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The Austen-Curious Reader – Is Sensibility Sensible?  

By Eden Iazeolla

Hello to all my wonderful Jane Austen Juvenilia Enthusiasts! 

I hope you all had amazing holidays and are entering the New Year feeling rejuvenated and rested. In honor of the New Year, I encourage you all to check out Zenia Makkay’s blog, “Jane Austen-Approved New Year’s Resolutions.” It was such a fun read and really inspired me to live a more Jane Austen-esque year. If you scroll down to number eight, you will see a resolution based off Austen’s “Love and Freindship,” our focus piece for this week. And, after reading “Love and Freindship” over the holidays, I will 100 percent be adopting this resolution: “stay active and avoid fainting fits.”  




I hope you all enjoyed Austen’s “Love and Freindship” as much as I did. It is one of the more popular pieces in Austen’s Juvenilia collection, as well as one of the only ones that is dated. Austen finished writing “Love and Freindship” when she was 15 years old, only five years before she began writing Pride and Prejudice. Young Austen’s successful storytelling through writing will always be impressive to me. I mean, at age 21, I am still unable to complete the fictional story about a horse I began writing when I was eleven. So, major kudos to 15-year-old Austen.   


As I digress, we can see that I am becoming a bit of a fan of young Austen’s work, but that is not what this blog is about! Let’s talk about “Love and Freindship!” 

In this epistolary novel, Laura writes to her friend Isabel’s daughter, Marianne. In her last letter to Isabel, Laura writes, “I will gratify the curiosity of your daughter; and may the fortitude with which I have suffered the many Afflictions of my past Life, prove to her a useful lesson for the support of those which may befall her own” (Austen, “Love and Freindship”). This opening sentiment presented me with a question: What lesson does Austen want to teach through Laura’s misfortunes? I think one of the most attractive qualities about this text is the dramatic irony that is set up. Laura believes she is providing Isabel’s daughter with a “useful lesson.” However, the lesson Laura believes to be teaching is not being learnt, because there is another messaged being relayed through Austen’s story as a whole.

I think we could all agree that through Austen’s mockery of the sensibility in Laura, Sophia, and other characters in the text, “Love and Freindship” might teach us something about what unchecked sensibility can do. However, before I started to look deeper into the text, I needed to familiarize myself with what sensibility meant in the 18th century. During the age of Enlightenment, many individuals took a step away from the Church. Up until this moment,

the Church was what dictated what was morally right and wrong, and who was considered virtuous. This led to philosophers attacking the question of where we get our morals from. They devised that it was sensibility, or our emotions and feelings that dictate what was moral and virtuous. This concept ended up creating the space for people to be performative in their sensibility, in order to be deemed


virtuous. This made it so that their emotions and feelings reigned over reason and rationality. In addition, if someone performed exaggerated benevolence towards another person's distress and joys, this would make them more virtuous than others.

At the beginning of the text, Austen starts off strong in her mockery of sensibility through Laura’s description of herself. Laura explains herself to have a “sensibility too tremblingly alive to every affliction of my Friends, my Acquaintance and particularly to every affliction of my own.” When I first read Laura’s description of herself, I was wondering

why her sensibility was removed from her person and personified as being “alive” as its own entity. It almost feels as though Laura is recognizing her sensibility as being a fault, but wishes only to blame sensibility for her misfortunes, not herself. In addition, it is also a humble brag to claim sensibility “too tremblingly alive.” This was a cheeky choice of Austen’s. In Laura’s claim to have an intense affliction of sensibility, it almost diminishes the sincerity of it. Is someone really that benevolent towards others if they claim the trait for themselves? It is also funny that Laura says that her sensibility is particular “to every affliction of my own.” This would mean that Laura has more sensibility to her own emotions and feelings than to others, which is why we see her being more performative and insincere in her sensibility. Essentially, Austen sets Laura up to be a character that claims sensibility even though what she experiences and portrays is not sensibility, but an exaggerated performance used to excuse the misdeeds she experiences.


Austen’s exaggeration of irony in this text makes this such a fun read. One of my favorite scenes where we see Austen really poking fun at sensibility is when Laura meets her new friend Sophia, and Laura’s husband Edward is reunited with his friend Augustus. Laura writes to Marianne that when she met Sophia, she “was all Sensibility and Feeling. We flew into each others arms and after having exchanged vows of mutual Friendship for the rest of our lives, instantly unfolded to each other the most inward secrets of our hearts.” The immediate attachment both women make to each other in this scene is comical. I am just imagining vowing to a stranger my friendship for the rest of my life, and it is just a no. Peter Sabor, the editor of my edition, expands on this scene in the notes. He informs that “such instantaneous displays of intimacy, normally between young women, are a standard feature of sentimental novels.” However, due to the unrealistic nature of this scene, Austen mocks this feature of sentimental novels to provoke laughter, which she certainly got out of me. In addition, due to Austen establishing Laura’s sensibility to be insincere early on, this scene is even more comical. Laura is putting on quite the façade to be portrayed in a certain way, hence the exaggerated display of affection.



As you keep reading through this scene, we see Edward and Augustus reunite. She describes to Marianne, “Never did I see such an affecting Scene as was the meeting of Edward and Augustus. ‘My Life! My Soul! (Exclaimed [Edward]). ‘My Adorable Angel! (Replied [Augustus]) as they flew into each other’s arms. – it was too pathetic for the feelings of Sophia and myself – We fainted alternately on a Sofa.” I found this scene to be such a clever follow-up to Laura and Sophia’s meeting. The intimate greeting of the two men felt almost like two lovers coming together, rather than two friends. The pet names they give each other are absolutely ridiculous - “My Life,” “My Soul,” and “My Adorable Angel.” In addition, the repetition of “flew into each other’s arms” in this encounter and Laura and Sophia’s seems like it is almost a mockery of the exaggerated sensibility of the two women. Another way to look at this scene is the irony of Laura and Sophia “alternately” fainting due to the passionate greeting, even though they were just seen doing the same thing under stranger circumstances. The “alternately” fainting seems intentional, thus pointing to their insincere sentiments, as well as painting quite the picture in the mind of the reader.

Laura and Sophia’s overabundance of sensibility does not stop here. As I made my way through “Love and Freindship,” I noticed that almost every time both girls displayed exaggerated sensibility, they would experience misfortune. One scene in particular, the girls are making their way to Sophia’s cousin’s house after being separated from their husbands. Essentially, they had no money and nowhere to go. However, in a twist of fate and a ridiculous recognition scene (If you want to dive deeper into her mockery of the recognition scene, I recommend Lesley Peterson’s blog, “Jane Austen’s Juvenilia and the Pleasures of recognition”) Laura is reunited with her grandfather and three cousins (turns out Sophia is one of them). It is unbelievable that there would be a reunion of this size. In addition, the fact that the grandfather gave his “new” grandchildren 50 pounds (about $5,000) each is another example of Austen’s mockery of sensibility. In this scene, Laura and Sophia take advantage of this old man’s sensibility by claiming kinship, thus showing their insincerity and lack of morals. While at the same time, Austen also points out the lack of reason sensibility prohibits through the grandfather’s uncalled for benevolence to strangers.



At the grandfather’s departure, Laura and Sophia “instantly fainted in each other’s arms.” Laura writes “how long we remained in this situation I know not; but when we recovered we found ourselves alone, without either Gustavus, Philander, or the Bank-notes." Again, by fainting on their grandfather’s departure, Laura and Sophia make a spectacle of themselves, making their sensibility laughable rather than agreeable. However, it is even more funny that when they fainted, they were robbed by their own “family”. Is it bad to laugh at misfortune such as this? I think Austen would encourage the response, because Laura and Sophia were the picture-perfect example of karma in this scene. While reading, I got the sense that Austen is not a fan of the Sensibility trope in literature, as well as in society in general. She is seen valuing reason and honesty, rather than feelings and emotions. Through her humor and pizzazz, Austen writes a piece questioning the sincerity and rationality behind sensibility.

I also enjoy how the mocking of sensibility in “Love and Freindship” is a huge precursor for Austen’s later novels, like Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion. She makes many critiques on how sensibility fares within the 18th century society, and how its absence or exaggerated presence can be a good or bad thing. I am not well-versed with these novels; however, I have heard that her personification of sense and sensibility creates a fascinating juxtaposition.


This piece of Austen’s was filled with so many comedic scenes, ironic humor, and – of course – fainting. I am kind of disappointed to stop this blog here when there is so much more I would like to discuss, like the snoring of Sir Edward or the carriage crash! Please feel free to expand on our conversation in the comments below or let me know what part of the story your favorite is.

For our next book club, I will be diving into Austen’s “Lesley Castle.” So, please feel free to join me on February 6th for more discussion on Austen and her Juvenilia!

We will be posting updates and reminders on the book club and all things JASP on our social media. You can find us on Instagram (@janeaustensummer), twitter (@jaustensummer), and Facebook (@janeaustensummerprogram).

Ta-Ta!

Eden

 

We look forward to meeting you, maybe even running into your arms, in June!