Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, which range over three manuscript notebooks, contain twenty-seven items, which, says Austen scholar Brian Southam, she put together “as a record of her work and for the convenience of reading aloud to the family and friends.”
While only four of the pieces are specifically dated, Austen scholars have worked out an order of writing. Most of those in “volume the first” date from 1787 to 1790 (from when Austen was 11/12 to 14/15.) The few pieces which she added at the end of this first volume come from 1793.
Why read the Juvenilia?
There are many reasons for reading an author’s juvenilia, which Juvenilia Press defines as “early writings by children and adolescents up to around 20 years of age”. They probably vary depending on the author and reader in question, but, for me, the reasons for reading Austen’s Juvenilia include for
- insight into her development as a satirist;
- insight into her understanding of the “depths of human perversity” (RF Brissenden);
- insight into her understanding of the machinations of society, such as the nexus between marriage and money, and the place of women;
- insight into her linguistic skill and wordplay;
- insight into her writing development, including toying with forms like memoir, epistolary novels, adventures, plays, poems;
- fun, because, depending on your sense of humour, they are a hoot.
If you love Austen, one of the reasons you love her is for her wit. In her Juvenilia, we see the origins of what later became a sophisticated (and arch) use of wit. In her Juvenilia, though, the humour is more variously described as nonsense, absurd, burlesque, farce, melodrama, parody, satire, comic, and so on. The humour is broad and realism absent, but oh, such fun.
For some recent thoughtful discussions of the Juvenilia, check out:
- Devoney Looser’s “The beautiful, proto-feminist Snark of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia: 74,000 words of raucous, handwritten amorality” (LitHub 2016)
- Donna White’s “Nonsense elements in Jane Austen’s Juvenilia” (Persuasions 2018)
Meanwhile, I’m going to share, somewhat randomly, some of the things I enjoy!
Like many, I’m interested in the “proto-feminist” ideas in Jane Austen’s novels, and love that they are already apparent in the Juvenilia. Volume 1 is replete with heroines who are active, have agency, go on adventures, and drink with the best of them! Things may not always work out for them, but you can’t say they don’t give it a red hot go!
Take, for example, the resourceful Eliza (“Henry and Eliza”), whose “happy Junketings”, despite various misbehaviours, end up well in the end. Or Cassandra (“The beautiful Cassandra”), who runs off with a bonnet (rather than a man), gets into various scrapes, but returns home feeling she’s had a “day well spent”. (She reminded me, stupidly I suppose, of Pat Hutchins’ Rosie, in the picture book, Rosie’s walk. In fact, my Jane Austen group felt that “The beautiful Cassandra” would make a fine picture book”)
There are exceptions, though, like Mary in “The three sisters“ – a more sombre, and longer, work pointing to the adult Austen. Mary, the eldest of three sisters, receives “an offer of marriage” from a man she does not like. The problem is that he will marry one of her sisters if she doesn’t! She wants the “triumph” of marriage, but not the man. Mary’s superficial self-centredness reminded me of Sense and sensibility’s Mary Musgrove and, as one in my group said, of Pride and prejudice’s Lydia.
This brings me to a major theme found in the Juvenilia, that ongoing one in Austen’s novels, which I call “the marriage project”. It encompasses her understanding of the social and, particularly, economic factors affecting people’s marriage choices, and her support for marriages based on mutual affection and respect. Several of the stories are about marriage, and while the stories are frequently absurd, there is no doubt about the ideas lying behind them.
We also see in the stories, examples of hypocrisy, vanity, gullibility, deception, pomposity and greed – all of which appear, more subtly, in the novels. We see commentary on the times, suggesting Austen was a keen observer of what was going on around her. There are reference to the education of young women “in the Paths of Virtue” (by a Governess who elopes with the Butler!) (“Jack and Alice”); to large families which we know Austen saw as problematic, particularly for the poor child-bearing women; and to the preference for male children.
Something we don’t find so much in the Juvenilia are the delightful aphorisms that pepper Austen’s adult novels. The Juvenilia are, generally, too over-the-top to contain these more measured pronouncements. But, I did find a couple. In “Edgar and Emma”, there’s a couple who “were indeed very sensible people & tho’ (as in this instance) like many other Sensible people, they sometimes did a foolish thing …” The later Austen would have worked this up into something more general, but you get the gist.
And, in “The three sisters”, is:
he hates dancing & … what he hates himself he has no idea of any other person’s liking …
So wise so young! (And reminiscent of “One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.” Emma)
The best fun though comes from the writing itself. It can be so absurd, so exaggerated, that you can’t help but feel what fun the young Austen had writing them, and how much laughter there must have been when they were read in the family circle.
In the play, “The visit”, there is a dinner party for 8 people but, wah!, there are only 6 chairs:
Miss F: Pray be seated. [They sit] 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 believe we shall do pretty well.
Lady H: With pleasure
The absurdity here is two-fold – not only do we have guests being asked to sit in each other’s laps, but men are asked to sit in women’s laps. How subversive the young Jane was!
Much of the fun, in these pieces, is situational, like the lap-sitting above, but these is also much evidence of Austen’s linguistic ability, her love of words and language. There are silly place names, like Crankhumdunberry (“Frederic and Elfrida”) and Pammydiddle (“Jack and Alice”). There’s alliteration, like Rebecca being “surrounded by Patches, Powder, Pomatum & Paint” (“Frederic and Elfrida”). There’s wordplay, like “variety of variegated flowers” (“Frederic and Elfrida”).
Exaggeration is a favourite technique in the Juvenilia, and is fundamental to much of the humour. We have a marriage not being supported in “Frederic and Elfrida”
on account of the tender years of the young couple, Rebecca being but 36 & Captain Roger little more than 63. To remedy this, it was agree that they should wait a little until they were a good deal older.
They waited 7 days! (And, note the inversion of the two ages.)
We have a young woman’s leg being caught in a steel trap (“Jack and Alice”). It is set by Lady Williams “with great skill which was the more wonderful on account of having never performed such a one before.” Even more miraculous is that the young lady “then arose from the ground” and found herself able to “walk with the greatest ease”.
We have another young woman, who, unrequited in love, retires to her room and “continued in tears for the remainder of her Life” (“Edgar and Emma”).
Austen also uses puns and irony. In “Henry and Eliza”, a ridiculous story is accepted as a “rational and convincing account”. And, of course, there’s melodrama with suicidal drownings, shootings and poisonings – all very un-Austen-like.
The overall effect is one of exuberance, of a precocious and confident young writer, enjoying and exploring her talent.
But … what to make of it all …
What conclusions though can we draw? Are these often silly tales pure nonsense – which White suggests is antithetical to moral imperative – or do they point to the development of Austen as the moral commentator that many of us see? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. In the Juvenilia – in the first volume anyhow – I’d argue that both are at play. Many of the stories could very well be seen as pure nonsense, written in great fun by a young woman working out what and how she could write. But others, like “The three sisters”, undeniably point to the Austen we know. Let’s see what I find when we do the second and third volumes next year.
Meanwhile. I’ll leave you with Devoney Looser’s assessment which accords perfectly with mine:
the juvenilia shows that Austen was a child-writer of great, raucous, gender-role-defying fun, an irreverent observer of life’s ridiculous conventions and fiction’s silly habits.
“Juvenilia. Volume the first” (ed. R.W. Chapman & Brian Southam)
in The Oxford illustrated Jane Austen. Vol VI, Minor works
London: Oxford University Press, 1969 (revision)
ISBN: 19 254706 2