Love and Freindship:
and Other Youthful Writings
by Jane Austen,
edited by Christine Alexander.
Penguin Classics, 2016,
Let’s not pretend romance isn’t always the most important thing. Let’s not pretend romance is somehow beneath us, or trivial, or just for girls. The choice of a mate is maybe the most consequential decision anybody makes. And this is particularly true in a materialistic, capitalist society, where (this was one of Jane Austen’s constant concerns) marriage isapart from the love thing, of course, and the religion thinga civic institution, government-regulated, for the preservation of property, and property’s legal transmission. The most important skill a girl can acquire is insightinsight into men’s true character. And women’s real motives. The precocious experiments that are collected miscellaneously in Love and Freindship: and Other Youthful Writings (where the misspelling of “friendship,” Jane’s own, has been preserved by the editors throughout) reveal that even at the age of fourteen, the girl from rural Hampshire, seventh child in a family of eight, already had the peculiar attitude, mixing deep exasperation with fondness, that characterizes all her later writing. And this Penguin paperbackcheap at sixteen dollars, well bound for longevity, conveniently zuhandlich in its little mass-market trim size, legibly printed on the tender old “Penguin Classics” paper stock, wisely annotatedwill make a rewarding addition to any Jane-lover’s library.
Miss Austen rose out of a vast (as she herself saw it) treacle swamp of eighteenth-century female writing and she reordered the genre, reordered it inimitably, so that readers forever after will, in her, treat courtship’s comedy with a little of the deadly seriousness it warrants. This collection reveals a Jane who even as a fourteen-year-olda little sister publishing within the familyis already compassionate, and also already something of a meanie, already artful in her depictions of the Demolition Derby that was an eighteenth-century drawing room. Moreoverand this is an odd thrillthis collection shows glimpses of a bawdy Jane. Yes, Jane could indulge in lewd hints and poor taste, especially when she was young and somewhat unsupervised. Frankly, I’ve always had a funny feeling about the mature novel Mansfield Park, where the name of her unmarried heroine is “Fanny Price.” That a fanny can have a priceas devised by a novelist so closely focused on marriage’s monetary basisinvolves a pun that only an insensitive, uncareful writer could be numb to. Poking around for “fanny” on the internet, I discover that the earliest anatomical, naughty uses of the word start coming up in English texts in the century before the novel’s publication. (In fact, in England the word has always denoted a body part different from, and naughtier than, the common American reference.) The juvenilia in this new collection corroborates my faith that Miss Austen could have been as friendly with common vulgarity as, say, Shakespeare and Chaucer were.
In the Austen family parlor, I’ve always pictured Jane on a kind of stool in the corner. Plus maybe a writing surface, provided it was a very small surface. From such a corner, the quiet, ill-published girlwho referred to herself as a spinster always and earlycould observe the arena. That’s what I pictured. But no, Jane was in the center; she was a star, even from these earliest days. She had fans around the hearth. The whole extended family looked forward with relish to the publication (the of course very limited publication) of her sketches and poems and funny pastiches and botched novellas. Each of these little masterpieces is dedicated, with amusing faux-pomposity, to a brother or sister or cousin or parent or aunt. In one pamphlet she collaborates with her artistic older sister, Cassandra, who provides cameo portraits, almost of a Mad Magazine caliber, to illustrate a goofy history of the English royal succession that might have been written by John Cleese and Eric Idle. Monty Python is an apt reference-point: some of this is so modern in its tones, and so off-the-wall, it’s really best appreciated with the kind of eye that might enjoy those recent British satirists, or George Saunders, or Donald Barthelme.
For example, one of these unfinished novellas introduces a fictional bachelor to a fictional village. And he is desirable in every wayaristocratic, godlike, beautiful, very solvent of course, of course a horseman. But he’s going to be a hard catch, and he keeps himself aloof from all the local girls, “for he has often and often declared to me that his wife, whoever she might be, must possess, Youth, Beauty, Birth, Wit, Merit, and Money.” When the narrative brings two young female admirers intruding onto the grounds of this bachelor’s vast estate, they come upon a pretty young girl with a shattered leg; like them, she ventured uninvited onto his grounds, and she was caught in one of the many bear traps he lays around the property for the purpose of snagging the women who are drawn to his castle.
Or here’s an opening sentence that seems, for its absurdity, to lie somewhere between Barthelme and Monty Python, while also showing a hint of the political awareness that so many detractors find wanting in Austen’s work:
As Sir George and Lady Harcourt were superintending the Labors of their Haymakers, rewarding the industry of some with smiles of approbation, and punishing the idleness of others, by a cudgel…
Or the following piece of characterization, written from the point of view of two young women looking at a new friend (the ellipses are all Austen’s):
She was then just SeventeenOne of the best of ages; but alas! she was very plain and her name was Bridget …Nothing therefore could be expected from her …she could not be supposed to possess either exalted Ideas, Delicate Feelings, or refined SensibilitiesShe was nothing more than a mere good-tempered, civil and obliging Young Woman; as such we could scarcely dislike hershe was only an Object of Contempt.
And here is a typical send-up of the popular sentimental romance novel:
They flew into each other’s arms.It was too pathetic for the feelings of Sophia and myself.We fainted Alternately on a Sofa.
Romance! All her life, and carrying on into all her big novels, it was one of the main obsessions of Jane Austen’s work. She had no patience for the prevailing chick lit. In her day, fiction written by and for women was the main staple of the book business. The formulathen as nowwas to portray young girls in jeopardy, jeopardy taking the form of powerful unprincipled men. At many points in the body of her life’s work, Austen has stuck in random, playful conversations about the inferiority of “novels.” I think she must have been explicitly taking pains to place her own writing at a distance from popular romances. She must have worried that her own workwhich, yes, was next to romancemight be contaminated by the nearness. And maybe her distancing wasn’t explicit enough; maybe it did contaminate, because plenty of people today think Austen is just fancy chick lit. However, consider this: in her thematic discounting of “female” writing, and also in her dismissal of the usual gender-victimization formula, perhaps her appearance of reverse feminism could be one of the factors accounting for the wide, perennial popularity of her novels. For she embraces a lot of demographics: she can appeal to the ball-gowns-and-country-houses cult, but also to the prejudices of the unregenerate male chauvinist, the one who likes send-ups of women, the one who has been holed up devising the canon all this time.
The recipe for an Austen plot can take two general forms. Either a silly but self-confident young woman bungles her way toward wisdom under the gaze of a wiser man, like Mr. Knightley or Henry Tilney (examples are Emma Woodhouse, Catherine Morland, Marianne Dashwood), or else the reverse: the protagonist will be the unpopular unsuccessful “plain” girl in the room, but she is the one with quiet integrity, the wise one, the patient and discerning one. This latter kind of heroine, then, must make her way among the world’s noisy drawing-room narcissists, and eventually she gets the man she deserves. (Examples would be Fanny Price, Elizabeth Bennett, Elinor Dashwood.) In either kind of scheme, the mature novels do tend to survey the world from the POV of the male gaze. Try going online and googling these issues of Austen’s feminism, and you’ll find there’s always a lively internet rhubarb going on. Of course, it being the internet, the level of discourse isn’t always exacting, or gentle. (Remarks like “You mean Jane Austen was a female?” Or “About Jane’s misogyny.”)
Such conversation isn’t new among Austen critics. The pesky question of how politically alert she wasor failed, complacently, to bemight be somewhat answered in these newly republished writings. It’s possible indeed to assert that Austen, focusing as she did on empowered young women and the damage they can do, did exercise a tart “misogyny” all her own, but only if the word misogyny is expanded to its modern, thin dilution. The word once denoted a peculiar “hatred” of womenwhich presumably was conceived as a neurotic condition, a pathology, limited to individualsbut in modern discourse it’s been widened to include all disesteem for women as a group, or any general or institutional policy of women’s devaluation. Such a stretched-out version of the word misogyny would maybe fit over much of Austen’s six major novels about husband-catching. Great art is made for great paradoxes. Jane Austen’s art seems able to hold two contradictory realities: that marriage is a hypocrisy of materialism, and that it is a desirable hypocrisy of materialism. Only in the juvenilia, written from ages fourteen to eighteen, was the young author able to take a clearer, simpler moral attitude.
It was only thirty years ago that Jane Austen, believe it or not, wasn’t so popularly read. It was a time when she hadn’t yet been trampled flat by the cult of ball gowns and country houses. (For us Jane-fanatical purists, maybe she ought to have been, like Stonehenge, long ago fenced off from tourists.) Thirty years ago, when there was more time in the worldsay, on a long summer afternoona person could read Jane Austen with the sense of unique discovery, and a feeling of solitude, too, rather than a feeling of joining a meme. Imagine not a young woman but a young man reading Austen back in those days, a student of recommended-reading lists, who picks up the spiky, prickly Pride and Prejudice, then Emma, in the 1970s, before Hollywood and Goodreads knew about Jane, before her novels had been sucked smooth and tasteless and featureless. Imagine being a typical careless, guileless young wielder of the Male Gaze and coming upon Jane Austen. Of course, in all times and places, to pick up a book and start reading it is to take your life in your hands.
Well, the making of a marriage is sobering to consider for a young man; and all the more for a young woman, whose season of marriageability would have been especially precipitous in Austen’s time, when women’s choices were fewer and primogeniture laws gave the men all the money. A woman in nineteenth-century England who hadn’t made a good marriage would pass, then, along a descending staircase of second-choicesfrom governess to “lady’s companion,” to schoolteacher or tutor, thence maybe to shopgirl in the village, thence to London shopgirl, and from there on, you’re getting closer to prostitution itself, which was a big industry in London, and almost a kind of semi-legitimate one. I do think that Mary Wollstonecraft’s radical book Vindication of the Rights of Woman would have come into the young Miss Austen’s hands. There’s no hard evidence anywhere for this beliefbut how could she miss it? It was controversial at the time, and it was published in 1792, when Jane was a very alert seventeen-year-old. Wollstonecraft’s personal life was a noisy, hard-to-ignore scandal. Records show a copy of Vindication existed in the Bath public library. Also (this seals it, I think), the father of one of the Austen family friends was a financial supporter of Wollstonecraft. Surely Mary Wollstonecraft’s strong, subversive views, if not the book itself, were in the young Jane Austen’s universe. (Anyway, we know that Jane owned volumes by other feminists who cited Wollstonecraft, like Robert Bage.) A typical Wollstonecraft pronouncement, which we have to imagine Jane Austen’s eyes passing over, and maybe lingering on, is “To marry for a support is legal prostitution.”
How fascinating, then, that for Jane marriage brings the happy ending, and always concludes a contest of genteel avarice. Of course, other writersVictorian or Regency or Elizabethan or wheneverbuilt their romances on the assumption that a girl must make “a good marriage” and “a prudent match.” But not the way Austen did. That the Love/Money equation can be so centrally addressed, and so merrily addressed, was, to me as a young reader, an instance of that wonderful miracle literature can sometimes accomplish: a writer’s naming, in the intimacy of a page, the thing that everybody was too polite to speak of, or too polite even to think of.
I sometimes wonder if Austen is read too much by the young. She’s almost treated as YA. I think she is, actually, sometimes classed as YA. People who went through Jane Austen in their youth, before they knew everything that was at stake, ought to go back and see. See what it’s like to be sharp as a tack in every line.
In the juvenilia, she hadn’t yet discovered the sharp-as-a-tack tone that informs the inimitable irony. But in the mature work she gets it. The Austen style is where a student of storytelling can look to discover irony’s darkest uses. I think my finding Austen, and then unconsciously imitating her, was what lifted my own career to its first legibility. The secret to her satire is that she loves her people, including the ones she hatesthe malicious gossips, the meddlers and coxcombs and putdown-artiststhis through the hard authorial work of identifying within her own personality those malicious gossips, those putdown-artists, etc. Too many writers invent characters they can hold in easy contempt. Miss Austen had a way of decanting her own soul into her characters and filling out their exact shape. It’s the fond exactitude that makes her game a high-stakes game. Where the fourteen-year-old satirist had an easy time focusing on clear targets, the mature work makes us see, with a fuller, broader kind of astigmatism, the unresolvable hypocrisies we thrive on every day. Take three famous opening sentences that inaugurate the Austenian rule of severity and compassion:
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her own mother and father…were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected or poor, and a very respectable man…and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters.
That last quote is the opener of Northanger Abbey, the novel that, late in her career, she devoted primarily to skewering the genre romance that had so infuriated her twenty years before, when she was a childish family entertainer. That “heroines” in novels are held to certain hackneyed formulaic requirements is specifically adumbrated in one of the juvenile parodiesthis from when she was seventeen. “Catherine,” the spoof begins (using the same name that would, two decades later, identify the protagonist of Northanger), “had the misfortune, as many heroines have had before her, of losing her Parents when she was very young.” Another, more unmistakable echo comes in the later, mature novel, in the list of Catherine’s disqualifications ever to be a romantic protagonist: not only did her father refrain from locking up his daughters, but “her mother…had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived onlived to have six children moreto see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself.” Such were the dismal origins of anybody who might have hoped to be “an heroine.”
Northanger Abbey is a novel about the influence on girls of reading too many Gothic novels, and it’s the mature fruit of all her youthful exercises in mockery. It isn’t the best-built of her novelsin fact, honestly, Northanger Abbey is her worst-builtpartly because it suffers from just this programmatic control by its theme: the stultifying nature of gender victimization in the book-bin labeled Romance.The protagonist Catherine Morland has been educated on a steady diet of romance (her particular favorite, which she can’t stop talking about, is The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe), so all her most thrilling expectations of the world, when she enters it, are of dark moldering castles, evil patriarchs, etc. As a guest in a great old country house, she listens to the wind in the eaves in the nights and she snoops in ancient locked cabinetsand she opens all her intuitive Sensibilities to imagining the kinds of intrigues she learned about in her girlhood reading. So while she is a guest in the house, the young Catherine begins to believe, based on evidence she discovers, that her host’s father is a wife-abuser, perhaps is keeping his wife prisoner in an attic somewhere. This rude misunderstanding at last embarrasses her in the eyes of the handsome and judicious Henry Tilney, whose Male Gaze has, throughout, furnished the wittiest, warmest illumination in the bookand whom she marries in the end, presumably adopting the Gaze altogether and being subsumed by it happily in matrimony.
There’s no simple answer to the riddle of Jane Austen’s politics, whether she was Whig or Tory. There was once a Jane, however, who was able to see the world unambiguously, and she can be glimpsed in these anarchic, heathen first experiments. It’s a final irony of that whole historical era that Mary Wollstonecraft, who vituperated eloquently against the marriage institution, did eventually marry, and have a child too; while Jane never did, remaining always the “spinster” she early tagged herself to be, yet having written so knowingly all her life about that consummation richly to be desired.
Louis B. Jones is the author, most recently, of a pair of novels from Counterpoint Press, Radiance and Innocence.