BOOK REVIEWS     Sue Parrill, Editor

Life in the 18th Century Fast Lane

Jack & Alice

By Jane Austen.
Edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth with
Laura Maestrelli and Kristin Smith.
Juvenilia Press, 2001. xx + 38 pages.
12 B/W illustrations. Paperback $8.00.

Lady Susan

By Jane Austen.
Edited by Christine Alexander and David Owen.
Juvenilia Press, 2005. xxxi + 110 pages.
6 B/W illustrations. Paperback $12.00.

The Three Sisters

By Jane Austen.
Edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth with
Laura Maestrelli and Kristin Smith.
Juvenilia Press, 2004. xix + 30 pages.
14 B/W illustrations. Paperback $8.00.

Reviewed by Barbara Britton Wenner.

When my daughter was ten, she wrote her first novel, Life in the Fast Lane. Unfortunately, she destroyed it, depriving the world of an important piece of juvenilia. Fortunately, Jane Austen preserved much of her early work in the notebooks Volume the First, Volume the Second, and Volume the Third, as well as in a few other manuscripts, including an untitled piece now known as Lady Susan. Since 1994, Juvenilia Press, founded by Juliet McMaster, has published short, illustrated editions of much of Austen’s Juvenilia, along with works by other promising youthful authors, most recently Jane Austen’s Three Mini-Dramas. Today the Press, under the direction of Christine Alexander and an international team of contributing editors, is based at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Since its inception, Juvenilia Press has always relied upon student/faculty editing collaboration.

Although readers can consult other editions, the Juvenilia Press captures the essence of young Jane Austen’s untamed exuberance, particularly with the fine comic illustrations by McMaster, including free-hand “pull out” quotations. McMaster’s clever drawings call to mind a twenty-first century Cassandra Austen playfully commenting on her sister’s work. In Jack and Alice and The Three Sisters, both written between Austen’s thirteenth and fifteenth birthdays, satirical allusions to an impressive array of novels, plays, and poems by both great and now-forgotten writers abound. If such references to Pope, Johnson, Burney, Richardson, and others pass by the reader unnoticed, they are helpfully noted at the end of the text by Joseph Wiesenfarth and his student editors. The simplicity of larger-than-average type and playful illustrations, combined with scholarly introductions and explanatory notes on the text, reveal a highly literate, precocious young author who moved in imaginary “fast lanes” far ahead of her peers. Jack and Alice quickly advances from guests at a party being carried home “Dead Drunk” to acts of envy and deceit, and finally to murder and self-promotion, scene after scene rushing hilariously along.

The Three Sisters not only displays Austen’s allusive wit but also adumbrates her later work by revealing the eighteenth- century marriage market as the cutthroat, competitive world that it could be. The “ancient” thirty-two-year-old suitor is wealthy, ugly, and obnoxious and cares even less than Mr. Collins which sister he marries. The eldest sister, Mary, vacillates between repugnance for the man and desire to acquire all the trappings of a well-to-do married woman, impressing upon her sisters her undeniable superiority. Mary and her mother seem to be exaggerated images of Lydia and Mrs. Bennet.

Lady Susan, Austen’s short epistolary novel, written before her twentieth birthday, is the culmination of Austen’s youthful imagination, revealing a totally fascinating and completely immoral woman as the heroine. Charlotte Brontë
would have found it much more difficult to characterize Austen’s writing as tame and well-mannered if she had encountered Lady Susan. If parents are often absent or ineffectual in Austen’s six mature novels, the reader can see here what happens when Austen creates a monstrous mother as the driving force of the piece. Other characters exist here only to be manipulated for Lady Susan’s own amusement. Beautiful and clever, she revels in her ability to do exactly as she pleases, only attempting to appear agreeable when it suits her purpose. As Margaret Anne Doody has written: “The world [Austen] creates is a world of libidinous pressures only fictively constrained by conceptual structures imposed as order” (Cambridge Companion 92).

This edition of Lady Susan is actually more exacting than Chapman’s much older and more authoritative edition. In her fine introduction, Christine Alexander disagrees with an earlier assessment by G. K. Chesterton, who wrote that he “would willingly have left Lady Susan in the waste-paper basket.” Alexander calls the work “a tour de force in itself…the work of a young professional who—like her Machiavellian protagonist—has an eye on the main chance.” University of Barcelona doctoral student David Owen did most of the textual work under Alexander’s direction. Wisely, however, Jane Austen knew that publishers of the day were not going to accept something as over-the-top as Lady Susan, and she knew enough to move into a “slower” lane—one more marketable. So the “libidinous” energy of a Lady Susan needed to slip under the radar, where the reader can still see it lurking in Austen’s published novels.


Barbara Britton Wenner is Associate Professor of English at the University of Cincinnati. Her book, Prospect and Refuge in the Landscape of Jane Austen, has recently been published by Ashgate Press.

JASNA News v.23, no. 1, Spring 2007, p. 22

See more book reviews

Return to Home Page