Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1379
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 give the former, have excited in me an admiration of which I alone can give an adequate idea, by assuring you it is nearly equal to what I feel for myself.
Love and Freindship
Perhaps the most wide-ranging and successful of the literary burlesques is Love and Freindship (1922), in which Laura, a paragon of sensibility, relates her adventures through a series of letters. Here, Jane Austen lampoons most of the conventions of the sentimental novel and its popular successor, the gothic romance: the convoluted plots, star-crossed loves, cruel families, and in particular the transports of emotion that, in the world of sensibility, are the index of personal excellence. At the climax of this story containing enough harrowing incident for a triple-decker novel, Laura and her bosom friend Sophia discover “two Gentlemen most elegantly attired but weltering in their blood” who turn out to be their husbands. The heroines react in the prescribed manner:Sophia shreiked & fainted on the Ground—I screamed and instantly ran mad—. We remained thus mutually deprived of our Senses some minutes, & on regaining them were deprived of them again—. For an Hour & a Quarter did we continue in this unfortunate situation—Sophia fainting every moment & I running Mad as often. At length a Groan from the hapless Edward (who alone retained any share of Life) restored us to ourselves—. Had we before imagined that either of them lived, we should have been more sparing of our Grief—.
Sophia, in fact, literally dies of the sensibility that has engendered her “shreiks and faints,” though not before warning Laura of the medical risks that she now, too late, knows attend on swoons: “Run mad as often as you chuse,” Sophia concludes, “but do not faint.” These last words undercut many a sentimental deathbed.
In Love and Freindship, Jane Austen’s satire points out the weaknesses of the literary fashion of sensibility but extends its criticism to include the code of behavior as well. Sensibility as embodied by Laura and Sophia, who meddle, lie, and even steal with perfect complacency, is ethically bankrupt as well as absurdly unrealistic. In several of the juvenile pieces, among them The Three Sisters (1933), Lesley Castle (1922), and Catherine (1818), literary parody gives way to concern with the social and moral themes that pervade the mature novels; but the most sophisticated example of Austen’s “serious” short fiction is Lady Susan (1871, 1925), an epistolary narrative written after the juvenilia but before the versions we now possess of the six novels.
Lady Susan is unique among Jane Austen’s works for several reasons. Lady Susan Vernon, the beautiful and brilliant main character, is Austen’s only aristocratic protagonist, and her only femme fatale. Unlike the heroines of the novels, whose characters are being formed by experience and who will place themselves in society by the ultimate act of self-definition, marriage, Lady Susan possesses a character matured, even hardened, by years of social skirmishing in the Great World. Furthermore, as a titled widow she already has an established place in society, a most respectable public position she has every intention of retaining without sacrificing her private taste for amorous adventures. Whereas the heroines of the novels gradually learn what they need to know, Lady Susan knows from the start of the story exactly what she wants: “Those women are inexcusable,” she observes, “who forget what is due to themselves and to the opinion of the World.”
The substance of Lady Susan is social and romantic intrigue. Lady Susan balances the attentions of her kindly brother-in-law, her married lover, the rich and well-born fool she has marked out for her insignificant daughter, and the self-assured young man of fashion whose heart she wins for amusement and thinks of retaining as an investment, while two virtuous but worldly women, the brother-in-law’s wife, Mrs. Vernon, and her mother, Lady De Courcy, do their best to frustrate her efforts. Although Lady Susan’s action, deftly manipulated by the protagonist until luck finally thwarts her, is interesting as pure narrative, its chief fascination is psychological revelation. Lady Susan is as honest with herself as she is false to others; and the epistolary format, often a clumsy way of presenting a story, is ideally suited to pointing up this contrast between her social roles and her true character. The letters Lady Susan’s dupes and foes exchange with one another and with her show how easily she can identify and play on the follies of “virtuous” people; Lady Susan’s candid letters to her confidante Mrs. Johnson let us see how far the scheming adventuress surpasses the other characters in the quality that is the first step to true virtue: self-knowledge.
Thus, this important piece of short fiction is more than a chronological transition from Jane Austen’s juvenilia to her novels; it is a moral bridge as well. In Lady Susan, Austen moves from the realm of literary burlesque into sustained, serious treatment of moral problems, but the conclusion she leaves us to draw is more completely ironic and hence more “literary” than any found in the later works. Never again in Jane Austen is vice so attractive and successful and virtue so unappealing.