Jane Austen and the Fiction of Her Time

By Mary Waldron | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
The juvenilia, the early unfinished novels and
'Northanger Abbey'

Early in her reading experience Jane Austen became obsessively interested in the form and language of the novel, and in its relationship with its readers; her first experimental writing was dominated by attempts to refashion fiction as she knew it. With merciless disrespect she isolated elements which were at best formulaic, at worst perfunctory. Early burlesque shows Austen identifying popular narrative forms as hypnotic and thought-denying. She was moved to make hilarious fun of the wilder examples of the novel of sensibility, and some even wilder interpretations of the liberation ideologies of the French philosophes; but ordinary received moral wisdom was not exempt from her youthful scorn. Her earliest writing puts a number of fashionable fictional stereotypes, often derived from the pomposities of conduct-literature as well as from fashionable progressive ideas, into a domestic frame which renders them ludicrous and, more importantly, shows them to be repetitious and stultifying. From the start she set out to put forms and theories to the test of the everyday, without which they were, as she saw it, merely substitutes for coherent and rational deliberation.

The language of contemporary moral discourse fascinated her. She perceived very early that formulaic phrase-building can acquire the ring of truth, and she often parodies the typical Johnsonian antithetical maxim - for example, in the description of Lady Williams in Jack and Alice we are informed that: 'Tho' Benevolent & Candid, she was Generous & sincere; Tho' Pious & Good, she was Religious & amiable, and Tho' Elegant and Agreable, she was Polished & Entertaining' Common sentence patterns are constantly used either to create nonsense or to turn conventional moral expectation on its head; also in Jack and Alice we read: 'The Johnsons were a family of Love, & though a little addicted to the Bottle & the Dice, had many good Qualities' (MW13). The joke is clear enough,

-16-

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