Virginia Woolf on Jane Austen’s Love and freindship
A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Jane Austen‘s juvenilia work, Love and freindship. I wanted, then, to share with you Virginia Woolf‘s take on Jane and the work, but decided it would be better as its own post, so here I am again.
Woolf was quite an essayist, as you probably know, as well as a novelist, and she wrote several essays about Jane Austen (as well as featuring Austen in her famous A room of one’s own). Today’s post was inspired by an essay that is simply titled, “Jane Austen”. You can read it at Project Gutenberg. The essay was published in 1925 in her book, The common reader, though it may have been previously published in a newspaper or journal. It says something, I think, that in an essay of just a few pages she devotes a couple of paragraphs to a piece of juvenilia (that is, Love and freindship). This is what she says:
To begin with, that prim little girl whom Philadelphia [a cousin] found so unlike a child of twelve, whimsical and affected, was soon to be the authoress of an astonishing and unchildish story, Love and Freindship, which, incredible though it appears, was written at the age of fifteen. It was written, apparently, to amuse the schoolroom; one of the stories in the same book is dedicated with mock solemnity to her brother; another is neatly illustrated with water-colour heads by her sister. These are jokes which, one feels, were family property; thrusts of satire, which went home because all little Austens made mock in common of fine ladies who “sighed and fainted on the sofa”.
Brothers and sisters must have laughed when Jane read out loud her last hit at the vices which they all abhorred. “I die a martyr to my grief for the loss of Augustus. One fatal swoon has cost me my life. Beware of Swoons, Dear Laura. . . . Run mad as often as you chuse, but do not faint. . . .” And on she rushed, as fast as she could write and quicker than she could spell, to tell the incredible adventures of Laura and Sophia, of Philander and Gustavus, of the gentleman who drove a coach between Edinburgh and Stirling every other day, of the theft of the fortune that was kept in the table drawer, of the starving mothers and the sons who acted Macbeth. Undoubtedly, the story must have roused the schoolroom to uproarious laughter. And yet, nothing is more obvious than that this girl of fifteen, sitting in her private corner of the common parlour, was writing not to draw a laugh from brother and sisters, and not for home consumption. She was writing for everybody, for nobody, for our age, for her own; in other words, even at that early age Jane Austen was writing. One hears it in the rhythm and shapeliness and severity of the sentences. “She was nothing more than a mere good-tempered, civil, and obliging young woman; as such we could scarcely dislike her–she was only an object of contempt.” Such a sentence is meant to outlast the Christmas holidays. Spirited, easy, full of fun, verging with freedom upon sheer nonsense,–Love and Freindship is all that; but what is this note which never merges in the rest, which sounds distinctly and penetratingly all through the volume? It is the sound of laughter. The girl of fifteen is laughing, in her corner, at the world.
I like the way Woolf looks at Austen with a writer’s eye – in regards to both content and style. I particularly love the line – “She was writing for everybody, for nobody, for our age, for her own; in other words, even at that early age Jane Austen was writing”. I like her recognition of Austen’s technical skill when she describes “the rhythm and shapeliness and severity of the sentences”. On top of all this, Woolf sees Austen’s humour, her ability to laugh at the world. The humour in this little piece of juvenilia is broad, but it’s there and Woolf saw and appreciated it.
And that’s all I’m going to say, because these two paragraphs stand on their own, don’t they?