Jane Austen a cult classic author? Absolutely. She is justly famous for her six completed novels, but the general public hasn’t a clue about her earlier writings–known as the juvenilia–and only the most devoted Janeites have actually read them.
I love Jane Austen, but even I have only read one of these early works: Love and Friendship: Deceived in Friendship and Betrayed in Love, written when Jane was just 15.
Jane wrote the epistolary novel Love and Friendship for a family audience, probably reading new chapters nightly to her inner circle. It’s clearly a parody of the sentimental and overly romanticized novels Jane read as a girl. (As William Deresiewicz humorously points out in A Jane Austen Education, Austen was able to lampoon this style so effectively because she was reading the trashy gothic novels of the day by the bucketful.)
Love and Friendship is chock full of fainting spells, arranged marriages, jealous stepmothers, and dead bodies. It’s hysterical and strange and completely over-the-top.
It’s not very good, and poor Jane would roll over in her grave if she knew modern readers were comparing it to her classic novels. But even in these early works, readers can spot the seed of what made Austen’s six novels great: her biting wit, her ear for dialogue, and her ability to create high drama out of everyday occurrences.
(Readers can also spot early versions of Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, and the Bingley sisters.)
Oddly, Love and Friendship doesn’t remind me nearly as much of Austen’s novels as it does another heroine: teenage Jane sounds exactly like young Anne Shirley at play with her bosom friend Diana Barry:
Sophia shrieked and fainted on the ground–I screamed and instantly ran mad–. We remained thus mutually deprived or our senses, some minutes, and on regaining them were deprived of them again.
It seems teenage Jane and young Anne had very similar ideas of what “romance” looked like.
Devoted Janeites owe it to themselves to at least sample Austen’s juvenilia. But if you’ve never read an Austen novel, by all means, don’t start here!
Are you an Austen fan? Tell us if you’ve read any of her juvenilia, and why–or why not.
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This is the seventh post in a series, 31 Days of Cult Classics. You can click here to see a list of all the posts, updated everyday in the month of October.