited that journal from 1817 to 1826. Born in Scotland, and mainly raised there, Morehead was the son of an English father and a Scottish mother. He attended Oxford University before returning to Scotland as an Episcopal minister. From 1818 to 1832, Morehead was the Dean of Edinburgh. His literary friends and correspondents included Byron, Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg, and the critic Francis Jeffrey. Morehead himself published several volumes of his own poetry, philosophy, and theology.
The clergyman would probably have agreed with the novelist on many issues. His poem “To Love” might almost have come from Captain Wentworth, with its rejection of “Romantic sensibilities”:
O to the maid who wins my heart
A generous, candid soul impart,
Good sense to fit her for a wife,
Good humour that enlivens life.3
Many authors, according to one of Morehead’s sermons, “degrade man nearly to a level with the brutes.” But better writers, he claimed, strike a balance between recognizing the sad realities of life, and yet still trying to ennoble or inspire their readers:
They affirm, indeed, that [man] has lost the original purity of his nature; that he is corrupt and fallen; but this melancholy truth they never enforce with malignant triumph, nor make it the subject of indecent raillery. On the contrary, while they inform him plainly of his misfortune …, they console him … by elevating his mind … and by bringing before him all those traces of grandeur and excellence in his nature ….4
These remarks of course reflect the doctrine of original sin. They might also be used to illustrate a similar equilibrium in Jane Austen’s novels between satire and social realism, on one hand, and on the other hand the stress on the moral struggle and inner development of a heroine. Perhaps the clearest parallel is with Emma, in which the heroine is first brought to recognize that she too is “corrupt and fallen,” and then strives to affirm (through her humility and kindness in the final chapters) what Morehead would call “those traces of grandeur and excellence” in her nature.
Robert Morehead wrote numerous articles, on Greek drama, on Italian poetry, and on women novelists (including Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Hamilton, and Madame De Stael), for his monthly Scots Magazine. Just two issues before his essay on Jane Austen, Morehead had criticized Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for transgressing “the established order of nature as it appears, both in the world of matter and of mind.”5 Turning to the Austen novels in his next article, he referred explicitly to that earlier complaint about Frankenstein in order to commend Jane Austen, by contrast, for her everyday realism, her moderation of tone, and her quiet emphasis on the inner qualities of her main characters:
We have always regarded her works as possessing a higher claim to public estimation than perhaps they have yet attained. They have fallen, indeed, upon an age whose taste can only be gratified with the highest seasoned food. This, as we have already hinted,* may be partly owing to the wonderful realities which it has been our lot to witness. We have been spoiled for the tranquil enjoyment of common interests, and nothing now will satisfy us in fiction, any more than in real life, but grand movements and striking characters.6
Many modern readers will find Morehead’s emphasis on the morality of fiction to be excessive. Yet his review raised several good points which may help us to understand the audience for which Jane Austen was writing, and the way sympathetic contemporaries would have responded to her work. He noted, for instance, the fine contrast between the apparent “commonness” of the novels, and their deeper originality:
The singular merit of her writings is, that we could conceive … any one of her fictions to be realized in any town or village in England, (for it is only English manners that she paints,) that we think we are reading the history of people whom we have seen thousands of times, and that with all this perfect commonness, both of incident and character, perhaps not one of her characters is to be found in any other book, portrayed at least in so lively and interesting a manner.
“[T]hroughout all her works,” Morehead found a pleasing combination of mundane realism (conveyed, at its best, in her “fine sense,” “delicate humour,” and “pathetic touches”) and moral or inspirational qualities (conveyed through “a most charitable view of human nature, and a tone of gentleness and purity that are almost unequalled”). For this reader, then, the moral aspects of the novels were integral rather than merely superfluous, and were a distinct source of pleasure. Reading Persuasion was apparently, for Morehead, a little like listening to a musical performance by a cultured, well-rounded, and capable woman:
such is the facility and the seemingly exhaustless invention of this lady, that, we think, like a complete mistress of a musical instrument, she could have gone on in the same strain for ever, and her happy talent of seeing something to interest in the most common scenes of life, could evidently never have been without a field to work upon.
A very different Scottish enthusiast for Jane Austen in the years after her death was George Moir (1800-1870). Moir graduated from Aberdeen University, and became a lawyer in Edinburgh. He is now mainly remembered for his translation of Schiller’s Wallenstein, and as a friend of the young Thomas Carlyle. Moir was also a Professor of Rhetoric at Edinburgh University. During the 1830s, this critic wrote an essay on “Modern Romance” for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. His article presents Jane Austen in a historical perspective as an innovator whose careful, observant realism was a considerable improvement over the crude exaggerations of previous “female novelists” like Fanny Burney. In the works of those earlier writers, according to Moir,
the sentiments and tone of feeling are … decidedly strained beyond the natural pitch. The characters display a degree of romantic affectation and a prodigal expenditure of sensibility for which the cares and distractions of real life, we fear, afford but little leisure. It remained for Miss Austin [sic] (1775-1817,) to shew what a charm might be imparted to truthful pictures of life, as we really see it around us in the quiet monotony of domestic arrangements, with its interchanges of poetry and prose, business and strong feeling, and dialogues at balls and parties alternating with the secret griefs of the heart …
Jane Austen was the first woman novelist to present “just such a picture,” as if she could “remove the roof of many an English home, and place us beside the hearths of the Knightleys, Bennets, Woodhouses, and Bertrams by whom they are inhabited.” “No species of novel writing exposes itself to a severer trial,” argued Moir, “since …, by professing to give us pictures of our ordinary acquaintances, in their common garb, [it] places its productions within that range of criticism, where all are equally judges.”
With his historical perspective, and his dislike of “romantic affectation,” Professor Moir was predisposed to favour Jane Austen’s later works, in which the main characters appear more plausible:
All the novels of Miss Austin closely resemble each other; but Northanger Abbey, and Sense and Sensibility, are of a more puerile cast than the others, and betray a more unformed taste. Pride and Prejudice, particularly in the characters of the Bennets, was an improvement on the two former, but Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion are justly regarded as her most finished works. Some scenes in Persuasion, the last work of this gifted authoress, have always appeared to us models of unobtrusive tenderness.
Unlike the Reverend Morehead, George Moir never mentioned, in this essay, the moral qualities of the novels, or the difficult inner struggles of heroines like Marianne Dashwood or Fanny Price. Instead, he concentrated solely on the external picture of life, and the skill with which those details were adapted for aesthetic purposes:
And yet with such fine perception and perfect truth of keeping has Miss Austin performed her task, that we never miss in her novels the excitement of uncommon events, and rarely feel her simple annals of English life to be tedious or unworthy of the dignity of fiction. In reading them, we have the feeling of being actually in company with a group of highly respectable persons, of no remarkable ability, though with good sense and a fair proportion of feeling; with a sprinkling of fools, oddities, and village gossips …; only skilfully selected and arranged, the superfluities lopped off, the dullness thrown into the background, and the whole wrought up into a picture, painted indeed in sober hues, but with unequalled delicacy of touch, and an all-pervading harmony.7
Both Morehead and Moir were married men, with large families. Both had professional careers which would have given them considerable involvement, and status, in the Edinburgh society of their times. Both men also expressed a strong interest in women’s fiction, and in Jane Austen’s work in particular. Their comments may help us to understand the preconceptions of early nineteenth-century readers, and to account for the attraction which Jane Austen’s novels have long held for readers whose circumstances are very different from those in which Jane Austen herself lived and wrote.
1 “Jane Austen in Scotland,” Persuasions, VII (1985), 66.
2 See Charles Morehead, Memorials of the Life and Writings of the Rev. Robert Morehead, D.D. (Edinburgh: Edmonstone and Douglas, 1875), for a list of Robert Morehead’s articles in the Scots Magazine.
3 Morehead, “To Love,” in his Poetical Epistles, second edition, revised and expanded (Edinburgh: Constable, 1814), pp. 75-76.
4 Morehead, A Series of Discourses on the Principles of Religious Belief, as Connected with Human Happiness and Improvement (Edinburgh: Constable, 1809), pp. 113-14.
5 [Morehead], rev. of Frankenstein in The Edinburgh Magazine, and Literary Miscellany: Being a New Series of the Scots Magazine, II (March 1818), 249-53 (253).
6 [Morehead], rev. of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in The Scots Magazine, N.S. II (May 1818), 453-55 (453-54). The footnote to the asterisk in this paragraph is as follows: “See Review of Frankenstein in our March Number” (p. 455n.).
7 Moir, Treatises on Poetry, Modern Romance, and Rhetoric; Being the Articles Under those Heads, Contributed to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Seventh Edition (Edinburgh: Black, 1839), pp. 216-18.