Tenth in the series We Want More Austen! About the minor and youthful works of Jane Austen.
It cannot be denied—the young Jane Austen was empathy-challenged. In her teenage stories she thought nothing of breaking the hearts of her characters, striking them dead when it suited her convenience, or laughing at their misfortunes.
• In “The Beautifull Cassandra” (named for and dedicated to her sister), the title character steals a bonnet from her mother’s shop, knocks down a pastry cook, and refuses to pay the driver of a hackney coach—all in the space of a page.
• In “Amelia Webster,” a young man recommends that a friend marry his sister, whom the friend has never met: she “would suit you as a Wife well enough. What say you to this? She will have two thousand Pounds & as much more as you can get.”
• The same story includes a letter from a would-be lothario to his lady-love, proposing that they leave their correspondence in a hollow tree that is one mile from his house but seven miles from hers: “I might have made choice of a tree which would have divided the Distance more equally—I was sensible of this at the time, but as I considered that the walk would be of benefit to you in your weak & uncertain state of Health, I preferred it to one nearer your House.”
• In “Edgar & Emma,” a young woman disappointed over the absence of her inamorato is openly mocked: “having no check to the overflowings of her greif [sic], she gave free vent to them, & retiring to her own room, continued in tears the remainder of her Life.”
• And a poem titled “Ode to Pity” is dedicated to her sister “from a thorough knowledge of her pitiable Nature.”
All told, if I were lying by the side of the road with a broken leg,
I would not want the young Jane Austen to be the only person who happened by!
We don’t see much of this harsh tone in her novels, except occasionally in descriptions of minor characters (I am reminded of the scene in Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth is traveling with Sir William and Miss Maria Lucas, who “had nothing to say that could be worth hearing, and were listened to with about as much delight as the rattle of the chaise”). Did she grow out of her impulse toward cruelty, or did she merely conceal it in her writings intended for public consumption?
Perhaps it’s a little of both. Throughout her life, her letters to her sister are sprinkled with comments that leave us agape at her capacity for malice or callousness: the year before her death she remarks, about a plan to dine with their lifelong friends the Digweeds, that neither Mr. nor Mrs. Digweed will “add much to our wit,” and she promises “a dead Baronet in almost every letter.” And in an earlier letter we find the infamous comment about the suffering of a neighbor: “Mrs Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”
But the bitchiness of such facile quips is counterbalanced by a deep vein of humanity running through the novels. It can be seen in Elinor’s nursing of her sister Marianne, in Darcy’s pride in his little sister, in Emma’s care for her father, in Anne’s concern for the tenants of Kellynch when the family leaves. These spontaneous expressions of humankindness and so many more are invoked as the glue that holds society together; they are at the heart of what makes an Austen hero or heroine heroic, much more than the flow of the character’s (or the author’s) wit.
So we can, like Elizabeth Bennet, enjoy our laugh at the ridiculous, but we must never allow the pleasures of taking snarky potshots to overshadow what really matters in our dealings with others. Maybe Jane didn’t know this in her youth, but she certainly learned it in maturity.