Seventh in the series We Want More Austen! about the less-known works of Jane Austen.
During this season of family gatherings, I find myself looking at Jane Austen’s childhood writings in the context of her family life. Many of her early stories are dedicated to relatives, and today’s focus is on a trio of short tales dedicated to her naval brothers, Francis (who was a year older) and Charles (several years younger).
Whether these story fragments were written to celebrate a shore leave or sent to the boys while they were serving at sea—intended to bring a smile to their hearts and a taste of home—we do not know for certain. We can say that they were treasured, because they were copied out and included in the first of the volumes of juvenile writings that Jane Austen preserved.
“The Adventures of Mr Harley,” all of three paragraphs long, is dedicated to Francis while he was a midshipman on the Perseverance. Our hero Mr. Harley is also a naval man, returning to England on his first leave. On arriving he travels by stage coach, bent on visiting a mysterious “Emma,” and finds himself accompanied by “a man without a Hat, Another with two, An old maid & a young Wife.” As he is admiring the latter, he realizes that she is the Emma he is seeking “& recollected he had married her a few weeks before he left England.” The End.
What is behind this slight bit of a scene? Was Francis perhaps enamored of a girl named Emma? Was he much teased in the family for his forgetfulness? It is intriguing to speculate.
This tale is followed by “an unfinished performance” dedicated to Charles, the youngest: “Sir William Mountague.” Sir William also has the ladies on his mind, falling in love with the three Miss Cliftons, Lady Percival, Miss Arundel, Miss Stanhope, and Miss Wentworth over the space of two pages.
When Lady Percival sets their wedding date for September 1 (the first day of the partridge hunting season), Sir William begs for a postponement. This enrages Lady Percival so much that she leaves him. “Sir William was sorry to lose her, but as he knew that he should have been much more greived by the Loss of the 1st of September, his Sorrow was not without a mixture of Happiness, & his Affliction was considerably lessened by his Joy.”
Moving on to an attachment to Miss Arundel, he finds that she prefers another man. Sir William immediately shoots the man, and “the lady had then no reason to refuse him.” But before they can marry the sister of the man he shot comes to town, demanding compensation. Sir William marries her instead, but after a fortnight he chances to see another woman in the street. . . .
Here the tale breaks off, whether out of considerations of delicacy, or because the joke was getting tired, I cannot say. Since Charles must have been quite a young boy at the time this was written, it is hard to imagine that he identified with anything in the story except perhaps Sir William’s devotion to sport. But the last tale in our trio, “Memoirs of Mr Clifford,” is also dedicated to Charles, mentioning his “generous patronage of the unfinished tale” just described, which leads us to believe that Charles was an enthusiastic fan of his sister’s work—or at least of being singled out for attention from her.
Mr. Clifford spends the entirety of his tale trying to get from Bath to London. As he possesses a great many carriages and “an amazing fine stud of Horses,” you would think this would be a simple matter. But over the course of five months he travels only about seventy miles, ending up in a series of places close by the Austens’ home in Hampshire. Mr. Clifford becomes ill at Overton (where James Austen was a curate) and travels to Deane (where friends of the family lived), Basingstoke (where they shopped), and more spots that would have been well known to Charles.
“The Memoirs of Mr Clifford” is chiefly memorable for its use of the type of slang that young boys might pick up and try on for size. The wit is mostly lost on the reader because we are not privy to the personal incidents it alludes to. Unlike most of the juvenilia it does not mock the clichés of sentimental fiction.
Because all three works are pretty much single-joke affairs, we can only assume that Jane wrote these brief fragments to share a laugh with the brothers closest to her in age. It’s notable that although her audience members are children, the characters are all adults: Jane Austen did not write the kinds of children’s stories we expect to see today. Do you ever write stories for family members?
Abigail Bok is the author of the short story “A Summer in Sanditon” in Sun-Kissed: Effusions of Summer and a novel, An Obstinate, Headstrong Girl.