Fifth in the series We Want More Austen! about the less-known works of Jane Austen.
Jane Austen’s earliest passion was for satire. By the age of eleven she was already fixing the absurd conventions of sentimental novels with her critical eye. Her favorite game was to set up fictional clichés like toy soldiers only to knock them over.
Probably the earliest of her writings that has come down to us is a short story titled “Frederic & Elfrida,” dated to about 1787 or 1788. Our hero and heroine—first cousins born on the same day and secretly in love with each other—are introduced conventionally enough, but before the first page is out, the solemnity of their tale has been undercut: “They were exceedingly handsome and so much alike, that it was not everyone who knew them apart. Nay even their most intimate friends had nothing to distinguish them by, but the shape of their face, the colour of the Eye, the length of the Nose & the difference of the complexion.”
Frederic and Elfrida have a small circle of youthful friends—Miss Charlotte Drummond, Miss Jezelinda Fitzroy, and Miss Rebecca Fitzroy—to whom they are excessively attached. At their first meeting with the Misses Fitzroy, they exclaim to Rebecca (several of their speeches are uttered in unison): “Lovely & too charming Fair one, notwithstanding your forbidding Squint, your greazy tresses & your swelling Back, which are more frightfull than imagination can paint or pen describe, I cannot refrain from expressing my raptures at the engaging Qualities of your Mind, which so amply atone for the Horror, with which your first appearance must ever inspire the unwary visitor.”
Much of the story revolves around the pairing up of the characters: Miss Fitzroy runs off
with the coachman, and at age 36 Miss Rebecca marries a Captain Roger, age 63.
Miss Drummond, visiting her aunt in London, finds that no sooner has she arrived than the door bursts open and “an aged gentleman with a sallow face & old pink Coat, partly by intention & partly thro’ weakness was at [her] feet, declaring his attachment to her & beseeching her pity in the most moving manner. Not being able to resolve to make any one miserable, she consented to become his wife; where upon the Gentleman left the room & all was quiet.” The rub is that shortly thereafter, a young and handsome man (another stranger) bursts in and also pays his addresses to her. She accepts him as well. But the next day, realizing that she cannot marry them both, she casts herself into a river and drowns.
And meanwhile, what of Frederic and Elfrida? They are promised to each other, but Elfrida’s sensibility is so acute her parents fear that pressing her to set a date would be too much for her. Time passes, and eventually Captain Roger and Rebecca return to the neighborhood with their pretty eighteen-year-old daughter, Eleanor. “Elfrida, who had found her former acquaintance were growing too old & too ugly to be any longer agreable,” is delighted with Eleanor—only to be mortified when Eleanor treats her like an old woman and, worse still, she realizes that Frederic is falling in love with the younger woman. “The instant she had the first idea of such an attachment, she flew to Frederic & in a manner truly heroick, spluttered out to him her intention of being married the next Day.”
Our understanding of fictional conventions leads us to assume that this declaration from the heroine requires the hero to consent with self-abnegating chivalry, much the way
It’s interesting to read “Frederic & Elfrida” alongside Sense and Sensibility, comparing her early skewering of sentimental emotion with her more mature depiction of the subject. In the novel, just how ridiculous are we to find Marianne and Willoughby to be? Do the Misses Fitzroy foreshadow the Misses Steele? Was she secretly laughing at some of the characters we take at face value, such as Edward?
And how does the tale of Frederic and Elfrida turn out? I leave it to you to discover, along with all the other slapstick delights of Jane Austen’s preteen imagination.