This post was originally published a few months ago as part of my non-Brontë section. Although that section died a quick death, I’ve kept the posts in the archives for anybody to find if they want to. This is a piece I particularly enjoyed writing on the early fiction, or juvenilia, of Jane Austen, the only serious rival to the Brontë juvenilia.
Over the past few years, my obsession with the juvenilia of the Brontës has also introduced me to some of the early works of other renowned writers including Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf, and Jane Austen. Although the adult works of authors such as these are devoured by devotees of literature, their early writings remain a neglected part of their respective literary canons. If the most famous examples of literary juvenilia are the works of the Brontë siblings, then the works of Jane Austen come a close second. Although Austen’s work is no rival to the Brontës’ in terms of quantity, the quality of the pieces are outstanding, and have traditionally been held in higher regard than the Brontës’ by many literary critics over the years. Whilst nothing will ever match the Glass Town and Angrian tales in my eyes, the sample of Austen’s early works that I have so far encountered are witty, funny, sophisticated, and deliciously dark. Here I will provide a short introduction to Jane’s juvenile world in the hope of encouraging you to take the time to read, enjoy, and appreciate these early pieces by the mind responsible for some of the most beloved characters in fiction.
Jane Austen (1775-1817) is one of English literature’s most successful and beloved authors. When we think of her works we turn our minds towards the manners, customs, and social conventions of the regency period, to the brooding and proud Mr. Darcy, to the sense and torment of heroines such as Elinor Dashwood, and the snobbery and schemes of Emma Woodhouse. As an adult Austen produced six completed novels including Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1816). Unfortunately she did not live to see the publication of her final two novels, Northanger Abbey and my personal favourite, Persuasion, which were both published posthumously in 1818. In addition to these novels, Austen also left behind an unfinished manuscript entitled Sandition and the unfinished novel The Watsons, as well as a substantial body of early writings, or juvenilia, written between 1787 and c.1794. Although the juvenilia are ostensibly just the scribblings of a child seeking to entertain her family, they are also the evidence of the apprenticeship of an esteemed and celebrated adult author, and the foundations of her later published work.
Unlike the early writings of the Brontës, which are set in Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal, and feature a recurring cast of characters, Austen’s stories are stand alone narratives which can be read and enjoyed in isolation. This arguably makes her juvenilia more accessible as prior knowledge of her other works is not necessary to enjoy and fully appreciate individual pieces. Although many Brontë pieces can be enjoyed in isolation, a knowledge of characters and events in their long running saga will always aid the reader, and sometimes is essential to an understanding of certain narratives. Because of the extraordinary volume of Brontë juvenilia and the fact that many pieces were split up and sold for profit following the deaths of Patrick Brontë and Arthur Bell Nicholls (Charlotte’s husband), the stories have never appeared together in one complete edition, and it is quite possible that there are still undiscovered or lost stories waiting to be found. In 2018, two of Charlotte’s “lost” manuscripts will enjoy publication for the first time following their discovery in a book which once belonged to her mother, Maria. I was lucky enough to be able to view and handle this book during my research at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in 2016 and I can’t wait for the publication of these lost additions to the Brontë juvenilia.
Jane Austen’s juvenilia have been remarkably well preserved by comparison and have been published in complete editions. In all probability, all of her early attempts at writing will not have survived, and may even have been destroyed by Austen herself, however, there are complete editions available of her extant manuscripts. Fair copies of Austen’s early manuscripts survive in notebooks compiled by Austen herself which she labelled as “Volume the First”, “Volume the Second”, and “Volume the Third”. These notebooks include around 27 of Austen’s early stories and are now housed in The Bodleian Library in Oxford, and the British Library in London. The notebooks are far easier to read than the Brontë siblings’ tiny books, which although were shared between one another as children, were never intended for adult eyes (even though there was an air of secrecy surrounding the manuscripts, there is evidence to suggest that Patrick Brontë was aware of his children’s literary games even if he couldn’t read the books and they did not share them with him).
Although Austen’s youthful stories were never intended for publication, they were shared and circulated amongst close family and friends to entertain them, and perhaps this openness and Austen’s desire to preserve the stories she entertained her family with have contributed to the survival of the texts over the centuries. All three of Austen’s notebooks have evidence of wear, indicating that they were read and enjoyed on multiple occasions by numerous people. The secrecy surrounding the Brontë juvenilia certainly did not help their chances of survival and preservation as the significance of the works were not fully understood due to their appearance and size, and instead they were tossed aside and marketed merely as curiosities of the Brontës’ childhood.
Although Austen’s early works are easier to dip in and out of than the Brontës’ wonderful but complex saga, what does complicate matters slightly is that the notebooks are not chronological and each contain pieces from across her juvenile “career”. The earliest pieces date from when Austen was 11 years old, whilst the latest dated entry in the notebooks (“Volume the Second”) is from June 3rd 1793 when she was 17. Another slight complication is that Austen’s short epistolary novel Lady Susan dates from around 1794 and has long considered to be one of the more famous examples of Austen’s juvenilia, however, it does not feature in any of her notebooks and the fair copy made by Austen features watermarks on which the date 1805 appears, suggesting that she revised it after its initial completion. The result is that this narrative often features in editions of Austen’s adult works (with which it does not truly belong) instead of volumes dedicated to her juvenilia. It does however appear in Love and Freindship and Other Youthful Writings (Penguin Classics: London, 2015) which is a complete collection of Austen juvenilia edited by the wonderful juvenilia scholar, Christine Alexander. The spelling error in this title is Austen’s own and tends not to be changed by editors of her early works. The manuscript of Lady Susan is now located in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.
The Austen family provided inspiration for much of the juvenilia. Although not all co-collaborators like the Brontës, they had a great influence on the narratives, and helped to foster the young writer’s talent, especially her sister and best friend, Cassandra (1773-1845), to whom “The Beautifull Cassandra” is dedicated. Cassandra was a close collaborator of Jane’s, illustrating her manuscript entitled “The History of England”. Cassandra was also responsible for the only authenticated image of Jane (c.1810), which is now on display on display in The National Portrait Gallery, London, and features on the reverse of English ten pound notes. Austen also dedicated certain narratives to other family members depending on the content of the tales. Her short play “The Visit” is dedicated to her brother James due to his own creative and literary talents and ability to organise family theatrical events. James, alongside another Austen brother, Henry, produced a magazine whilst at Oxford University entitled The Loiterer, of which Jane was a reader, and possibly even a contributor (she may be responsible for a letter signed “Sophia Sentiment” which appeared in the 28th March 1789 edition). The young Jane would have been greatly influenced by her older brothers who were probably mentor figures to her during her childhood and adolescence as she developed her own writing style.
Fans of Austen’s adult works may be shocked at the content and subject matter of her juvenilia. Charlotte Brontë’s early works reveal an experimental streak and a sense of humour which is absent from her more restrained adult works, and Austen’s juvenilia also seemingly have little in common with the restrained and realistic portrayals of society, manners, and customs depicted in her adult works. There is a darkness to be found in ostensibly light-hearted tales such as “Frederic and Elfrida” which is Austen’s earliest surviving story involving a suicide, and the rather violent “Henry and Eliza”. However, there are traits of the Austen we know and love, including plenty of depictions of confident, headstrong, and rebellious young women in tales such as “Catherine, or the Bower” as well as plenty of silly women and attacks on the sentimental fiction of the period.
Despite the encouragement Austen’s family provided in her youth with regards to her writing, after her death they were reluctant to publish her juvenilia, believing it would be “unfair to expose this preliminary process to the world, as it would be to display all that goes on behind the curtain of theatre before it is drawn up (James Edward Austen-Leigh qtd in Love and Freindship and Other Youthful Writings, Penguin Classics: London, 2015). Fortunately, not only has Jane Austen’s juvenilia survived, it has thrived, with more readers than ever familiarising themselves with these early works which are easily available in both scholarly and paperback editions. The late 20th and early 21st centuries have been kind to juvenilia, with more focus on these works and a wider publication of the texts for readers to enjoy. Although the Brontë juvenilia remains problematic for many (including myself at times) and is still pretty much impossible to track down in its entirety, Jane Austen’s early writings are just as accessible as her adult works, and well worth a read.
By Nicola Friar, Brontë Babe and Janeite.
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