Sunday, 27 November 2016

'Henry and Eliza' and 'Amelia Webster' - Two of Jane Austen's Childhood Novels

Let me tell you about two of the little novels Jane Austen as a child wrote in one of her notebooks.

Henry and Eliza is a skit on the sensational and sentimental. Baby Eliza is brought up by Sir George and Lady Harcourt after they find her abandoned under a haycock. Later, turned out for stealing, she is taken in by a duchess, runs off with the lover of the duchess's friend, is widowed in France, returns in her 'man of War of 55 guns', escapes from a dungeon, is reduced to begging and is eventually reunited with her loving parents. The stupidity of such plots is finally ridiculed when Lady Harcourt claims she had forgotten it was she herself who put the infant Eliza - truly her own baby - under the haycock all those years before!

The Harcourts, by the way, are probably inspired by a real George Harcourt, who inherited Nuneham Courtenay in 1777. He and Lady Harcourt, influenced by Rousseau, presented estate awards to labourers for virtue and industry but shunned the shabby. Jane makes fun of the idea: 'Sir George and Lady Harcourt were superintending the Labours of their Haymakers, rewarding the industry of some by smiles of approbation, and punishing the idleness of others, by a cudgel...'!

In the miniature epistolary novel Amelia Webster George Hervey gets married on the strength of falling in love in this way: 


An humble Admirer now addresses you. – I saw you lovely Fair one as you passed on Monday last, before our House in your way to Bath. I saw you thro' a telescope, and was so struck by your Charms that from that time to this I have not tasted human food. !