With unsurpassed charm and subtlety, Jane Austen’s novels of country life present and appraise the manners, morals, and relationships of Regency England’s prosperous middle class. In choosing to depict what she called her “bits of ivory,” the segment of the world she knew best, Jane Austen steered the course of the English novel away from the melodramatic implausibilities that dominated popular fiction at the turn of the nineteenth century. Sir Walter Scott, who recognized the importance of Austen’s choice, also praised her for the literary finesse that made such a choice workable, “the exquisite touch which renders commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment.”
Although the subject of Jane Austen’s novels was contemporary life, it was contemporary literature with its various excesses and deficiencies which inspired her earliest attempts at fiction. In the short pieces collected as her juvenilia—tales, miniature novels, and epistolary narratives—Austen applies the conventions of sentimental fiction, which she and her family read avidly but critically, with rigorous consistency and pushes them to their logical extremes to demonstrate that such standards produce slipshod literature and convey a false view of the world.
Austen’s juvenile fiction differs from the novels in its audience as well as in its subject matter. The young author wrote these short pieces for the private amusement of her family, and as an experienced novelist never contemplated revising and publishing them. Consequently the reader familiar with the decorous elegance of the public prose sees a new side of Jane Austen in the short fiction which, like her letters, voices a tough candor and a blunt humor that the novels mute: Remarks such as “Damme Elfrida you may be married but I wont” seldom make their way from the nursery of Austen’s short fiction to the drawing rooms of her adult novels.
Many of the apprentice pieces are literary parodies and burlesques poking fun at the distinctive features of the novel of sensibility: the high-flown language, incredible coincidences, instant friendships, immoderate loves, unaccountable lapses of memory, and sudden recognitions. For example, “Evelyn” amusingly points out the dangers of the cult of sensibility’s much-vaunted “sympathetic imagination” unallied with judgment by portraying a village full of utterly and undiscriminatingly benevolent people. “The Beautifull Cassandra” achieves its comic effect by yoking two shortcomings of the popular novel: absurd, unmotivated action included to engage readers and trivial details supplied to convince them. A typical effusion from “Frederic and Elfrida” demonstrates the emptiness of the sentimental novel’s stock praises and the egocentricity of its refined protagonists:Lovely & too charming Fair one, notwithstanding your forbidding Squint, your greazy tresses & your swelling Back, which are more frightfull than imagination can paint or pen describe, I cannot refrain from expressing my raptures, at the engaging Qualities of your Mind, which so amply atone for the Horror, with which your first appearance must ever inspire the unwary visitor. Your sentiments so nobly expressed on the different excellencies of Indian & English Muslins, & the judicious preference you...
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