The funny side of Jane Austen

Yes, we all know Jane Austen as the author romantic novels, be it Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice, but do we know that she is one of the funniest female writers of her time, asks Shinie Antony.

books Updated: Dec 16, 2011 05:42 IST
Shinie Antony

Long before literary critics and avid readers took a magnifying glass to all that she ever wrote or thought, there was this young woman by the name of Jane Austen scribbling, scribbling, scribbling all hours of the day in Steventon, Hampshire. From all accounts, this chronicler of provinicial middleclass life pretty much lived what she wrote. '5 or 4 families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on,' Jane once told someone who wanted to write.

Born in 1775, Jane was a regular bachelorette of her times - sewing, reading, spending time with her large family, writing poetry and prose. Before dying at the early age of 41, Miss Austen indulged in much wit, plot, societal send-up and some major plain-speak via her stories. The satiric tone and subtle sarcasm that have tons of takers now were all the creative output of a social commentator in her prime, who seemed to have picked up a pen very by the way in a kind of pre-Victorian live reportage.

She wrote 'Sense and Sensibility', 'Pride and Prejudice', 'Mansfield Park', 'Emma', 'Northanger Abbey' and 'Persuasion', with the last two published after her death. These are of course her famous works, what most people have read and enjoyed over the years, where she put the R in the romance genre. However, her 'Juvenilia' collection - 'Volume the First', 'Volume the Second' and 'Volume the Third' - are what, to me, place her firmly in the firmament of funny female writers.

It was around 1787 that a young Jane began to write short fiction, skits and verse to entertain herself and her near and dear ones, a stand-up comedienne in print if you please. Later she compiled these scattered pieces composed during 1787-1793 in three notebooks, which came to be called 'Juvenilia'. These mini masterpieces display her doubtless command over comedy.

'Volume the First' contains 14 pieces of humourous anecdotes, dating from the time Jane was 11. This is a warm and intimate collection, infused with a young lightheartedness, showcasing the nurture of a precious insouciance. In this, a George Hervey tells a Miss Webster: 'I saw you thro' a telescope, & was so struck by your Charms that from that time to this I have not tasted human food.'

'Love and Friendship - Deceived in Friendship and Betrayed in Love', written by Jane when she was just fourteen and a part of 'Volume the Second', is written in her favourite epistolary form, as letters between two friends. Women faint left, right and centre in this as befitting respectable young women of those days. This advice comes straight from the book: 'Beware of fainting fits… Though at the time they may be refreshing and agreeable, yet believe me, they will, in the end, if too often repeated and at improper seasons, prove destructive to your constitution… Run mad as often as you choose; but do not faint.'

Jane called it 'Love and Freindship', which was correctly or incorrectly considered a typo, and for all future purposes became 'Love and Friendship'. (In the dedication to Miss Lloyd in 'Volume the First', Jane calls herself 'sincere Freind'.)

In a 2003 reprint of 'Love and Friendship' acclaimed writer Fay Weldon says of the two protagonists in her foreword: 'And whatever's changed in the last two hundred years? These are the same young girls we know today - monsters of hypocrisy while doing their best to be good -moaning, accusing, forgiving, giggling, weeping, fainting, screaming in delight or outrage…'

Emma Woodhouse from Jane's 'Emma' even had a desi outing in 'Aisha', a recent Hindi film. 'Handsome, clever, and rich' Emma has, according to Jane in the classic novel, 'the power of having rather too much of her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.' A glance at Jane's bio reveals that a certain Mr. Harris Bigg-Wither proposed to her when she was in her late twenties. And Jane apparently even nodded her assent! However, despite all the sense such an alliance would've made - perhaps her parents and unmarried sister Cassandra Elizabeth could move in with her - she changed her mind the very next morning. Just one night between the yes and no. Very intriguing to think of Jane tossing and turning in her four-poster bed till dawn, weighing the pros and cons, going back and forth between 'yes' and 'no'.

About a decade later Jane is said to have mailed her niece, Fanny Knight: '…I shall now turn around and entreat you not to commit yourself farther, and not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection.' For looking at love and marriage and social interactions between men and women in a way that transcends time and tickles us now and forever, we have to thank Jane. Without her there would be no fan clubs, no Hollywood masterpieces, no spin-offs, no thesis subjects, no literati. Without her, there would have been no record of drawing room conversations from that particular time and era, no sparring between the sexes. Without her, there would have been no triumph of the Plain Jane - with sheer sass and common sense.

Between her birth and death, much time was consciously devoted to the art of writing. Even when she was sick in the last few months of her life, records show she was articulate to the core on paper.

It is easy to imagine her leaning over a home-baked cake on this day, her gown billowing around her, cheeks flushed from family members - a rector dad, mom, six brothers and one dear sister - calling out birthday greetings. Her eyes are darting about, taking in the others engaged in small talk, and her ears are picking up all sorts of inflections a girl her age normally wouldn't. She is, above all, eager to be done with the cake and tea, simply pining to get back to the poem or story waiting unfinished in her room upstairs. Happy birthday, Jane!

First Published: Dec 16, 2011 05:42 IST