Saturday, July 15, 2017
Which is the greatest Jane Austen novel?
July 15, 2017
Jack and Alice and other juvenilia
Charlotte Brontë did not like Jane Austen because she thought she was mimsy, with a fenced-in imagination. But the teenage Jane was ruthless, well read, exuberant and scathing. She understood the cult of sensibility, and sniggered at it. She parodied the gothic, long before she wrote Northanger Abbey: horrid secrets, fulminating infatuations, astonishing coincidences, catastrophic lapses of memory, road traffic accidents and the theft of £50 notes. Every “coroneted carriage” contains a long-lost relation. Orphaned babies – perfectly able to relate their sensational histories – are discovered in haystacks. In Henry and Eliza, two hungry children bite off their mother’s fingers.
If there is no logical connection between the actions of her early characters, it’s not because she’s child-like, it’s because she’s clever. She has understood that in genre fiction the conventions of the form overrule reason: so whenever the plot defeats itself, or the author loses interest, “Ah! what could we do but what we did! We sighed and fainted on the sofa.”
That is from Love and Freindship [sic], one of the longer stories. Some of the early ones are only a few lines long. But Jane’s shorthand is savage. No cliche goes unmolested. If her mature novels elicit a knowing smile, the juvenilia makes you laugh out loud. These squibs, remnants and broken stories, incised with glee between the ages of about 11 and 17, show how deep her art goes into her early life: and how aware she is already of the techniques and tropes that will later produce her popularity.
It’s as if she is mocking her own work before she’s done it. In The Visit, a short play, diners sit in each other’s laps for want of chairs, and the menu offers the absurdist version of supper with Mr Woodhouse in Emma. “Sir Arthur, taste that tripe. I think you will not find it amiss.”