This month my Jane Austen group completed our reading of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia. (Click the links for my thoughts on the first and second volumes.)
Volume the third is a little different to the other two, as it contains just two unfinished works:
- Catharine, or The bower
Both were written in 1792, when she was 16 to 17 years old.
As with the other volumes, the pieces were later transcribed by her into three notebooks, but there is evidence in this volume of other handwriting. There is uncertainty about the provenance, but the thought is that they were transcribed by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh and his daughter Anna. Certainly, handwriting analysis suggests it is their hands, but probably not their words.
Evelyn is an absurd, preposterous story about the idyllic town of Evelyn. A young man comes to town and wants to live there, but every house is inhabited, due to “the sweetness of the Situation, & the purity of the Air” not to mention the fact that “neither Misery, Illhealth, or Vice are ever wafted”. Luckily for him, a family there has “a peculiar Generosity of Disposition” and, immediately on meeting him, agree to give him their house and their daughter in marriage. The laugh-out-loud ludicrousness continues from there.
This story has received very little attention, compared with most of the other juvenilia. Shawn Normandin suggests this is partly because it
seems relatively distant from feminist concerns: its protagonist is male, and its female characters lack the refreshing assertiveness that distinguishes many of the juvenilia’s heroines.
Normandin argues, however, that it is worth considering because it “attempts with extreme–and hilarious–rigour to imagine a true gift”. He discusses it in the light of Jacques Derrida’s work Given time. I’m afraid that I didn’t give this time. However, I do like the idea that Evelyn could be considered within the context of Austen’s questioning “the new Enlightenment capitalism”, as Doody suggests, because it is clear that Austen was engaged in the political ideas of her time. Anyhow, Normandin concludes that Evelyn “may be western literature’s keenest examination of the gift because, not in spite of, its absurd frivolity.”
It’s probably worth giving this article more time, but, meanwhile, one thing I did notice about Evelyn is that although the story is extreme, like the earlier juvenilia, the actual writing is a little more controlled, a little less breathless, and injected with a little more setting and description.
Catharine, or The Bower
Not only does Catharine continue – I’m assuming it was written after Evelyn – in this more controlled vein, but even more so, as it moves into the realism for which Austen’s published novels are known. Catharine, or The bower tells the story of a young woman, who, having been orphaned when very young, is being brought up lovingly but severely protectively by “a Maiden Aunt”, who fears the impact on her charge of “Young Men”. Of course, a Young Man appears!
Catharine is a little tricky to read because, while Austen had done some editing as late as 1810/11, there are confusing changes of names. Catharine is variously named Catherine and Kitty in the text, but, even trickier, is that her aunt is sometimes called Mrs Peterson and sometimes Mrs Percival!
Anyhow, for me, and for some others in our group, it contains clear hints of Northanger Abbey (which Austen first wrote around 1798/9) – of Catherine (note the name) Morland (her youthful naïveté tempered by some good sense), of Isabella Thorpe, and of the interest in young men and propriety.
Catharine also contains one of my favourite Austen quotes about reading. Catharine tells her friend Camilla:
but for my own part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short.
Some of the themes that we see in Austen’s later novels are here, including women’s education (the focus on the attainment of accomplishments versus “useful knowledge and Mental Improvement”), indulgent parenting, city versus country, the idea of women and daughters made destitute on the death of a husband/father (as happens to the Dashwoods in Sense and sensibility), thoughtless young men (like Frank Churchill in Emma). Margaret Anne Doody claims that these “early works were important companions to her during the rest of her writing career” which supports my suggestion that these works were used as sources for ideas, like writers use notebooks today.
The style, as I’ve already said, is calmer, and more formal. There is more of the sort of authorial commentary that we see in her later works. Here’s Catharine, having been easily convinced that the young man who had departed without a farewell, did really like her:
She went in high spirits to her Aunt’s apartment, without giving a Moment’s recollection on the vanity of Young Women or the unacountable conduct of Young Men.
Also, Catharine evinces, says Doody, Claudia Johnson’s argument for Austen’s engagement with politics. Certainly, our character Catharine is frustrated by Camilla’s ongoing chatter about fashion and her refusal to talk about anything else – “She found no variety in her conversation; She received no information from her but in fashions”. Catharine, on the other hand, wants to talk about books and politics.
Here is a good time to share some ideas from Doody’s Introduction to the World Classics edition of the juvenilia. She suggests that Austen, following the rejection in the 1800s of Susan (later Northanger Abbey) and First impressions (later Pride and prejudice), tamed her writing to meet the marketplace. Perhaps, but, I see Catharine as already showing some of this taming down.
Doody discusses the different ways the juvenilia can be approached, and the drawbacks to these. For example, she suggests that seeing them as pointers to later writings – which most of us do – results in our missing “their important effects”. I take her point, but only to a degree, because I’m convinced that we can see the later Austen in these early works.
However, I like that she sees the subversiveness of Austen’s early work, something that was not recognised, she says, by critics like David Cecil. GK Chesterton, on the other hand, praised the early works. In 1922, he said
she was original … naturally exuberant … 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.
Doody concludes that the mature Austen chose to write “the realistic novel of courtship”, because that was the way to publication. She “had to pretend that the world was better and its general fictions more reliable than she knew them to be”. That’s possibly true, but Austen was seen as formally innovative in her writing, which suggests that her published novels were not completely against the grain, even if they were toned down versions of what she privately felt?
- Doody, Margaret Anne. “Introduction” in Jane Austen’s Catharine and Other Writings, edited by Margaret Anne Doody and Douglas Murray. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998.
- Normandin, Shawn. “Jane Austen’s “Evelyn” and the “Impossibility of the Gift”.” Criticism 60, no. 1 (2018): 27-46. (Accessed via JSTOR)
“Juvenilia. Volume the third” (ed. R.W. Chapman & Brian Southam)
in The Oxford illustrated Jane Austen. Vol VI, Minor works
London: Oxford University Press, 1969 (rev. ed.)
ISBN: 19 254706 2