Sunday, May 8, 2011

"Henry and Eliza" by Jane Austen

The prospect of The Classics Circuit doing a Jane Austen tour is one I have anxiously awaited since I first began participating in these literary sprees, and one that pits Austen against Dickens (though I do think there is enough material from both writers to justify individual consideration) sent me into raptures. Unfortunately, the timing could not possibly have been worse. I am very quickly coming to the end of my pregnancy and any blogging has become a rather secondary consideration. Nevertheless, I could not resist the urge to participate, and while I would like to be posting about one of Austen's novels, and probably later this month about one of Dickens' (A Tale of Two Cities is my favorite), I am instead limiting myself to brief discussion of the former's Juvenalia. The kind people of The Classics Circuit were so accommodating as to let me kick off the tour, for any delay of this post might have resulted in its complete (and shameful) neglect.

While within her Juvenalia it is easy to trace the wit that so defined Austen's adult voice, these early works could not be more dissimilar from the novels that are so beloved. While Austen strove to depict meticulously realistic scenarios, in stark opposition to the high degree of melodrama that dominated the novels of her day, her childhood works took the opposite approach, mocking those outlandish conventions by excessively indulging in them. This much is easy to perceive, but what I find most fascinating about the Juvenalia is the degree to which she pushes her absurdities, creating worlds that anticipate not only those later depicted by Lewis Carroll in his Alice stories, in which the conventions of society are mocked by being turned upon their heads, but also the dramatic works of the mid-20th century playwrights belonging to the Theater of the Absurd, the most famous of which is surely Samuel Beckett, best known for Waiting for Godot. Austen's early voice is stunningly avant-garde, and I would love to take the time here to explore this little regarded aspect of her development in massive detail, having long thought that a comparison of her two short plays, The Visit and The Mystery, to the works of Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Edward Albee was overdue, but instead I indulge my baby obsessed brain by looking at a very different work, and one that just so happens to be about a young lady whose name is the same as that of my future daughter: Henry and Eliza. This "novel" is only a few pages long and can be read in full at The Republic of Pemberley, where I direct all interested readers who have either not had the pleasure of enjoying this tale before, or who would like to indulge themselves once again, simultaneously serving the secondary purpose of refreshing their memories (

This story begins with a depiction of a benevolent couple, Sir George and Lady Harcourt, who, while "superintending the Labours of their Haymakers, rewarding the industry of some by smiles of approbation, and punishing the idleness of others, by a cudgel" (one must stop and wonder if the laborers were more motivated by those condescending smiles or their fears of a thrashing), just happen across a three-month old girl in the haycock, who has the good sense to be not only beautiful but fully conversant. Entranced, the childless couple adopts Eliza and proceed to raise her with "their first and principal Care" being to foster "a Love of Virtue and a Hatred of Vice". Austen takes pains to assure us in their complete success, this task having been greatly aided by "Eliza having a natural turn that way herself" before recounting the adventures of our heroine as an adult, in which she reveals herself to be, in fact, totally devoid of virtue and deeply seeped in not only vice, but also frivolity and vanity.  

We first learn about Eliza's perfidy when she is caught (indicating that this was not, perhaps, her first transgression) stealing 50 pounds, a sum large enough by far to justify hanging at the time. She is instantly cast off by her "inhumane Benefactors", an occurrence not so distressing to Eliza as one might predict, as Austen illustrates:
Such a transition to one who did not possess so noble and exalted a mind as Eliza, would have been Death, but she, happy in the conscious knowledge of her own Excellence, amused herself, as she sate beneath a tree making and singing the following Lines.
There follows a short verse attesting to the heroine's "innocent Heart" and dedication to virtue.

Eventually Eliza motivates herself so much as to walk to the local inn, where "her most intimate friend" presides (another incongruity, as the daughter of either  knight or a baronet - Austen does not specify which Sir George is - would not be on terms of friendship with an inn keeper). Expressing her wish to be some wealthy lady's companion (a respectable profession for impoverished women of the gentry), her friend immediately writes to another one of her surprising acquaintances, the Duchess of F., requesting she take Eliza on. Not only does this good lady do so, but Eliza is introduced into her household on the footing of another daughter, an extraordinary kindness which is repaid by our heroine by steeling the affections of one Mr. Henry Cecil, the current admirer of the true daughter, and abandoning her post in order to marry him. At this juncture, the formerly indulgent Duchess sends an army of 300 to track down the couple and return them, "dead or alive; intending that if they should be brought to her in the latter condition to have them put to Death in some torturelike manner, after a few years of Confinement." Such persecution - entirely fantastic under the laws that governed England by this date - causes the couple to flee to the Continent where they remain for three years and have two sons. Through unspecified causes, Henry then dies (making the reader wonder why he received top billing in the title), and due to the extraordinarily lavish lifestyle the couple has been living, spending 18,000 pounds a year, an amount that far exceeds the annual income of any of the gentlemen in Austen's novels and by leaps and bounds Mr. Cecil's, estimated at "less than the twentieth part", Eliza finds herself without any means of support. She does, however, own "a man of Was of 55 Guns" (a ship which would be as unreliable, if not more so, on the ocean as the one Admiral Croft famously mocks in Persuasion), which she uses to return to England, only to be instantly seized by the Duchess' men and thrown into the "snug little Newgate" that had been specially built for this purpose, an indication of the magnitude of the Duchess' grievance.

Eliza's situation now seems most dire, for the builders of her prison were so thoughtful as to provide the door with a lock and the window with bars. Less foresight can be attributed to the Duchess' interior decorators, who for some reason thought to equip the cell with "a small saw and Ladder of ropes", thereby providing Eliza with her means of escape. There is only one impediment: "Her Children were too small to get down the Ladder by themselves, nor would it be possible for her to take them in her arms, when she did." Fortunately, the Duchess did not deprive Eliza of her extremely extensive wardrobe when throwing her into confinement (being poorly dressed would have surely been too much of a hardship), and this our heroine throws out the window, followed by her sons, "having given them strict Charge not to hurt themselves". In defiance of all the child rearing advice I have received in the parenthood classes so recently attended, Eliza, after descending the ladder herself, remarkably finds her boys "in perfect Health and fast asleep."

However, a new predicament now confronts our heroine, and she makes the one attempt at practicality we can ever credit to her, by opting to sell her needlessly opulent wardrobe in order to have the funds to maintain herself and her family. Unfortunately, instead of using the money to procure food, she chooses to purchase clothing "more usefull, some playthings for Her Boys and a gold Watch for herself." Such failed pragmatism is soon repaid when her sons, in their abject hunger, bite of two of her fingers (yes, contrary to all expectations and biased assumptions, Jane Austen did write about cannibalism far before anyone chose to interject zombies into her stories).

Devoid of all other options, Eliza now decides to return to the Harcourts, who for some reason she believes will be more forgiving at presant than they were formerly. Walking 30 of the 40 miles to her intended destination, she establishes herself on the steps of a gentleman's house and sets to begging, a dramatic representation of how very far she has fallen while simultaneously emphasizing her continued readiness to impose on others. Ironically, it is Sir George and Lady Harcourt's carriage that she first approaches. In the style of much 18th century literature, like The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling and Evelina, Lady Harcourt suddenly reveals what she has so long forgotten: Eliza is her true daughter. Sir George (who thus establishes himself as the most reasonable person in this tale, which isn't saying much) begs an explanation from his wife, which she provides by referring back to a time when her husband traveled to America:
"Four months after you were gone, I was delivered of this Girl, but dreading your just resentment at her not proving the Boy you wished, I took her to a Haycock and laid her down. A few weeks afterwards, you returned, and fortunately for me, made no enquiries on the subject. Satisfied within myself on the wellfare of my Child, I soon forgot I had one, insomuch that when, we shortly after found her in the very Haycock, I had placed her, I had no more idea of her being my own, than you had, and nothing I will venture to say would have recalled the circumstance to my remembrance, but my thus accidentally hearing her voice, which now strikes me as being the very counterpart of my own Child's."
Is today Mother's Day? Oh dear! Apparently, Eliza was just as conversant at birth as she was at three months, which we must take as a satisfactory explanation of Lady Harcourt's extraordinary recollection. In spite of the matron's fear for her husband's grievance at having a daughter, a notion much contradicted by his readiness to adopt a girl at random, he instantly welcomes his true child back into the fold (perhaps only an adopted daughter can be accused of stealing what might be considered rightfully hers?). Eliza then gratifies herself by raising an army of her own to destroy the Duchess' prison, an act which "gained the Blessings of thousands, and the Applause of her own Heart."

Despite the outlandish nature of the events that transpire in this story, we can detect in it a pattern for Austen's future writing style. Perhaps the most consistent theme in her novels is the notion that people should be judged based upon their actions as opposed to their words. It is in this manner that Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, despite seeming arrogance, is proven "the best of men", and that Mr. Elliot of Persuasion, regardless of his impeccable manners, reveals himself a thorough scoundrel. In Henry and Eliza, the reader is instructed not to trust that characters are moral and altruistic just because a narrator (or the characters themselves) declare them so, but to instead look to their conduct. Austen thrives in depictions of hypocrisy, and it is this trait that defines some of her greatest comic (and sometimes villainous) creations, like Mr. Collins, Isabella Thorpe, Lucy Steele, Sir Walter Elliot, and Mrs. Norris. But it is all too intuitive to read any writer's juvenalia as a key to their latter style, which is why I began this post in the manner I did. Each time I approach this material I am struck anew with how daring and experimental Austen's early style was. Granted, I am a dedicated Austenite, and therefore, like E.M. Forster, "slightly imbecile about Jane Austen", but to all those so quick to write her off as predictable, boring, and passe, I offer up her truly revolutionary early writings as evidence to the contrary. Furthermore, I can not only argue her place as the forerunner to absurdism, but also to the modern push for simplicity of language, in stark contrast to the Victorian writers, like Dickens, who succeeded her. After all, long before Gertrude Stein said that a "Rose is a rose is a rose", Catherine Morland declared that "I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible." When Austen's body of work is taken as a whole, by readers unwilling to simply dismiss her work as romantic comedy, experimentation in almost every genre that defined 20th century literature can be detected. Her Juvenalia is key to such a survey, and I highly recommend it to all who have a sincere interest in the evolution of literature.


  1. Your review made me smile. 'A small saw and Ladder of ropes' in a prison cell! How fortunate! I have never read the Juvenalia, but will look for it now with interest.

  2. Thanks Joanne! The Juvenalia is wonderful, and I think I enjoy it more and more each time I read it.

  3. the part about the finger, and well, ost of this, doesn't sound like the Austen I have read! It certainly sounds intriguing. I'll have to certainly read the juvenalia some day.

  4. Hi Rebecca! Austen Juvenalia holds many surprises for those who are only familiar with her adult works. I'm sure you will find it a fascinating, and eye-opening, read.

  5. " [...] before recounting the adventures of our heroine as an adult, in which she reveals herself to be, in fact, totally devoid of virtue and deeply seeped in not only vice, but also frivolity and vanity."

    I mostly skimmed your post (sorry!) because as soon as I read that sentence I KNEW I wanted to read Juvenilia for myself-- and I didn't want to be spoiled on the plot of anything in it. :D I read Northanger Abbey for the Circuit and loved how Austen played with literary conventions and tropes, so I think I'll really like Juvenilia. Plus Eliza sounds like an anti-heroine! Which just so happens to be my favorite Austen-y thing (along with the snark).

  6. No apologies necessary, Anastasia. There are a plethora of anti-heroines in the Juvenalia - I am sure you will love it. Be sure to check out lady Susan too, as she is by far Austen's ultimate anti-heroine.

  7. This is a lovely review! I wasn't aware, until now, that Austen had anything more than 7 works to her name. I shall be checking it out...I especially love the way you ended your's all so true!

  8. Thanks Risa! I'm perpetually on the defense when it comes to Austen. I can't imagine anyone not relishing her Juvenalia. Enjoy the discovery!