Reviewed by Karen Langley
2017 is turning out to be something of a year of anniversaries: as well as being 100 years since the Russian Revolution took place, it’s also the centenary of the birth of artist and author Leonora Carrington. Both of these events have been gaining considerable media coverage, exhibitions and publications. However, there’s another notable event to commemorate this year; the fact that it’s also 200 years since the death of the great and beloved Jane Austen. This anniversary is also being marked by a number of publications and one particularly lovely one is this volume from Oxford World Classics – a beautiful book collecting together all of Austen’s teenage writings.
It’s been some years since I read anything by Jane Austen – decades, in fact – and I can’t be sure now what I’ve actually read and what I haven’t, although I’m pretty sure on “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion”. So I wondered how I would find these juvenile works by an author who is undoubtedly one of the most famous in the English language and who probably needs no introduction from me!
As always for OWC, the book is put together in a most exemplary fashion. There is an erudite and knowledgeable introduction from Kathryn Sutherland and Freya Johnston, both from St. Anne’s College, Oxford; a chronology of Austen and her works; detailed notes to support the contents of the text, and also notes that deal in detail with textual variations; maps, family continuations of the works, and three volumes of the actual stories (about which more below)! The scholarship which has gone into this book is impressive, making it a very special volume which is ideal for the reader who doesn’t necessarily have much background knowledge of Austen’s history, the era and the context (me!).
Jane Austen was an inveterate reader of novels herself, and absorbed whatever books she could get hold of, high- or low-brow. Her early writings were done not ‘for the drawer’ but to be circulated amongst family and friends, and she collected them together into three mock books, the source of the works here. The earliest date from when she was 11 or 12, and the final pieces from her later teens when she was around 17. The early pieces are understandably shorter but Volume 3 has two substantial pieces, “Evelyn” and “Kitty, or the Bower”, the latter of which is the first opportunity to read the story as she actually wrote it, as it was apparently subject to alteration by family members later on.
If you think of Austen as a purveyor of gentle prose, you might be quite surprised when you read these stories! They take a variety of forms, from short pieces a page or so long, through little playlets to the longer, more dramatic stories in volume 3. The book includes her most famous piece of juvenilia, “Love and Freindship”, and it’s fascinating to see what a sophisticated wit she displays for one so young – this from one of the early pieces, for example:
… I daily became more amiable, & might perhaps by this time have nearly attained perfection, had not my worthy Preceptoress been torn from my arms, e’re I had attained my seventeenth year. I shall never forget her last words. “My dear Kitty, she said, Good night t’ye.” I never saw her afterwards, continued Lady Williams wiping her eyes, she eloped with the Butler the same night.
There’s a surprising amount of boozing going on, with one particular lady in the very early stories regularly drunk and knocking back the alcohol! Love is dramatic and tragic, and there is even a little murder thrown in…
An entertaining diversion comes in the form of “The History of England”, which appears in Volume the Second. Here, Austen turns her talents to relating the stories of the various monarchs of the country. Some warrant only a line or two, but titans such as Henry VIII earn entries of a decent length. I was particularly pleased to note that Austen refuses to believe the propaganda about Richard III declaring that she supposes him “a very respectable Man”. The entries are illustrated by Austen’s elder sister, Cassandra, but unfortunately she’s not able to present an image of Edward V as Jane tells us that “This unfortunate Prince lived so little a while that no body had time to draw his picture. He was murdered by his Uncle’s Contrivance, whose name was Richard the 3rd.” (Hmm – so perhaps Austen was being a little sarcastic in her views on the latter….)
I’m not enough of an Austen reader or scholar to comment on how strongly these early pieces relate to her later works, but I’m told that many of the themes in the teenage writings appear more subtly in her adult work and certainly I picked up elements of parody and some wonderful snarky humour. Austen’s modern image is often of a rather staid, spinsterish woman writing mannered prose, but this is far from the truth if you look at her life and work, and indeed her juvenilia reinforces the image of her as a lively girl and woman keen for fun and entertainment.
So this is a diverting and enjoyable collection providing a unique glimpse into the world of the young Jane Austen. Is it a work for the general reader? I think so, though it would make more sense to have read some of her adult works before you come to this one. But this is a beautifully presented volume which presents an essential collection of early works by one of our best-loved authors – and it couldn’t have been put together any better
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and believes that it is a truth universally acknowledged that the juvenilia of your favourite author will always be worth tracking down…
Jane Austen, Teenage Writings (Oxford World Classics, 2017). 9780198737452, 336pp, paperback.
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