My temper is even, my virtues innumerable, my self unparalleled. Since such Sir is my character, what do you mean by wishing me to marry your Daughter?
Jane Austen has basically always gotten a rough shake, because literary misogyny exists and anyone who writes about bonnets is always going to find herself dismissed by one half of humanity and read feverishly—but only for the bonnets—by half of the other half. The truth, of course, is less frilly and floral than the background for the photo above would suggest. Consensus on Austen for a while now has generally been that she was a shrewd and uncompromising chronicler of human hypocrisy and frailty; that she wrote with absolute clarity on the myriad foolishnesses of polite society but also that she understood them inside out; and that her “charming” marriage-based plots are a forensic examination of the legalized system of prostitution that found it acceptable to sell unmarried women to the highest bidder—and in which the women in question frequently colluded because their other choices were homelessness or humiliation as “companion” dependents of wealthier families.
This book is a collection of Austen’s juvenilia, work written when she was between the ages of eleven and nineteen. Christine Alexander, the editor of the Penguin volume, has laid them out in rough chronological order (more or less as they appear in Austen’s manuscript books). The advantage, obviously, is that you can see how Austen grew and developed, not just in terms of her prose becoming more complex and easily controlled, but also as she became more confident in her ability to handle a plot and as her satire became no less sharp, but significantly more subtle.
The stories from her pre-teen and early teenaged years are surprisingly excellent, however, because they give a sense of how unbounded and anarchic her imagination was. She was supposedly an excellent mimic, loved parlor games and charades, and that vivacious goofiness is so evident in pieces like “Frederic and Elfrida”. Here she gleefully mocks the conventions of sentimental novels (then very much in vogue) by writing a group of young women who fall into raptures of adoring friendship the moment they see each other, who are constantly obliging one another with snatches of trite pastoral song, and one of whom accepts two marriage proposals so as not to cause offense to either suitor. Their claims of intimacy are burlesqued by their deeply unladylike conduct towards each other: “From this period,” Austen writes,
the intimacy between the Families…daily increased till at length it grew to such a pitch, that they did not scruple to kick one another out of the window on the slightest provocation.
Years later, when writing “Catharine, or the Bower”, and also “Lady Susan”, she recycles this idea in the characters of young men who use the informality of friendship as a shield against charges of quite astonishing rudeness that include inviting themselves, unasked, to the homes of people who don’t actually know them.
I also particularly enjoyed “Jack and Alice”, whose heroine tosses off bumpers of claret with extreme alacrity (young unmarried women would, first of all, not have been offered claret, which was a strong, heavy red wine, and secondly, would have been expected to sip at their glasses—not down the whole thing at once, as Alice does.) And “The Beautifull Cassandra” is a glorious, ridiculous story comprising four pages in which our heroine (who shares a name with Austen’s sister) steals a bonnet from her family’s shop, wanders around London committing various acts of vandalism and fraud, and then returns to the bosom of her family quite content. Her attitude towards paying for goods and services is especially anarchic:
She then proceeded to a Pastry-cooks where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry-cook and walked away.
…Being returned to the same spot of the same Street she had set out from, the Coachman demanded his Pay. She searched her pockets over again and again; but every search was unsuccessfull [sic]. No money could she find. The man grew peremptory. She placed her bonnet on his head and ran away.
“Love and Freindship” [sic], meanwhile, is a particularly excellent satire on the sentimental, focusing on two women who commit acts of the most appalling selfishness, cruelty and criminality, and blame everything on their deep “Sensibility of Mind”. When a carriage containing their long-lost husbands overturns in front of them (it’s a long story, okay), they enact responses of horror that suggest, indeed, sentimentality, but are not exactly practical:
Yes, dearest Marianne, they were our Husbands. Sophia shreiked [sic] and fainted on the Ground—I screamed and instantly ran Mad. We remained thus mutually deprived of our Senses some minutes, and on regaining them were deprived of them again—. For an Hour and a Quarter did we continue in this unfortunate Situation—Sophia fainting every moment and I running Mad as often—.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t resist the image of our narrator Laura dashing wildly to and fro, waving her arms in the air and frothing at the mouth, as Sophia swoons and revives repeatedly in the background like some kind of interval in a Loony Tunes episode.
It turns out that one of the men has survived, but the women become aware of this too late, and instead of providing him with prompt medical attention, they demand that he recite “what has befallen you” since they were separated (another trope of sentimental fiction: long stories-within-stories as every new acquaintance does a huge info-dump on their background and life history.) Before he can begin his tale, of course, the poor man expires.
This is all very entertaining, and in places, very sharp, but it’s “Lady Susan” (recently made into a film under the name “Love and Friendship”) that represents the pinnacle of Austen’s young writing. Written in the epistolary style of Samuel Richardson, whom Austen idealized, it is primarily told from the point of view of Lady Susan Vernon, a recent widow who is, we quickly realize, on the hunt for a husband again. She is in disgrace as a result of her conduct at Langford, the home of her friends; at no point is this ever fully explained, but through her letters and those of her sister-in-law, Catherine Vernon, it becomes evident that she has seduced Mr. Manwaring, a married man, away from his wife. Since Manwaring would not be free to marry her unless his wife had died (an event which Lady Susan and her friend Alicia Johnson certainly mull over the idea of hastening), she fixes her sights on another young man: Reginald De Courcy, brother of her dead husband’s sister-in-law.
Lady Susan is a fantastic character: beautiful, manipulative, extremely intelligent, and totally amoral. She takes great delight in confounding the prejudices of Reginald, who has already heard stories about her that cast her in a bad light. Of him to Mrs. Johnson, Susan writes,
There is something about him that rather interests me, a sort of sauciness, of familiarity, which I shall teach him to correct. He is lively and seems clever, and when I have inspired him with greater respect for me than his sister’s kind offices have implanted, he may be an agreable [sic] Flirt.—There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority.
Instead of being coquettish when he is “familiar” (e.g. flirtatious) with her, she responds with gravity, dignity, and quietness. Reginald becomes convinced that the tales he heard were slanderous, and poor Catherine fails to convince him of their truth in time to stop him from becoming entangled. Meanwhile, Susan is maneuvering to get her daughter Frederica engaged to the somewhat simple Sir James Martin—not because she cares about Frederica’s happiness, but in order to get her off of her hands—and engages in a campaign of what we’d now call gaslighting to prevent anyone else from taking Frederica’s concerns seriously. Fortunately, Catherine Vernon’s efforts are more successful here; Frederica is saved from a soul-crushing marriage and becomes, essentially, the ward of her aunt and uncle.
Lady Susan, of course, receives her comeuppance, though to tell you how this happens would ruin the pleasure of reading the story. In a way, too, reading her downfall is a disappointment. She is too deeply unpleasant a character for a reader to entirely invest in, but her pursuit of her own satisfactions is so unabashed, and so cleverly strategized, that to read her letters is like peering inside the head of Thackeray’s Becky Sharp. She is one of English literature’s best villainesses; that her creator was not more than twenty is really proof, if any is still needed, that Austen was a literary genius.