Brontë, Juvenilia, Literature, Reviews

Beyond the Brontë Juvenilia: Ethel Turner’s That Young Rebel

As regular readers of my blog will know, my main area of research is the Brontë juvenilia, and although I occasionally branch out to study the childhood works of Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, and Virginia Woolf, there are many more so-called juvenile authors waiting to be discovered. After attending the Sixth International Literary Juvenilia Conference in Durham in July 2018, I became more interested in expanding my knowledge of the juvenilia canon after listening to some fascinating papers on child authors such as Opal Whitely and Barbara Newhall Follett. You can read my post about the conference by clicking here. Ethel Turner was another author much discussed during the conference and I was thrilled to be asked by the Juvenilia Press to review their edition of Turner’s serial, That Young Rebel as it would provide me with an opportunity of expanding my knowledge of the writings that make up the juvenilia canon and their respective authors. I am extremely grateful to the Director of the Juvenilia Press, Christine Alexander, for kindly providing me with a copy of the text. My thoughts on the this edition and Turner’s work can be found below in addition to a brief introduction to the aims of the Juvenilia Press. There are minor spoilers in this post but as this is a serial rather than a novel, it does not affect a reading of the events too much and I always encourage people to read the texts I review as different authors provide readers with different experiences.

The Juvenilia Press

The Juvenilia Press is a non-profit organisation which aims to promote the study of literary juvenilia, a non-canonical and neglected category of literature which is predominantly made up of the writings of authors under the age of twenty. The category includes both fiction and non-fiction, and features authors who enjoyed literary success during adulthood and those who, for various reasons did not. There are however some exceptions to the age rule, such as the adult Angrian works of Charlotte and Branwell Brontë which are an extension of their childhood tales set in Glass Town. Either way, the Press is dedicated to bringing these literary gems out of the shadows of more “mature” work by adult authors and that is a good thing in a world where writing by children is considered inferior to the works of their adult counterparts. Juvenilia have a lot to tell us about the history of individual authors, historical literary movements, print culture, and society more generally if we care to read them.

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Juvenilia Press editions normally focus on the work of one particular author and are edited by a leading expert in juvenilia studies with assistance from at least one student/graduate editor. The involvement of students and their active role in both the editorial and research process is an essential part of the pedagogic aim of the Press. By publicising and contributing to the recovery, publication, and critical examination of juvenilia, the Press promotes literary research and the professional development of students with an interest in the field. Visit the Juvenilia Press website in order to learn more about its aims and order copies of the juvenilia of many different authors from the 17th- 20th centuries including Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Margaret Atwood, and of course, Charlotte and Branwell Brontë. The Press also has a Facebook page although this isn’t updated very often.

The Author

Ethel Turner was an English-born Australian author whose best known work is her 1894 children’s novel, Seven Little Australians. Although Turner is an “iconic author of children’s fiction in Australia”, she is not widely read here in the UK, and she was not an author I was familiar with. From childhood, Turner, was determined to be a published writer, much like other authors of juvenilia. Whilst at school in Sydney, she founded her own magazine entitled, The Iris, after a submission she had made to the school’s official publication was rejected. The Iris flourished, and in 1889, Turner formed another magazine/journal with her sister Lilian entitled the Parthenon. The creation of family magazines is a common feature of juvenilia with authors such as Austen, Carroll, Woolf, and the Brontës all creating and contributing to their own. However, what is unusual about Turner’s magazine is that not only was it intended for publication, but it actually was published from 1889-1892. No doubt “The experience of writing, editing, and financing The Iris gave Turner valuable knowledge and experience she could use in the maintenance of the Parthenon. 

That Young Rebel

Published during the final year of the Parthenon (January 1891 – March 1892) when Turner was around 19 years old (the discrepancy around her age is discussed in the introduction to the JP edition), That Young Rebel is not the work of a child author, however, it is considered to be juvenilia due to Turner’s youth at the time of composition. That Young Rebel was originally a serial focusing on the adventures and misadventures of 13 year old Keith Farndon (known as Taffie to his friends), an orphan who lives with his cold and emotionally distant uncle, Doctor Taunton, when he is not away at boarding school. It was written under the pseudonym Princess Ida.

We are introduced to Keith as he is preparing to take leave of his uncle after the school  holidays and he is causing mischief by bursting the seams of his clothing, leaving the servant, Susan, harassed. His swagger is replaced by fear when in the presence of his uncle though, an emotionally distant man who does not understand children, especially his wayward nephew who, as the reader will see, is constantly causing chaos and getting himself into trouble. The first few chapters explore Keith’s time at school where he makes new friends, copies his lessons from others rather than working things out himself, and gets into trouble with his teachers, who, despite being adults, Keith has no fear of. Although the adults Keith encounters are depicted as belonging to a very different world, he does not recognise their authority as adults, and neither fears nor respects them (with the exception of his uncle). He terrorises and traumatises the servants and teachers and is even indifferent and disrespectful to the policeman who escorts him home one day after an incident in a Sydney park with his friends Ted and Suds. The only hint of respect he has is for upper class ladies such as two ostensibly sweet but mischievous women he meets on the train home from school, and his uncle’s love interest, Mrs Graham.

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As stated, the adults belong to a very different world, and unlike some other juvenilia, Keith does not indicate any desire to be a part of this world; he (along with Turner) recognises that power does not come with age and acceptance into the adult sphere, and that children such as Keith can enjoy power over their elders. The only hint of Keith wanting to join the adult world is the incident when he tries smoking with his friends, something he thinks he will have to take up in the future as a man. However, his rejection of this adult habit is also a rejection of the adult world more generally. Keith is in no hurry to grow up, especially as he may end up losing power the older he gets if he encounters anyone like himself who will harass and belittle him. There is no grab for power on the author’s part with regards to age as Keith clearly is not ready to become an adult, however, there may be on longing there on Turner’s part for the type of adventurous and consequence-free existence that Keith enjoys as a male in a society that treated females very differently.

Turner arguably attempts to present a microcosmic world with her depiction of the hierarchy of school life reflecting the structure of wider society; the strongest, the bravest, the most daring, the most cunning, and those with the most experience in life will find themselves top of the pile (just look at Keith’s eventual fate). In addition to depicting aspects of her own society, Turner was clearly influenced by other literature from the period including periodicals such as The Boys’ Own Paper and boys’ school stories more generally. It seems strange that a female author should attempt to trespass on this male world, but perhaps depicting the adventures of boys gave her a greater sense of freedom on the page due to the gender expectations of the day. It is important to note that Turner had already written about the adventures of a female character in a previous serial, “Bobbie”, another character who rebels, but this time against the restrictions of Victorian notions of femininity. In Turner’s 1890 serial, Bobbie stayed with the Wallace family (who feature in That Young Rebel) while her father and stepmother are travelling abroad. Bobbie herself makes a minor appearance in That Young Rebel where she is clearly uncomfortable in the proper attire of the day (a dress).

Although the text has similarities with other children’s literature from the period, the major difference is that it has no explicitly didactic purpose with Turner frequently admitting this in her narration of events. Keith is perfectly happy to break the rules and is very rarely punished for his schemes and the havoc he wreaks such as his terrorising of Susan, and his misadventure with his uncle’s favourite and most expensive horse. However, despite Turner’s assertions that there is no lesson to be learned and that her work is, to quote Mrs. Graham’s gentleman friend, “only a boyish escapade” there is a covert sense of morality to be found in the text. Ted is horrified at Keith’s “cribbing” or copying someone else’s work at school, and even Keith is disturbed by the stealing of a pipe by Suds. The serial’s ending also hints a Keith’s reformation after his uncle’s marriage and his attachment to his new wife and her daughter, Nell. We are informed by Turner that Keith will not return to boarding school and will attend a nearby day school, he will live with his uncle and aunt, and now has a good relationship with his once cold and distant uncle. This suggests that despite Turner’s assertion that her serial is non-didactic, she has not been entirely successful in producing a tale that simply documents the misadventures of boys. Keith’s reformation after the arrival of a mother figure also reinforces the Victorian notion of the positive influence of women on a child’s development.

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Keith is not a particularly likeable character; not only does he get into trouble, he leads others into it too, he is rude to most people, disrespectful to people due to their social position, age, or race/nationality, however, he is all the more real for it. To younger readers, Keith will be something of an idol. It is refreshing to see a more realistic boy depicted in Turner’s serial, one who is not perfect, and one who just can’t resist temptation. Keith is still young, he doesn’t always learn from his mistakes, and his personality is still being moulded by society, the people around him, and himself. If anything That Young Rebel captures the growing pains, boredom, and sense of restriction felt by teenage boys even in today’s world in addition to their desire and ultimate inability to connect with those closest to them such as Doctor Taunton. However, it’s ending is also full of potential and possibility for the young rebel to grow into a functioning member of society. Turner’s juvenilia is so very different from the paracosmic world of the Brontës that I am familiar with as it is very firmly grounded in reality and the real world of the Sydney that Turner knew so well. Nothing is masked or disguised and we are provided with a glimpse into a world long gone, where attitudes and expectations were so very different from our own.

The Juvenilia Press Edition

The 2015 Juvenilia Press edition marks the first time that Turner’s That Young Rebel serial has been published in a single collection but there is a JP edition of Tales from the Parthenon. The edition of That Young Rebel features an interesting introduction to Turner’s life and work, however, if you’re already familiar with Turner, I doubt it would shed any new light on her history. It is useful for the uninitiated such as myself though. A little more information about the Parthenon would have been appreciated, however, I’m assuming this is covered in Tales from the Parthenon. A more in depth look at the type of children’s literature and boarding schools that inspired Turner’s Rebel would have been interesting. However, although fairly basic, the introduction does a good job of setting the scene for the tales to come.

There is also a Note on the Text which discusses the amendments that have been made to Turner’s original text, and the mistakes that she herself made (Ragley House is once called Bagley House and Dr Taunton becomes Dr Farndon at one point). However, there are what appear to be a few typos in the JP edition of the sort that makes me think these are not Turner’s as they surely would have been corrected along with the other minor errors listed. I could be wrong on this matter though. There are photographs scattered throughout the edition of Turner herself and the world and landscape known to both Turner and Keith which are a helpful visual tool for non-Australian readers such as myself as Turner doesn’t really take the time to describe Keith’s surroundings, assuming her readers are familiar with the types of places she presents. I particularly enjoyed the wonderful illustrations by Jacqueline Meng which really capture the spirit of That Young Rebel; I just wish there were more in the volume. Although the endnotes are fairly useful, perhaps footnotes would have been a more reader friendly option as I tired of constantly flicking to the back of the book. The notes themselves are a strange mix of the obscure and the painfully obvious, and there were some things I felt needing clarifying from the text but didn’t appear in the notes such as the concept of cribbing that is practised by Keith.

Overall Verdict

The Juvenilia Press edition of That Young Rebel provided me with a solid introduction to the author’s life and work. It was nice to explore other juvenilia although my passion for the Brontës’ world is in no danger of being overtaken. Turner has a pleasant style of writing that makes her work easy to read, and her humour shines through in places. As stated above she captures teenage angst, boredom, yearning, and a disdain for the rules even before the birth of the concept of the teenager in the 20th century. However, some things are timeless regardless of the era and the name. That Young Rebel provides us with a refreshing view of a bygone world and is an unusual Victorian attempt to present a children’s narrative that simply exists to entertain rather than to instruct, even if Turner is not entirely successful. Like its protagonist, That Young Rebel is not perfect, however, it does show a lot of potential and indicates that there is much that can one day be refined. If you like boys’ stories and boarding school narratives, then you could do worse than giving this volume a try. Click here to visit the Juvenilia Press website where you can purchase a copy of That Young Rebel. 

By Nicola F.

Thanks for reading. Find me on twitter @BronteBabeBlog where I tweet about books, the Brontës, and animal rights. A lot.

Please do not copy or share the images from this post. 

All quotes are taken from That Young Rebel (Sydney: Juvenilia Press, 2015).

 

 

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