Woolf on Austen

December 16: Jane Austen was born 235 years ago today into a large family whose social position, says one biographer, "hovered at the gentry's lower fringes." This meant that, on one hand, the Austens raised cows and chickens and took in boarders to make ends meet; on the other hand, Jane and her siblings were well-schooled, and in the habit of staging plays in the barn. At age thirteen Jane was also a playwright—below is "The Mystery," a mini-lampoon in which no one ever explains what they are so breathlessly gossiping about:

Daphne: My dear Mrs Humbug how d'ye do? Oh! Fanny t'is all over.

Fanny: Is it indeed!

Mrs Hum: I'm very sorry to hear it.

Fanny: Then t'was to no purpose that I...

Daphne: None upon Earth.

Mrs Hum: And what is to be come of?...

Daphne: Oh! that's all settled. [whispers to Mrs Humbug]

Fanny: And how is it determined?

Daphne: I'll tell you. [whispers to Fanny]

Mrs Hum: And is he to?…

Daphne: I'll tell you all I know of the matter. [whispers to both]

Fanny: Well! now I know everything about it, I'll go and dress away.

Mrs Hum & Daphne: And so will I. [Exeunt]

At age fifteen Austen wrote a short, epistolary novel titled Love and Freindship (the author's misspelling retained in some modern editions). In her Common Reader essay on Austen, Virginia Woolf says that the story shows the seeds of later greatness:

Undoubtedly, the story must have roused the schoolroom to uproarious laughter. And yet, nothing is more obvious than that this girl of fifteen, sitting in her private corner of the common parlour, was writing not to draw a laugh from brother and sisters, and not for home consumption. She was writing for everybody, for nobody, for our age, for her own; in other words, even at that early age Jane Austen was writing. One hears it in the rhythm and shapeliness and severity of the sentences. "She was nothing more than a mere good-tempered, civil, and obliging young woman; as such we could scarcely dislike her—she was only an object of contempt." Such a sentence is meant to outlast the Christmas holidays. Spirited, easy, full of fun, verging with freedom upon sheer nonsense—Love and Freindship is all that; but what is this note which never merges in the rest, which sounds distinctly and penetratingly all through the volume? It is the sound of laughter. The girl of fifteen is laughing, in her corner, at the world.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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