Here lies our friend who having promis-ed
That unto two she would be marri-ed
Threw her sweet Body & her lovely face
Into the Stream that runs thro’ Portland Place.
Those sweet lines, as pathetic as beautifull were never read by any one who passed that way, without a shower of tears, which if they should fail of exciting in you, Reader, your mind must be unworthy to peruse them.
(from Frederic and Elfrida in The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen: Volume VI: Minor Works, page 9; Note: punctuation and spelling are Austen’s)
Part of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia (Volume the First), Frederic and Elfrida is among several very short “novels” believed to have been written between 1787 (when Austen was 12) to 1790. The work spans about 8 pages with 5 chapters. Many of the writings in the Juvenila were read aloud by Austen to entertain her family, and I bet they had some laughs with this one. (I know I did!)
Elfrida and Frederic are cousins who were born on the same day, grew up together, and were very much alike. It is not surprising that their parents determine they should be married. Austen skips around to introduce Elfrida’s friend, Charlotte, who is visiting her aunt when she receives a letter from Elfrida requesting that she purchase Elfrida a bonnet. Charlotte is a very amiable young woman, so of course, she obliges.
When Charlotte returns home and is welcomed back “with the greatest Joy” by Elfrida and Frederic, they take a walk and spy two girls, Jezalinda and Rebecca, the daughters of Mrs. Fitzroy, and a friendship develops. Here, as the three friends admire Rebecca’s “Wit & Charms,” I am reminded of more well-known Austen characters who hand out compliments and insults almost simultaneously.
“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.” (page 6)
After the meeting with the Fitzroys, the last few pages breeze by, with a relationship frowned upon then embraced (frowned upon because Mrs. Fitzroy thought the couple too young for matrimony at 36 and 63) and a melodramatic suicide following one character’s acceptance of two marriage proposals seemingly within a “short time” of one another, meaning more like hours or even minutes. Meanwhile, a wedding date is never set for Elfrida and Frederic, and when time passes and Frederic seems almost lost to her, Elfrida secures her desired outcome through fainting fits.
Obviously, there really is no character development or plot in this short piece, but Austen’s purpose was to entertain, and she succeeded. The melodrama may have been less hilarious and more tragically romantic had it been spread out over a hundred or so pages, but I just love that these writings are like flash fiction that give readers a sense of the writer (genius) that Austen was to become. Already, one can see that Austen had a playful and ridiculous sense of humor, and like her later beloved novels, there are romantic disappointments, seemingly unsuitable marriages, painful separations of friends, and disapproving elders.
Frederic and Elfrida, like other writings in the Juvenilia, are perfect when you have only a few minutes of reading time or are in need of something lighthearted and funny. You won’t find much to ponder in these few pages, and you have to understand that they are like unpolished works from a young girl’s journal, but you won’t want to miss an opportunity to experience Austen as a budding writer.
Disclosure: The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen: Volume VI: Minor Works is from my personal library.
© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.