Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility (Vol. 3, redux)

Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility

I’ve called this post “Vol. 3, redux”, although it is my first post on volume 3. The reason is that for my Jane Austen group’s 2011 slow read of Sense and sensibility, I wrote posts on volumes 1 and 2, but not on volume 3 as I missed the meeting, and never did write up my own thoughts. This slow read, I have written up volume 1 (as “redux”), but I missed volume 2’s discussion, and again didn’t write up my thoughts. However, I did get to the volume 3 meeting and am naming my thoughts “redux” to match them up with the right re-read!

Now, a quick recap … In my recent volume 1 post, I discussed various ideas that had captured my attention, such as the novel’s autobiographical aspects, “fond” mothers, and appearance. Most of these had fallen away for me by the time I got to volume 3, but one idea that I mentioned – goodness, compassion and kindness – did not…

Triumph of kindness and generosity

From the novel’s beginning, the virtues of kindness, benevolence, generosity, charity are pitted against greed and self-interest. It starts with the sisters’ brother, John Dashwood, doing essentially nothing for his sisters while a distant cousin, Sir John Middleton, offers them a home at a good rental and supports them in any way he can. The theme continues through volumes 2 and into volume 3 where even characters who had been seen, initially, as somewhat silly if not vulgar, like Mrs Jennings and Charlotte Palmer, show kindness and compassion. They show up favourably against the greed and self-interest of Fanny and John Dashwood, Lucy Steele, and Willoughby.

Colonel Brandon is one of the characters whose kindness is evident from the start. Indeed, Elinor says to her mother near the end, that “his character does not rest … on one act of kindness”. A telling moment occurs when, in volume 3, he offers Edward Ferrars “a living”, after Edward’s own mother had disinherited him. The aforementioned John Dashwood finds this behaviour “improvident” and “astonishing” – and wonders why. Elinor responds, simply, that Colonel Brandon wanted “to be of use to Mr Ferrars”. That phrase, “to be of use”, conveys a sense of humility, of not wanting anything back, in his generosity.

It’s surely ironic when a page later, John Dashwood accuses sister Elinor of “ignorance of human nature”.

Mrs Jennings, too, who is described in the opening volume as “rather vulgar”, proves herself to be thoughtful and generous to Elinor and Marianne during their stay in her home in London. And when, in volume 3, Marianne falls seriously ill en-route home, Mrs Jennings

with a kindness of heart which made Elinor really love her, declared her resolution of not during from Cleveland as long as Marianne remained ill, and of endeavouring by her own attentive care, to supply to her the place of the mother she had taken her from.

Money is the root of …?

Money is another idea that threads through the novel from beginning to end: it is the death of Mr Dashwood which results in Mrs Dashwood and her daughters finding themselves homeless and impecunious. As the novel progresses, characters are defined by their attitude to money. There are well-off characters who are avaricious, like the aforementioned John Dashwoods and Mrs Ferrars, and well-off characters who are generous, like Sir John Middleton, Colonel Brandon and Mrs Jennings.

There are many in the novel, in fact, for whom money is so important they will sacrifice values like integrity and sincerity. Willoughby, in his confession to Elinor in Volume 3, admits

My affection for Marianne, my thorough conviction of her attachment to me–it was all insufficient to outweigh that dread of poverty, or get the better of those false ideas of the necessity of riches …

Of his rich fiancee, he says, “her money was necessary to me”.

Lucy Steele is, of course, the epitome of someone who schemes and manipulates for money, with little regard for the feelings of others. In the end, despite all her protestations of love, she is not willing to settle for the secure, if not rich, life that Elinor eventually has.

But what is it really all about?

As with all of Austen’s novels, what Sense and sensibility is about has been discussed and analysed and critiqued from literary, socioeconomic, feminist, historical, you-name-it perspectives. And, really, there is no one thing it is about. That is the joy and value of Austen. What she writes about, fundamentally, is people, and how we read her changes with our own experiences of life.

So here is where I am today. When I first read Sense and sensibility in my teens, I loved it. It was so romantic. Elinor gets her man, and is happy to live the life of an honest but not particularly well-off minister’s wife. Her sweet but overly romantic, emotional sister, gets the rich man. While that never seemed quite fair to me, as happily-ever-after stories go, I accepted it because it just showed what a person of integrity Elinor truly was. Love and esteem for an honest man were what made her happy.

And yet … what is Austen saying to us? Why do some of her heroines end up with less than dashing heroes? Well, I think it is partly because she was an early, if not the first, great novelist of realism. From this, her very first novel, she provides us with a microcosm of humanity. Like her later novels, Sense and sensibility is populated with flawed characters who represent complex humanity, unlike her Gothic and Sentimental novelist predecessors who tended to present the world in more morally absolutist, black-and-white terms. Not so Austen. Mrs Jennings might be “rather vulgar”, and a bit of an interfering gossip, but her heart is large and she’s generous. Mr Palmer, who seems cold and distant when first met away from home, shows himself to be kind and generous when a crisis occurs. And so on. Even Willoughby, despite his “selfish vanity”, is redeemed a little by his confession, and Austen allows him a reasonable life after all. I now see this confession as not being “clunky” as I’d once thought, but as important to Austen’s mission of portraying life.

But, back to Marianne. There was something that I noticed on this read that I’d never noticed before, and that concerned Marianne and her marriage to Colonel Brandon. One of the reasons I have always loved Sense and sensibility is for this quote:

Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims.

I so related to this – to the idea of proclaiming opinions before experience teaches us otherwise – that I hadn’t really seen the preceding paragraph, which concerns Marianne’s mother explicitly matchmaking Marianne with Colonel Brandon:

It was now her darling object. Precious as was the company of her daughter to her, she desired nothing so much as to give up its constant enjoyment to her valued friend; and to see Marianne settled at the mansion-house was equally the wish of Edward and Elinor. They each felt his sorrows, and their own obligations, and Marianne, by general consent, was to be the reward of all.

“The reward of all”. This sounds a bit suss! Austen continues …

With such a confederacy against her–with a knowledge so intimate of his goodness–with a conviction of his fond attachment to herself, which at last, though long after it was observable to everybody else–burst on her–what could she do?

And so, Marianne does come around to loving this good, kind man as Austen makes clearer a couple of paragraphs further on:

Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby.

The point, then, is that Sense and sensibility is not Romance with a capital-R, but a story about love – Elinor’s, from the start, and Marianne’s, eventually – that is based on genuine feeling combined with appreciation of the personal values that make a person worth loving.

There is so much more to this book but I’ll leave it here because I feel that, for now, I understand what it really is about!

Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility (Vol. 1, redux)

Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility

In 2011, my Jane Austen group started a slow read of her novels in chronological order of publication, which meant that we started with the 1811-published Sense and sensibility. By slow read, we meant that each month we’d read a volume of the chosen novel, given most novels in those times were published in three volumes, and discuss just that volume to see what new ideas or insights we might have. We finished the project in 2017. Having spent the last five years looking at other works by Austen (like her Juvenilia) and exploring other topics relevant to her, we decided last year that it was time to “do” the novels again. So, once again, we’ve started with the first one.

For some of you, this will seem very dry, but for those of us who love Austen, there is much to be gained from these slow reads. If you are interested in what I wrote last time on volume one, check out the post, but here I’m sharing what thoughts popped up for me this time.

First though, I’ll repeat the caveats from 2011. I’m assuming that most readers who come to this post will know the plot. (If you don’t, Wikipedia provides a good summary.) Also, this is not a formal review but simply a sharing of some of the ideas that struck me during this slow reading.

Slow reading of Volume 1

I have always liked Sense and sensibility, while my dear Mum thought it one of her weakest. (There’s no accounting for tastes! In my group there are many who will never forget that Mum loved Northanger Abbey, which some of them don’t like much at all.)

Anyhow, here goes. It’s fascinating how each read of an Austen book focuses the mind on something different. That’s the richness of Austen, and what makes her a true classic. In my last slow read, my first-volume thoughts focused particularly on the idea of judgement, and money and income. This time, other ideas came to the fore for me, some partly affected, I think, by current concerns.

Autobiographical first novel?

But first, an idea I hadn’t fully thought through before was that it could be seen as a “typical” first novel, by which I mean, it has strong autobiographical elements. Anyone who knows Austen always think of this novel’s basic set-up of in terms of her life: the fact that Austen, her mother and sister, lost their home on the death of their husband/father, and had to wait for the kindness of relations to come to their aid, just as happens to the Dashwoods. However, on this reading, I realised there were other autobiographical elements. Others in the group had come to the same conclusion, and yet none of us had discussed this last time. Curious.

So, for example, our two sisters, the younger musical Marianne and the older artistic Elinor mirror musical Jane and her artist sister Cassandra. Moreover, Jane, we believe, was lively, like Marianne, compared with her more sober older sister. If Austen did draw on herself for Marianne, however, she’s gorgeously self-deprecating – though she does present Marianne as over-enthusiastic and excitable but fundamentally sound. There are several other elements we could point to from Austen’s biography, including her flirtation with Tom Lefroy being reflected in Marianne’s with Willoughby. They are very different men, but both men are whisked away by relations from the attractive but unsuitable, ie not-rich-enough, girl.

Appearances deceive?

Perhaps partly because I’ve been listening to ABC RN’s Face Value series, I seemed to be particularly alert to the many references to appearance. Admittedly, Austen describes appearance in all her novels, but it felt pointed here in a way that I don’t recollect seeing in later novels.

So, Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon are both described as not handsome, but both are appealing for their good understanding and interested attention in others. Willoughby, on the other hand, is described differently. When he appears on the scene, having rescued Marianne from her fall in the rain, Austen says that Mrs Dashwood would have would have been grateful had he been ”old, ugly, and vulgar”, but his “youth, beauty, and elegance” gave him added interest.

As for the women, Sir John Middleton and Charlotte Palmer talk of Elinor and Marianne as being pretty and therefore marriageable, while Lucy Steele is seen by the perceptive Elinor to have “beauty” but to “want … real elegance and artlessness”. And then there’s Mr Palmer who, just like Pride and prejudice’s Mr Bennet, had chosen his wife Charlotte for her beauty not her sense. Beauty, Austen seems to be saying, is something we should not give undue credit to.

Fond mothers?

Another issue which caught my attention this time around concerned mothers and mothering. Mothering (poor or lack of) features in many of Austen’s novels. Lizzie Bennet’s mother (Pride and prejudice) is silly; Emma (Emma) and Anne (Persuasion) don’t have a mother; Fanny’s (Mansfield Park) is too busy; and Catherine’s (Northanger Abbey) is away from her at a critical time. By contrast, Sense and sensibility has several active and involved, though not necessarily great, mothers, from the loving, hands-off Mrs Dashwood to the ultimate controller in Mrs Ferrars.

Very early on Mrs Dashwood’s style of mothering is described and Mrs Ferrars’ is hinted at, in relation to the apparent growing attraction between Elinor and Edward.

Some mothers might have encouraged intimacy from motives of interest, for Edward Ferrars was the eldest son of a man who died very rich; and some might have repressed it from motives of prudence, for, except for a trifling sum, the whole of his fortune depended on the will of his mother. But Mrs. Dashwood was alike uninfluenced by either consideration. It was enough for her that he appeared to be amiable, that he loved her daughter, and that Elinor returned the partiality.

Mrs Dashwood, who is probably the most present mother in Austen, is loving but not always wise. When Marianne falls into excessive despair at Willoughby’s sudden, unexplained departure, Elinor suggests she ask Marianne directly about her relationship with Willoughby. Mrs Dashwood replies that she “would not ask such a question for the world … I should never deserve her confidence again … I would not attempt to force the confidence of any one”. Elinor disagrees, seeing “this generosity overstrained, considering her sister’s youth … [but] … common sense, common care, common prudence, were all sunk in Mrs Dashwood’s romantic delicacy”.

However, Mrs Dashwood does provide good “maternal” advice to Edward, suggesting that finding some useful employment would help him be “a happier man”. She then mentions his mother:

Your mother will secure to you, in time, that independence you are so anxious for; it is her duty, and it will, it must, ere long become her happiness to prevent your whole youth from being wasted in discontent.

We haven’t met Mrs Ferrars at this point in the novel, but earlier references to her have not suggested a particularly loving or even dutiful mother. If Mrs Ferrars is one matriarch in the the novel, Mrs Jennings is another. Austen tells us that “She had only two daughters, both of whom she had lived to see respectably married, and she had now therefore nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world”. She comes across in Volume 1, as gossipy, “vulgar”, but good-natured. Without second-guessing the next volume, let’s say that I think she warms as a motherly character then!

Her younger daughter, Charlotte Palmer is pregnant, but the older one, Lady Middleton, is the mother of three young children. She is the “fond mother” who “will swallow anything”. Her very existence depends on her role – she only comes to life when her children are around – and the shrewd Steele girls take advantage of this.

For Austen readers, the issue of mothers in Austen’s novels is a loaded one. Why are there so few sensible mothers in her novels? There is much we don’t know about Austen’s life, and one of the mysteries concerns her relationship with her mother. Some Austen researchers believe it was prickly. We’ll never know, but great mothers are rare in her novels – which may or may not tell us something .

And …

Other issues that grabbed my attention included the many references to goodness, compassion and kindness, and, not surprisingly, to sense and sensibility (which I briefly discussed in my previous volume 1 post).

Goodness appears on page 1, when we are told that Mr and Mrs Dashwood had shown “goodness of heart” to the uncle from whom they had inherited Norland, the estate that Mrs Dashwood must leave after her husband dies. As the volume progresses, Marianne talks of Edward’s “goodness and sense”; Sir John Middleton is described as being of “good heart”; and Colonel Brandon as having a “good nature”. These are not just words. Sir John’s “good heart” translates into real and practical kindness to the Dashwoods, and Edward values the “kindness” of the Dashwood family “beyond anything”.

I won’t continue because we’ll have to see how or whether these issues remain to the fore as I read on, or whether others will raise their heads. Instead, I’ll close one one of those insights that I love reading Austen for. It’s on Mrs Dashwood not being prepared to consider the tough possibilities (in this case concerning Marianne and Willoughby):

But Mrs Dashwood could find explanations whenever she wanted them, which at least satisfied herself.

How often do we justify things to ourselves that we’d be better not to? Mrs Dashwood isn’t alone I think. (Or, do I speak only for myself?)

Roll on volume 2.

George Orwell, How the poor die (#Review)

“It is a sound instinct that warns people to keep out of hospitals if possible, and especially out of the public wards.” George Orwell may have written this in 1946, in his essay, “How the poor die”, but I can’t help thinking that it is still a sound instinct, something only too vividly confirmed by the experience of COVID-19, world-wide. How many people have contracted COVID-19 in hospital, for a start? How many hospitals have been so over-run that they’ve had patients in corridors, in foyers, in ambulances on ramps, in quickly erected marquee wards, not to mention people on the streets waiting to get in. This isn’t the experience of all patients in all hospitals in all countries, but as far as I can tell one or more of these things has happened in every place that COVID-19 has taken hold. It’s not pretty.

But, I digress. Back to Orwell. The essay was inspired by an experience he had in a public ward of a hospital in Paris in 1929, but why leave it to 1946 to publish? According to Wikipedia, the editor of Orwell’s Collected Works, Peter Davison, suggests that it may have been first written between 1931 and 1936, when Orwell was writing about “the unemployed, tramps and beggars”, and that he reworked it over 1940 to 1941. It was submitted to a journal around then but was rejected, “possibly because readers would have been unwilling to read about ‘how the poor die’ at such a time”. In the end, a section [which section, I wonder?] was retyped and it was published in November 1946.

Orwell’s experiences were awful. He had pneumonia, he says, and was placed in a packed ward – “a long, rather low, ill-lit room … with three rows of beds surprisingly close together” – and treated with cupping and a very painful mustard poultice. This, however, was not the worst of it. He describes the impersonal, disrespectful way in which the patients were treated by the doctors, medical students and nurses, the lack of basic cleanliness and care (with patients, not nurses, for example, often getting bedpans for those who couldn’t do it themselves). That this was going to be the sort of story he’d tell is heralded in the second paragraph where he describes having a bath on admission as “a compulsory routine for all newcomers, apparently, just as in prison or the workhouse”.

Anyhow, Orwell then moves on to death. He suggests that the lonely, ignored death of patient numéro 57, would be seen as “an example of a ‘natural’ death, one of the things you pray for in the Litany”. He considers it might be “better to die violently and not too old”, because, for all the horrors of war, he writes, death via a man-made weapon nowhere near “approaches in cruelty some of the commoner diseases”.

At this point, I was wondering about what hospital experiences Orwell had had, but he goes on to mention a Spanish hospital and an English cottage hospital, both of which he experienced in the 1930s. So, when he argues that the English cottage hospital was superior, he is speaking from experience. I wonder, though, whether a French cottage hospital might have been similarly decent? I don’t know.

Orwell next gives a brief history of hospitals through the nineteenth century, describing how they were places where medical students practised on the poor. He focuses on surgery, which, at that time, was “believed to be no more than a peculiarly gruesome form of sadism”. This apparently inspired a nineteenth century genre (though he doesn’t use that term) of horror-literature “connected with doctors and hospitals”. All you horror lovers will be familiar with this, I’m sure. Doctors in these stories had names like Slasher, Carver and Fillgrave. He also mentions Tennyson’s poem “The Children’s Hospital” (1880) as being part of this anti-surgery literature.

I found all this interesting, but wondered what his point was. A page or so before the end, I thought I found a hint, when, after referencing the improvements brought by anaesthetics and disinfectants, he says

Moreover, national health insurance has partly done away with the idea that a working-class patient is a pauper who deserves little consideration.

And yet … he concludes by saying that, despite improvements, hospitals are still not the best place to die, and that “the dread of hospitals probably still survives among the very poor”. It takes a long time, he implies, for past experiences and history to die out in the collective imagination. Not necessarily a bad thing, I think.

Wikipedia tells us that in 1948, two years after this story was published, and one year before Orwell died, Britain’s National Health Service was established “as publicly-funded medical provision for all”. The person behind it was the Minister of Health, Aneurin Bevan, who had once been Orwell’s colleague at the Tribune.

Previous reviews from this book: “Books v. Cigarettes“, “Bookshop memories“, “Confessions of a book reviewer“, “The prevention of literature” and “My country right of left“?

George Orwell
“How the poor die” (orig. 1946, in Now)
in Books v. cigarettes (Great Ideas)
London: Penguin Books, 2008
pp. 50-64
ISBN: 9780141036618

Available online at the Orwell Foundation.

George Orwell, My country right or left (#Review)

Having recently posted on the fourth essay, “The prevention of literature“, in my book of George Orwell essays, I’ve decided to plough on and try to finish it. The next essay is the short, cleverly titled, “My country right or left”. It was first published in Autumn 1940 in Folios of new writing.

It’s a curious little essay. I’m going to introduce it by sharing the Orwell quote used by the Orwell Foundation under its banner: “What I have most wanted to do… is to make political writing into an art”. You can certainly tell from “The prevention of literature” that he sees literature as being necessarily political. That essay was written in 1946, just after World War 2 had ended. “My country right or left” was first published just one year into this war – and is politically-driven.

The essay starts with:

Contrary to popular belief, the past was not more eventful than the present. If it seems so it is because when you look backward things that happened years apart are telescoped together, and because very few of your memories come to you genuinely virgin. It is largely because of the books, films and reminiscences that have come between that the war of 1914-18 is now supposed to have had some tremendous, epic quality that the present one lacks.

I wasn’t sure at all, from this opening, where it was going. Soon, however, it’s clear that war is the driver for the essay which turns out to be about Orwell trying to rationalise, or work through, his socialist beliefs, his previously avowed pacifism, and his patriotism (and thus support for the war).

He writes about being a middle-class school boy during World War 1 and being oblivious to what was happening, particularly to “the true significance” of the big events. He writes:

The Russian Revolution, for instance, made no impression, except on the few whose parents happened to have money invested in Russia. 

I’m sure that’s not unusual! He talks about how pacifism

had set in long before the war ended. To be as slack as you dared on O.T.C. parades, and to take no interest in the war was considered a mark of enlightenment.

Interestingly, however, this pacifism, he says, gradually gave way to a certain nostalgia in those who had not experienced the war! He suggests that this was why his generation was so interested in the Spanish Civil War. He then moves onto World War 2, to the growing awareness in the mid-1930s that it was coming and – this is his main point – his realisation that he “was patriotic at heart” and “would support the war”.

Orwell’s sees this as a no-brainer. He says:

If I had to defend my reasons for supporting the war, I believe I could do so. There is no real alternative between resisting Hitler and surrendering to him, and from a Socialist point of view I should say that it is better to resist; in any case I can see no argument for surrender that does not make nonsense of the Republican resistance in Spain, the Chinese resistance to Japan, etc. etc. 

But, he admits that this support stemmed primarily from “the long drilling in patriotism which the middle classes go through”. The drilling had, he said, “done its work … once England was in a serious jam it would be impossible for me to sabotage”. This patriotism, however, in not incompatible, he argues, with his socialist view that “only revolution can save England”. That “has been obvious for years”. “To be loyal both to Chamberlain’s England and to the England of tomorrow might seem an impossibility”, he writes, but it is, in fact, a fact, because such dual loyalties were happening everyday. Revolution could not happen with Hitler in control, so, Hitler must be resisted.

His final point is to criticise the left-wing intellectuals who do not understand this, though his method is curious. He turns to the idea of “patriotism”, arguing that “patriotism” should not be equated with “conservatism”, because, unlike “conservatism”, “patriotism” can encompass change. Indeed, he proposes that “socialism” can grow out of the emotions that underpin “patriotism”, whether “the boiled rabbits of the Left” like it or not.

So, curiously argued perhaps, but I can imagine the socialist-leaning, middle-class raised, intellectually open Orwell wanting to nut out how to marry his socialist beliefs with the very real threats his imperfect Britain was facing – and coming up with something confronting, but true.

Wikipedia writes that “according to his notes to his literary executor in 1949”, this was one of three essays that he did not want reprinted after his death. I can sort of see why, and I don’t know why the executor didn’t respect this. However, I do like the insight this essay provides into how Orwell thought, and that it shows him to be an independent thinker, rather than a parroter of received truths.

Previous reviews of essays from this book: “Books v. Cigarettes“, “Bookshop memories“, “Confessions of a book reviewer“, and “The prevention of literature“.

George Orwell
“My country right or left” (orig. 1940)
in Books v. cigarettes (Great Ideas)
London: Penguin Books, 2008
pp. 21-41
ISBN: 9780141036618

Available online at the Orwell Foundation.

George Orwell, The prevention of literature (#Review)

One of the reasons a work becomes a classic is its timelessness, its continued relevance to each period in which it is read. This is certainly why many of George Orwell’s works are seen as classics. Scarily, there is nothing more relevant now than his writing on the impact of totalitarianism – of which his 1946 essay, “The prevention of literature”, is one example.

The essay starts by responding to a PEN meeting that was held on the tercentenary of Milton’s Areopagitica. Milton defends, Orwell writes, “the freedom of the press”, and he was concerned that not one of several hundred people present “could point out that the freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose”.

Orwell continues to say that there are two main threats to “the idea of intellectual liberty”: the theoretical enemies, or proponents of totalitarianism; and, the immediate, practical enemies, bureaucracy and monopoly. He spends little time on this latter, but I’ll mention it because it is as valid now as it was then. He sumarises it as:

the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly on radio and the films, and the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books.

I’m not sure how the last of these stands now, but I believe Australians are buying books, and particularly did so during the pandemic. However, his first two points are certainly still valid concerns, eight decades later.

Orwell’s prime focus, however, was the impact of totalitarianism on intellectual freedom, and thus on literature. He spends some time discussing attacks on freedom of thought and the press. He argues that

in the foreground the controversy over freedom of speech and the press is at bottom a controversy over the desirability or otherwise of telling lies. What is really at issue is the right to report contemporary events truthfully, or as truthfully as is consistent with the bias and self deception in which every observer necessarily suffers.

I love this qualification, but I think you can see where this is going in terms of my opening paragraph. I’m not going to write a treatise on this, but Russian-American Masha Gessen wrote a response to it in The New Yorker, in 2018, which is well worth reading for their historical understanding of where Orwell was coming from as well as for their commentary on its relevance to how. They wrote that:

We live in a time when intentional, systematic, destabilizing lying—totalitarian lying for the sake of lying, lying as a way to assert or capture political power—has become the dominant factor in public life in Russia, the United States, Great Britain, and many other countries in the world. When we engage with the lies—and engaging with these lies is unavoidable and even necessary—we forfeit the imagination. But the imagination is where democracy lives. We imagine the present and the past, and then we imagine the future.

What Gessen is referring to here is, first, the point that Orwell makes about totalitarianism’s “disbelief in the very existence of objective truth” – its lack of interest in “truthfulness” – and, second, its quashing of the “imagination” which is fundamental to literature.

Orwell argues that totalitarianism engenders instability, that totalitarians alter their perspectives at a moment’s notice to suit the prevailing situation. Such a society, he writes, “can never permit either the truthful recoding of facts, or the emotional sincerity, that literary creation demands”. You don’t have to be in a totalitarian state for this to happen, he adds. This problem can also occur wherever there is “an enforced orthodoxy – or even two orthodoxies”, where you cannot write sincerely. This point, I think, is worth considering in terms of “rules” about who can write what. I am certainly sympathetic to the concern about people’s stories being appropriated and, more problematically, being over-ridden, but there are many stories and “truths”, and sincere (I like this word) writing about them should be welcomed and respected. We learn about ourselves through the give-and-take, the conversation, that the arts facilitates. It is truly positive that we are now hearing more voices – this is what we must encourage and protect – but it would be dangerous if all these voices were confined to boxes.

Related to this is Orwell’s understanding of literature. He writes that “above a quite low level, literature is an attempt to influence the viewpoint of one’s contemporaries by recording experience”. For him, essentially all literature – particularly “prose literature” – is political in some sense. He says “there is no such thing as a genuinely non-political literature, and least of all in an age like our own, when fears, hatreds, and loyalties of a directly political kind are near the surface of everyone’s consciousness”. It sounds very much like our time.

Finally, after some other fascinating discussions – some of which made sense, some less so to me, such as his discussion of verse – he concludes that “a bought mind is a spoilt mind” and that “the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity”.

“The prevention of literature”, although written at a very particular point in world history, turned out to be more relevant than I would have hoped possible. It raises many questions about the threats we are currently facing to intellectual liberty and freedom of expression, and thus, to “truthfully” reporting, to “sincerely” questioning, what we see happening.

Previous reviews of essays from this book: “Books v. Cigarettes“, “Bookshop memories“, and “Confessions of a book reviewer“.

George Orwell
“The prevention of literature” (orig. 1946)
in Books v. cigarettes (Great Ideas)
London: Penguin Books, 2008
pp. 21-41
ISBN: 9780141036618

Available online at the Orwell Foundation.

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

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?

References:

  • 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, Lesley Castle (#Review)

I mentioned in my post on the second volume of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, that I might do a separate post on one of its longer pieces, Lesley Castle. It’s one of her three longer pieces in that volume, and is often published separately or in other compilations, so warrants some attention, methinks!

Lesley Castle

Lesley Castle is another of Austen’s epistolary pieces. According to Juliet McMaster, writing in Persuasions Online, it represented a “step forward” in epistolary novels because the writers correspond with each other, rather than to someone “off-stage”. In this piece, in fact, there are several correspondents, writing to each other, resulting in different perspectives being offered on some of the main “characters”.

Lesley Castle is essentially an unfinished collection of correspondence between various “friends” who talk mostly of marriage – and of each other. Like many of the Juvenilia pieces, it demonstrates Austen’s love of writing about wickedness. It starts with Margaret writing of her brother’s adulterous wife running off, leaving not only her husband but her 2-year-old child, and of her widowed father, “fluttering about the streets of London, gay, dissipated and thoughtless at the age of 57”. Her correspondent, Charlotte, reports back about her tragedy, the death of her sister’s fiancé from falling off his horse, but she is more interested in food than in her bereaved sister. Insensitively, she describes her distraught sister’s face being “as White as a Whipt syllabub“. Such-self-centredness is rife in Austen – and you can hear her cheeky teenage self laughing as she wrote it!

Interestingly, this story is set largely in Scotland, which Austen never visited, and rarely mentioned in her works. Why Scotland, then? One reason could be to mock the vogue at the time for things Scottish. Margaret claims that she and her sister are happy there:

But tho’ retired from almost all in the World, (for we visit no one but the M’Leods, the M’Kenzies, the M’Phersons, the M’Cartneys, the M’donalds, the M’Kinnons, the M’lellans, the M’Kays, the Macbeths and the Macduffs) we are neither dull not unhappy …

The inclusions of “the Macbeths and Macduffs” is an additional pointer to Austen’s love of nonsense. She used lists frequently in the Juvenilia, often ending them with something extra “silly” to make her point. As I said in my first Juvenilia post, subtlety was to come in her mature works!

The new Lady Lesley, the aforementioned dissipated father’s new wife, is not so taken. She is also a friend of Charlotte’s and writes to her about her new Scottish-based step-daughters:

I wish my dear Charlotte that you could but behold these Scotch giants; I am sure they would frighten you out of your wits. […] Those girls have no music, but Scotch airs, no drawings but Scotch mountains, and no books but Scotch poems–and I hate everything Scotch.

Charlotte, meanwhile, had written to Margaret about Lady Lesley whom she sees as favouring “haunts of Dissipation” (essentially, cities):

Perhaps however if she finds her health impaired by too much amusement, she may acquire fortitude sufficient to undertake a Journey to Scotland in the hope of finding it at least beneficial to her health, if not conducive to her happiness.

The piece continues in this sort of vein with the correspondents often writing at cross-purposes, and, it must be said, focusing more on self-interest than the needs of others.

Of course, Austen readers always look for hints not only of style and themes (here, self-centredness, snobbishness, sensibility, hypocrisy, country versus city, and marriage) but of characters to come. In Lesley Castle, Charlotte reminds us particularly of a few Emma characters: Mr Woodhouse and his focus on food (though his is of a very particular type), Mrs Elton and her self-centred obliviousness to the needs of others, and, even, says Heller (referenced below) of Miss Bates in her garrulousness.

Margaret is a good example of Austen’s deluded characters who see themselves one way, while showing themselves to be very different. Many of the letters open affectionately, but contain or end with cutting remarks. Margaret, for example, writes to Charlotte complaining about being admired by too “many amiable Young Men” and expressing her “Aversion to being so celebrated both in Public, in Private, in Papers, & in Printshops”. She continues:

How often have I wished that I possessed as little personal Beauty as you do; that my figure were as inelegant; my face as unlovely; and my Appearance as unpleasing as yours!

Lesley Castle is probably not for every-one. So, rather than try to convince you to read it, I’ll conclude with Zoë Heller in The Guardian. Writing about Austen’s youthful work, she says that “as always in Austen’s work, recklessness with facts and inattention to detail are the rhetorical clues to a deeper-seated, moral carelessness”. How perceptive.

Jane Austen
“Lesley Castle”
in
“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 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.

Thoughts

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

Bill curates: Charles Dickens and Australia

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.

I’m such a fan of Monday Musings – I guess we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t all enjoy talking about books, and writing, and authors, and translators, and publishers – that all the posts that jump out at me, seem to be MMs. From Sept 2010 Sue discusses the Australianness of an author who was never in Australia. As Hannah Gwendoline D’Orsay Tennyson Bulwer [Last Name] wrote in Comments “I had no idea Dickens had such a connection with Australia.”

______________________________

My original post titled: Monday musings on Australian literature: Charles Dickens and Australia

Charles Dickens, c1860
Dickens, c. 1860 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Here’s something completely different for my Monday musings! Not an Australian author, not even a foreign born author who came to Australia (though, being the great traveller he was, he did consider a lecture tour), but Charles Dickens does have a couple of interesting “connections” with Australia. These connections are supported by the existence of some letters written by him at the National Library of Australia.

On convicts and migration in general

Transportation of convicts to Australia – actual, implied or threatened – features in several of his novels. These include John Edmunds in Pickwick Papers (1836-37), the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist (1837-1839), Mr Squeers in NicholasNickleby (1838-39), Alice Marwood in Dombey and Son (1846-48), and Magwitch (probably the most famous of all) in Great expectations (1861)not to mention Jenny Wren who threatens her father with transportation in Our mutual friend (1864-65). Dickens apparently learnt quite a lot about convict life, and particularly the penal settlement on Norfolk Island, from his friend Alexander Maconochie (to whom I refer in my review of Price Warung’s Tales of the early days).

Clearly, it was this knowledge which inspired the letter he wrote to the 2nd Marquess of Normanby (George Augustus Constantine Phipps), who was Secretary of State for the Home Office . He suggests

a strong and vivid description of the terrors of Norfolk Island and such-like-places, told in a homely narrative with a great appearance of truth and reality, and circulated in some very cheap and easy form (if with the direct authority of the Government, so much the better) would have a very powerful effect on the minds of those badly disposed … I would have it on the pillow of every prisoner in England. (3 July 1840, Original in the National Library of Australia, Ms 6809)

He offers to write this narrative, gratis. As far as I know, although Dickens and the Marquess were friends, nothing ever came of this offer.

While Dickens deplored the treatment of convicts in the penal settlements, he also saw Australia as a land of opportunity. The transported Magwitch, as we know, made his fortune in Australia. Mr Micawber, debt-ridden at the end of David Copperfield, emigrates to Australia and becomes a sheepfarmer and magistrate. But, perhaps the strongest evidence of Dickens’ belief in Australia as a place where people could get ahead, is the emigation of his sons.

On his sons

Two of Dickens’ sons – Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson Dickens and Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens* (nicknamed Plorn) – emigrated to Australia, both with their father’s encouragement.

Alfred (1845-1912) migrated to Australia in 1865. He worked on several stations/properties in Victoria and New South Wales and as a stock and station agent, before partnering with his brother in their own stock and station agency, EBL Dickens and Partners. He died in the United States in 1912, having left Australia on a lecture tour in 1910. Dickens’  youngest son, Edward (1852-1902), went to Australia in 1869. He also worked on stations before opening the stock and station agency with his brother. He later worked as a civil servant and represented Wilcannia in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in 1889-94, but he died, debt-ridden, in 1902 at Moree. Australia did not quite turn out to be the land of opportunity for these two that Dickens had hoped, but fortunately he was not around to see it!

A couple of Dickens’ letters to his sons are held at the National Library of Australia. One was written in 1868, not long before Plorn left England, and includes some fatherly advice:

Never take a mean advantage of anyone in any transaction, and never be hard on people who are in your power …

The more we are in earnest as to feeling religion, the less we are disposed to hold forth on it. (26? September 1868, Original in National Library of Australia, Ms 2563)

One does rather wish that Dickens had taken his own advice regarding not being “hard on people who are in your power” in his treatment of his poor wife Catherine.

Eighteen days before he died in 1870, he wrote this to Alfred:

I am doubtful whether Plorn is taking to Australia. Can you find out his real mind? I note that he always writes as if his present life were the be-all and end-all of his emigration and as if I had no idea of you two becoming proprietors and aspiring to the first positions in the colony without casting off the old connexion (1870, Original in National Library of Australia, Ms 6420).

These are just two of the many letters that he wrote to (and about) his sons in Australia. More can be found in published editions of his letters. I have chosen these particular ones purely because we have them here in Canberra. It’s rather a treat to be able to see Dickens’ hand so far away from his home.

Do you enjoy close literary encounters of the handwritten kind?

___________________________

What an interesting choice of Bill’s but I am glad to be reminded of this post as I have been wanting to read more of Dickens’ journalistic writings. Whether I will is another thing but, you never know.

Are you a Dickens fan?

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!

Themes

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)

Style

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