Friday, 4 November 2016

The Stories Jane Austen Wrote When She Was A Child

Jane was very young when she started writing ‘novels’.

Children enjoy stories that mock such adult things as love affairs, greed and crazy enterprises. Many successful children's authors – Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl and Richmal Crompton, for example – have specialised in such tales. But little Jane Austen was no adult author writing for the child market: she was a formidable, precocious novelist who also happened to be still young enough to enjoy the themes for herself. Not least, she makes fun of the very form of the adult novel. Her childhood novels are anarchic and irreverent.

These are writings in which murder, suicide, theft, verbal abuse, gluttony and drunkenness play a prominent and usually comic part. The sentimental and gothic novels of her time, which she and her family enjoyed, provided ideal material: Jane wrote marvellous miniature stories in which she parodied their preposterous plots, ridiculous characters and wooden speeches. She exaggerated the absurdity or surrealism at every opportunity. At the age of twelve, she was already writing little novels that must have provided the Austens and their friends with many a laugh.

Take her story of Frederic and Elfrida. These were two cousins so identical that 'even their most intimate friends had nothing to distinguish them by, but the shape of the face, the colour of the Eye, the length of the Nose and the difference of complexion.' Such was the start made in the first surviving novel by the twelve-year-old Jane.

Just look at these sentences from one of her stories:-

We neither of us attempted to alter my mother's resolution, which I am sorry to say is generally more strictly kept than rationally formed.

In short my scheme took and Mary is resolved to do that to prevent our supposed happiness, which she would not have done to endure it in reality.

The language has the harmony characteristic of eighteenth-century literature. Complex thoughts are expressed articulately and gracefully. Yet these lines come from the miniature novel Jane wrote when she was at most seventeen years old. How many young people today, at such an age, could write so elegantly?

Jane’s brother James, while at Oxford University, ran an undergraduate magazine, The Loiterer. In its ninth edition (March 1789) there appeared a letter signed 'Sophia Sentiment'. It is so much in the manner of Jane Austen and shows so well her literary interests and sense of humour that she almost certainly wrote it for him, even though she was only thirteen. This theory is supported by the fact that (to please Jane?) this was the only edition of The Loiterer ever to be advertised in The Reading Mercury - the Austens' local newspaper. Possibly James paid for this advertisement to please his little sister.

Sophia Sentiment’s letter is a mock criticism of the editor, suggesting the magazine should be spiced up with romantic tales of interest to the ladies. She says her 'heart beat with joy' when the launch of The Loiterer gave her yet another periodical to order. 'I am sorry, however to say it, but really, Sir, I think it the stupidest work of the kind I ever saw  ...  not one sentimental story about love and honour, and all that — not one Eastern Tale full of Bashas and Hermits, Pyramids and Mosques...'. The only story in the previous edition had a dull plot. However, 'there was no love and no lady in it, at least no young lady; and I wonder how you could be guilty of such an omission, especially when it could have been so easily avoided. Instead of retiring into Yorkshire, he might have fled to France, and there, you know, you might have made him fall in love with a French paysanne who might have turned out to be some great person. Or you might have let him set fire to a convent, and carry off a nun....  anything of that kind, just to have created a little bustle, and made the story more interesting'. She wants an 'affecting' story in which lovers die tragically. The 'hero and heroine must possess a great deal of feeling, and have very pretty names'.

From the age of eleven until she was eighteen, Jane wrote her tales in three notebooks. They still exist – one in the Bodleian Library; the other two in the British Museum. They include the famous Love and Freindship (yes, some of her spelling was innovative) written when Jane was fourteen and The History of England when she was fifteen.

So much of the humour in the childhood writings is of the surreal kind the British have in their blood (witness Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Spike Milligan's 'Goon Show', 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' and the ultimate parlour game 'Mornington Crescent').