James T. Farrell
New York, New York
April 11, 1979
Thank you for the communication on my birthday regarding The Jane Austen Society of North America. Of course I admire her as a great novelist. Until I had read some of Jane Austen I thought the Brontë sisters and George Eliot the most outstanding of English women novelists. I still admire them (and must read and re-read more of George Eliot). But Jane Austen is very special.
I am reading Persuasion. The characterization of Anne Elliot is a prophetic one of an ideal type of woman – ideal not Utopianly so – who is possessed of a rounded humaneness in mind and feeling. The modern feminists are too shrill and Philistine to recognize the unique achievement of this characterization. She handles men quite knowingly. And it must be remembered that she was a predecessor of Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, Trollope and others. There is much skill in her characterization, and she well knew how to maintain a focus on those characters and the story that she was unfolding. Her insight was remarkable: prior to her, there were none worthy of comparison.
Jane Austen’s life – seemingly limited – is less surprising, in considering her genius, than it might seem to many. We never know where genius will spring up. And genius doesn’t need the world in extenso in order to function. It can make a limited section of that world like the world is for us. Jane Austen did just that.
I suspect that her not marrying can be explained in the same way that the not-marrying of another great Jane might be explained – Jane Addams. They were both so intelligent and superior that it was extremely difficult, if not impossible, for either of them to have found a man who was near to being their equal.
I say nothing that isn’t familiar but, then, there are not unfamiliar things to say about Jane Austen. The unfamiliar, in her writing, is the inexplicable – that is, the strokes and revelations of genius. Those we can sense, enjoy, recognize, and feel deeply more than we can analyze them.
I have to get more of her books. I had Sense and Sensibility to read with me in Florida, but it was a Penguin paperback that was falling apart, so I threw it away and will get an easier copy to re-read.
Editor’s note: James T. Farrell won instant success with the publication of his three Studs Lonigan novels in the 30’s. That trilogy, and his subsequent literary productions, made him a dominant figure in American letters for almost fifty years. He died in New York on August 22 of this year. J.G.