Fourth in the series We Want More Austen! about the less-known works of Jane Austen.
Jane Austen was annoyingly precocious. By the age of eleven she was penning comic stories for family members, and by age fourteen she was writing elaborate epistolary tales that shrewdly mocked the literary conventions of her day. Since I left off in the last post with Whit Stillman’s upcoming movie—titled Love and Friendship though it is based on Lady Susan—I thought I’d start exploring her youthful writings with the real “Love and Freindship” (Austen’s spelling).
The story opens with a letter from Isabel, who exists in the story solely to introduce the heroine, Laura. Isabel solicits Laura to tell her life story to Isabel’s daughter, Marianne—presumably as a cautionary tale. All the remaining letters are Laura’s account of her youthful adventures.
She literally marries the first man to walk in the door—“no sooner did I first behold him, than I felt that on him the happiness or Misery of my future Life must depend”—and immediately sets out with him on a series of visits to sponge off unwary relatives and friends. After he disappears (going in pursuit of a friend who has been arrested for debt), she takes up with the debtor’s wife, Sophia, who became her bestie the moment they laid eyes on each other: “We flew into each others arms & after having exchanged vows of mutual Freindship for the rest of our Lives, instantly unfolded to each other the most inward Secrets of our Hearts.” Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility has nothing on this pair when it comes to emotional excess—and no doubt the Miss Steeles owe something to them as well! Laura and Sophia continue to cut a swath around Britain, taking ruthless advantage of everyone they meet in a mock-heroic sendup of the conventions of sentimental novels.
After a series of increasingly improbable coincidences and needless complications, they encounter their respective husbands again, but only as the two unfortunate young men meet with a tragic carriage accident. Laura and Sophia, assuming both men to be dead, immediately become hysterical: “Sophia shreiked & fainted on the Ground—I screamed and instantly ran mad—. We remained thus mutually deprived of our Senses some minutes, & on regaining them were deprived of them again. For an Hour & a Quarter did we continue in this unfortunate Situation.” Only at this point do they notice that one of the men hasn’t died in the accident; but no sooner have they realized he is alive than he expires for real.
Laura sustains no harm from the incident, but Sophia takes ill from fainting so often in the damp, and soon dies. Her final words are classic: “Beware of swoons Dear Laura . . . A frenzy fit is not one quarter so pernicious; it is an exercise to the Body & if not too violent, is I dare say conducive to Health in its consequences—Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint—”
Bouncing back from the tragic loss of Sophia, Laura continues on her way, soon meeting up with every character from the story who hasn’t been killed off, so that all the loose threads can be neatly tied up. Absurdity piles on absurdity from beginning to end. I can just picture the Austen family, gathered around a branch of candles of an evening, laughing uproariously together as young Jane reads “Love and Freindship” aloud to them; her wicked and pointed humor leaps off the page.