Saturday, February 05, 2011

Jane Austen's own "mashups"

Monica Fairview

I've been re-reading Jane Austen's Juvenilia lately, and once again I'm struck by her grotesque humour and her extreme parodic tendencies. I can't help comparing her strange inclination to distort and parody history to the mash-ups that have sprung up around her work, ranging from Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters to Mansfield Park and Mummies. It is as if the authors who penned these mash-ups were drawing on her Juvenilia. Certainly the mash-ups reflect Jane Austen's early stylistic tendencies.

The History of England -- my personal favourite -- illustrates this irreverant humour very clearly. Of Henry VIII Jane Austen has this to say:

The Crimes & Cruelties of this Prince were too numerous to be mentioned (as this history I trust has fully shown); & nothing can be said in his vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses & leaving them to the ruinous depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general, which probably was a principal motive for his doing it, since otherwise why should a Man who was of no Religion himself be at so much trouble to abolish one which had for Ages been established in the Kingdom?

Jane Austen's satirical wit -- including her self-parody -- emerges full scale in these Juvenile works -- untempered by her adult sense of what is acceptable and what was not. I always wonder how her writing would have been different if she had not been writing in the shadow of her two brothers, with all the weight of The Loiterer behind them, with its "moral lectures."

Certainly, Jane Austen as a teen was not in the least inclined to stick to realism. Her works are full of the grotesque and the improbable. Her heroes and heroines are far from ideal -- absolutely nothing is beneath them. They display a wanton cruelty and inclination to violence that is remarkable considering the relative propriety of her later works. In her Juvenilia Jane Austen writes with relish of disfigurement, cruelty, illegitimacy, drunkenness, theft, murder. In "Henry and Eliza" (and really, I have to call it a precursor to the mash-ups that are so popular today) Eliza, who steals from the people that adopted her, elopes, and uses up the fortune of her lover, and has two of her fingers eaten by her hungry children - quite literally -- and then raises an army to kill her benefactress.

It is particularly amusing when reading these strange tales to think of the image the Victorians formed of Jane Austen -- as the (somehow) diminutive old spinster whose mind "recoiled from anything gross". Fortunately for us, however, no one thought to destroy her juvenile writing as her letters were destroyed, so we still have a small glimpse into the less sanitized aspects of her writing.

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