Jane Austen (1775-1817) is everybody’s favourite novelist and certainly one of the most influential. As Walter Scott makes clear in his 1815 review of Emma which I posted last week (here), the publication of Austen’s novels from 1811 on marked a clear turning point in English Literature, through both her subject matter and the simplicity and clarity of her writing.
I have been reading Elizabeth Jenkins’ Jane Austen (1938) and wished to write on this occasion about Jane’s early years and in particular the reading that led her to taking the paths she did. Sue at Whispering Gums wrote a proper review of Love and Freindship (here) back in 2012 and if you want to know more you should read it, but I will give a brief overview now and then get down to Austen’s reading and writing until she was 35 (!), when her first book was finally published
Love and Freindship is meant to be a story in letters, and it is, sort of, but not in the way that Lady Susan is for instance, where we construct the story from an interchange of letters between a number of parties. Instead, a woman, Isabel, writes and asks her friend Laura to give Isabel’s daughter Marianne “a regular detail of the Misfortunes and Adventures of your life”. And so the story is told episodically, over a series of letters from Laura to Marianne.
The young Jane Austen’s purpose was to parody the cult of ‘Sensibility’, the idea, spread by Gothic novels, that young women should preference feeling over common sense. When you think about it, it is an idea which persisted throughout the nineteenth century – that women of breeding would swoon when confronted with shock, would fade away to a shadow for love lost, would go into hysterics and so on – and which Austen confronted in different ways in all her novels.
Of course Austen had two other purposes: to practice her writing which she did from a very young age, with the encouragement of her father; and to amuse her family who passed around the three bound, hand-written volumes of her final copies and had readings of her work, both by her and by others. By the time Jane was 19, these volumes of sketches and short stories, not including Lady Susan, totalled 74,000 words.
Briefly, a stranger comes to Laura’s parents’ house. The stranger, called variously Lindsay and Edward is a comely young man with whom Laura falls instantly in love, and her father “tho he had never taken orders” marries them.
One of the joys of the story is Austen playing pranks with geography as the protagonists dash from Wales through what seems like all the counties of England by a very roundabout route to London and finally, in a day!, to Scotland.
Edward first takes Laura to his aunt’s where he runs into his father whom he is constantly seeking new ways to defy; then to his friend Augustus with whose wife Sofia, Laura forms an instant bond. They throw their arms around each other, vow to be friends for ever, and share all their secrets.
From there it gets even more nonsensical as Augustus is arrested for unpaid debts and the other three do the only thing they can do, faint on the sofa. Edward sets out for London to find Augustus, the girls follow soon after though without success and end up as I said, in Scotland. There’s more to it than that but I’m sure you get the gist. A very clever young writer has taken all the tropes of Gothic fiction and made them ridiculous.
Jane Austen’s immediate family consisted of her parents, her older brothers James, George, Edward and Henry, her older sister Cassandra, another brother Francis and a younger brother Charles. George was intellectually impaired and was put into care; Edward at age 12 (when Jane was 5) was adopted by wealthy relatives, the Knights; Francis and Charles each went into the navy also at around 12 and both rose to be admirals.
Her wider family included her cousin Eliza Hancock, 14 years older, who married the French Comte de Feuillide in 1781. The Comte was executed in Paris in 1794, following the French Revolution. Eliza was a frequent visitor to the Austens, a regular correspondent, and provided a window for Jane into the rarefied world of high society. It is to Eliza that Love and Freindship is dedicated. Eliza and Jane became sisters in law when in 1797 Eliza married Jane’s brother Henry.
When Jane was 7, she and Cassandra went away to school, firstly with their cousin Jane Cooper to a Mrs Cawley (the relative of a relative) in Oxford, and then in Southampton, where they became ill (with diptheria?). Mrs Austen and her sister Mrs Cooper came down to rescue the girls and Mrs Cooper caught the infection and died. Nothing daunted, another school was found, the Abbey school at Reading which sounds very pleasant: “provided the girls appeared in the tutor’s study for a few hours each morning, they could spend the rest of the day gossiping in the turrets, lounging in the gardens …” They returned home after a year or so and “never left it”. The next seven years, until Jane was 16, formed her as a writer.
The Rev Austen, who had been up to Oxford on a fellowship, took in pupils to supplement his income. It is not known if Jane sat in on any of his classes, but she had the benefit of his and Mrs Austen’s encouragement and of his considerable library, as well as the circulating library for light reading. All the family read and enjoyed popular fiction, though it is probable, from a modern viewpoint, that they read ironically – or at least so they pretended to themselves. Also, Jane’s juvenilia is in places quite bawdy and it is possible that Eliza de Feuillide introduced her to “scandalous” works such as Laclos’ Les Liasons Dangereuses (1782). But Jane’s considerable natural talents as a writer were reinforced by her more serious reading.
Austen of course read Shakespeare and Milton, but Jenkins writes that modern English writing begins with, and Austen’s writing is built on, Dryden, Addison, Fielding, Sterne and Richardson – at this point it becomes obvious I should read my long ignored copy of Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel: 100 good women writers before Jane Austen (1986), but I haven’t and I will – I will round up here by researching and writing a little about each of these men.
John Dryden (1631-1700) Jenkins writes of “his clarity and raciness” and “his inimitable blend of vigour and elegance”. Dryden’s first works were a restrained tribute on the death of Cromwell and a much more enthusiastic panegyric for the Restoration, Astraea Redux. “In this work the interregnum is illustrated as a time of anarchy, and Charles is seen as the restorer of peace and order” (wiki). Not to my taste but maybe to Austen’s. Dryden wrote poetry, literary criticism and plays, but is remembered above all as a satirist.
Joseph Addison (1672-1719) An essayist who, with Richard Steele, founded the Spectator, a daily publication for people who “took literature seriously”, which ran from 1711-1712 and then thrice weekly in 1714. These issues were collected into eight volumes which were read widely well into the nineteenth century. Interestingly, one of the editors’ main objectives was to increase the number of women who were “of a more elevated life and conversation.”
Henry Fielding (1707-1754) was a playwright and political satirist so successful that that they passed a law against it (the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737). He is best known now for The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), 346,747 words divided into 18 smaller books, and among the first prose works to be classified as a novel.
Laurence Sterne (1713–1768). An Irishman, an Anglican clergyman and the author of The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767). “As its title suggests, the book is ostensibly Tristram’s narration of his life story. But it is one of the central jokes of the novel that he cannot explain anything simply, that he must make explanatory diversions to add context and colour to his tale, to the extent that Tristram’s own birth is not even reached until Volume III.” (wiki). Maria Bertram in Mansfield Park is referencing Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768) when she says, “I cannot get out, as the starling said.”
Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) who Jenkins says was Austen’s favourite, although now the least regarded, wrote three epistolary novels: Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady (1748) and The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753). Austen mentions Clarissa just the once, in Sanditon, but makes frequent references to Sir Charles Grandison. “The hold the story with its multitudinous figures took on Jane Austen’s imagination was extraordinary. Henry Austen said that she remembered and would speak of any date throughout the year on which any episode of the book was said to have taken place” (Jenkins).
I love that Clarissa is the story of a young woman fighting to preserve her independence as her family attempts to force her into marriage to secure their own prestige, and she is kidnapped and kept in a brothel. But as it is longer even than Tom Jones I probably won’t ever read it. Clarissa, Tristram Shandy and Sir Charles Grandison were apparently written at least partly each in response to its predecessor.
It is also notable from this brief round-up that the late eighteenth century fiction which Austen grew up on had nothing like the moralism of Victorian England 50 or 100 years later.
I have not got as far as I thought I might, and now will postpone to another occasion consideration of Fanny Burney whose Evelina was published in 1778, and of the writing of Austen’s first attempts at longer works, Lady Susan, First Impressions and Elinor and Marianne. Austen’s contemporary, Walter Scott, I will also get to ‘one day’.
Jane Austen, Love and Freindship and Other Youthful Writings, Penguin Classics, London, 2014
Elizabeth Jenkins, Jane Austen, first pub. Gollancz, 1938. This edition Cardinal, London, 1973