Virginia Woolf, “Jane Austen” from The Common Reader (1925)

“Brothers and sisters must have laughed when Jane read out loud her last hit at the vices which they all abhorred. “I die a martyr to my grief for the loss of Augustus. One fatal swoon has cost me my life. Beware of Swoons, Dear Laura. . . . Run mad as often as you chuse, but do not faint. . . .” And on she rushed, as fast as she could write and quicker than she could spell, to tell the incredible adventures of Laura and Sophia, of Philander and Gustavus, of the gentleman who drove a coach between Edinburgh and Stirling every other day, of the theft of the fortune that was kept in the table drawer, of the starving mothers and the sons who acted Macbeth. Undoubtedly, the story must have roused the schoolroom to uproarious laughter. And yet, nothing is more obvious than that this girl of fifteen, sitting in her private corner of the common parlour, was writing not to draw a laugh from brother and sisters, and not for home consumption. She was writing for everybody, for nobody, for our age, for her own; in other words, even at that early age Jane Austen was writing. One hears it in the rhythm and shapeliness and severity of the sentences. “She was nothing more than a mere good-tempered, civil, and obliging young woman; as such we could scarcely dislike her—she was only an object of contempt.” Such a sentence is meant to outlast the Christmas holidays. Spirited, easy, full of fun, verging with freedom upon sheer nonsense,—Love and Freindship is all that; but what is this note which never merges in the rest, which sounds distinctly and penetratingly all through the volume? It is the sound of laughter. The girl of fifteen is laughing, in her corner, at the world.”
“. . . at fifteen she had few illusions about other people and none about herself. Whatever she writes is finished and turned and set in its relation, not to the parsonage, but to the universe. She is impersonal; she is inscrutable.”

Margaret Doody, Introduction to Catharine, and other writings (Oxford University Press, 1993)

“By the time she was 15 (or even 13 or 14 – the earliest date suggested for any of the early pieces is 1787), she was as familiar with the workings of fiction as a watchmaker with the interior movements and structures of a clock.” (xv)

“The young Jane Austen could write what she pleased – or at least (for families also provide some censorship) she could write largely what she pleased and walk unrestricted in formal matters. These early works are not only parodic but also highly non-realistic variations on themes and scenes supplied by the contemporary novel, but these exquisite, aggressive, and intellectual variations have a force all their own” (xxxii)

“The laughter in Austen’s early work is a disconcerting, uncompromising laughter, which cannot truly be tamed into gentle satire . . . Austen’s hear witty laughter displays a world full of movement, where, against the regular patterns of action and the fictiveness of plot prescribed by fiction, the conventionally situated characters engage in an orgy of greed, lust, and violence” (xxxiv)