In a well-known essay first published in 1948 (“Manners, Morals, and The Novel”), Lionel Trilling wrote memorably of “the buzz of implication” which belongs to each time and each culture, and which it is very difficult for those of later times and other cultures to perceive. “The buzz of implication” means

that part of a culture which is made up of half-uttered or unuttered or unutterable expressions of value. They are hinted at by small actions, sometimes by the arts of dress or decoration, sometimes by tone, gesture, emphasis, or rhythm, sometimes by the words that are used with a special frequency or a special meaning.

What is astonishing is that her keen ear for the absurd and the obnoxious in society was developed so young.

For in the works of an author as beloved, and as written about, as Jane Austen, one might expect that the “buzz of implication” had been thoroughly identified and analyzed. Yet this is not the case. For many modern writers, the implications of Austen’s work are all about our own preoccupations (“gender” is, of course, chief among these), not those of the late eighteenth century. Yet Jane Austen herself possessed one of the most sensitive cultural ears of all time, and was mistress of the understatement. Her implications, therefore, contain much of her meaning.

What is astonishing is that her keen ear for the absurd and the obnoxious in society was developed so young. Love and Friendship, which Jane Austen wrote between the ages of eleven and fourteen, finishing it in 1790, is not only very funny. It is also a conservative polemic of considerable power. It does not take a Jane Austen to point out the absurdity of the sensibility cult of the second half of the eighteenth century: the excessive tears, fainting on sofas, etc. In Love and Friendship, Austen satirized this fashion, which she was later to treat in her more mature novels (particularly, of course, Sense and Sensibility), but she also attacked the radical selfishness which went along with the sensibility cult, from its very inception in the work of Rousseau and Goethe, and which was largely identified at the time with revolutionary politics.

This is often missed. The excellent 1997 biography by Claire Tomalin, for example, gets it 180 degrees wrong:

[Love and Friendship] is black comedy, absurd and riotous, rejecting domestic virtue and decorum with élan and authority.

In fact, Jane Austen used the novel as a vehicle to ridicule the radical rejection of domestic virtue. Marilyn Butler perceived the book’s thrust:

Although Jane Austen’s sentimentalists act in a way that is at the very least equivocal, for in practice they appear ruthlessly self-interested, it is no part of her intention to suggest that they are insincere. In her view the contradiction is inherent in the creed: she wants to show that the realization of self, an apparently idealistic goal, is in fact necessarily destructive and delusory.

Yet Jane Austen wants very much to show that her “sentimentalists” are insincere—in fact, that hypocrisy is a basic feature of being sincerely radical. Her anti-heroines, Laura and Sophia, steal money from parents while despising them, declare their attachment to a young girl while pushing her into an elopement with a fortune-hunter, and profess great sympathy for Sophia’s husband imprisoned in Newgate, but cannot actually bring themselves to visit him.

Pippa Brush’s introduction to Juliet McMaster’s authoritative 1995 edition of Love and Freindship (the original spelling of “Freindship” is often retained) claims that:

Love and Freindship is a parody of a form with which Austen seems to have been intimately familiar—her ironies are so exact—and, while she might have been disapproving, seems to have enjoyed. Austen is laughing at her object, but that laughter is only affectionate.

In fact, she misses the political point entirely. With devastating treatment of the characters’ contempt for their neighbors, family, and parents, Austen’s laughter is no less savage for being expressed with restraint.

I need not I imagine inform you that their union had been contrary to the inclinations of their cruel & mercenary parents; who had vainly endeavoured with obstinate perseverance to force them into a marriage with those whom they had ever abhorred; but with an heroic fortitude worthy to be related & admired, they had both constantly refused to submit to such despotic power. After having so nobly disentangled themselves from the shackles of parental authority, by a clandestine marriage, [Sophia and Augustus] were determined never to forfeit the good opinion they had gained in the world, in so doing, by accepting any proposals of reconciliation that might be offered them by their fathers—to this farther trial of their noble independence however they never were exposed.

Austen’s satiric use of terms such as “despotic power” and “shackles of parental authority” must be significant. These were clichés of pretentious usage: dear old Dick Minim, Johnson’s Critic in the Idler, rejoices that verse has at last shaken off the shackles of rhyming line-ends.

The last quote (“the good opinion they had gained in the world”) denotes that defying parents was a path to popularity, and that Austen felt herself to be taking an unfashionable position.

The narrator of Love and Friendship is a woman called Laura, and the novel consists of her letters to her friend’s daughter. Unlike most epistolary novels, Love and Friendship is entirely one-sided; there are no replies to Laura’s letters, but—incorrigibly selfish—she does not notice. Laura relates the tale of her marriage to one Edward, and the couple’s travels in company with their friends Augustus and Sophia. Both pairs of friends are convinced of their superiority to the less sophisticated people they meet. They move from one social prey to another, taking money and hospitality where they can, and repaying their victims with insults. The bourgeois system fights back at some points, such as when Augustus, having naturally failed to pay his bills (“they, exalted creatures! scorned to reflect a moment on their pecuniary distresses & would have blushed at the idea of paying their debts”), is confined in Newgate: “such unparalleled barbarity,” exclaims Laura.

The most sinister scenes occur in Letters 12 and 13. Here Laura and Sophia (Augustus still being in Newgate, where Edward has gone to visit him) accept the invitation of Sophia’s cousin, a Scottish gentleman called Macdonald. The friends set out to undermine Macdonald’s influence over his teenage daughter Janetta, by persuading her not to marry the man of his choice, one Graham:

We soon saw through [Graham’s] character—. He was just such a man as one might have expected to be the choice of Macdonald. 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.

Laura and Sophia persuade Janetta, instead, to elope to Gretna Green with one Captain M’Kenzie. Next:

Sophia happening one day to open a private drawer in Macdonald’s library with one of her own keys, discovered that it was the place where he kept his papers of consequence & amongst them some bank-notes of considerable amount. This discovery she imparted to me; and having agreed together that it would be a proper treatment of so vile a wretch as Macdonald to deprive him of money, perhaps dishonestly gained, it was determined that the next time we should either of us happen to go that way, we would take one or more of the bank notes from the drawer. This well-meant plan we had often successfully put in execution; but alas! On the very day of Janetta’s escape, as Sophia was majestically removing the 5th bank-note from the drawer to her own purse, she was suddenly most impertinently interrupted in her employment by the entrance of Macdonald himself, in a most abrupt & precipitate manner.

The women have targeted Macdonald because he is a rich gentleman, without pretensions to being an intellectual (his preferred son-in-law had not read Goethe), and because he is a parent. They are simply taking direct action towards the reappropriation of his wealth. When thus caught red-handed, Sophia’s tactics, in barefaced denial of guilt and turning the accusation back on the enemy, are truly revolutionary:

Wretch (exclaimed she, hastily replacing the bank-note in the drawer) how darest thou to accuse me of an act, of which the bare idea makes me blush?

Macdonald has the last word: having told them to leave his house, he notes that their having betrayed his daughter to a fortune-hunter “must indeed be a most grateful reflection, to your exalted minds.” In using the term “exalted,” commonly used to denote superior intellect and feeling, Jane Austen makes clear that her satire is at the expense of self-appointed intellectuals who think themselves above the law.

Edward and Augustus reappear, only to die in a carriage accident, and their widows proceed to seek shelter in a cottage:

[The owner] was a widow & had only one daughter, who was then just seventeen—One of the best of ages; but alas! She was very plain & her name was Bridget … Nothing therefore could be expected from her … she could not be supposed to possess either exalted ideas, delicate feelings or refined sensibilities—She was nothing more than a mere good-tempered, civil & obliging young woman; as such we could scarcely dislike her—she was only an object of contempt.

Who can have inspired these characters? One common kind of criticism would suggest that there was no real-life model, only literary ones. This seems unlikely: from Scott and Macaulay onwards, readers have delighted in the extent to which Jane Austen’s mature work reflects keen observation of actual people. In fact, the behavior and attitudes of Laura and Sophia bear a startling resemblance to those of a real person: the most influential writer of the century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Jane Austen’s contemporaries were in no doubt about the extent to which Rousseau’s life and works influenced literature, society, and politics.

A seemingly distant incident is in fact relevant to Love and Friendship. As Rousseau was on his way to visit Diderot in prison at Vincennes in 1749, he saw an advertisement of an essay competition offered by the Academy of Dijon on the subject: “Has the restoration of the sciences and the arts contributed to corrupt[ing] or to purify[ing] morals?” Overcome by his ideas on the theme, Rousseau sank down under a tree beside the road (it was a hot day), and on rising noticed that his waistcoat was wet with tears.

Ah, if ever I could have written a quarter of what I saw and felt under that tree, with what clarity I should have brought out all the contradictions of our social system! With what simplicity I should have demonstrated that man is by nature good, and that only our institutions have made him bad!

Not only, as shrewd observers have pointed out, were “those tears that streaked his vest … the headwaters of the Romantic Movement in France and Germany,” but those sentiments were the fount of revolutionary politics for the two hundred years to come. Note even the use of the term “contradictions,” that stock proto-Marxist term. We can still see reflections of that distant sunny moment in 1749, from the arguments used on behalf of defendants in court, to the protests which call for the destruction of global trade.

Jane Austen’s contemporaries were in no doubt about the extent to which Rousseau’s life and works influenced literature, society, and politics. Godwin and Mrs. Inchbald both planned to translate Rousseau’s Confessions into English. A Gillray cartoon from 1798, drawn for the Anti-Jacobin magazine, shows English radicals bowing before three deities: Justice, Philanthropy (trampling underfoot “Ties of Nature” and “Amor Patriae”), and Sensibility, this last in the form of a dismal female revolutionary figure, clutching a book inscribed “Rousseau.” In Hazlitt’s view, Rousseau, convinced

that external situation and advantages are but the mask, and that the mind is the man—armed with which [belief], impenetrable, incorrigible, … went forth, conquering and to conquer, and overthrew the monarchy of France and the hierarchies of the earth. Till then, birth and wealth and power were all in all. … Rousseau was the first who held the torch (lighted at the never-dying fire in his own bosom) to the hidden chambers of the mind of man.

(One recalls Saintsbury’s fine remark that “The clear sunshine of Hazlitt’s admirably acute intellect is always there; but it is constantly obscured by driving clouds of furious prejudice.”) Rousseau’s essay (the “Discours sur les arts and les sciences”) won the Dijon competition, and his literary career was well begun. His novel Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) was read everywhere, and had enormous influence, particularly over women. The young Manon Phlipon, later Madame Roland, wrote to her friend Sophie Cannet:

I am astonished that you wonder at my love for Rousseau. I regard him as the friend of humanity, as its benefactor and mine… . His Héloïse is a masterpiece of sentiment. The woman who can read it without being better or at least without desiring to become so, has only a soul of clay, a mind of apathy.

Its relevance to us is the fact that if the young Jane Austen read any of Rousseau’s works, it was probably this. An English translation had appeared in April 1761, only two months after the French original. (It is unlikely that she had read the Confessions, which were issued in several volumes during the 1780s.) We have seen that she makes the other classic sentimental novel of the time, Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), Laura and Sophia’s criterion of worth. Julie, as the most important novel of the mid-century, must have been known to Jane Austen at least by report. Although none of her letters survive from earlier than 1796, we know from later ones that she liked to dislike books that were popular, or were recommended to her. The very popularity of Julie and Werther, combined with their moral and political tendencies, is likely to have inspired Jane Austen’s annoyance.

The politics of Julie are intimately connected with the character of Saint-Preux, the Rousseau-figure, who falls in love with his pupil Julie d’Étange. Saint-Preux is not thought a worthy son-in-law by Baron d’Étange; therefore, gentlemen and fathers are themselves unworthy, and existing institutions are to be despised. Thus, this issue—whether parents had the right to choose a partner for their children—was of the first social and, in fact, political importance. It is clear that Rousseau’s politics—just like the views of Saint-Preux—were grounded in a sense that society had somehow failed to acknowledge his superiority. (Significantly, this was also a factor in the developing revolutionary consciousness of Manon Phlipon, as she saw women of higher rank but less education than herself treated with more respect. She, also, resented her father’s interference in her marriage plans.)

Lord Bomston, an English lord who becomes infatuated with both Julie and Saint-Preux, declares his democratic principles in support of the latter. Importantly for Love and Friendship, Lord Bomston also makes clear the arrogance of those whose sensibility entitles them, in their own view, to special treatment: “Your two souls [those of Julie and Saint-Preux] are so extraordinary that they cannot be judged by common rules.” Lord Bomston becomes Saint-Preux’s benefactor, much in the way that vari-ous aristocrats patronized Rousseau. Saint-Preux, like his creator, takes all favors simply as his due:

With a heart full of our obligations to him, I tried to show him my feelings and yours, but I had a kind of shame about them. In truth, it is to insult a man like him to thank him for anything.

This sounds like a Jane Austen parody of selfishness, but it appears to be serious. That Rousseau’s egotism had political consequences was recognized even by his keenest fans, such as Hazlitt:

It was the excess of his egotism and his utter blindness to everything else that found a sympathy in the conscious feelings of every human breast, and shattered to pieces the pride of rank and circumstance by the pride of internal worth or upstart pretension.

In other words, Rousseau’s egotism was tactical.

Avowed selfishness allowed him to treat with disdain those higher in the social order, and the tactic undoubtedly worked. Like Jane Austen’s Laura and Sophia, Rousseau was showered with favors by aristocrats and bourgeois, with whom he almost invariably quarreled, or whom he went on to insult. The following is by no means a complete list:

The home donated to Rousseau, his de facto wife Thérèse Levasseur, and her mother, by Madame d’Épinay, between 1756 and the end of 1757, by which time they had quarreled bitterly; A pension to help support Thérèse and her mother, organized secretly by Grimm, Diderot, and d’Holbach in the mid-1750s; Rousseau was furious at this “humiliation” when he discovered it; A life annuity of 300 livres from Marc-Michel Rey, Rousseau’s Amsterdam publisher, on behalf of Thérèse; A cottage leased to him and Thérèse in 1757 (following his quarrel with Madame d’Épinay) by an agent of Louis-François de Bourbon, Prince de Conti; Invitations from the Maréchal and Maréchale de Luxembourg to stay with them while the cottage was repaired, resulting in Rousseau and Thérèse moving into the “Petit Château” on their estate in May 1759. This hospitality Rousseau requited very much in the manner of Augustus and Sophia, who, as we saw, notified their new neighbors that they wished for no company but their own. Rousseau, in a letter of 1762, wrote that “I hate the great, I hate their position, their harshness, their prejudices, … their vices… . It was in such a frame of mind I went as one dragged along to the chateau [of the Luxembourgs] at Montmorency”; A home and money donated by the Prussian King Frederick the Great, on the occasion of Rousseau’s exile from Switzerland following the publication of Émile in 1762; and A home in England, contacts, and a pension of £100 a year from King George III, organized in 1765–1766 by Hume, which resulted in the most famous quarrel of all.

Not only can Rousseau’s habit of using and discarding benefactors be considered a template for the behavior of Jane Austen’s Laura and Sophia, but so can his contempt for those he considered inferior. The disdain expressed by Laura for the unpretentious Bridget is no more frank than that of Rousseau in his Confessions for his de facto wife of many years, Thérèse:

I at first tried to improve her mind, but in this my pains were useless. Her mind is as nature formed it; it was not susceptible of cultivation… . I formerly made a dictionary of her phrases to amuse M. de Luxembourg, and her qui pro quos often became celebrated among those with whom I was most intimate.

By the time Rousseau immortalized his obsession with Sophie d’Houdetot in Julie, Thérèse had borne him five children, all of whom were sent—against her will—to a foundling asylum. As Rousseau himself put it:

This arrangement seemed to me to be so good, reasonable and lawful, that if I did not publicly boast of it, the motive by which I was withheld was merely my regard for their mother… . Everything considered, I chose the best destination for my children, or that which I thought to be such. I could have wished, and still should be glad, had I been brought up as they have been.

It is believed that all five children died young. Rousseau’s best-selling manual on child-rearing, Émile, appeared in 1762: the hypocrisy of Jane Austen’s “sentimentalists” pales in comparison with that of their spiritual father.

How did Jane Austen, at such a young age, perceive so clearly that radical sentimentalists were not merely ridiculous, but actively dangerous?

The parent-child relationship, and its subversion, is the chief concern of Love and Friendship. Apart from those references already cited, the novella contains at least half a dozen others to Laura’s dislike of the influence of parents. As we saw in connection with Julie, parental power was a crucial issue in the eighteenth-century novel. Here, again, we can safely leave aside those views which suggest that Jane Austen dealt only in literary tropes, and not with real-life problems. Scott, in discussing Richardson’s Clarissa, noted that the degree to which that book reflected real life was a matter for debate. He concluded that most readers thought Richardson had exaggerated his depiction of the cruelty and neglect practiced by parents and relatives, although he noted that family mores had certainly been different in Richardson’s time. Scott may have considered Johnson’s Rambler essay “On the Tyranny of Parents” an accurate depiction of mid-century practice (no doubt Jane Austen also knew this essay):

Capricious injunctions, partial decisions, un-equal allotments, distributions of reward not by merit but by fancy, and punishments regulated not by the degree of the offence, but by the humour of the judge, are too frequent where no power is known but that of a father.

Well, yes; but this is no more than to say that a household is not an ideal commonwealth, which should have surprised no-one. We may turn to domestic comedy for a more realistic view. While still a very young man, Sheridan created a brilliant portrait of a father-son relationship. The Absolutes, father and son, in The Rivals, exhibit what was no doubt authentic mutual impatience, combined with affection and respect, and a recognition of their family likeness. (That Jane Austen had the theater, and probably Sheridan, in mind when writing Love and Friendship, we know from her reference to the actors Lewis and Quick.)

In emphasizing the radical opposition to the reasonable authority exerted by parents, particularly in the choice of a partner for their child, Jane Austen is adding her voice to that of Burke. His speech on a bill, brought forward by Fox in June 1781, proposing to repeal the Marriage Act, of which the key principle was that the power of marrying without the consent of parents should not take place till twenty-one years of age, helps us to understand the significance of the episode of Janetta Macdonald and the fortune-hunting M’Kenzie. Burke emphasizes that debate on parental power was political:

It is said the marriage act is aristocratic. I am accused, I am told abroad, of being a man of aristocratic principles. If by aristocracy they mean the peers, I have no vulgar admiration, nor any vulgar antipathy, towards them; I hold their order in cold and decent respect. You are afraid of the avaricious principle of fathers. But observe, that the avaricious principle is here mitigated very considerably. It is avarice by proxy; it is avarice, not working by itself, or for itself, but through the medium of parental affection, meaning to procure good for its offspring… . While you would guard against the possible operation of this species of benevolent avarice, the avarice of the father, you let loose another species of avarice; that of the fortune-hunter, unmitigated, unqualified. To show the motives, who has heard of a man running away with a woman not worth sixpence? Do not call this by the name of the sweet and best passion—love. It is robbery; not a jot better than any other.

It is Burke’s cautious and paternalistic approach which Jane Austen’s anti-heroes emphatically reject, and which she invites us, by implication, to support.

Naturally enough, if, as radical writers believed, the laws promoting parental authority were “aristocratic,” in their ideal state there would be no need of them. Though it was written after Love and Friendship, it is worth glancing at Thomas Holcroft’s Anna St. Ives (1792). This novel’s hero, Frank Henley, whose father is portrayed as a scheming wretch, and his Anna, whose father is merely silly, discuss the joy which will result from a perfectly educated mankind, where marriage is no more, and children are “children of the state.”

Holcroft, the older friend of Godwin and Hazlitt, had a belief in the perfectibility of humans so literal that he doubted the inevitability of death. He wrote to his father in 1791: “This is I am persuaded is the error of a false supposition, that death is inevitable. Not that I would have you understand I myself think I shall not die: but I very sincerely think, when I do die, it will be of ignorance, and of the disease [inactivity] I have just mentioned; accidents excepted.”

Reality had little effect on Holcroft’s views. In 1789, his sixteen-year-old only son, William, like Jane Austen’s Augustus, broke open his father’s drawer and stole forty pounds and a pair of pistols. With a friend, he boarded ship for the West Indies. Holcroft pursued his son to Deal, and boarded the vessel. As he, the ship’s steward, and some of the sailors were approaching, William shot himself.

Holcroft had lavished care and love on his only son (“Mr Holcroft thought no pains should be spared for his instruction and improvement”), had done, in fact, all that “education” could do. Yet even after his tragic suicide, the father continued to believe that the re-education of all mankind was both possible and desirable. This is not merely pathetic, it is ominous. One modern writer says, “Indeed it is a lovely vision Holcroft presents in Anna St. Ives,” but it need hardly be said that from large-scale “education to correct a mass of error” it is only a short step to the re-education camp. How did Jane Austen, at such a young age, perceive so clearly that radical sentimentalists were not merely ridiculous, but actively dangerous?

The answer must, in part, lie with Jane Austen’s older cousin, Eliza, Comtesse de Feuillide, to whom Love and Friendship is dedicated. Eliza was charming, perceptive, and fashionable. Importantly—and this is often overlooked—Eliza was also an exemplar of filial, maternal, and family affection, both a devoted daughter to her mother, Jane’s aunt Mrs. Hancock, and a loving mother to her disabled son. Eliza and her mother formed a resolute twosome in their rootless existence, between India, England, and France. It is likely that during her years in France during the 1780s, Eliza noted the growing spirit of the age—the influence of Rousseau, and his sometime allies the philosophes, affecting all social and family life—and expressed to her younger cousin her dismay. As we have seen, it was unlikely that Jane had read the Confessions, but it is possible that Eliza had; and both would have known of the book.

Eliza was also devoted to her godfather (possibly her actual father), Warren Hastings, and attended many sessions of his protracted legal proceedings. (It is instructive to note that while Sheridan and Burke stood for sane and stable family institutions, they were dedicated to the prosecution of genuine despotism, such as, they believed —rightly or not—had been practiced by Hastings in India.)

Examples of radical hypocrisy were not wanting even in Jane and Eliza’s immediate circle. A “Cousin Hampson” whom Eliza mentions often in her letters was actually a baronet, but, according to Eliza’s recent biographer, his republican principles led him to avoid using his title. They did not prevent him from ostentatious display of his wealth, as Eliza wrote to yet another cousin, Philadelphia Walter, in 1791:

Did I tell you when I saw you in town how very noble a house our Cousin Hampson has got, he has left Wimpole Street and is now in Cumberland Place, where he has purchased a really magnificent mansion. Cumberland Place is built in the form of a crescent and is not yet half finished. The houses are extremely noble, and I know that one about two doors from our cousin’s lets for fifteen guineas a week.

Cousin Hampson’s fellow republicans across the Channel saw to it that, three years later, Eliza’s husband, the Comte de Feuillide, had his property seized by the French government. The Comte was arrested in Paris and guillotined, together with an elderly friend he had tried to protect by offering a bribe to government agents. In London, during the same year, 1794, Thomas Holcroft was arrested for participating in a radical group, spent eight weeks in Newgate, and then was acquitted and released (the ubiquitous Sheridan had testified in favor of the chief defendant, Horne Tooke). Such were the “coercive measures” of the counter-revolution in England.

Meanwhile, Jane Austen wrote an openly —indeed, joyously—Tory History of England (1791), and began early drafts of her later novels. Fundamental to her mature works remained a conservative sense of the respect owed to the old, even where—as in the case of Mrs. Bennet or Mr. Woodhouse—it is difficult to pay it. Where the young breach this code—as in Emma’s humiliation of Miss Bates—we find the scene as affecting as Priam’s self-abasement before Achilles, or the rejection of Falstaff by the new-minted King Henry the Fifth. Pride and Prejudice and Emma are not, overtly, political novels. Their forebear Love and Friendship, however, as we can appreciate through reading it with close attention, is a political companion piece to its author’s History, and to the comment she wrote in the margin of Goldsmith’s History: “Nobly said! Spoken like a Tory!” Jane Austen, whether we like it or not, was an early anti-Jacobin.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 5, on page 18
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