My mind is well-entrenched in an article I’m writing for the October edition of Pride & Possibilities, the periodical of the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation (a fabulous non-profit, for those of you unfamiliar with it, promoting literacy endeavors worldwide and founded by Austen’s descendent, Caroline Jane Knight). My subject is the radical nature of Austen’s childhood writings, or juvenilia, and it occurred to me that these earliest recordings of her brilliance have been seldom discussed here. So while I’m in the zone, I thought I’d provide something of an introduction to the topic.
Between the ages of eleven and seventeen, Austen filled three volumes with her productions, simply titled Volume the First, Volume the Second, and Volume the Third. These volumes are composed of not just “novels” (which she insistently calls them, despite the very short length of most), several of which are composed in the epistolary style, but also plays, a poem, and even a revisionist history, the work of “a partial, prejudiced and ignorant historian.” The latter is probably the most famous of all her juvenilia: A History of England (lines from which I stuck in the mouth of the Mouse in my latest book, Darcy in Wonderland), featuring illustrations by her sister, Cassandra. The British Library has digitized the original manuscript so you can flip through it online. You can read it in Austen’s own hand, or, as her handwriting is a bit difficult to decipher, listen to an audio recording. Do check it out, as it is an amazing resource: http://www.bl.uk/turning-the-pages/?id=152707d0-a674-11db-a95e-0050c2490048&type=book.
Generally, it is Volume the Second that is best known, probably because it was published several years before the other two were made publicly available (1922 and 1954, respectively). It includes not just The History of England, but also the epistolary novel Love and Freindship (Austen’s spelling), which gave its name to last year’s film production of Lady Susan. Austen numbered the pages of the volume throughout, which is how we know she removed twelve of them sometime before writing the contents page. You can read the entire volume in Austen’s handwriting (with handy transcriptions for each page) at Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts, an extensive collection of online facsimiles of Austen’s original manuscripts, including Lady Susan, the unfinished novels, Susan (which later became Northanger Abbey), and Persuasion. It’s such a thrill to read these works in Austen’s own hand! Here are direct links to the three volumes of her Juvenilia:
Personally, I find Volume the First the most interesting. It is in the worst repair, which is maybe why it wasn’t published earlier, or maybe it was just too different from her beloved novels for fans and academics to process. As Austen continued to pursue her writing, her father must have found that her productions warranted a better repository than their first, calfskin-bound home. Volume the Second and Volume the Third are bound in white vellum, and Austen wrote in the front on the former, “Ex dono mei Patris,” which means the gift of my father. Volume the Third contains more ambitious work – a completed epistolary novel, Evelyn, and an unfinished novel, Catherine, or the Bower – and Reverend Austen wrote inside, “Effusions of Fancy by a very Young Lady Consisting of Tales in a Style entirely new.” “Entirely new” is right! As I argue in the article I’m writing, nothing similar emerged in literature for more than a hundred years, when writers became far more experimental in the 20th century. Austen’s youthful voice is outrageously absurd, morally ambivalent, and insatiably hilarious. It is in that first volume that these qualities are most apparent, which is probably why I return to it over and over again.
I’ve referenced one of my favorite pieces, Henry and Eliza, in a previous post. Actually, I transcribed the entire thing to this blog, so please do check it out: https://austenauthors.net/henry-and-eliza-on-eliza-doolittle-day/. On my own blog, I wrote about and transcribed the text of the short but fabulous The Beautifull Cassandra (read it here: http://alexaadams.blogspot.ch/2011/01/beautifull-cassandra.html). And four years ago, for Austen in August at The Book Rat (an excellent annual event that only just wrapped up), I wrote about and transcribed Amelia Webster (read it here: http://www.thebookrat.com/2013/08/amelia-webster-guest-post-giveaway-from.html). Lots of Volume the First ramblings for you to explore. I strongly encourage anyone who can’t get enough Jane Austen to purchase one of the many collections of her minor works that include the juvenilia. These writings are an incredible treasure, giving us unique insight into Austen’s mind and personality. We see glimpses of the writer she would become, but even more, in these less polished products, intended for the entertainment of her family and friends rather than publication, we get a sense of who she really was. Thank goodness Cassandra didn’t decide to burn the three volumes along with so many of Austen’s letters, despite the fact that they show us a very different Austen than that of the image so carefully honed by her family postmortem. I assume they meant far too much to her sister to destroy. They were an intimate part of who she was.