On October 30, 1811, around six weeks shy of her 36th birthday, Jane Austen anonymously published her first novel,
Sense and Sensibility. It was received positively, one critic, writing for the February 1812 Critical Review, noted its superiority to the abundance of novels being published at the time in these witty terms:
"The lovers of novel reading can have but a very faint idea of the difficulty which we reviewers experience in varying the language with which we are to give our judgment on this species of writing. The numerous novels which are continually presenting themselves to our notice, are in substance, style, and size, so much alike, that after reading the three first pages, we may with very little difficulty not only know how they will end, but may give a shrewd guess of the various incidents which are to occur, the difficulties and dangers which must accrue, with all the vexations, awkward rencounters, &c. &c. which are so highly necessary to make up a fashionable novel.
"We are no enemies to novels or novel writers, but we regret, that in the multiplicity of them, there are so few worthy of any particular commendation. A genteel, well-written novel is as agreeable a lounge as a genteel comedy, from which both amusement and instruction may be derived. Sense and Sensibility is one amongst the few, which can claim this fair praise."
Austen would go on to publish three other novels during her life, and others would appear after her death in 1817. What interests me at the moment is not what might seem her late foray into a literary life--thirty-six doesn't really seem as old to me now as it did some twenty odd year ago when I was first introduced to Austen--but her early start, for Sense and Sensibility, besides being a revised and improved version of "Elinor and Marianne," a novel begun in 1795, has its precursor in Austen's
Love And Freindship, the latter word in the title often being spelled in modern editions as the young Austen, as well as others at the time, spelled it. The epistolary story--described by the young writer as a novel--was completed in 1790 but may have been begun as early as 1887.
The story's literary value, of course, has been questioned--unnecessarily, it seems to me, as Austen was between 11 and 14 when she was writing it and can hardly be blamed for not producing a work that compares with her mature novels. Indeed, the story is, in at least one sense, extraordinary. The maturity of its thought is unlikely to be found in many children in their early teens. Satirizing eighteenth-century novels of sensibility, Austen seems to already realize the ability of "life to imitate art," to borrow Oscar Wilde's words even though Austen is not, as Wilde does, celebrating the power of art to alter the way the world is perceived.
Austen, rather, critiques, in a fashion similar to novelists writing in the quixotic tradition, the tendency of readers to get so caught up in novelistic expectations that they project them onto the world. Take, for example, the episode related in the twelfth letter of Laura, the narrator whose tale partially deals with the adventures she has with her friend Sophia. Laura and Sophia find themselves in Scotland, having been invited there by Sophia's cousin, Macdonald. Upon their arrival, they learn that Macdonald's daughter, Janetta, is engaged to be married to Graham, a man of her father's choosing. He is immediately, in Laura and Sophia's eyes, found to be an improper suitor. He is lacking in many of the most important qualities:
"He was just such a man as one might have expected to be the choice of Macdonald [whom Laura notes does not have a soul, or is without sensibility]. They said he was sensible, well-informed, and agreeable; we did not pretend to judge of such trifles, but as we were convinced he had no soul, that he had never read the Sorrows of Werter, & that his hair bore not the least resemblance to auburn, we were certain that Janetta could feel no affection for him, or at least that she ought to feel none. The very circumstance of his being her father's choice, too, was so much in his disfavour, that had he been deserving her, in every other respect, yet that of itself ought to have been a sufficient reason in the eyes of Janetta for rejecting him."
The idea here, of course, is that Graham does not meet the criteria that novelistic lovers must possess, as he is sensible rather than sensitive, possesses the wrong hair color, and, most importantly, is a father's choice. Janetta, therefore, must, as convention dictates, not have feelings for him, and Sophia and Laura set out not only to convince Janetta of that fact but to find a suitable alternative, who turns out to be Captain M'Kenzie, a fortune hunter who had barely acknowledged Janetta's existence but who, Sophia asserts, "there can be no doubt" adores her. Laura and Sophia proceed to demonstrate his love for Janetta and then create it. In the end, Janetta runs off with the captain.
Life, of course, isn't imitating art in the story anywhere except in the minds of Laura and Sophia, and the consequences for Janetta, who gets drawn into their fictions, are dire, as M'Kenzie is--if we accept, as we certainly seem to be obliged to do, the realistic perspective of Macdonald--a fortune hunter taking advantage of a naive fifteen year old. Austen's satire attacks our tendency to project a world, yet that does not undercut the extraordinary realization of the fourteen-year-old Austen that what one perceives is an effect of what one has been taught to perceive. She simply finds it wiser to accept the projection that the community has been involved in producing.