Jane’s juvenilia

Think twice before crossing the threshold into Jane Austen’s unpublished writings. She will become unknowable. Gone will be Jane the purveyor of perfectly calibrated romance in muslin frocks, the font of gently corrective satire and plain good sense, the dispenser of worldly wisdom on every topic from grammar to dating. You will lose your soulmate and solace. The earliest compositions, mostly written before the age of seventeen, were carefully preserved in the form of three slender notebooks, leather-bound and grandly announced on mock title pages: Volume the First, Second and Third. The neat handwriting that emulates typescript, and the elaborate dedications to family and friends, belie the contents. Enter and you will find the world associated with her turned upside down, as the young apprentice undertakes a rip-roaring demolition of the sentimental tradition of fiction she inherited: mantraps in the shrubbery, elopements and adultery in abuse, assault and battery, murder and suicide, civil war and even cannibalism.

In the first of the stories, “Frederic and Elfrida”, the intimacy between three families in a country village (later her signature plot) reaches such a pitch “that they did not scruple to kick one another out of the window on the slightest provocation “. Lady Susanfair-copied during the fallow period of nearly two decades between childhood scribbling and publication, and the basis for Whit Stillman’s film Love and Friendship, is a Machiavellian fable with no comeuppance. Two later fictional works survive as substantial fragments, neither of them conforming to the familiar romance template, both giving center stage to disruptive minor characters who won’t stop talking. It is difficult to find safety even in the occasional verse. While a handful of poems dutifully memorialize family events, more characteristic is the hymn inspired by a suggestive surname:

Oh! Mr Best, you’re very bad,
And all the world shall know it;
Your base behavior shall be sung
By me, a tuneful poem. –

The works unpublished in her lifetime have something of the unsettling effect on readers as the awkward, half-finished sketch by her sister, Cassandra, that remains (in spite of strenuous efforts) the only authenticated portrait of the writer.

The close-knit Austen family has often been described as the key to the unpublished writings. One argument goes that these private works are distinguished from the public novels by their “confidential” nature, and that the codes for interpretation are lost along with the members of the family circle in which they were shared and enjoyed. After Jane’s untimely death in 1817, they came into the possession of Cassandra, who distributed them to the next generation at her own death in 1845. A nephew and two nieces then became guardians of the flame. They conferred and, after considerable agonizing, tidied-up versions of the later manuscript drafts were reluctantly offered in the second edition of Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of “Aunt Jane” in 1871. The only sample brought forward from the juvenilia was, aptly, “The Mystery”, a minuscule dramatic skit written at the age of twelve, revolving hilariously around total frustration of the audience’s curiosity. This clampdown is most commonly put down to Victorian prudery and clannish protectiveness, but another possibility is the genuine bafflement of descendants. As one of them tried to explain, “I have always thought it remarkable that the early workings of her mind should have been in burlesque and comic exaggeration, setting at nought all rules of probable or possible – when of all her finished and later writings, the exact opposite is the characteristic.” They too had lost the key. They resisted intense pressure from a peer of the realm to make public the poem she had composed three days before her death, riffing off a newspaper item on cancellation of a horse race meeting due to bad weather. Here, as in the other withheld pieces, Jane Austen did not seem to be herself.

Even in the course of the twentieth century, when every last jotting came under intense scrutiny, misgivings remained about the dark side of her literary output. The Oxford don RW Chapman, who devoted a large part of his life to the editing of Austen’s writings, declared it might have been for the best if the private material had been destroyed. Having published the first five volumes of his standard Austen in 1923, it was not until 1954 that he finally added a sixth volume of unpublished miscellaneous pieces, pointedly titled Minor Works. The appalled reaction of EM Forster and others to the scholarly transcription of Sanditon in particular reached its zenith with DA Miller’s dramatic pronouncement in Jane Austen and the Secret of Style (2003) that it amounted to “the formal ruination of the Austen Novel, as we have come to know it”. The puns, the alliteration, undermining the pellucid technique synonymous with her name, were intolerable! Still worse was the evidence of false starts: “the actual sight of her revisions is… as disturbing as if, at the bottom of a vase filled with beautifully arranged flowers, we had caught a glimpse of thin filigrees of blood where the stems had been cut”.

By this token, the fifty pages of notes recording revisions to the text at the back of the new Oxford World’s Classics edition of Sanditon and other working drafts, along with a sizeable portion of the introductory matter devoted to them, represent a veritable Grand Guignol. Yet the revelation of the seamy side of Austen’s writing has an undeniable fascination for those who seek, against the odds, to catch her “in the act of greatness”, in Virginia Woolf’s memorable phrase. For true devotees, the new scholarly editions of these working drafts provide a golden opportunity to reconsider brother Henry’s claim that “Every thing came finished from her pen”: where exactly did her genius flow, and where did the deletions, insertions and additions on patches attached with a pin accrete?

There are more upbeat adherents to the Discontinuity school of thought regarding the unpublished writings, such as Margaret Anne Doody, who in the introduction to her World’s Classics edition of the juvenile writings (1993) and elsewhere argued trenchantly that in the notebooks we find the genuine Jane Austen, free of the compromises required by the print market of the day. Here Austen could give greater license to cutting social satire and her penchant for pure silliness. Here and in the later manuscripts can also be found many rousing instances of revolt against the class system and the patriarchy, from “The beautifull Cassandra”, the heroine of a youthful jeu d’espritwho runs wild through London for the day and doesn’t hesitate to floor a male spoilsport, to impoverished Emma Watson, delivering a verbal knockout blow to a sauntering lordling.

Both Kathryn Sutherland’s Jane Austen’s Textual Lives (2007) and Michelle Levy’s Literary Manuscript Culture in Romantic Britain (2020) represent subtle elaborations of this thissis, demonstrating the distinctive artistic achievement of the “scribal” works. Yet, as Levy adds, traces of overlap in the “contact zone” between Austen’s two authorial halves can also be found.

A list of shared features would include, for example, her resistance to the domestic happy ending in both published and unpublished works, chafing against convention through irony and digression in the former, and simply abandoning the story in the latter. For many readers the idiosyncratic speech of the minor characters is the chief joy of Austen’s fiction, and Sanditon, featuring the enthusiastic seaside entrepreneur Mr Parker and his hypochondriac siblings, makes it very clear that it was hers as well. Private jokes carry over into print. Anne Toner in Jane Austen’s Style (2020) argues that the remarkable economy of means that distinguishes the published writings is the outgrowth of the compressed parodies of the early years. Freya Johnston’s appropriately meandering Jane Austen, Early and Late is a contribution to the “Continuity” school, questioning assumptions of linear development in Austen’s career, but quite as likely to wander into reflections on Wordsworth’s asynchronous approach to curating his poems, or the influence of Pope. Six thematic chapters trace paths through the wilderness of the manuscripts into the uplands of the celebrated novels. Johnston observes connections, for instance, between young Jane’s spoof “History of England” parodying Oliver Goldsmith (several pages of her marginal hecking of his textbook History are reproduced from the family copy as an appendix) and mature Austen’s treatments of change, temporality and the act of chronicling or interpreting the past.

Sutherland, along with the late Brian Southam and the editors of the Cambridge University Press volumes of early and late manuscripts, has laid the foundations for the current flourishing of interest. In her new edition of the unpublished works of the middle to later years, as in the equivalent Cambridge edition, the most substantial pieces keep company with other surviving scraps, poems, opinions collected from family and friends on Mansfield Park and Emma, and “Plan of a Novel”, a farcical compilation of “helpful” hints received from readers in her circle. It is the sign of a major shift in critical opinion that Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon have been removed by Oxford World’s Classics from their ignominious position, tucked away at the back of Northanger Abbeyand granted the dignity of standalone status.

E.J. Cleary is Professor of English Literature at Uppsala University and the author of Jane Austen: The banker’s sister2017, and Eighteen Hundred and Eleven: Poetry, protest and economic crisis2017

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