Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 21, 2010

A pukka Janeite

Anything by Jane Austen, but especially Pride and Prejudice (1813), Emma (1816) and Persuasion (1818)

What an astonishing career this woman had. To have created such indelible characters as Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley. Then there are her comic inventions: the impossibly supercilious curates Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton, Anne’s hypochondriacal sister Mary, and the woman-who-can’t-stop-talking, Miss Bates.

It’s amusing that, for a couple of centuries, people have been arguing about who could have written Shakespeare’s plays (suspects range from a dead Christopher Marlowe to Queen Elizabeth I), yet no one questions the genius of this daughter of a country parson.

I suspect it’s because we know more about Austen. A few of her letters survive, as well as some early writings, and her great-nephew kindly wrote a biography after she died. Shakespeare wasn’t thoughtful enough to leave us much more than a bill for some furniture! Not very forward-thinking, that.

So as experts disagree about who wrote all those plays, we Janeites can enjoy her work in innumerable formats, including clever modernizations of Emma (Clueless) and P&P (Bridget Jones).

I won’t say more about the classic six, but move instead to her early works, those less likely to be familiar to any but the most avid fans. I have a 1922 edition of these, with an introduction by G K Chesterton; it includes “Love and Freindship”, “Lesley Castle”, “The History of England”, “Collection of Letters”, and “Scraps”.

Jane started writing early, composing these pieces between age 12 and 15. Already, her comic sense is apparent, and she has great fun parodying the overly sentimental novels of her time.

In “Love and Freindship”, the two heroines, Laura and Sophie, have frequent fainting spells, take great pride in doing the opposite of what their parents suggest, and have remarkable unexpected encounters with long-lost relatives. The classic passage from this story is Sophia’s deathbed advice to Laura (the elipses, no doubt, signal Sophia gasping for breath):

… take warning from my unhappy End and avoid the imprudent conduct which had occasioned it . . . Beware of fainting-fits. . . Though at the time they may be refreshing and agreable yet beleive me they will in the end, if too often repeated and at improper seasons, prove destructive to your Constitution… My fate will teach you this .. I die a Martyr to my grief for the loss of Augustus .. One fatal swoon has cost me my life . . Beware of swoons Dear Laura. . . . A frenzy fit is not one quarter so pernicious; it is an exercise to the Body and if not too violent, is I dare say conductive to Health in its consequences —– Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint —

Her “History of England” begins,

Henry the 4th ascended the throne of England much to his own satisfaction in the year 1399, after having prevailed on his cousin and predecessor Richard the 2nd, to resign it to him, and to retire for the rest of his life to Pomfret Castle, where he happened to be murdered.

Imagine penning these before reaching 15 years of age! And then imagine becoming an even better writer within the next 20 years, and creating those six lustrous novels.

Much of her early writing is available on line, through various Jane Austen sites. and complement each other without too much overlap.

Just one more thing. All Janeites must read Kipling’s “The Janeites”, from Debits and Credits. You can read the full text at GoogleBooks (it begins on p. 147). It tells of a group of WWI English soldiers who find a strange comfort in Austen’s work. One man explains his first impression:

‘Jane?  Why, she was a little old maid ‘oo’d written ‘alf a dozen books about a hundred years ago.  ‘Twasn’t as if there was anythin’ to ’em, either.  I know.  I had to read ’em.  They weren’t adventurous, nor smutty, nor what you’d call even intrestin’ — all about girls o’ seventeen (they begun young then, I tell you), not certain ‘oom they’d like to marry; an’ their dances an’ card-parties an’ picnics, an’ their young blokes goin’ off to London on ‘orseback for ‘air-cuts an’ shaves.  It took a full day in those days, if you went to a proper barber.  They wore wigs, too, when they was chemists or clergymen.

But he soon sees the light, and his final opinion of her is that “there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place.  Gawd bless ‘er, whoever she was.”

When you’ve read this story, you can consider yourself a pukka Janeite.


  1. Have you seen this great video of someone talking about the Shakespeare authorship question?: I love it!

  2. […] Emma goes back on the shelf, and I migrate another post from my earlier blog, part of a series on my favorite […]

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