THOUGH FAMOUS FOR HER SIX NOVELS, JANE AUSTEN WAS A PROLIFIC WRITER ALL HER LIFE, INCLUDING IN HER CHILDHOOD AND ADOLESCENCE.
Devoted readers of Jane Austen, having devoured her six major novels repeatedly and insatiably hungry for more, will often turn to her juvenilia, hoping to satiate their craving, only to disregard it in frustration. It is incredibly difficult to reconcile these early works with the style the authoress developed in later life.
First reactions to Austen’s juvenilia include bewilderment, disbelief, and even outrage. How could the writer who so beautifully developed such morally superior characters as Anne Elliot and Mr. Knightley write that a heroine, “having given them strict charge not to hurt themselves, threw her Children [out the window]” (Austen, 34)? Yet in spite of the initial shock of the juvenilia, subsequent readings (if one is brave enough to return for more) betray a brilliance perhaps even beyond what her later works more accessibly reveal, pioneering the trends of postmodernism a century and a half before its time.
Austen transcribed her earliest pieces into three volumes, simply titled Volume the First, Volume the Second, and Volume the Third. These fabulous insights into a young author’s mind, written between the ages of eleven and seventeen, were not made fully available to the public until 1954 (Volume the Second was printed earlier, in 1922 (Austen, xxxxii)). At the time, literary critics remained quite captivated with the image of Austen put forth by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, in his 1869 biography A Memoir of Jane Austen: that of a thoroughly domesticated old maid, demure, and content in her familial life (Austen-Leigh, 2009). Influenced by this portrayal, early scholars of the juvenilia tended to dismiss it as rather inconsequential. In his Portrait of Jane Austen, Lord David Cecil calls the juvenilia “trifling enough” (59). Then again, this is the same man who began his famous 1935 lecture on Jane Austen at Cambridge University with the observation, startling to modern scholars of Austen, that “she did not take her work very seriously” (5).
Clearly, opinions of Austen have changed rather radically over the intervening years. We can now look back at her earliest writings and recognise not only budding talent, but also a shockingly modern, deconstructionist approach to the written word, totally out of sync with the morality of her times, and venturing into the absurd to a degree not broadly accepted in literary circles until the mid-20th century. Austen’s father, the Reverend George Austen, captured a great deal of truth when he inscribed the inside cover of Volume the Third with the words, “Effusions of Fancy by a very Young Lady Consisting of Tales in a Style entirely new” (Austen, xvi). Nothing like these writings preceded them, and it would be a great deal of time before anything similar followed.
One early scholar who did perceive the revolutionary character of Austen’s juvenilia was writer and literary critic G.K. Chesterton, who provided the preface to the first publication of Volume the Second, entitled Love and Freindship and Other Early Works (Austen, xxxii). Of her he says:
She was the very reverse of a starched or starved spinster; she could have been a buffoon like the Wife of Bath if she chose. This is what gives an infallible force to her irony. This is what gives a stunning weight to her understatements. (Austen, xxxiii)
Chesterton’s description is a far cry from the carefully honed image of Austen that dominated contemporary discourse. The comparison to the Wife of Bath, before she became a key subject of feminist criticism, foretells the manner in which Austen would be to be viewed many decades later. Yet Chesterton’s perspective predates that of the great absurdist and post-modern writers of the mid-century. In her 1993 introduction to Catherine and Other Writings, Margaret Anne Doody compares Austen’s early pieces to those of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges (Austen, xxxvi), both highly experimental writers of the mid-20th century. She says of the juvenilia:
These are expressionistic works. Until recently we have had trouble accommodating any such writing into the theories of fiction that were being developed in Austen’s own lifetime and in the century to follow. Such theories often look to Austen’s own work for a touchstone. She exemplifies, to Henry James, E.M. Forster, F.R. Leavis, and others, the essential (and satisfactorily English) qualities of historical realism and psychological roundness. But in the Early Works we see a Jane Austen who cared for none of these things—an impish and formally daring Austen who is most fascinated by the formal qualities of fiction itself, and by the fictionality of fiction. (Austen, xxxii)
Doody delineates in her intro the many ways in which Austen consciously deconstructed the novel, turning the assumptions of fiction upon their heads. The very short piece, The Adventures of Mr Harley, provides a convenient example of such experimentation:
Mr Harley was one of many Children. Destined by his father for the Church and by his Mother for the sea, desirous of pleasing both, he prevailed upon Sir John to obtain for him a Chaplaincy on board a Man of War. He accordingly, cut his Hair and sailed.
In half a year he returned and set-off in the Stage Coach for Hogsworth Green, the seat of Emma. His fellow travelers were, A man without a Hat, Another with two, An old maid and a young Wife.
This last appeared about 17 with fine dark Eyes and an elegant Shape; in short Mr Harley soon found out, that she was his Emma and recollected he had married her a few weeks before he left England. (Austen, 37)
So much takes place and is inferred from these few lines, which the reader can easily imagine being expanded into a full-length (though probably very dull) novel. We have all the necessary components for a complete story of a young man falling in love, pursuing his career, and eventually settling down into his happily ever after. Yet Austen disregards all convention, not only by refusing to dwell on the cliché details, but also by trivialising what ought to be the great, cathartic finale of triumphant love and marriage. Mr Harley has entirely forgotten that he already accomplished his end result. He fails to recognise his young bride, let alone recall that he already married her. There lies the comic genius of the piece, which relies on a dark wit usually associated with post-world war literature. Such rebellion against tradition and established morality is a constant presence in Austen’s juvenilia.
While Doody looks to Calvino and Borges for some affinity with Austen’s early work, I’m more inclined to see in it a precedent for the Theater of the Absurd. The resemblance is particularly striking in the plays Austen penned. When I reread these short, discordant comedies of manners, I inevitably think far more of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter than the 18th century playwrights Austen mimicked. As in so much of the juvenilia, reality is abandoned in her plays for outrageous farce, bordering on the grotesque. Had Austen been born a century later, her early writing might nicely fit into a narrative history of modernism and postmodernism. Instead, critics, academics, and even diehard fans find it easier to overlook the juvenilia, as it is far too discordant to comfortably place in any neatly ordered survey of literature. Austen’s genius is outside her time, and we are left to wonder, especially considering the masterpieces she went on to pen, what astonishing works she might have produced had the contemporary publishing environment been open to her prophetic vision of the written word’s potential.
© Alexa Adams - author of Darcy in Wonderland, The Madness of Mr. Darcy, the Tales of Less Pride & Prejudice series, and more. She contributes to Austen Authors, and is co-founder of the Jane Austen Society of Switzerland.
Austen, Jane. Catherine and Other Writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Austen-Leigh, James Edward. A Memoir of Jane Austen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Cecil, David. Jane Austen: The Leslie Stephen Lecture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935.
Cecil, David. A Portrait of Jane Austen. London: Constable, 1978.
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