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Nonsense Elements in Jane Austen’s Juvenilia

A fan of Lewis Carroll coming unexpectedly upon Jane Austen’s juvenilia would immediately recognize in it the familiar spirit of English nonsense.  In true Carrollian fashion, Austen puns, alliterates, exaggerates, and parodies her way through three volumes of delightfully funny letters, short novels, plays, and even a history of England.  The humor in most of these pieces is strikingly different from that of Austen’s six published novels; although satire and irony are present in both the juvenilia and the mature works, the former also contain a linguistic playfulness that appears to be absent in the later works.  A few critics have noticed this sense of fun in the juvenilia and most of them have acknowledged a comic effect, but many of them take the juvenilia so seriously that they miss the connection between playfulness and nonsense.  Because most scholars are generally concerned with the early works only as evidence of the author’s personality as an adolescent, her inherent feminism, or her development as a writer, they tend to approach these pieces through means and methods that overlook nonsense.  Such approaches have nevertheless contributed much to our understanding of Austen’s life and works in drawing parallels between the juvenilia and the later novels.

When scholars take the juvenilia seriously, they tend to concentrate on the satire in these short pieces.  Annette Hopkins, for instance, considers “Love and Freindship,” one of Austen’s charmingly misspelled effusions, an act of demolition (35).  Building on Hopkins’s metaphor, John Halperin, who finds the juvenilia “startling in their hostility and cold detachment” (30), states that a satirist “must be both serious and angry if he is to succeed in his chosen role of literary demolition expert” (31).  Most critics agree with Hopkins and Halperin that the juvenilia are to be read as satire, sometimes “vicious” satire (Epstein 409).1  Frances Beer, who sees the fun and humor in the juvenilia, also remarks that “the little assassin is eagerly at work, showing no mercy to her victims” (9).  Donald Greene calls Austen’s early characters “monsters” and remarks that R. F. Brissenden “has demonstrated beyond question the insight into the depths of human perversity revealed in Jane Austen’s juvenile pieces” (264).  These scholars find value in the juvenilia for its insight into Austen’s early reading and her artistic development as a satirist.  Examining the early works as nonsense literature will, I hope, provide some insight into the juvenilia itself.  Although it predates the masterpieces of English nonsense, it exhibits many of the elements that are characteristic of the genre. 

Nonsense is a kind of linguistic play that does not concern itself with aesthetic or moral values:  it is a game of words, and as such it concentrates on the thingness of words.  In The Field of Nonsense, Elizabeth Sewell defines her subject as follows: 

Nonsense is not merely the denial of sense, a random reversal of ordinary experience and an escape from the limitations of everyday life into a haphazard infinity, but is on the contrary a carefully limited world, controlled and directed by reason, a construction subject to its own laws.  (5) 

Nonsense is a precise, well-ordered linguistic game, an “attempt to render language a closed and consistent system on its own” (21).  Building on Sewell’s work, Wim Tigges specifically identifies nonsense as a literary genre and lists four essential elements:  “an unresolved tension between presence and absence of meaning, lack of emotional involvement, playlike presentation, and an emphasis, stronger than in any other type of literature, upon its verbal nature” (55).  While Sewell focuses on establishing that nonsense is a game, Tigges describes its generic qualities.  Both assert that nonsense is akin to logic—that, in fact, it applies logic to words, which are inherently illogical because of their tendency to metaphor, and that application thus produces humor.  According to linguists, language is built on metaphor.  When Simon and Garfunkel sing, “I am a rock,” the statement makes no sense logically, but we understand it conceptually because of emotional and psychological constructs in our minds.  When we strip words of metaphorical connotations and treat them as having only literal meaning, they become objects that logic can manipulate and play with.  In fact, Walter Nash sees logic as a factor in all forms of humor.  In The Language of Humour, he comments, “Every comic unlikelihood operates its own compelling logic; but some logics stand in their own humorous right, as self-contained games with language” (109).  Nonsense is one of the logics that operate as language games.  Since Lewis Carroll was a specialist in logic under his professional name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, nonsense had a natural attraction for him.  While not a logician by trade, Austen too favored the precision and rational order inherent in logic, as the structure and specificity of her six published novels attest. 

Since nonsense is a game, it naturally includes rules and units of play (game pieces).  The rules, which may be preestablished or chosen arbitrarily by the author-player, set the limits of the game.  One of the preestablished rules for all nonsense is that it is played on a field totally separate from the real world; in other words, there is no mimetic intent in nonsense.  We can best see this separate field if we think of board games like chess or checkers, played on clearly delineated squares.  As Robert Champigny stresses in Sense, Antisense, Nonsense, ludic values (from Latin ludus, meaning “play”) must be differentiated from aesthetic and moral values and from what Champigny calls “cognitive” values, which are concerned with learning and unlearning (53).  In other words, it is nonsensical to criticize nonsense on the basis of its author’s moral development or its own literariness and relationship to reality.  Any game of nonsense will contain other rules as well, but my purpose is to discuss the elements of nonsense in the juvenilia rather than try to identify the rules of Jane Austen’s game.  By “elements,” I mean the linguistic qualities shared by all works of nonsense; rules of play may be more individualized. 

Along with its separate field of play, another important aspect of any game is the units of play. Since nonsense is a game of words, words must be the units of play.  Reducing a text to a system of words has the effect of reducing the characters in that text into what Joel Weinsheimer calls “segments of a closed text” (195).  In nonsense, therefore, characters are game pieces, not persons.  This kind of ludic perspective detaches the reader from any emotional involvement with the characters and makes it impossible to attribute to them the qualities and characteristics we generally associate with fictional people.  In fact, those qualities and characteristics are themselves reduced to linguistic signs.  Discussing the characters as chess pieces, Sewell states, “It is this that accounts for the apparent cruelty in Nonsense.  To children and to the mind in play, the people have become things; no contact of feeling or sympathy with them is permissible, and so it does not matter if they meet with dreadful fates, in great variety” (138).  Thus, we see Austen’s heroes and heroines drown themselves, poison rivals, get mangled in animal traps, or die in alcoholic stupors, and, instead of feeling sorry for them, we laugh. 

If we view the characters in Austen’s juvenilia as game pieces, we can no longer call them monsters; they are merely checkers being pushed around on a game board.  In this interpretation, critics who focus on character development in the juvenilia are doing it a disservice, rather like discussing the character development of the top hat token in Monopoly.  Just as we cannot criticize the characters’ behavior, we can no longer make moral judgments on the works themselves.  Instead of vicious satire, we have a game of nonsense which can be judged only in terms of how it is played. 

But is the juvenilia nonsense simply because I choose to call it so?  One critic’s arbitrary choice of label hardly seems sufficient, despite Weinsheimer’s claims for the arbitrariness of semiotic criticism.  In this case, however, there is other evidence to back up the claim.  Besides the fact that the juvenilia fit neatly into the nonsense system Sewell has devised for the works of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, evidence can be deduced from the self-contradictory claims of critics such as Beer, who recognize the playfulness of the early works but are never quite sure what to call it.  There is also the evidence gathered by Alistair Duckworth, who proves that games of all sorts were an integral part of Austen’s life and works.  Duckworth examines Austen’s letters and novels closely and concludes that “games of skill, games of chance, games with words were familiar features of Jane Austen’s life from first to last” (279).  Duckworth also claims that Emma is actually structured “according to a ‘system’ of word games” (294).  If games play such an important part in Austen’s mature work, it is an inductive step rather than a leap to determine that games are similarly important in the juvenilia.  John McAleer seconds the importance of games in Austen’s life: 

Jane Austen relished the challenge that rules, discipline, and restricted sources offered. . . . Even her recreations, from what we know of them, were of the kind that invited her to pit her wits and reflexes against difficulties that admitted only of logical solutions dependent on astuteness, adroitness, and common sense—word games, card games, spillikins, country dances, the pianoforte, needlework.  (21) 

If Duckworth and McAleer are right, Austen was game-minded her entire life, so it is not unusual to find her playing games in her early writing. 

A more indirect form of evidence comes from the mid-nineteenth century, when Victorian commentators on Austen referred to her juvenilia as nonsense.  Much of what we know about Austen’s life comes from a memoir written by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh in 1869, which was revised and republished in 1871.  In that account, Austen-Leigh refers to the juvenilia, which nobody outside the family had then seen, as nonsense:  “Her earliest stories are of a slight and flimsy texture, and are generally intended to be nonsensical, but the nonsense has much spirit in it” (40).  A modern edition of the memoir includes a letter, tentatively dated 1869, from Austen-Leigh’s sister Caroline, who refers to one of the stories in the juvenilia as “all nonsense”: 

I have always thought it remarkable that the early workings of her mind should have been in burlesque, and comic exaggeration, setting at nought all rules of probable or possible—when of all her finished and later writings, the exact contrary is the characteristic.  The story I mean is clever nonsense but one knows not how it might be taken by the public, tho’ something must ever be risked.  What I should deprecate is publishing any of the “betweenities” when the nonsense was passing away, and before her wonderful talent had found it’s proper channel.  (Austen-Leigh 186)

By “betweenities,” Caroline meant the short, unpublished pieces Austen wrote in her late teens, in which the nonsense elements are much dampened or altogether absent. 

An early reviewer of the second edition of Austen-Leigh’s memoir, which included one short piece from the juvenilia, remarks that Austen “form[ed] her prentice hand by writing nonsense” (Simpson 243).  In the early 1870s, then, the few people familiar with Austen’s juvenilia saw it as nonsense.  Of course, Austen-Leigh’s tone is dismissive, so he may be using the word in a pejorative sense, but Caroline’s letter is non-judgmental, and Richard Simpson’s review expresses approval of the juvenilia as Austen’s training ground.  What makes me suspect that these early commentators knew exactly what they were doing when they called the juvenilia nonsense is that they wrote at the height of English nonsense literature, when educated Victorians could not have avoided some knowledge of the genre.  A Book of Nonsense, limericks written and illustrated by Edward Lear, had been published in 1846, and a new, expanded edition was published in 1861; Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll’s tour-de-force of nonsense, was published in 1865.  Both volumes were extremely popular with the Victorian reading public, including children and adults, so a general concept of nonsense literature permeated the time period.  If Caroline or her brother had read either Lear or Carroll, they would have seen the resemblance to their aunt’s early pieces; even if they had not read them, they would have heard other people talking about the works. 

Several modern critics come close to realizing that the juvenilia are nonsense, but none of them pick up on that thread from the 1870s.  Margaret Anne Doody, who values the juvenilia as “brilliant analytical and surprising comedy” (105), discusses several of the elements of nonsense without recognizing them as such.  For example, she notes that “Austen is playing with—and against—all the clichés of narrative and all the tropes of realism” (111), a comment that suggests a game with an identified opponent.  Leslie Robertson goes further in proposing the concept of play as a model for studying Austen’s juvenilia:  “elements of play . . . are the defining characteristics of her early work.  She plays with the reality she knows and transforms it in the process” (296).  Neither Doody nor Robertson, however, follows the clues to identify the play as the game of nonsense. 

Now that I have constructed an argument in favor of examining Jane Austen’s juvenilia as nonsense, all that remains is to show how Austen applies the elements of nonsense in these early pieces.  The most effective method of doing so is to let Austen speak in her own words as much as possible.2 

According to Sewell, “There is only one aspect of language which Nonsense can be said to disorder, and that is reference” (38).  By reference, she means semantics, the study of linguistic meaning.  Later scholars of nonsense have claimed a wider linguistic field.  Nonsense, says Steve Bonner in an article for Verbatim, can be based on either phonology (sounds) or semantics (meaning).  Playing with the sounds of language gives us such words as Carroll’s brillig and slithy toves.  Playing with meanings allows Bonner to generate phrases like “rotating strawberry madonnas” and “glorious b-flat noodles” (1).  Jean-Jacques Lecercle, who examines nonsense through the lens of structural linguistics, claims that nonsense can play with all four levels of language—not just phonology and semantics but also morphology (word formation) and syntax (phrase, clause, and sentence formation).  As he says, nonsense texts “not only conform to the levels, they play with them, or play one against the others, as if they were natural objects” (27).  Thus, while nonsense is a game of words, it is also a game of other linguistic elements:  units that are smaller than words and units that are larger than words.  Obviously, Austen did not intentionally apply structural linguistics in her youthful writing since it had not been invented yet, but as a native speaker of English, she could intuit the linguistic rules of the language and play with them. 

Although Austen creates no neologisms like Carroll’s brillig or Lear’s runcible, in several of her stories she makes up silly place names like Crankhumdunberry and Pammydiddle, having fun with the word-formation rules of English onomastics.  She also indulges in occasional alliteration, a way of playing with sound.  In “Frederic & Elfrida,” a visitor finds the amiable Rebecca “surrounded by Patches, Powder, Pomatum & Paint with which she was vainly endeavouring to remedy the natural plainness of her face” (Minor Works 7).  The amiable Rebecca’s unfortunate physical appearance is the butt of many jokes in this story.  In this instance, the repeated plosive “p” sound creates a rhythmic list of cosmetics that is naturally pleasing to English speakers.  A different plosive is involved in the prime example of alliteration in the juvenilia, which occurs in the dedication of “A Collection of Letters”: 

Conscious of the Charming Character which in every Country, & every Clime in Christendom is Cried, Concerning you, with Caution & Care I Commend to your Charitable Criticism this Clever Collection of Curious Comments, which have been Carefully Culled, Collected & Classed by your Comical Cousin.  (149)3

This is a consonantal compliment to her cousin Jane Cooper.  A modern reader may think that the young Austen has an incomplete grasp of alliteration since she includes “Charming” and “Charitable” as if they begin with the same hard “k” sound as the other words she has capitalized.  However, early definitions of alliteration define this poetic device as repetition of an initial letter rather than the repetition of an initial consonant sound, so Austen is applying alliteration as it was understood in her day.  There are other examples of alliteration in the juvenilia, but these two are the only ones that are unmixed with other nonsense elements.  Although I will discuss the components of nonsense as if they exist in pure form, in most examples several elements are intermingled. 

Whereas place names play with morphology and alliteration plays with phonology, puns are a way of playing with semantics by conflating different meanings of the same term.  Puns occur as frequently in Austen’s juvenilia as they do in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, the poster books for English nonsense.  In Austen’s “Jack & Alice,” the titular heroine takes to the bottle after she has been disappointed in love, and the narrator tells us, “In spite of the wine she had been drinking, poor Alice was uncommonly out of spirits” (15).  Here Austen conflates two meanings of “spirits,” one referring to alcoholic beverages, the other to mood.  Taken metaphorically, “out of spirits” means depressed, but taken literally, it means out of wine.  The joke depends on the reader’s understanding of the dual meanings.  Alice’s fondness for alcohol is one of the running jokes in “Jack & Alice,” and Austen employs several puns related to drunkenness. 

After Charlotte drowns herself in “Frederic & Elfrida,” four other characters throw themselves at the feet of Mrs. Fitzroy to beg her to rescind her objection to her daughter Rebecca’s engagement to Captain Roger—an objection based on Rebecca’s tender age.  The four address Mrs. Fitzroy in chorus:  “‘That plea can be no more, seven days being now expired, together with the lovely Charlotte, since the Captain first spoke to you on the subject’” (10).  “Expired” is applied in its meaning of “passed” to show the passing of time and in its meaning of “died” to show the passing of Charlotte.  Obviously, since an entire week has passed (as well as Charlotte), Rebecca’s tender age can no longer be an objection:  she is, after all, seven entire days older than she was when her mother objected to the engagement. 

In the much-discussed “Love and Freindship,” Edward’s dying words after being thrown from his carriage are quite to the point:  “‘Laura (said He fixing his now languid Eyes on me) I fear I have been overturned’” (99).  In British English, “overturn” can mean “destroy” as well as be applied literally to a carriage turning over.  Edward employs both meanings to describe the actual accident and his impending death.  Several pages later, Laura’s dear friend Sophia suffers a similar pun-ishment; as Laura says, “Her disorder turned to a galloping Consumption & in a few Days carried her off” (102).  This last example in particular shows Austen’s command of syllepsis, a figure of speech that Juliet McMaster defines as “an incongruous yoking of the literal and figurative applications of an idiom” (185).  In this way, syllepsis plays with both semantics and syntax.  “Galloping consumption” was a common phrase for an aggressive case of tuberculosis in Austen’s day, but she treats it as if it were the name of a horse on which Sophia rides off. 

Besides playing with morphology, phonology, semantics, and syntax, nonsense also employs exaggeration and understatement to create its effects.  Of course, exaggeration is also a characteristic of satire, burlesque, and parody, so it is natural for critics to interpret the juvenilia as examples of those genres.  As Rachel Brownstein says, “It was by exaggerating the pretensions of popular narratives to both romance and realism . . . that Jane Austen learned to write her mature, self-aware, ironic fictions” (130).  Austen likes to exaggerate the personal qualities of her characters, taking them to a ridiculous extreme.  In “Frederic & Elfrida,” Charlotte is so amiable—so unwilling to make anyone unhappy—that she accidentally gets engaged to two men, both strangers to her, on the same evening.  She then forgets about both engagements until the next morning, at which time she is so dismayed that she drowns herself because she cannot bear to disappoint either gentleman.  Austen thus takes excessive amiability to its logical but nonsensical extreme.  “Evelyn,” the only nonsense piece in Volume the Third, exaggerates the generosity of the Webb family to such an extent that they give their house, all their money, and their eldest daughter (along with her large dowry) to a passing stranger.  Charles Adams of “Jack & Alice” is a paragon of physical and moral excellence who dazzles everyone at a masquerade: 

Of the Males a Mask representing the Sun, was the most universally admired.  The Beams that darted from his Eyes were like those of that glorious Luminary tho’ infinitely superior.  So strong were they that no one dared venture within half a mile of them; he had therefore the best part of the Room to himself, its size not amounting to more than 3 quarters of a mile in length & half a one in breadth.  (13) 

When everyone unmasks, it turns out that Charles is not wearing a mask at all:  his real face is this overwhelming.  Obviously, the dimensions of the room are also exaggerated.  The main characters in “Love and Freindship” are extreme caricatures of sensitive, romantic souls, but the story also includes some more subtle forms of exaggeration, as in Gustavus’s life story, which includes a brief career as an actor in a very small theatrical troupe.  He tells Laura, “‘One of our most admired Performances was Macbeth, in which we were truly great.  The Manager always played Banquo himself, his Wife my Lady Macbeth. I did the Three Witches & Philander acted all the rest’” (108).  Philander must have been a singularly talented and energetic performer to be able to play Macbeth, Duncan, Macduff, Malcolm, Fleance, and a host of minor characters, some of whom appear on stage at the same time.  Exaggeration here is taken to the point of absurdity. 

Austen does not use understatement as often as exaggeration, but there are a few occasions for it.  In “Love and Freindship,” Laura writes a letter to the daughter of a dear friend, recounting the early years of the friendship:  “Our neighbourhood was small, for it consisted only of your Mother” (78).  One neighbor is as small as a neighborhood can get.  In the same letter, Laura writes admiringly, “Isabel had seen the World.  She had passed 2 Years at one of the first Boarding-schools in London; had spent a fortnight in Bath & had supped one night in Southampton” (78).  Laura presents a limited view of the world here.  Two years of close confinement in a girls’ school does not give anyone much experience of London, and brief visits to two middle-class English towns hardly broaden one’s views.  Ironically, Laura herself, having grown up in Spain and France, has a better claim of having seen the world than her parochial English friend. 

The specificity of two years, a fortnight, and one night brings us to another important element of nonsense:  the use of numbers.  Every scholar who has made a study of nonsense has noted the importance of numbers and series in this type of literature.  Sewell’s Field of Nonsense devotes several chapters to the role of numbers and series.  Because specificity is a tool of limitation, it works very well in a game system partially defined as “a carefully limited world.”  Champigny concurs with Sewell about the importance of numbers, stressing their ability to create mathematically tamed limits (30).  Series also create limits; in fact, they can be viewed as numbers if we interpret them as “one and one and one” (Sewell 74).  Tigges sees numbers as a theme or motif in nonsense literature, and Lecercle mentions its fondness for lists, which are the same thing as series. 

Whether or not Austen recognizes the taming ability of numbers, she is well aware of their potential for comic effect.  In a scene previously referenced in “Frederic & Elfrida,” Rebecca and Captain Roger encounter difficulties with the lady’s mother, who “did not approve of the match on account of the tender years of the young couple, Rebecca being but 36 & Captain Roger little more than 63” (7).  The humor comes from the contrast between the concept of “tender years” or extreme youth and the mature ages of the two people in question.  This contrast is an example of what Elliott Oring calls appropriate incongruity, the perception of a relationship “between categories that would ordinarily be regarded as incongruous” (1), in this case the categories of youth and maturity.  To Oring, appropriate incongruity is the basis of all humor.  When the lovers beg Rebecca’s mother to reconsider one week later, after Charlotte’s suicide, the short passage of time is also played for humorous effect.  Even if they had been much younger, the idea that one week is time enough to mature is absurd.  In the same story, a group of characters take a delightful little stroll in a grove, where they “scarcely remained above 9 hours” (5). 

Other stories also play with numbers.  In “Edgar & Emma,” Mrs. Wilmot, having accounted for the specific whereabouts of twenty of her children, concludes by telling Emma that the rest of them are at home.  In this example, the humor comes from the notion of a well-bred gentlewoman having so many children that she cannot keep count.  Another Emma seeks recompense from the title character of “Sir William Mountague,” who has killed her brother.  When Sir William tells her to name her price, Emma demands the princely sum of fourteen shillings, an extremely modest amount of blood money.  As part of his life story, Gustavus tells Laura in “Love and Freindship” that he and Philander, then aged 15, stole their mothers’ money and divided it into budget categories:  “‘Having thus arranged our Expences for two Months (for we expected to make the nine Hundred Pounds last as long) we hastened to London & had the good luck to spend it in 7 weeks & a Day which was 6 Days sooner than we had intended’” (107).  The numbers are specific and incongruous.  Not only should nine hundred pounds last much longer than the intended two months, but finding pleasure in getting rid of the money as fast as possible rather than trying to make it last is incongruous.  Most of these uses of numbers can also be seen as examples of exaggeration or understatement; as I stated earlier, the elements of nonsense often overlap with one another. 

The most delightful example of Austen’s use of numbers in the juvenilia occurs in a short play called “The Visit.”  In this instance, the numbers are not themselves nonsensical but create a situation that is.  When the Fitzgeralds find themselves somewhat short of furniture because of an ancestor’s eccentric habits, Miss Fitzgerald proposes a creative solution to the problem of adequate seating:  “‘Bless me!  there ought to be 8 Chairs & there are but 6.  However, if your Ladyship will but take Sir Arthur in your Lap, & Sophy my Brother in hers, I beleive we shall do pretty well’” (52).  They do indeed do pretty well: by the end of dinner, three couples are engaged.  In this instance, the humor depends on eighteenth-century notions of proper etiquette and the reversal of expectations. 

Austen uses series less often than she does numbers, but several stories include unusual lists.  In “Frederic & Elfrida,” two delicate ladies sit down to a light meal of “a young Leveret, a brace of Partridges, a leash of Pheasants & a Dozen of Pigeons” (9).  This is enough meat for an army battalion.  In “Memoirs of Mr Clifford,” the title character is an enthusiastic traveler—not surprising in light of his abundance of vehicles.  Besides the many carriages the narrator cannot recall, Mr. Clifford owns “a Coach, a Chariot, a Chaise, a Landeau, a Landeaulet, a Phaeton, a Gig, a Whisky, an italian Chair, a Buggy, a Curricle & a wheelbarrow” (43).  A single gentleman, no matter how rich, has no need of so many vehicles, and the recitation of them becomes more humorous as it goes on, especially as it concludes with the incongruous wheelbarrow.  In “Love and Freindship,” those remarkable thespians, Gustavus and Philander, carefully budget the nine hundred pounds they have stolen from their now destitute mothers, dividing it into “‘nine parcels, one of which we devoted to Victuals, the 2d to Drink, the 3d to Housekeeping, the 4th to Carriages, the 5th to Horses, the 6th to Servants, the 7th to Amusements, the 8th to Cloathes & the 9th to Silver Buckles’” (107).  As in the previous example, the last budget category is incongruous.  The alcoholic heroine of “Jack & Alice” assures a new friend that “except her Father, Brother, Uncles, Aunts, Cousins & other relations, Lady Williams, Charles Adams & a few dozen more of particular freinds, she loved her better than almost any other person the world” (23).  The list of exceptions reduces Alice’s claim of affection to nothing; it is indeed almost self-contradictory.  Similarly, Margaret Lesley and her sister claim complete social isolation, “retired from almost all the World, (for we visit no one but the M’Leods, the M’Kenzies, the M’Phersons, the M’Cartneys, the M’Donalds, The Mckinnons, the M’lellans, the M’Kays, the Macbeths and the Macduffs)” (111).  Further, in all of these examples, the last item in each list acts as the punchline of a joke, either by including something incongruous like a wheelbarrow or silver buckles or by making a literary joke, as in the Shakespearean reference in the last example.  Just as with the use of numbers, the use of series also tends to overlap with exaggeration and understatement. 

Reversals are another important component of the game of nonsense, whether they are reversals of expectations or direct contradictions of fact.  This element is in a large part responsible for the scholarly tendency to label the juvenilia as burlesque, parody, and satire.  Along with exaggeration, reversal of expectations is often found in those genres as well as in nonsense.  Juliet McMaster explores gender reversal in the juvenilia, for instance, showing how male and female characters exchange social roles and behavior.

An audience’s expectations of social and literary conventions are culturally embedded.  Since Austen’s early pieces were written as private entertainments, the original audience in this case consisted of her family and friends.  Austen was well aware of their expectations regarding sentimental novels, mysteries, histories, and sundry other genres, and she took great delight in confounding those expectations, many of which are shared by modern readers.  Heroes and heroines are supposed to display every virtue, so Austen’s heroes and heroines are thieves, drunkards, and murderers.  Virtue, when it does appear, is stretched out of its proper shape, thus creating many parallels to the overly generous family in “Evelyn.” 

One expectation an audience may reasonably have is that the hero of a novel should appear in it fairly often, particularly if his name appears first in the title.  Somewhere near the end of “Jack & Alice” the titular hero makes his first and last appearance: 

It may now be proper to return to the Hero of this Novel, the brother of Alice, of whom I beleive I have scarcely ever had occasion to speak; which may perhaps be partly oweing to his unfortunate propensity to Liquor, which so compleatly deprived him of the use of those faculties Nature had endowed him with, that he never did anything worth mentioning.  (24–25) 

In the very next sentence, poor Jack dies, an apparent victim of alcohol poisoning.  His name never appears in the story at all, thus completely undercutting the expectation that a story titled “Jack & Alice” will be about Jack and Alice. 

Austen’s original audience would expect a heroine to be a proper lady, but her heroines seldom meet society’s standards for polite behavior.  McMaster claims that gender reversal is one of Austen’s “most gleeful recurring jokes” (176), pointing out that Eliza in “Henry & Eliza” acts like Tom Jones; she steals money and another girl’s fiancé, runs off to France, escapes from prison, and defeats an enemy in battle.  McMaster also discusses “Jack & Alice,” in which all the female characters lust after the virtuous Charles Adams, as an example of gender reversal.  Most of Austen’s early heroines act like bad boys.  Even the heroine of “The Beautifull Cassandra,” presumably named for Austen’s sister, exhibits less than ladylike behavior.  As the narrator tells us in chapter 4, “She then proceeded to a Pastry-cooks where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry Cook & walked away” (45).  This passage, which is chapter 4 in its entirety, also confounds our expectations about the length and contents of a chapter in a novel. 

Gender expectations are not the only social conventions upended.  As Brownstein points out, “In the juvenilia, class and gender distinctions, so crucial in genteel fiction—including Austen’s—are either ignored or inverted, along with plausibility” (130).  Austen ignores the strict social divisions of eighteenth-century England by freely allowing duchesses to hobnob with bartenders or well-bred, genteel ladies to keep a pub.  Her innocent young girls are talented thieves and pick-pockets, and lords and ladies adopt stray infants found under piles of hay.  Rather than behaving according to the norms of their social class, Austen’s characters cheerfully indulge in the most socially unapproved kinds of behavior.  As Lecercle says, nonsense characters follow “a Selfishness Principle. . . . Superciliousness, indifference, even delusions of grandeur . . . are the common lot of the characters” (103–05).  And their spoken words show a similar reversal of expectations. 

Polite conversation is a staple of eighteenth-century novels.  As Paul Langford explains, eighteenth-century manners were connected to the growing middle class: 

Politeness conveyed upper-class gentility, enlightenment, and sociability to a much wider elite whose only qualification was money, but who were glad to spend it on acquiring the status of gentleman.  In theory politeness comprehended, even began with, morals, but in practice it was as much a question of material acquisitions and urbane manners.  (4–5) 

Material acquisitions and urbane manners are often played against each other in the juvenilia, in which well-bred young ladies take offense at being caught stealing money from male relatives.  In the juvenilia, polite conversation degenerates into downright rudeness, just as it does in Carroll’s Wonderland.  The forms of polite conversation are observed, but the content is not.  Tired of her many importunate suitors, Margaret Lesley of “Lesley Castle” writes to her dear friend Charlotte to say, “‘How often have I wished that I possessed as little personal Beauty as you do; that my figure were as inelegant; my face as unlovely; and my Appearance as unpleasing as yours’” (135–36).  Although couched as a compliment, the content is completely insulting.  Of course, Charlotte is equally rude and insensitive when her distraught sister’s fiancé has a fatal accident:  “‘Good God! (said I) you dont say so?  Why what in the name of Heaven will become of all the Victuals?’” (113).  Charlotte’s obsession with the victuals runs throughout the story; in each of her letters, she mentions how the family is working its way through the food, although the bereaved sister refuses to cooperate in the efforts.  Charlotte complains that she will not consume her share of the victuals. 

The best example of rude conversations occurs in “Frederic & Elfrida,” when the two title characters and a different Charlotte first meet the amiable Rebecca:

[T]hey all with one accord jumped up and exclaimed.  Lovely & too charming Fair one, notwithstanding your forbidding Squint, your greazy tresses & your swelling Back, which are more frightfull than imagination can paint or pen describe, I cannot refrain from expressing my raptures, at the engaging Qualities of your Mind, which so amply atone for the Horror, with which your first appearance must ever inspire the unwary visitor.”  (6) 

As McMaster points out, “The situation of the three visitors leaping to their feet during a formal visit and delivering, unrehearsed, such a speech, in chorus, is sufficiently absurd.  But the formality of the diction, with its sycophantic apostrophe followed by outrageous insult elaborately couched as praise, adds to the joke” (88).  The rudeness of the characters in “Frederic & Elfrida” goes beyond conversation.  These same characters exhibit other rude behavior:  “From this period, the intimacy between the Families of Fitzroy, Drummond, and Falknor, daily increased till at length it grew to such a pitch, that they did not scruple to kick one another out of the window on the slightest provocation” (6). 

Another type of reversal is direct contradiction, such as in the previously mentioned examples of Alice’s undercutting of her claim to affection and Margaret Lesley’s contradiction of her claim of social isolation.  We also see contradiction in the remarkable resemblance between the two loving cousins in “Frederic & Elfrida”: 

They were exceedingly handsome and so much alike, that it was not every one who knew them apart.  Nay even their most intimate freinds had nothing to distinguish them by, but the shape of the face, the colour of the Eye, the length of the Nose & the difference of the complexion.  (4) 

On one hand, the narrator informs us that Frederic and Elfrida look exactly alike, and on the other hand, she lists specific and glaring differences in their appearance, thus contradicting herself.  This description does not take into account the additional fact that the two cousins may also be differentiated by gender.  In “Love and Freindship,” Laura writes about her first meeting with her beloved Edward, saying, “‘The noble Youth informed us that his name was Lindsay—for particular reasons however I shall conceal it under that of Talbot’” (80).  Not concealing his name, Laura directly contradicts herself.  She does, however, conceal the particular reasons why she intends to conceal his name.  Since neither name is mentioned in the rest of the miniature novel, Laura does in a sense conceal both names after she has revealed them. 

Most readers find these examples of contradiction amusing, but according to Sewell, “Laughter is incidental to Nonsense but not essential to it” (6).  In practice, however, much prose nonsense is written with the intention of provoking laughter or at least amusement, and I have been referring to its humorous uses throughout this discussion.  I have no doubt Austen wrote the juvenilia for her own amusement and that of her immediate audience.  Most of the examples I have provided so far are funny.  Their humor seems to fit into the script-based semantic theory of humor, which postulates that humor occurs when a text fits into two different semantic scripts at the same time.  Another element of nonsense, however, involves the juxtaposition of unlike objects, and this element fits best into the incongruity theory of humor that predates the script-based semantic theory.  Juxtaposition of unlike objects is particularly useful when dealing with abstractions.  In nonsense, according to Sewell, abstractions are “frequently tethered down by a thing, and a completely unromantic and matter-of-fact thing” (136).  Austen likes to tether romantic imagery to more prosaic description, thereby transforming the sublime into the ridiculous. 

“Love and Freindship” contains several examples of this kind of juxtaposition.  At one point in the narration, Laura and Sophia find themselves in a spot suited to romantic reflection.  According to Laura’s description, “‘A grove of full-grown Elms sheltered us from the East—.  A Bed of full-grown Nettles from the West—.  Before us ran the murmuring brook & behind us ran the turn-pike road’” (97).  The grove of elms and the murmuring brook are standard romantic images, but nothing could be less romantic than nettles and turnpikes.  When Edward dies a few pages later, Laura runs mad.  Her ravings mention several objects of a prosaic nature as she rants, “‘Beware ye gentle Nymphs of Cupid’s Thunderbolts, avoid the piercing Shafts of Jupiter—Look at that Grove of Firs—I see a Leg of Mutton—They told me Edward was not Dead; but they deceived me—they took him for a Cucumber—’” (100).  Laura has apparently been studying Shakespeare under the tutelage of Gustavus and Philander:  she intersperses romantic phrases with the most unromantic meat and vegetables. 

The parodic aspect of the juvenilia is also linked to nonsense literature.  According to Lecercle, “it is a characteristic of nonsense texts that they are always secondary, always after-the-event rewritings of other texts, hence the importance of parody in the genre” (169).  The classic nonsense text Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland includes many poem parodies, of which the most recognizable to modern readers is a take-off on a well-known children’s poem: 

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you’re at!
Up above the world you fly,
Like a teatray in the sky.  (103) 

The parody replaces the more romantic star and diamond of the original with the extremely prosaic bat and teatray, juxtaposing unlike objects.  Like the Alice books, Austen’s juvenilia delights in parodies of well-known literature.  Many commentators have discussed the ways in which Austen’s juvenilia makes fun of the novels of her day.  McMaster points to Laura and Augustus (1784) as Austen’s model for “Love and Freindship” and Frances Brooke’s epistolary novel Emily Montague (1769) as an influence on “Amelia Webster.”  Austen’s “History of England” is well-known as a parody of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of England from The Earliest Times to the Death of George II (1771).  Doody discusses the ways Charles Adams in “Jack & Alice” is a parody of Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison (1753) while other parts of “Jack & Alice” make fun of Charlotte Smith’s Emmeline (1788).  Austen occasionally parodies an entire genre, as she does in the mini-play titled “The Mystery,” in which various characters come and go, making mysterious, unfinished remarks so that readers cannot tell what the play is about—it truly is a mystery. 

As delightful as Austen’s early pieces are, the fact remains that they are juvenile work and therefore occasionally crude in construction and content.  For the most part, the nonsense is uneven.  The few pieces the critics like to point to as early examples of Austen’s mature style, “The Three Sisters” and “Catharine,” do not work as nonsense at all.  In these two works a moral perspective has crept in, and morality is fatal to nonsense.  The second volume does contain, however, one short letter entitled “A Tour through Wales” that is a perfect gem of nonsense.  I quote it almost in its entirety: 

We left our dear home on last Monday month; and proceeded on our tour through Wales. . . . We travelled on horseback by preference.  My Mother rode upon our little pony & Fanny & I walked by her side or rather ran, for my Mother is so fond of riding fast that She galloped all the way.  You may be sure that we were in a fine perspiration when we came to our place of resting.  Fanny has taken a great many Drawings of the Country, which are very beautiful, tho’ perhaps not such exact resemblances as might be wished, from their being taken as she ran along.  It would astonish you to see all the Shoes we wore out in our Tour . . . and at last when they were quite gone, Mama was so kind as to lend us a pair of blue Sattin Slippers, of which we each took one and hopped home from Hereford delightfully—.  (176–77) 

Austen builds the joke carefully, starting with a perfectly ordinary tour that begins to derail into nonsense when group travel by horseback becomes one pony and two girls on foot, and then exaggeration pushes the nonsense further.  The supposed kindness of Mama is directly contradicted by her selfishness in not only riding the only available equine but in galloping the entire way so that her daughters have to run.  The incongruity of Fanny’s drawing landscapes while running along and the absurdity of the girls hopping all the way home on one foot shod in inappropriate footwear take the nonsense to a logical conclusion that is capped with a bit of alliteration as they hop home to Hereford. 

It is fun to speculate about the kind of literature Jane Austen might have written if she had not switched to a realistic style.  Doody for one thinks it a shame that she had to tame her style to fit the standards of her time.  From indications found in the juvenilia, Austen would have been quite capable of producing masterpieces of English nonsense.  Lewis Carroll might easily have found himself faced with a formidable forerunner.



1The words most often used to classify Austen’s juvenilia are satireparody, and burlesque (see Alexander, Beer, Brownstein, Doody, Halperin, Krueger, Litz, and McAleer).  More recently, scholars have been examining the stories as examples of the picaresque (see Leffel, Monteiro, and Wiesenfarth) or describing them as carnivalesque and Rabelaisian (see McMaster).  Nobody has considered them as an example of nonsense literature. 

2The original versions of the juvenilia no longer exist, but Austen copied her early works into three notebooks sometime later, labelling them Volume the First, Volume the Second, and Volume the Third as a joking reference to the traditional three-volume novels of her day.  There are indications that she did some minimal revisions in these notebooks, which her sister passed on to three different relatives.  Volume the Second was first published as Love and Freindship in 1922; Volume the First was published in 1933; Volume the Third was published in 1951.  Editors retained Austen’s idiosyncratic usage and spelling. 

3Each piece in the juvenilia has a personal dedication, usually humorous and generally addressed to a family member.

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