Sixth in the series We Want More Austen! about the less-known works of Jane Austen.
Man traps? Murder? Doesn’t sound much like Jane Austen. I could just as easily have used the title “Dicing and Drunkenness,” and you wouldn’t have believed me either. But the garden of earthy delights that is “Jack and Alice” has it all. How could it not be my favorite of all Jane Austen’s juvenile works?
We tend to think of Jane Austen as elegant and ladylike. Bad deeds occur in the novels, but—perhaps aside from Willoughby’s public humiliation of Marianne—always offstage. Yet while decorum may have been Austen’s watchword as an adult writer for publication, she was no sheltered, simpering miss. If I had written something like “Jack and Alice” when I was younger than fifteen, as she did, I would have been grounded!
To the tale: Alice Johnson is a young woman in a small village delightfully named Pammydiddle, the daughter of what Austen somewhat ambiguously calls “a family of Love,” telling us in addition (less ambiguously) that “though a little addicted to the Bottle & the Dice, [they] had many good Qualities.” Their near neighbors include three misses Simpson, a widow named Lady Williams, and a wealthy young man, Charles Adams, “of so dazzling a Beauty that none but Eagles could look him in the Face.”
All the characters are introduced at a masked ball, where Alice falls
victim to Charles’s obvious charms. (The misses Simpson are
immune to him because “Every wish of Caroline was centered in a titled Husband; whilst in Sukey such superior excellence could only raise her Envy not her Love, & Cecilia was too tenderly attached to herself to be pleased with any one besides”—ouch!).
We are treated to a scene in which Alice, visibly drunk, visits Lady Williams and they nearly come to blows when Alice takes offense at an offhand remark made by her hostess; their argument on the subject is hilariously nonsensical, straight out of the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Despite this fracas, they meet again and soon encounter a lovely young woman “lying apparently in great pain beneath a Citron-tree”; they beg her to explain herself, which she immediately proceeds to do—while still stretched out on the ground!
This young woman—the daughter of a tailor, raised in an alehouse—has come into the neighborhood in pursuit of the beautiful Charles, undeterred by his discouragement of her advances. Walking across his grounds, she has been caught in a man trap (a steel trap set out to catch poachers), and her leg has been broken. Lady Williams cries out how fortunate she and Alice were to meet her, “since we might otherwise perhaps have shared the like misfortune,” and Alice adds, “cruel Charles to wound the hearts & legs of all the fair”! Naturally, they both take an instant and intense liking to the young woman, Lucy, who is taken into Lady Williams’s household.
The misses Simpson come to call and also become instantly attached to Lucy, and as they are going to Bath, they invite her to accompany them. There Lucy is a great hit and wins the affections of an elderly duke; unfortunately, before she can marry him, the jealousy of Sukey Simpson reaches such a pitch that she poisons Lucy. The duke “mourned her loss with unshaken constancy for the next fortnight.”
Back in Pammydiddle, Alice induces her father to propose that she marry Charles. Charles rejects the idea, detailing his own manifold virtues before adding, “Your daughter, sir, is neither sufficiently beautifull, sufficiently amiable, sufficiently witty, nor sufficiently rich for me.” Shades of Fitzwilliam Darcy! Alice is crushed at the news, but “she flew to her Bottle & it was soon forgot.” As Lady Williams has earlier remarked, “She has many rare & charming qualities, but Sobriety is not one of them.”
And what becomes of the Simpson sisters? The ambitious Caroline marries the duke intended for Lucy; Cecilia leaves England in search of a man of higher rank and ends up “the favourite Sultana of the great Mogul”—and as for the murderous Sukey, “she was speedily raised to the Gallows.”
The observant reader may be asking at this point, If the title of the story is “Jack and Alice,” who is Jack? He appears and is dismissed in a single paragraph late in the tale, the narrator describing him as “the brother of Alice, of whom I beleive I have scarcely ever had occasion to speak; which may perhaps be partly oweing to his unfortunate propensity to Liquor, which so compleatly deprived him of the use of those faculties Nature had endowed him with, that he never did anything worth mentioning.”
“Jack and Alice” is populated with vivid and unforgettable comic characters. Lady Williams’s dialogue, especially, is worthy of Jane Austen’s adult efforts. The story’s deficiencies of plot and continuity could easily be overcome by an inventive novelist, and I would dearly love to see an Austenesque novel based on this outrageous farce.
Abigail Bok is the author of the short story “A Summer in Sanditon” in Sun-Kissed: Effusions of Summer, and of the novel An Obstinate, Headstrong Girl.