Jane Austen only wrote six complete novels as an adult, but when she was a tween and a teen she spent much of her time scribbling hilarious stories, plays, and mock histories for her family. A new compilation of these works, Love and Freindship and Other Youthful Writings, out in late January from Penguin Classics, reveals not so much an early genius as an absolutely overwhelming desire to make the people around her laugh.
Austen’s early stories, arranged in her own joking way into three “volumes,” are often about love affairs that verge on the ridiculous — for instance, in the very first, the lovers in “Frederic and Elfrida” wait so long to get married that the man is no longer interested in the lady, owing to her diminished looks and old age.
“Damme, Elfrida, you may be married tomorrow, but I won’t,” he says to her, at last. Austen shows us the consequences of his rebuffing her: “This answer distressed her too much for her delicate Constitution. She accordingly fainted and was in such a hurry to have a succession of fainting fits, that she had scarcely patience enough to recover from one before she fell into another.” Fortunately, he’s moved to pity by this display.
The foibles of women in regards to each other are never above her notice: In “Jack and Alice,” a fight between two characters about whether too much rosiness of cheek is even possible in a lady’s complexion almost comes to blows — repeatedly.
“When a Woman has too great a proportion of red in her Cheeks, she must have too much colour.” “But Madam, I deny that it is possible for any one to have too great a proportion of red in their Cheeks.”
The young Austen is hardly proper. She writes of drunkenness (in fact, she’s rather fond of the phrase “dead drunk”), seductions, and all kinds of bloody mayhem, with a tone of absolute cheer and goodwill. Each story has a particular dedication which leads us to understand that each was intended for a very specific recipient, to amuse. There’s something quite loving in this volume, and it’s easy to imagine the Austen family enjoying the out-loud reading of some of the choices bits. Yet the themes she would later treat in a much more serious tone are already there, including and particularly the economic politics and “market” of marriage. Take this excerpt from “The Three Sisters,” which, like many of these early works, is in epistolary form:
“I want your advice whether I should accept his offer or not… He is quite an old Man, about two and thirty, very plain so plain. He is extremely disagreable and I hate him more than any body else in the world. He has a large fortune and will make great Settlements on me; but then he is very healthy. In short, I do not know what to do. If I refuse him, he as good as told me that he should offer himself to Sophia, and if she refused him, to Georgiana, and I could not bear to have either of them married before me. If I accept him I know I shall be miserable all the rest of my Life, for he is very ill tempered and peevish, extremely jealous, and so stingy that there is no living in the house with him. He told me he should mention the affair to Mama, but I insisted upon it that he did not, for very likely she would make me marry him whether I would or no; however probably he has before now, for he never does anything he is desired to do. I believe I shall have him. It will be such a triumph to be married before Sophy, Georgiana, and the Duttons; “
When this sort of long exploration of the illogical nature of marriage was later tempered by Austen’s economy of language, the result was the sheer genius she became known for, a fountain of trenchant one-liners and ripostes we still gladly quote today.
“Love and Freindship
” [sic] is the most popular and complete of Austen’s early works, and one of the pieces in this collection that I’d read many years ago. Its two heroines faint and come to so many times, there are so many mistaken identities and overturned carriages and general histrionics involved, that it leaves even today’s distance reader faint of breath and desperate for smelling salts. It’s a small comic masterpiece, and worth a visit. “The History of England” is her absurdist take on the canon, and its sarcastic teenage attitude towards serious history is instantly recognizable to anyone who has had to study names, dates, and successions.
This handsome cloth-bound edition gathers 28 novellas or scraps, as well as Austen’s earliest unfinished novel, Lady Susan, which is about to get its big-screen moment soon, thanks to Whit Stillman. While the collection is likely to appeal most to hardcore Janeites and book-collector types, it’s also the kind of thing any casual Austen lover (which should be all of us, if we are human beings who can read) can leave on his or her coffee table. It’s perfect to pick up at any given moment, flip through and enjoy the page before you, thinking all the while about a teenage girl in the British countryside over 200 years ago, who is still making us crack up with her imagination and wit.