Woolf on Austen

December 16: JaneAusten was born 235 years ago today into a large family whose social position,says one biographer, “hovered at the gentry’s lower fringes.” Thismeant that, on one hand, the Austens raised cows and chickens and took inboarders to make ends meet; on the other hand, Jane and her siblings werewell-schooled, and in the habit of staging plays in the barn. At age thirteenJane was also a playwright—below is “The Mystery,” a mini-lampoon inwhich no one ever explains what they are so breathlessly gossiping about:

Daphne: My dear Mrs Humbug how d’ye do? Oh! Fanny t’is allover.

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 toboth]

Fanny: Well! now I know everything about it, I’ll go anddress away.

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

At age fifteen Austen wrote a short, epistolary novel titledLove and Freindship (the author’smisspelling retained in some modern editions). In her Common Reader essay on Austen, Virginia Woolf says that the storyshows the seeds of later greatness:

Undoubtedly, the story must have roused the schoolroom touproarious laughter. And yet, nothing is more obvious than that this girl offifteen, sitting in her private corner of the common parlour, was writing notto draw a laugh from brother and sisters, and not for home consumption. She waswriting 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 andshapeliness and severity of the sentences. “She was nothing more than amere good-tempered, civil, and obliging young woman; as such we could scarcelydislike her—she was only an object of contempt.” Such a sentence is meantto outlast the Christmas holidays. Spirited, easy, full of fun, verging withfreedom upon sheer nonsense—Love andFreindship is all that; but what is this note which never merges in therest, which sounds distinctly and penetratingly all through the volume? It isthe sound of laughter. The girl of fifteen is laughing, in her corner, at theworld.


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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