If you are a Jane Austen fan, you don’t just read her six novels. You read her letters, her unfinished works and her juvenilia. And you read them more than once. So it is that I have just – for my local Jane Austen group – reread Love and freindship (sic), the short epistolary novel she wrote in her 15th year. It is a fun – and illuminating – read. It’s the illuminating part that I plan to focus on here.
But first, a little about the plot. It commences with a letter in which Isabella asks her friend Laura to tell her daughter “the Misfortunes and Adventures” of her Life. “You are this day 55”, she says, and surely now safe “from the determined Perseverance of disagreeable Lovers and the cruel Persecutions of obstinate Fathers”. Laura, while rejecting that she is too old for such “unmerited” misfortunes, agrees to tell her story to Isabella’s daughter Marianne as a “useful lesson”. What follows is a melodramatic story of sudden friendships, quick-not-always legal marriages, and wild coincidences, accompanied by much fainting and “running mad”.
This doesn’t sound much like the writer described by Charlotte Bronte as “sensible and suitable” does it? And, in fact, this wildly improbable, effusive story isn’t much like her. Or is it? This is the point I’d like to explore a little in my post, because there are many seeds here of the writer Austen was becoming – of the things that were to concern her and of the style she was developing.
The thing that concerned her most was to make fun of silly or ridiculous people and ideas. The most obvious of these in Love and freindship was the late eighteenth century’s cult of sensibility, which involved the favouring of sensibility over sense, the fostering of an overactive imagination (as evidenced by the popularity of Gothic novels). But what is exaggerated and parodied in Love and freindship become more considered subjects in her first novels, Northanger Abbey and Sense and sensibility.
There are, for example, obvious similarities between Laura, here, Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey and Marianne in Sense and sensibility, but Laura’s complete refusal to recognise that sense has any place in her life is modified in Catherine and Marianne who learn through experience that their imagination and sensibilities, if left uncurbed, can get them into trouble. (Intriguingly the recipient of Laura’s letters is a Marianne. A little Austen in-joke perhaps?). Pride and Prejudice’s Lydia could perhaps be seen as Laura’s true heir: Lydia is not described in quite the same terms as Laura, but she certainly pays no credence to anything remotely sensible.
Now I’m going to be lazy and simply illustrate Austen’s changed approach with some comparative examples. Here is Laura on an older man, her husband’s father:
for what could be expected from a Man who possessed not the smallest atom of Sensibility, who scarcely knew the meaning of Simpathy, and who actually snored.
And here is Marianne, in love with the dashing Willoughby, on Colonel Brandon:
He was silent and grave. His appearance, however, was not unpleasing, in spite of his being in the opinion of Marianne and Margaret an absolute old bachelor, for he was on the wrong side of five-and-thirty; but though his face was not handsome his countenance was sensible, and his address was particularly gentlemanlike.
While Laura ends her tale with:
I took up my Residence in a romantic Village in the Highlands of Scotland where I have ever since continued, and where I can, uninterrupted by unmeaning Visits, indulge in a melancholy solitude my unceasing Lamentations for the Death of my Father, my Mother, my Husband, and my Freind.
Catherine learns her lesson and
… was completely awakened. Henry’s address, short as it had been, had more thoroughly opened her eyes to the extravagance of her late fancies than all their several disappointments had done. Most grievously was she humbled. … The absurdity of her curiosity and her fears — could they ever be forgotten? She hated herself more than she could express.
Exaggeration and parody are the tools used in Love and friendship, while the adult Austen used the more sophisticated, though no less funny, tools of wit and irony to achieve her satire. And again, I’ll demonstrate with comparative examples. In Love and freindship she satirises novel-reading with broad humour:
“Where, Edward in the name of wonder (said he) did you pick up this unmeaning gibberish? You have been studying Novels I suspect.”
But in Northanger Abbey, the plot itself demonstrates the foolishness of reading novels unwisely, while a respected character conveys Jane’s truth:
The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.
Love and friendship is unsubtle, and is clearly the work of a youthful writer, but it is a hoot to read and we are lucky to have it (and her other juvenilia) to show us an author in the making.
Note: Love and friendship (1790) is available in many formats and manifestations. My first copy was in RW Chapman’s edition of her Minor works, but this time I read it on my Kindle using a bought version, the Oxford World Classics edition titled Catharine and Other Writings. However, you can read (or obtain) it online at Project Gutenberg.