Monday, 21 November 2016

Jane Austen's 'Frederic and Elfrida'; and 'Jack and Alice'


Let me tell you about two more of the little 'novels' Jane Austen wrote when she was a child.

In Frederic and Elfrida, romance is wonderfully absurd: Charlotte accepts two proposals of marriage from complete strangers and escapes by drowning herself; Rebecca and Captain Roger are too young to marry, 'Rebecca being but 36 and Captain Roger little more than 63'.

This is followed by a spoof novel twice its length called Jack and Alice. The title is a joke, as Jack is not mentioned until almost the end of the novel, when he is introduced as the 'hero' and immediately dies of drink! Alice never gets to marry the man she loves; and she finishes - as she began - an alcoholic. Mr. Johnson's drawing room is 'not more than 3 quarters of a mile in length and half a one in breadth'. Lady Williams warns Alice not to fall in love for the first time: it is better to start by falling in love for the second time!

As in the eighteenth-century sentimental novels, young ladies form deep friendships with women they have only just met; and go for delightful, tender walks. Jane's walks, however, are not in shady woods but rather 'from her Ladyship's pigstye to Charles Adams's Horsepond'. And in Jane's version, the characters are frequently drunk.

Eighteenth-century novels are full of tales-within-the tale. The heroine chances to meet a woman who then gives – tediously, over several chapters – a distressing account of her life's misfortunes. Jane makes fun of this (and was to do so again in Northanger Abbey). Lady Williams' 'tale within the tale' never advances beyond the point where her governess, bringing her up on the strict paths of virtue, elopes with the butler! Lady Williams fails to get far with her tale because she repeatedly digresses into an argument.