Jane Austen’s mature novels are, by all accounts, masterpieces. They’re elegant, accomplished, witty, beautifully structured, and give the sense of having been crafted, expertly, exquisitely, and by a genius. And her juvenilia, or youthful writings, help us to discover the crucial components of that genius. In them are to be found the roots of that humour, irony, social commentary, talent for storytelling, and ability to manipulate the reader’s emotions, which characterises her novels.
What I love about her early stories, some titled ‘A Novel’, though none much longer than 20 pages, is how light-hearted, how farcical, how different from the moral probing or true love of her mature works they are. And yet, it’s still so plainly the same genius Jane. Everything that is later sobered, everything that is implicit, subtle, hidden in her novels, is here overt, exaggerated, and brilliant.
Her wit and irony saturate every line, and it’s intriguing to wonder whether she later reigned this in simply because she grew up, or because it would be too much for an audience to handle in a full-size novel. She doesn’t need to have an agenda, or promote a certain way of thinking and living, or endorse a morality, or make a comment on the society in which she’s living, but one feels that her thinking on all these things shines through all the more because of this freedom from pressure. Here is Jane Austen, condemner of the frivolities and pressures of the Regency marriage market, as a teenager who is just developing her world view. She can mock to her heart’s content a woman who despises her husband-to-be, but marries him because she cannot bear for her sisters to instead. She can satirise novels of sensibility with heroines who continually faint in a fit on the sofa. She can laugh at the girl who fancies herself in love, and the favourite of a handsome suitor, after only 24 hours. But later she will deal with the realities of the society which puts young women in the situations that she takes to extremes.
Later, she is still tangibly witty, but subtly satirical, and a vein of covert social commentary runs through her serious novels. Here she is unrestrained, writing to entertain her family, hone her skills, and show off her flair, but the beginnings of that insight into society and human nature which has secured her legacy to posterity show in these exaggerated, sparklingly amusing short stories and fragments.