Death Sneaks Up Like the Silence: The Darker Side of Austen’s Juvenilia

I don’t have this edition, but I want it so I should probably buy it. Peter Sabor is one of my favorite scholars.

When I first read Austen’s Juvenilia, what struck me the most was death. People die left right and center. Out of nowhere. With no good reason, except to make the heroine more emotional or to add a snide remark on moral behavior. Or just plain because why on earth not? She deals with death in a somewhat trivial manner in that she doesn’t dwell on it. It happens and then it’s over, and we all move on.

In Frederic and Elfrida, one of the players is described as one “whose character was a willingness to oblige every one,” reminiscent of our dear Jane Bennet or Fanny Price perhaps. But there lies a difference between them—the others value life a little more I think. When Charlotte, the character from Frederic and Elfrida, is proposed to by two different men on the same day, she accepts both because of this willingness to please. Having completely forgotten about saying yes to the first man, she had no scruples in saying yes to the second. But our thoughtless character does not remedy her wrong-doing or even bemoan her ill luck; instead, we find that when she “recollected the double engagement she had entered into…the reflection of her past folly operated so strongly on her mind, that she resolved to be guilty of a greater, and to that end threw herself into a deep stream which ran through her aunt’s pleasure grounds in Portland Place.” It’s interesting that she decides to kill herself in a stream in pleasure grounds. She’s dead. She’s engaged to two men at the end of one paragraph and then commits suicide at the end of the second.

Death snuck up quietly and quickly and then the next thing we know is she “floated” down the river and is “picked up and buried.” I liked her choice of the word “floated,” playful, like relaxing on a lazy river at a water park. Charlotte did float, but was it relaxing? Was suicide really the only option for her? Did it relieve her of her worries? I don’t think so. Austen didn’t either, it seems, since she calls it a folly greater than the one when she agreed to marry both men. I believe that this was the first and last time she ever mentions suicide, even if it is offhand, in any of her writing. Correct me if I’m wrong. One good thing came from Charlotte’s death, though. The other characters threw themselves at the feet of the matriarch and begged permission to marry and were granted it.

In another piece, Love and Friendship, she touches on death yet again with slightly more reflection by other characters but only just. One such instance is when Laura maintains that she “yet received some consolation in the reflection of [her] having paid every attention to [Sophia] that could be offered in her illness. I had wept over her every day—had bathed her sweet face with my tears and had pressed her fair hands continually in mine.” Even at a young age, Austen was mocking stereotypical heroine’s behavior (Most likely those from Gothic novels. I can’t wait to get to that series of posts!). It’s obvious she doesn’t consider weeping and bathing a friend’s face with tears efficacious; it’s only the emotional, the sensibility, of a woman. But the Cult of Sensibility is for another time.

There are a couple of instances when someone dies in her novels, but none are dealt with so easily, or without having a deeper meaning. In Sense and Sensibility, Mr. Dashwood dies in the beginning but from that we learn about the inheritance issue—the impetus for all that happens to Elinor and Marianne. While Austen’s work speaks mostly to love, romance, and lighthearted subjects, she wasn’t immune to or afraid of the darker ones but rather chose to use her wit to execute social commentary that practically everyone finds irresistible. Even though her Juvenilia had death, like the Silence, approach and vanish in the blink of an eye, it was met with her characteristic humor, and I found myself laughing and almost spitting my coffee on my book.

These are just two of the stories in her Juvenilia so I suggest picking up a copy at your library or the bookstore and seeing what else she had to say. Maybe you’ll see something I didn’t!

(Did anyone catch the reference to the Silence? Anyone? Anyone at all?)

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