Jane Austen, Juvenilia, Volume the third (#Review)

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:

  • Evelyn
  • 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)

Jane Austen
“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.)
pp. 179-242
ISBN: 19 254706 2

Jane Austen, Juvenilia, Volume the second (#Review)

Last November, my Jane Austen group read the first volume (my review) of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, with a plan to read the next two volumes during 2021. This month, we read the second volume, which contains pieces written, it is believed, between 1790 and 1793, when Austen was 14 to 17 years old. As with the other volumes, the pieces were later transcribed by her into three notebooks, with the original manuscripts now being lost (as far as we know). Interestingly, the notebook contents are not presented in perfect chronological order of her writing the pieces, so did she “curate” them in some way? Or did she just transcribe them, randomly, picking up pieces as she felt like it?

Anyhow, volume 2 includes three longer works – Love and freindshipLesley Castle and The history of England – plus other pieces. The contents are:

  • Love and freindship (13 June 1790, dated by Austen) (my separate post)
  • Lesley Castle (3 Jan to 13 April 1792)
  • The history of England (26 November 1791, dated by Austen) (my separate post)
  • A collection of letters (dedicated to a childhood friend, Miss Cooper, who was married on 11 December 1792)
  • Scraps (dedicated to niece Fanny Austen, who was born in Jan 1793)

For more intro, including why read the Juvenilia, please check my first post, linked above.


This volume contains fewer – but some longer – pieces than the first volume. As I’ve written separately on two of them (as linked above), I won’t focus on them here. Those two and, in fact, Lesley Castle, have been published in separate volumes and/or in other combinations, so they tend to be better known by Austen fans.

Austen scholar Brian Southam suggests that Austen transcribed these pieces (which, evidence suggests, she was still doing in 1809) in order to “keep” them? Why? One reason is that they were read aloud in family circles as a form of entertainment. We know this because her brother Henry said so in the biographical notice he (most probably, it was he) wrote for the posthumous edition of Northanger Abbey:

She read aloud with very great taste and effect. Her own works, probably, were never heard so much to advantage as from her own mouth; for she partook largely in all the best gifts of the comic muse. 

This is supported, say those who have seen them, by the fact that the notebooks look well used.

I’d like to ponder an additional reason for her wanting to “keep” them, the reason used by many novelists – Helen Garner, for example – which is for possible use in future works. This seems to me to be particularly relevant to the section called A collection of letters. These letters could be seen as character studies, she could turn to. The letters are:

  • From a mother to her friend: in this letter the mother writes of bringing “out” both her daughters at the same time, which reminds me of all the Bennet girls being out at once in Pride and prejudice (and Lady Catherine’s horror at such an idea!)
  • From a young lady crossed in love to her freind: this young lady suffers from acute “melancholy” after being disappointed in love, so much so that her friends are alarmed for her: “They fear my declining health; they lament my want of spirits; they dread the effects of both”. This is closely reminiscent of Sense and sensibility’s Marianne Dashwood and her falling apart after being rebuffed my Willoughy, and, interestingly, the names Willoughby and Dashwood appear in this letter.
  • From a young lady in distress’d circumstances to her freind: This young girl is treated with supercilious kindness by the local lady, which of course, calls to mind Lady Catherine in Pride and prejudice.
  • From a young lady rather impertinent to her freind: This young lady brazenly admits in a letter to her friend that “I am not wanting for impudence when I have any end in view”. She recounts being very nosy about a new acquaintance’s life “and what had befallen her”. I can’t bring to mind a direct match in the novels but authors don’t reuse all ideas they jot down, do they? And, there are plenty of impudent young women in Austen, including Lucy Steele in Sense and sensibility.
  • From a young lady very much in love to her freind: Again, Sense and sensibility comes to mind – and Marianne – with the young lady Henrietta’s comment on instant attraction “… for that is the only kind of love I would give a farthing for–There is some sense in being in being in love at first sight”. The romance, however, is impacted by the love object’s estate not being enough for “Henrietta who has had an offer from a Colonel and been toasted by a Baronet”!

Following this collection of letters is the final group in the volume, just labelled Scraps. It comprises a Dedication to her young niece, Fanny, in which she describes the pieces as comprising her “opinions and admonitions on the conduct of young women”. These are delightful pieces of absurdity and nonsense. I wonder if they are the young Austen’s response to the stuffy conduct books for women that were popular at the time, like Reverend James Fordyce’s conduct book, Sermons to young women (1777) from which Pride and prejudice‘s earnest but stuffy and unempathetic Mr Collins reads to his young cousins.

More themes/concerns

In my last post, I focused particularly on themes and styles in the first volume, and most of what I said there also applies to the second volume. However, I thought I’d mention here some of the issues that I picked up in the second volume that reminded me of her first three novels, in particular. So, in the second volume, she parodies:

  • Gothic (seen in Northanger Abbey); 
  • overactive imagination and sensibility (found particularly in Northanger Abbey and Sense and sensibility); 
  • snobbishness (pointing particularly to Pride and prejudice)
  • self-centredness (found in all the novels, really)

It seems petty clear that in these early writings she was making fun of Gothic and 18th century literature’s favouring of sensibility over sense. I’d argue that she took up these ideas again in the first novels she wrote, Northanger Abbey and Sense and sensibility (though the former was published much later), but, as I wrote in my previous post, her tone in the Juvenilia is one of exuberant exaggeration and parody rather than the more sophisticated wit and irony we have in her adult novels.

I’ll finish here, but will be back with more Juvenilia later, including, perhaps, a separate post on Lesley Castle!

Jane Austen
“Juvenilia. Volume the second” (ed. R.W. Chapman & Brian Southam)
in The Oxford illustrated Jane Austen. Vol VI, Minor works
London: Oxford University Press, 1969 (revision)
pp. 76-178
ISBN: 19 254706 2

Jane Austen, Juvenilia, Volume the first (#Review)

Book coverJane 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:

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.

Jane Austen
“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)
pp. 1-75
ISBN: 19 254706 2

Bill curates: Jane Austen and the information highway

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

Jane Austen comes up over and over in Sue’s posts, and as I’m as fascinated by her as Sue is, that suits me fine. Here though we are not looking at Austen’s wonderful writing but mining her for evidence of the way information was disseminated at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

My original post titled: “The information highway, Jane Austen style”

The Times 1785 (must be public domain!)

Did you know there was an information highway in Jane Austen’s day? Well, there was – and it was forged by roads and newspapers.  This is the springboard for Dr Gillian Russell‘s talk, Everything Open: Newspapers in Jane Austen’s Fiction and Letters, which she gave to the Canberra group of  Jane Austen Society of Australia this weekend. She argued that the increase in the publication and distribution of newspapers in the late eighteenth century contributed to the development of a new style of nation – and in support of this quoted Henry Tilney’s statement to Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey:

Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What are you judging from? … Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? … Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?

Dr Russell argued that this provides evidence that newspapers – supported by the roads which made transport of the papers easier and faster (because this was also the era of the Turnpike trusts) – were at the centre of a new style of openness and transparency in Austen’s time.

But, to provide some context. Jane Austen was born in 1775 – and the 1770s, Russell said, was the beginning of the heyday of newspapers. In 1790, some 60 newspaper titles were published in England; by 1821 there were 135. Newspapers comprised just four pages – the first page was primarily advertisements, the second page reported political (and war) news, while the third and fourth pages contained miscellaneous news, often more domestic in nature. Formal access to these newspapers, though, was gender and class-based. Men – of the gentry or middle-class – comprised the majority of subscribers. However, she argued – pretty convincingly, using the writings of Jane Austen, William Cowperand Leigh Hunt – that once newspapers were in the home, they were readily available for women to read. She described how newspapers were passed on from those who could afford them to friends, neighbours, relations. And Austen reflects this in her novels: the Dashwood women, in Sense and sensibility, received their papers from their generous landlord, Sir John Middleton; and Mr Price, Fanny’s rather impoverished father in Mansfield Park, likewise received his papers secondhand from a neighbour, signalling his lower position in the social pecking order. The fact that the Musgrove men in Persuasion read the paper while the foppish Sir Walter Eliot didn’t conveys a lot about the sorts of men they were. Anyone who’s read Persuasion will know that Sir Walter Eliot is not the one we admire!

Russell’s argument is that, while most historians study newspapers in order to understand the politics of their times, these early newspapers epitomise what Samuel Johnson called “intelligence”, which he defined as the commerce of information – that is, the way information moved around society and the role information played in that society. Austen’s writing shows how newspapers brought people together through sharing information: they promulgated domestic/family information regarding births, deaths, marriages, elopements and such, and, during the Napoleonic wars, they published naval information of critical interest to families at home such as who was promoted to what rank, who was on what ship and where the ships were. By publishing information of mainly domestic interest, newspapers validated families’ position in society. Mrs Bennet’s concern, in Pride and prejudice, about the inadequate reporting of Lydia’s marriage, for example, indicates her recognition of the importance of such reporting to establishing (or reflecting) the family’s social standing. Through this process, Russell said, newspapers played a significant role in nation-building, particularly in establishing the middling order as a bigger “player” in the life of the nation.

And, just as we have today, there was a complex information infrastructure in place to support this “commerce of information”. Papers were read by men in clubs, taverns and coffee houses. They were moved quickly from city to country via the roads and complex networks of tradespeople (one rural subscriber for example picked up his paper from the butcher). Reading rooms were an important feature of resort towns (a bit, perhaps, like the Internet Cafes of today?)

In other words, during Austen’s time newspapers became a more central part of the daily lives of the middle classes and the gentry. Papers were major bearers of domestic news and in this way, argued Russell, mirrored what Jane Austen’s novels did – that is, they conveyed information about the way the world worked and in so doing demonstrated that all forms of information exchange (domestic and political) had a public meaning. In this new world, as Henry Tilney said, everything was laid open, transparent.  Except, and here’s the rub, men were still the gatekeepers…


Bill’s choice this time brought me up with a start. When I wrote this in 2009, newspapers were still, if I remember correctly, significant sources of news for most news-hungry people. But, the last 11 years have seen that landscape change considerably. For my parents, the newspaper was critical for keeping up with personal information like births, deaths and marriages. Reading such news would result in letters or phone calls of congratulation or condolence. What is happening to this information? Does anyone care anymore? And, what about those legally required public notices?

What would Jane make of today’s information highway? And, more to the point, what do YOU make of it? 

Noah Webster, On the absurdity of a Bill of Rights (Review)

Noah Webster

By James Herring (1794 – 1867) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If you’ve read my last post you may have guessed from the title why I’ve chosen Noah Webster’s “On the absurdity of a Bill of Rights” as my next Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week to discuss. For those of you who haven’t read that post, or who, like me, have a memory like a sieve, I discussed the play adaptation of Frank Moorehouse’s Cold light, and protagonist Edith Campbell Berry’s desire for government (or, those governing) to act according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Now, before I briefly share Webster’s arguments, a little background to this clearly very tricksy man! I’ll start by admitting that my main knowledge of Noah Webster was as the creator of America’s best known dictionary, Webster’s of course. It wasn’t initially, or even in his lifetime, called that, though. He published his first dictionary in 1806 under the title, A compendious dictionary of the English language, but his first big, comprehensive dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language, wasn’t published until 1828.

All this, though, came after the writing I’m talking about here, but it is related because it was through his writing and publishing work that he became interested in federation, and thus the Bill of Rights issue. You see, as LOA’s notes tell us, in 1783, when he was a twenty-five-year-old schoolteacher, Webster “began publishing his Grammatical Institute of the English Language, the first part of which became The American Spelling Book”. A spelling book leading to the Bill of Rights? How, you might wonder? Well, here’s LOA again:

Less familiar to many readers is the pivotal role Webster played in the founding of the American republic and the adoption of its new constitution—and his advocacy was very much related to the success of his publications. The difficulty of securing copyrights from thirteen separate state governments for each subsequent edition of his spelling book convinced him of the need for an effective national government, and he became an advocate for the Federalist cause.

He started campaigning for the federalist cause in 1785, and here comes the particularly “tricksy” bit because when the new constitution was proposed in 1787, he wrote articles supporting its ratification under various pseudonyms! One of these was Giles Hickory under which he wrote the article I’m discussing here. As LOA writes,

One of the main objections to the new constitution was that it did not include a bill of rights, an argument Webster dismisses in his first Hickory letter by responding that such documents are only needed as protection against tyrants and would become unnecessary in a government elected by the people.

This is one of the main arguments he puts in “On the absurdity of a Bill of Rights”. He argues that a Bill of Rights [like the “Magna Charta”] against “the encroachment of Kings and Barons, or against any power independent of the people, is perfectly intelligible” but that a Bill of Rights in a democracy would essentially be the people guarding against the people. In other words, in an elected legislature “the rulers have the same interest in the laws, as the subjects have” so, he argues, “the rights of the people will be perfectly secure without any declaration in their favour”. Hmm, that sounds perfectly good in theory, but in practice, well, it doesn’t always seem to quite work out that way does it?

Anyhow, as it turned out, those in favour of a Bill of Rights won the argument, as Massachusetts, for example, only agreed to ratify the Constitution with the addition of “ten amendments”. These became known as the “Bill of Rights“, and were adopted in 1791.

Webster’s second argument, which he calls his “principal point”,  is also, given how the Bill of Rights has played out in the US, very interesting:

I undertake to prove that a standing Bill of Rights is absurd, because no constitutions, in a free government, can be unalterable. The present generation have indeed a right to declare what they deem a privilege; but they have no right to say what the next generation shall deem a privilege.

He argues, in other words, that times change, and what one generation might see as a right may not be appropriate to another generation, and that it is therefore inappropriate to set such rights in stone. He uses, as an example, “trial by jury”:

The right of Jury-trial, which we deem invaluable, may in future cease to be a privilege; or other modes of trial more satisfactory to the people, may be devised. Such an event is neither impossible nor improbable. Have we then a right to say that our posterity shall not be judges of their own circumstances? The very attempt to make perpetual constitutions, is the assumption of a right to control the opinions of future generations; and to legislate for those over whom we have as little authority as we have over a nation in Asia.

Would the US be different now, if, for example, they did not have the “perpetual”, enshrined right to “bear arms”?

Webster suggests that:

There are perhaps many laws and regulations, which from their consonance to the eternal rules of justice, will always be good and conformable to the sense of a nation. But most institutions in society, by reason of an unceasing change of circumstances, either become altogether improper or require amendment …

He makes some excellent points, but I’d like to believe there are some rights which stem from “the eternal rules of justice”. However, I can also see how temporal and cultural it all is. Australia, rare for a western democracy, does not have a federal bill of rights – the issue arises occasionally – but my state (well, territory) did pass one in 2004, and was followed by Victoria in 2006.

What do you think?

Noah Webster (as Giles Hickory)
“On the absurdity of a Bill of Rights”
First published: American Magazine, December 1787
Available: Online at the Library of America

Jane Austen, Lady Susan (Review)

AustenLadySusanPenguinIt is a truth universally acknowledged – I know this is a tired old joke but I seem programmed to do it – that Jane Austen fans will collect multiple editions of her works. There are many reasons for this behaviour, but one of them is our interest in different introductions. And so, although I already had a copy of Lady Susan, in the Minor works volume of R.W. Chapman’s The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen, I bought the Penguin edition for my Kindle because it had an introduction by Margaret Drabble. And I have a second confession to make: this is a rereading, but my reason for rereading has little to do with the reasons I gave in my recent post on Flanagan. The reason is simple – my local Jane Austen group decided to schedule it for our October meeting. I was happy with that. As far as I’m concerned all bets are off my usual “rules” when it comes to Jane Austen.

If you’re not an Austen fan, you may not have heard of Lady Susan. It is a complete novella that sits between her Juvenilia and her adult novels. It was written, we believe, in 1793/4 when Austen would have been 18-19 years old, but was not published until 1871, well after her death, when her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh included it in his memoir of her.  It is epistolary in form, something she tried again with Elinor and Marianne. While this latter one she rewrote in her well-known third person omniscient voice, retitling it Sense and sensibility, for some reason she didn’t go back to Lady Susan. One reason might have been its subject matter.

 “the most accomplished coquette in England” (Reginald of Lady Susan)

Lady Susan is a beautiful, 35-year-old widow of four months, who is already on the prowl for a new, wealthy husband. The novel opens with her needing to leave Langford, where she’d been staying with the Manwarings, because she was having an affair with the married man of the house, and had seduced his sister’s suitor, Sir James Martin. She goes to stay with her brother-in-law Charles Vernon and his wife Catherine, whom she’d done her best to dissuade him from marrying. She’s not long there before Reginald, Catherine’s brother, arrives to check her out because, from what he’s heard,

Lady Susan possesses a degree of captivating deceit which must be pleasing to witness and detect.

Of course, the inevitable happens and the artful Lady Susan captivates him. Meanwhile, Lady Susan wants her 16-year-old daughter, Frederica, to marry Sir James, the man she’d seduced away from Miss Manwaring – but sweet, sensible Frederica wants none of this weak “rattle” of a man.

You’ve probably worked out by now that this is not Austen’s usual fare. Lady Susan belongs to the 18th century tradition of wickedness, lasciviousness and adultery, forced marriages, and moralistic resolutions. The novel’s characters tend to be types rather than complex beings, and it is racily written, with a broad brush rather than a fine pen. And yet …

“Lady Susan is not wholly a villain” (Margaret Drabble)

This is also where Austen’s mature touch starts to appear. For all Lady Susan’s self-centred “bewitching” machinations, she is also, as Drabble says, “witty, energetic, intelligent and charming”. Drabble and other critics argue that Lady Susan’s spirit can be seen in characters like Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and, particularly, Mary Crawford who, like Lady Susan, comes from London where she moved in “fast” circles. How could a teenaged country parson’s daughter imagine into being such a duplicitous character? Austen was, we know, a great reader and read the gothic novels of her day. She also knew the behaviour of Mrs Craven, the mother of her neighbour Mrs Lloyd. According to Drabble, Mrs Craven “had treated her daughters shockingly, locking them up, beating them and starving them, until they ran away from home …” just as Lady Susan’s daughter ran away from school. And, as her letters demonstrate, Austen was capable of bite.

We don’t know why Austen didn’t pursue this book, besides making a good copy of it in 1805, or why she didn’t try again to write about a beautiful 35-year-old widow.

Hints of what’s to come

All this is well and good, and I loved the read, but my main reason for reading these early Austens is their insight into the writer to come – her wit and irony, and her commentary on human nature. Lady Susan, having been written on the cusp of her maturity, is particularly interesting in this context. The melodrama, for example, is toned down, compared with the books Austen would have been reading. Frederica isn’t locked up as she might have been in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (my review), there are no rapes as we see in Richardson’s Clarissa. Austen is moving, in other words, towards the naturalism of her favourite topic, “3 or 4 families in a Country Village”.

I love Austen’s irony, and there’s plenty in evidence here. A good example is when Reginald, completely convinced by Lady Susan, writes to his father of how she has been misrepresented, saying that this

may also convince us how little the general report of any one ought to be credited … I blame myself severely for having so easily believed the scandalous tales invented.

The joke is on him because, of course, he should believe these “scandalous tales”. One of the complexities of the novel is this issue of gossip – who should believe what and whom? As Austen readers know, gossip plays a significant role in her characterisation and plots.

Other ideas and themes that we see in later novels also appear in Lady Susan. Bad mothering is one. Another, more specific, is this delightful comment on accomplishments, reminding us of the discussion between Mr Darcy, Miss Bingley and Elizabeth at Netherfield. Lady Susan writes to her equally scheming friend Alicia Johnson:

Not that I am an advocate for the prevailing fashion of acquiring a perfect knowledge in all the languages arts and sciences; it is throwing time away; to be mistress of French, Italian, German, music, singing, drawing etc., will gain a woman some applause, but will not add one lover to her list.

And then there’s that main reason I love Austen – her terse, pithy commentary on human behaviour. There’s much in Lady Susan, including

but where there is a disposition to dislike a motive will never be wanting


Silly woman, to expect constancy from so charming a man!

Have I convinced you to give it a go? I do hope so.

Jane Austen
“Lady Susan”
in Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
London: Penguin Books, 2003
Kindle Edition EISBN: 9780141907901

Available in e-text.

Jane Austen on reading novels

Jane Austen’s defence of the novel in Northanger Abbey is famous. Not only does the hero, Henry Tilney, tell the heroine Catherine, that:

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid …

but Austen, in an authorial comment early in the book, says

… there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel–reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss — ?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language.

This is Austen, though, and while she was passionate about the value of reading fiction, she also saw the other side. Not all novels, perhaps, are equal! And so, Catherine, a fan of the Gothic novel, is shown to be a rather silly novel reader, letting her imagination run too far and getting herself into trouble as a result. She does learn, though …

Northanger Abbey was published posthumously in 1817*. However, Austen wrote it in 1798/99, and revised it in 1803, when it was the first of hers to be sold to a publisher – Crosby & Co. They decided not to publish it, and it was bought back in 1816. Austen did further work on it before her death in 1817. My point though relates to the fact that the bulk of it was written in 1798/99. This is interesting, when you compare the excerpt above to this from her letter (no. 14) to her sister written on 18 December 1798:

I have received a very civil note from Mrs. Martin requesting my name as a Subscriber to her Library which opens the 14th of January, & my name, or rather Yours is accordingly given. My Mother finds the Money. …  As an inducement to subscribe Mrs. Martin tells us that her Collection is not to consist only of novels, but of every kind of Literature, & c. & c-She might have spared this pretension to our family; who are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so; – but it was necessary I suppose to the self-consequence of half her Subscribers.

Those comments “great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so” and “The self-consequence of half her Subscribers” tell us very clearly that novel-reading in the late 1700s to early 1800s was seen by many as a frivolous activity. No wonder she, a beginning novelist, felt the need to defend her craft!

* Published in December 1817, but the imprint date is 1818.

William Gilpin and travel photography

Yes, I know that William Gilpin, about whom I wrote in my last post, died before photography, though only just. He died in 1804 and, according to Wikipedia, the first permanent photograph produced by a camera was made in 1826. However, the notion of cameras – through the camera obscura – was already well known. This, however, is not really the subject of today’s post. The subject is the third essay in his Three essays, which is titled “On the art of sketching landscape”.

The thing is that this essay reminded me of travel photography because his main focus is “taking views from nature” the intention of which, he says

may either be to fix them in your own memory – or to convey, in some degree, your ideas to others.

Aren’t these our two main aims in taking travel photographs? That is, to help us remember our travel and/or to share out experiences with others?

He then goes on to give advice about how to sketch, some of which is specifically about the tools and implements of sketching, but some of which relates more broadly to composing pictures. For example, he writes of getting “the best point of view” for the scene you wish to sketch (or, for us, to photograph), stating that “a few paces to the right, or left, make a great difference”. He’s right there. There are times when I’ve been too lazy, or felt I didn’t have enough time, to walk about looking for the best aspect, only to be sorry later when I’ve seen someone’s better photograph of the same scene.

And he talks about “scale”, that is,

how to reduce it [the scene] properly withing the compass of your paper: for the scale of nature being so very different from your scale … If the landscape before you is extensive, take care you do not include too much: it may perhaps be divided more commodiously into two sketches …

Today of course we can take panoramic photos, and we can enlarge (or crop) to our heart’s content when we download our images onto our computers. Still, the better the original photo, the easier later editing is, eh?

His advice then starts to get more interesting, because he goes on to differentiate between making a sketch that “is intended merely to assist our own memory” and one “intended to convey, in some degree, our ideas to others“. These latter sketches, he says, “should be somewhat more adorned”. Now, part of this adornment is simply about the detail. A sketch to remind us of what we have seen may only require “a few rough strokes”, while one that is to convey something to others who have no idea of the place, needs “some composition … a degree of correctness and expression in the out-line – and some effect of light”.

But, he then goes further to suggest that “nature is most defective in composition; and must be a little assisted”. In other words, it is alright “to dispose the foreground as I please”. Yes, fair enough. We do this often, don’t we, in composing or enlarging/cropping photos? But, it is also alright, he says, to take further liberties:

I take up a tree, and plant it there. I pare a knoll, or make an addition to it. I move a piece of paling – a cottage – a wall – or any removable object, which I dislike.

He qualifies this, though, by saying that “liberties … with the truth must be taken with caution”. We should not, he says, introduce “what does not exist” but can make “those simple variations … which time itself is continually making”.

All this made me think of photography, digital in particular, and how easy it is to remove or modify or manipulate an image to make it look better … and made me realise that no matter what tools we have to hand, this is something we have always liked to do. And this is the point that Gilpin is making with his theory of “the picturesque” because, if you remember the definition I gave in my previous post, it is about “that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture”.

What I take away from all this – ignoring Gilpin’s tendency to pomposity and prescription, for which he was, fairly I think, satirised – is that he is talking about the difference between “reality”, or what is actually there, and an aesthetic “truth” relating to the ideas (and even feelings*) conveyed by the scene. And that makes sense to me.

Fedra Olive Grove

Gilpin would not like the rows of olive trees here, but would probably like the irregular somewhat rough tree.

* There is, I believe, much academic debate about whether Romanticism rejected or extended the ideas of the Picturesque. I’m inclined to think it’s not a case of either/or but a more complex development.

William Gilpin, Jane Austen and the picturesque

I was introduced to William Gilpin by Jane Austen. Well, not by her so much as by her brother, Henry, who told us* that she was “enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque at a very early age”.

Engraving of Rev. William Gilpin.

William Gilpin (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, No. 231, August, 1869.Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

This month my local Jane Austen group decided to look a little more deeply at Gilpin, his Picturesque, and what Jane Austen really thought. William Gilpin (1724-1804) was an English vicar, schoolteacher, prolific writer and amateur painter. He is remembered primarily for his theory of “the picturesque”. The “picturesque”, according to my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, dates back to 1703 with the meaning, “in the manner of a picture; fit to be made into a picture”. In his Essay on Prints (1768), Gilpin defined it as “… a term expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture”.

The blogger at Austenonly has written an excellent post on Jane Austen and Gilpin in which she proposes – and my group here agreed with her – that Austen was enamoured of him because he appealed to her sense of the ridiculous. He expresses his opinions so dogmatically, he is so opinionated, that she can’t help mocking him. How could she not satirise a man who seriously suggests (“Essay 1: On Picturesque Beauty”, Three Essays) that, when it comes to a portrait, “the highest form of picturesque beauty” is not “the lovely face of youth smiling with all its sweet dimpling charms” but “the patriarchal head” with its “lines of wisdom and experience … the rough edges of age”. Being a woman of a certain age, I rather like Mr Gilpin! But, seriously, is it really a matter of either/or?

Or someone who writes (in the same essay):

A piece of Palladian architecture may be elegant in the last degree. The proportion of its parts — the propriety of its ornaments — and the symmetry of the whole, may be highly pleasing. But if we introduce it in a picture, it immediately becomes a formal object, and ceases to please. Should we wish to give it picturesque beauty, we must, use the mallet, instead of the chisel : we must beat down one half of it, deface the other, and throw the mutilated members around in heaps. In short, from a smooth building we must turn it into a rough ruin. No painter, who had the choice of the two objects, would hesitate a moment.

We must presume that he is not speaking literally when he suggests taking a mallet to a pleasing building in order to make it picturesque! But Jane Austen is sure to have laughed and, as you’ll read in Austenonly’s post, there are many examples in Austen’s novels, particularly Pride and prejudice, Sense and sensibility and Northanger Abbey, in which she satirises the picturesque.

On the other hand, there are also places where she seems to exhibit an appreciation and understanding of Gilpin’s theory because, while Gilpin could be dogmatic, he also argued convincingly for a seeing nature with “a picturesque eye”. He writes in “Essay 2: On Picturesque Travel” about enjoying “the great works of nature, in her simplest and purest stile, open to inexhaustible springs of amusement”, and says

Nor is there in travelling a greater pleasure, than when a scene of grandeur bursts unexpectedly upon the eye, accompanied with some accidental circumstance of the atmosphere, which harmonises with it, and gives it double value.

I’ll illustrate this with two examples of travellers in Austen. First is her description of Fanny’s return to from Portsmouth in Mansfield Park:

Her eye fell everywhere on lawns and plantations of the freshest green; and the trees, though not fully clothed, were in that delightful state when farther beauty is known to be at hand, and when, while much is actually given to the sight, more yet remains for the imagination.

There is also a lovely, similarly genuine, description of the environs of Lyme in Persuasion in which she writes of a “sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rocks among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide …”

The question that comes to mind then is whether she is satrising the picturesque or slavish adherence to it or, even perhaps, its somewhat slippery nature. In fact, Jane Austen, landscape and the Regency is a pretty inexhaustible topic. And so, while I thoroughly enjoyed my brief introduction to Mr Gilpin, I’d love to find time to read more, particularly his travel writings about various parts of the British Isles. Meanwhile, I can’t resist leaving you with another Gilpin satirist, William Combe (1741-1823), who in 1809, as Dr Syntax, wrote the poem “The Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque”. It starts with

I’ll make a tour – and then I’ll write it.
You well know what my pen can do,
And I’ll employ my pencil too:-
I’ll ride and write, and sketch and print,
And thus create a real mint;
I’ll prose it here, I’ll verse it there,
And picturesque it everywhere.
I’ll do what all have done before;
I think I shall – and somewhat more.
At Doctor Pompous give a look;
He made his fortune by a book:
And if my volume does not beat it,
When I return, I’ll fry and eat it.

What a hoot …

* in his biographical note to the posthumously published first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion

Jane Austen, Love and freindship (Review)

Love and Freindship editions

Love and Freindship editions

If you are a Jane Austen fan, you don’t just read her six novels. You read her letters, her unfinished works and her juvenilia. And you read them more than once. So it is that I have just – for my local Jane Austen group – reread Love and freindship (sic), the short epistolary novel she wrote in her 15th year. It is a fun – and illuminating – read. It’s the illuminating part that I plan to focus on here.

But first, a little about the plot. It commences with a letter in which Isabella asks her friend Laura to tell her daughter “the Misfortunes and Adventures” of her Life. “You are this day 55”, she says, and surely now safe “from the determined Perseverance of disagreeable Lovers and the cruel Persecutions of obstinate Fathers”. Laura, while rejecting that she is too old for such “unmerited” misfortunes, agrees to tell her story  to Isabella’s daughter Marianne as a “useful lesson”. What follows is a melodramatic story of sudden friendships, quick-not-always legal marriages, and wild coincidences, accompanied by much fainting and “running mad”.

This doesn’t sound much like the writer described by Charlotte Bronte as “sensible and suitable” does it? And, in fact, this wildly improbable, effusive story isn’t much like her. Or is it? This is the point I’d like to explore a little in my post, because there are many seeds here of the writer Austen was becoming – of the things that were to concern her and of the style she was developing.

The thing that concerned her most was to make fun of silly or ridiculous people and ideas. The most obvious of these in Love and freindship was the late eighteenth century’s cult of sensibility, which involved the favouring of sensibility over sense, the fostering of an overactive imagination (as evidenced by the popularity of Gothic novels). But what is exaggerated and parodied in Love and freindship become more considered subjects in her first novels, Northanger Abbey and Sense and sensibility.

There are, for example, obvious similarities between Laura, here, Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey and Marianne in Sense and sensibility, but Laura’s complete refusal to recognise that sense has any place in her life is modified in Catherine and Marianne who learn through experience that their imagination and sensibilities, if left uncurbed, can get them into trouble. (Intriguingly the recipient of Laura’s letters is a Marianne. A little Austen in-joke perhaps?). Pride and Prejudice’s Lydia could perhaps be seen as Laura’s true heir: Lydia is not described in quite the same terms as Laura, but she certainly pays no credence to anything remotely sensible.

Now I’m going to be lazy and simply illustrate Austen’s changed approach with some comparative examples. Here is Laura on an older man, her husband’s father:

for what could be expected from a Man who possessed not the smallest atom of Sensibility, who scarcely knew the meaning of Simpathy, and who actually snored.

And here is Marianne, in love with the dashing Willoughby, on Colonel Brandon:

He was silent and grave. His appearance, however, was not unpleasing, in spite of his being in the opinion of Marianne and Margaret an absolute old bachelor, for he was on the wrong side of five-and-thirty; but though his face was not handsome his countenance was sensible, and his address was particularly gentlemanlike.

While Laura ends her tale with:

I took up my Residence in a romantic Village in the Highlands of Scotland where I have ever since continued, and where I can, uninterrupted by unmeaning Visits, indulge in a melancholy solitude my unceasing Lamentations for the Death of my Father, my Mother, my Husband, and my Freind.

Catherine learns her lesson and

… was completely awakened. Henry’s address, short as it had been, had more thoroughly opened her eyes to the extravagance of her late fancies than all their several disappointments had done. Most grievously was she humbled. … The absurdity of her curiosity and her fears — could they ever be forgotten? She hated herself more than she could express.

Exaggeration and parody are the tools used in Love and friendship, while the adult Austen used the more sophisticated, though no less funny, tools of wit and irony to achieve her satire.  And again, I’ll demonstrate with comparative examples. In Love and freindship she satirises novel-reading with broad humour:

“Where, Edward in the name of wonder (said he) did you pick up this unmeaning gibberish? You have been studying Novels I suspect.”

But in Northanger Abbey, the plot itself demonstrates the foolishness of reading novels unwisely, while a respected character conveys Jane’s truth:

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

Love and friendship is unsubtle, and is clearly the work of a youthful writer, but it is a hoot to read and we are lucky to have it (and her other juvenilia) to show us an author in the making.

Note: Love and friendship (1790) is available in many formats and manifestations. My first copy was in RW Chapman’s edition of her Minor works, but this time I read it on my Kindle using a bought version, the Oxford World Classics edition titled Catharine and Other Writings. However, you can read (or obtain) it online at Project Gutenberg.