A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter VIII." by Constance Hill
From: Jane Austen: Her Homes & Her Friends (John Lane The Bodley Head, 1923) by Constance Hill.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 79] 

CHAPTER VIII

SCENES OF EARLY WRITINGS

". . . Friends                          
Attun'd to happy unison of soul."

THERE are some old copy-books in the possession of the Austen family, containing the first efforts at storymaking of the future novelist - then a girl between fourteen and sixteen years of age. These tales are chiefly burlesques, related in mock heroic language, to ridicule the impossible events and highflown sentiments she had met with in various silly romances. The youthful author seems as if she were studying how not to write before striking out any path for herself. She manifests her judgment of the "silly romances," "not by direct censure but by the indirect method of imitating and exaggerating the faults of her models, thus clearing the fountain by first stirring up the mud."[1]

The present writer has read one of these early tales. Its fun is so spontaneous and so irresistibly [Page 80]  comic that, whilst reading it, one seems almost to hear the merry laugh of the young girl over her own performance.

This style of gentle burlesque never lost its attraction for Miss Austen. We meet with it in many a page of her correspondence as well as in the novels. In "Northanger Abbey" she tells us that Catherine Morland had actually "reached the age of seventeen without having seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility . . . . This was strange indeed. But . . . there was not one lord in the neighbourhood; no, not even a baronet. There was not one family among their acquaintance who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at their door; not one young man whose origin was unknown."

In one of her letters she writes: "Mr. C's opinion is gone down in my list. I will redeem my credit with him by writing a close imitation of 'Self Control' as soon as I can. I will improve upon it. My heroine shall not only be wafted down an American river in a boat by herself. She shall cross the Atlantic in the same way, and never stop till she reaches Gravesend." How Jane must have enjoyed drawing up her "plan of a novel according to hints from various quarters," in which the heroine is hurried from one country of Europe to another, always pursued by totally unprincipled young men, and, passing through [Page 81]  the most terrible adventures, is "worn down to a skeleton and now and then starved to death!"[1]

Among her early effusions is an amusing little play entitled "The Mystery, an Unfinished Comedy," which is printed in the second edition of the "Memoir." The Austens, as a family, were fond of acting, and many a play, we are told, was performed by the young people at Steventon. They acted during the winter months in the "common sitting-room" where, for lack of space, the audience must have been a very small one. But in summer time the theatre was transferred to a large barn on the further side of Steventon Lane. An old inhabitant, who remembers it, has shown us the flattened mound where it stood.

A leading member of the little acting company was a young Madame de Feuillade, who was a first cousin of Jane's, being a daughter of the Rev. George Austen's only sister, Mrs. Hancock. Her husband, a French Count, perished by the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. She escaped to England and was received into her uncle's house, where she continued to reside for some years, her parents being in India. Eventually she married Henry Austen.

Madame de Feuillade was a clever woman, and [Page 82]  highly accomplished after the French rather than the English mode. She took the chief parts in the plays, and her influence must have been an inspiring one. The prologues and epilogues were written by James Austen, and we are told that they were very amusing. How much we should have liked to take a peep into the great barn on a summer evening, more than a hundred years ago, and seen the group of bright young actors!

There is a charming portrait - a miniature - of Madame de Feuillade taken before her marriage when she was about sixteen years of age. We have seen this portrait. The features are small and delicate and the dark eyes have a piquant expression. She wears a low white dress, edged with blue ribbon and a band of the same ribbon is in her hair, which is powdered and dressed high.

Jane Austen enjoyed some unusual privileges in the quiet country parsonage at Steventon. We are told that her "father was so good a scholar that he could himself prepare his sons for the University." "Her mother was a well educated woman and a thorough lady, though she sat darning the family stockings in a parlour into which the front door opened. She loved all country things, and had a vigorous nature and a contented mind that kept her young and cheerful in spirit until extreme old age. She was [Facing Page] 


MADAME DE FEUILLADE              THE REV. JAMES AUSTEN
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[Page 83]  an excellent letter writer."[1] In her "was to be found the germ of that ability which was concentrated in Jane but of which almost all her children had a share."

"The home conversation was rich in shrewd remarks, bright with playfulness and humour and occasional flashes of wit." "It was never troubled by disagreements, even in little matters, for it was not the habit of the Austen family to dispute or argue with each other." "Bad grammar Jane never heard," nor "slang, for there was no slang in those days."

Thus circumstanced it is no wonder that even her earliest compositions, however trivial their subject may be, "are characterised by their pure and simple English," and that we see the influence of her happy home in the "unconscious charm of the domestic atmosphere of her stories and the delicate sub-satirical humour which pervades them."

To hear no slang nor bad grammar was indeed an advantage such as no young writer of the present day can command.

Jane, from early childhood, delighted in reading. She was well acquainted with the old periodicals from the Spectator downwards, and her knowledge of Richardson's works was the intimate knowledge of an ardent admirer. "Every circumstance [Page 84]  narrated in 'Sir Charles Grandison', all that was ever said or done in the cedar parlour was familiar to her; and the wedding days of Lady L. and Lady G. were as well remembered as if they had been living friends."[1] In the "Life" of Lord Macaulay we read that he and his sister adopted Miss Austen's own characters, in a similar way, as living friends and acquaintances. When speaking to each other they frequently employed sentences from her dialogues "to express the idea, or even the business of the moment; using the very language of Mrs. Elton, and Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Woodhouse, Mr. Collins and John Thorpe, and the other inimitable actors on Jane Austen's unpretending stage." When Macaulay's sister married, her husband "used, at first, to wonder who the extraordinary people could be with whom his wife and his brother-in-law appeared to have lived!"

On the upper floor of the parsonage there was a small parlour called the "dressing-room," already alluded to, where Jane used to write her tales. This room belonged exclusively to the two sisters. Here they followed their favourite pursuits - Cassandra had her drawing materials, and Jane her desk and her piano. A piano, we must remember, was a rare addition in those days to the furniture of a modest country parsonage; [Page 85]  but there was a genuine love of music in the Steventon household and the piano had been procured. Jane Austen has often ridiculed the affected love of music, but never its real appreciation. We remember how, when Marianne Dashwood had been asked to sing at Barton Park, "Sir John was loud in his admiration at the end of every song, and as loud in his conversation with the others while every song lasted. Lady Middleton frequently called him to order, wondered how any one's attention could be diverted from music for a moment, and then asked Marianne to sing a particular song which Marianne had just finished."

We have held in our hands some music books, carefully preserved in the family, that belonged to Miss Austen. One of them, which is half-bound with mottled paper sides, contains "twelve canzonettes for two voices, by William Jackson, of Exeter," followed by a collection of "Scots songs." On the fly-leaf is written "Jane Austen" in her own small delicate writing. There is a manuscript book in which the music is beautifully and very clearly written, believed to be the work of her hand. It is bound in parchment and bears her name within the cover. It contains, among other pieces, the song entitled "Ask if the damask rose be sweet," from "Susannah, an oratorio by Mr. Handell," and also a minuet by the same [Page 86]  composer. Jane, we know, had a sweet singing voice. Did she sing the duets by Jackson, we wonder, with her sister Cassandra?

We call to mind the description of the sisters' "dressing-room" by their eldest niece Anna (afterwards Mrs. Benjamin Lefroy), who visited the parsonage so often as a young child and who wrote: "about the carpet with its chocolate ground, and the painted press with shelves above for books," and mentioned Jane's "piano, and an oval glass that hung between the windows." "Though this child's age," writes her daughter, "was not more than four or five, she could remember hearing 'Pride and Prejudice' read aloud by its youthful writer to her sister. She was a very intelligent, quick-witted child, and she caught up the names of the characters and talked about them so much downstairs that her aunts feared she would provoke inquiry, for the story was still a secret from the elders."[1] The title then intended for the novel was "First Impressions." It was begun in October 1796, when Jane Austen was not yet twenty-one years of age.

In that same year Jane paid a visit to her brother Edward and his wife, who were then living at Rowling, a small place in East Kent, about a mile distant from Goodnestone, the seat of the Bridges family, to which Mrs. Edward [Facing Page] 


EDWARD AUSTEN (AFTERWARDS KNIGHT)
From the portrait at Chawton House
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[Page 87]  Austen belonged. Jane travelled with her two brothers, Edward and Francis. The journey from Steventon to Rowling was a serious affair in those days, and we find the party stopping twice on the road - first at Staines and then in London, at some hotel in Cork Street. In driving across Kent they would go by way of Sevenoaks, Maidstone and Canterbury, and, before reaching Sevenoaks, would necessarily pass through the village of Westerham.

Who does not remember that Mr. Collins's pompous letter in which he proposes "to heal the breach" between his family and that of Mr. Bennet, was dated from "Hunsford, near Westerham, Kent"? As Jane was hurried along in her post-chaise did her eyes, we wonder, happen to fall upon some neat dwelling with "a garden sloping to the road" divided by "a short gravel walk" and bounded by "green pales and a laurel hedge" which she fixed upon afterwards for Mr. Collins's "humble abode"? And did Goodnestone, or some other fine property, suggest the future "Rosings," the residence of the dignified Lady Catherine de Bourgh ?

"Pride and Prejudice" was finished in August 1797; so that it was written in only ten months! There is a letter given in the "Memoir" from Jane Austen's father to Mr. Cadell, the publisher, dated November 1797, in which he describes the work [Page 88]  as a "manuscript novel comprising three volumes, about the length of Miss Burney's 'Evelina'" and asks Mr. Cadell if he would like to see the work with a view to entering into some arrangement for its publication, "either at the author's risk or otherwise." This proposal was declined by return of post and so Elizabeth and Darcy, Mr. Bennet, Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine all remained hidden from view, nor was it till fifteen years later that they stepped on to the public stage!

"Sense and Sensibility" was begun in its present form in November 1797 and finished within a year, but "something similar in story and character had been written earlier, under the title of "Elinor and Marianne" and much of this earlier tale is believed to have been incorporated in the new story, so that "Sense and Sensibility" really contains the earliest writing of Jane Austen's that was given to the public. "Northanger Abbey" was composed in 1798. But the manuscripts of both these novels remained like "Pride and Prejudice" hidden out of sight for many years and the genius possessed by their author was known only to her own family and intimate friends. Hence it is that Jane continued to live her quiet, uneventful life, uncourted by the public. Her powers in the meanwhile developed each year, and when, at last, the time arrived for publication [Page 89]  she was able to revise and improve the novels so as to satisfy her maturer judgment.

In Jane Austen, the author and the critic were curiously united, and it has been said of her by a shrewd reviewer that she "always brings the bull's eye of her bright common sense" to bear on all the actions of her various characters. These words recall the remark of a well-known contemporary respecting the author of "Waverley." "In my opinion," he said, "Walter Scott's sense is a still more wonderful thing than his genius."

Writing of a contemporary work in 1798, Miss Austen says "We have got 'Fitz-Albini.' My father is disappointed - I am not, for I expected nothing better. Never did any book carry more internal evidence of its author. Every sentiment is completely Egerton's. There is very little story, and what there is, is told in a strange unconnected way. There are many characters introduced, apparently merely to be delineated."[1]

In the following letter she makes fun of dry historical works. She is writing to her friend Miss Lloyd, a sister of the second Mrs. James Austen, whom she is about to visit. "You distress me cruelly by your request about books. I cannot think of any to bring with me, nor have I any idea of our wanting them. I come to you to be talked to, not to read or hear reading; I can do [Page 90]  that at home; and indeed I am now laying in a stock of intelligence to pour out on you as my share of the conversation. I am reading Henry's 'History of England' which I will repeat to you in any manner you may prefer, either in a loose, desultory, unconnected stream, or, dividing my recital as the historian divides it himself, into seven parts: The Civil and Military; Religion; Constitution; Learning and Learned Men; Arts and Sciences; Commerce, Coins and Shipping; and Manners. So that for every evening in the week there will be a different subject. The Friday's lot - Commerce, Coins and Shipping - you will find the least entertaining, but the next evening's portion will make amends. With such a provision on my part, if you will do yours by repeating the French grammar, and Mrs. Stent will now and then ejaculate some wonder about the cocks and hens, what can we want?"[1]

Mrs. Stent, we presume, was somewhat like Mrs. Allen, whose "vacancy of mind and incapacity for thinking were such that, as she never talked a great deal, so she could never be entirely silent; and therefore, while she sat at work, if she lost her needle or broke her thread, or saw a speck of dirt on her gown, she must observe it, whether there were any one at leisure to answer her or not."

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Footnotes



[Page 79]
1 Article upon her works by Lord Acton.


[Page 81]
1 See second edition of the "Memoir."


[Page 83]
1 Family MSS.


[Page 84]
1 "Memoir," by J. E. Austen-Leigh.


[Page 86]
1 Family MSS.


[Page 89]
1 "Letters," Lord Brabourne.


[Page 90]
1 "Memoir."

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Celebration of Women Writers.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom