Love and Freindship and Other Youthful Writings is a new paperback release from Penguin, offering an anthology collection of Jane Austen’s juvenilia, including snippets dating back to when the author was just eleven years old. The book offers fascinating and at times tantalising glimpses of the author in training, a young girl writing purely for her own amusement and that of her family, but then every so often she turns a particular phrase which betrays her as the woman who would go on to write some of the finest novels in the English language. Love and Freindship is at times a dense and dis-orientating read but for the true Austen fan, there is much to be enjoyed.
The reader is able to observe Austen’s early experiments, as she mimics Henry Fielding’s hyperbolic style, Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel but then there are those moments of Austen elegance which signposts her own genius in embryo. More so even than with her later novels, one feels as though we are able to hear Jane’s own voice, with many of pieces in Love and Freindship being written for public performance. Many of her stories feature dispassionate descriptions of disastrous events – not unlike Voltaire’s Candide – and I could imagine her reading them aloud in a dead-pan tone to family applause.
Down the centuries, Jane Austen has been repeatedly misconstrued as a romantic novelist, but in Love and Freindship, it is underlined that she was always a satirist before anything else. In works such as The Beautifull Cassandra, she describes how her heroine (named for her own sister Cassandra) fell violently in love with a bonnet, using the same expressions of affection more usually reserved for a lover. In some ways, Love and Freindship seems more like a collection of miniature high-spirited farces – but yet there is such pleasure watching Austen work with such enthusiasm. While nobody can doubt the beauty of her later works such as Persuasion, there is a sadness to some of its tone which is entirely absent here.
In style, many of the works are indeed reminiscent of some of the Bronte juvenilia, with the same unfinished style but yet there is a greater confidence about how she deploys the one-liner. Were she alive today, I could imagine Austen as a consummate stand-up comedian. In the titular story Love and Freindship, we stand on the sidelines and snigger as two young women wreak havoc in the lives of all they come across – cheerfully explaining to the daughter of their benefactor that she cannot love the man her father wishes her to marry since he is only her father’s choice and anyway, the man’s hair ‘is not auburn’. They then point her in the direction of a fortune-hunter and wave her off to Gretna Green. The women of Austen’s juvenilia take turns fainting and go to machiavellian lengths to get their own way about marriage yet the naughtiness always remains within the realms of a parson’s daughter’s innocent imagination.
Still, although activity of a sexual nature is only ever implied, it is surprising how dark the subject matter of Love and Freindship can be. One young heroine gaily confesses to having killed all her family and perjured herself repeatedly. In another snippet, a heroine formally applies for a young man’s hand and is angry to find herself rebuffed. Two sisters plot to manipule their elder sibling into marrying a man they know she does not care for. Babies bite off their mother’s fingers, some heroines take to drink, the cult of sensibility is skewered repeatedly as insincere and as ever, Austen has little time for the fools of this world. There is much of cruelty – while in her later novels, the false friends such as Miss Bingley or Elizabeth Eliot are background figures, here they are allowed to run wild. Austen is having a great deal of fun – not yet restricted by the prudish nineteenth century mores, her stories bubble with the energy of the bawdy Georgian era.
A fine example of this is Austen’s History of England; Christine Alexander’s excellent introduction casts further light on this account by ‘a partial, prejudiced and ignorant Historian’, complete with illustrations by her sister Cassandra. Alexander notes that Cassandra’s artistic gifts were of no less esteem within the family than Jane’s comedic ones. Much of the obvious humour within History of England is similar to the much later 1066 and All That but the true punchline comes from the inside joke which is going on between the two Austen sisters – each of the portraits of monarchs within the History have been modelled on members of the Austen family. Their Aunt Leigh-Parrot is drawn as the much-loathed Elizabeth I while Jane herself becomes the saintly Mary Queen of Scots while various Austen brothers are shown in the guises of their namesake kings. Given that even Mrs Austen is the subject of mockery here, one feels that the reader is being let in on an instance of private humour between two young girls chafing against parental rule.
As the reader travels through Love and Freindship, Austen’s tone becomes more polished and her subject matter moves away from the ridiculous and suffices itself with the ironic. In Catherine, or the Bower, her heroine is allowed a mini-rant about the social conditions for women of small fortune. The book closes with Lady Susan, the epistolary account of an adulterous aristocrat where the villainess herself takes centre stage. Love and Freindship is teasing, leaving at the moment where Austen prepares to take flight. It is a piece best enjoyed by the fans, but its appeal is far beyond that of completism, rather it encourages a fuller appreciation of Jane Austen as an artist – while Virginia Woolf may remark that she is hard to capture in the act of greatness, Love and Freindship shows us how hard she worked to perfect her craft – but I think what is loveliest of all is how obviously she enjoyed herself while was doing it. Read this and the image of grim-faced Aunt Jane disintegrates forever.
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Published by Penguin Classics on January 27th 2015
Genres: Biographical, Fiction, General, Short Stories (single author)
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