Persuasions #9, 1987 Pages 59-63
Jane Austen: The “Juvenilia”
A. WALTON LITZ
English Department, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08540
To begin with, juvenilia is probably the wrong term, but I shall follow custom and use it this morning. In Latin juvenilis refers to a young man or woman between age 21 and 35 or 40, and this sense still held in seventeenth-century England. Donne’s Juvenilia, for instance, contains works of his early manhood. In Jane Austen’s own writings, juveniles are young adults of fifteen and over. In Sense and Sensibility (I, vii) Sir John Middleton is referred to as “a blessing to all the juvenile part of the neighbourhood,” which seems to include those already out in society. But later in the nineteenth century the term became more and more restricted, as the privileged world of childhood was carefully segregated from the fallen world of adult experience. In his fascinating book The Image of Childhood Peter Coveney shows that the Romantic poets of Jane Austen’s time stressed (as she did) the continuity between childhood and maturity; both were part of the organic growth of human consciousness. Later, the Victorian cult of the child set up a barrier of nostalgia and regret between early adolescence and the grown-up world. “Juvenilia” became associated with blessed immaturity.
To my knowledge Jane Austen’s early fictions, written between 1787 and 1794-95 (if one accepts that date for Lady Susan), were not commonly called, juvenilia until the 1930s, and even then a classically-trained scholar such as Mary Lascelles was probably using the term in an older sense. But the pejorative implications of the term juvenilia – the attitude that seeks to separate the early fictions from the major novels – were part of the Victorian world in which Jane Austen’s earliest works were first published. The story of how her earliest writings reached print has cultural as well as literary implications.
In the first edition of the Memoir (1870) James Edward Austen-Leigh mentioned “an old copy-book containing several tales, some of which seem to have been composed while she was quite a girl,” but went on to say that “the family have, rightly, I think, declined to let these early works be published.” The interest aroused by the Memoir led to a reconsideration of this ban, and in the second (1871) edition of the Memoir Austen-Leigh included the brief skit “The Mystery” (from Volume the First) as “a short specimen of [Jane Austen’s] childish stories.” He also provided a somewhat fuller description of the earliest writings.
There are copy books extant containing tales some of which must have been composed while she was a young girl … Her earliest stories are of a slight and flimsy texture, and are generally intended to be nonsensical, but the nonsense has much spirit in it …. however puerile the matter, they are always composed in pure simple English …. One of her juvenile effusions is given, as a specimen of the kind of transitory amusement which Jane was continually supplying to the family party.
“Flimsy … puerile … transitory.” The language of the Memoir reflects the family’s uneasy response to the early writings (some members were said to oppose their publication as “unfair” to Jane Austen’s memory). Like Henry James’s super-subtle children, a young lady under fifteen years old who could write knowingly of theft, deformity, drunkenness, and bastardy was subversive to the Victorian cult of the child. Presumably Lady Susan (also included in the second edition of the Memoir) was more acceptable because of its sophisticated point of view, although Austen-Leigh’s half-sister Anna (Mrs. Benjamin Lefroy) “was not disinclined to the juvenilia, but deprecated any disclosure of what she called the Betweenities” – an attitude which seems more consonant with Romantic and modern ideas about personal growth and development.
The same ambiguity toward the juvenilia is found in William and Richard Austen-Leigh’s Life and Letters (1913), although they describe more early items and print a brief extract from “Catharine” (Volume the Third). But soon this reticence had to give way to changing ideas about apprentice work and the demand for a fuller “portrait of the artist.” Volume the Second was published in 1922 under the title Love and Freindship, with a preface by G. K. Chesterton. Volume the First followed in 1933, edited by R. W. Chapman, and with the appearance of Volume the Third in 1951 (also edited by Chapman) the record of the years 1787 to circa 1795 was complete. All the scattered publications could then be brought together in the Oxford volume of Minor Works (first published by Chapman in 1954 and revised by Brian Southam in 1969).
Before turning to the works themselves, I would like to make one observation about the attitude toward childhood and adolescence that seems to have governed the Austen household and fostered the remarkable early writings of Jane Austen. The household must have been totally free of the extreme views, represented by Rousseau and Augustine, that over the centuries formed and reformed the image of childhood. Rousseau’s claim, in Emile (1762), that “there is no original sin in the human heart” would have been rejected as nonsense, but the calvinistic or evangelical view would have seemed equally absurd. It’s hard to imagine Mr. Austen following the advice given in James Janeway’s A Token for Children (1671-72): “take some time daily to speak a little to your children one by one about their miserable condition by nature … They are not too little to die, not too little to go to hell.” The environment in which Jane Austen began to write appears to have been marked by a realistic and tolerant understanding of what young people can and cannot accomplish, and by a keen interest in growth and education. It was an atmosphere in which the standards and manners of adult life were always visible, but not harshly enforced. It was, in short, a world idealized by Jane Austen when she fashioned the successful marriages in her mature novels.
I would now like to reflect for a few minutes on this remarkable occasion. How could these writings, produced between the ages of 12 and 20 and never intended for publication, have the power to draw us together after the passage of nearly two hundred years? I would like to think that part of the attraction is their intrinsic wit and energy, and the sharp insights they give us into English life near the end of the eighteenth century. If Jane Austen had never written anything more, and the juvenilia had been recently discovered in a croquet box in Twickenham, I do think they would have been published and read with great interest. But it is too difficult an act of the imagination to go on with this scenario. These are the first works of the artist who was later to write the great novels, and it is as preliminaries to those novels that the juvenilia claim our greatest attention. Without indulging in the procrustean formulas of Queenie Leavis or Marvin Mudrick, who see the later works as programmatic rewritings of the juvenilia, we can find the major themes of her mature art – and even some of her distinctive techniques, even her "voice” – taking shape in the early writings. The juvenilia might be subtitled after Fanny Burney “The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World” – and into the world of fiction.
Although they were written for the immediate amusement of herself and her family, there is good evidence that Jane Austen kept the juvenilia in mind while writing her later works. In a letter to Cassandra of August 1814 Jane Austen says of a carriage trip that “It put me in mind of my own Coach between Edinburgh & Sterling” – an allusion to Love and Freindship that Cassandra was sure to catch. More telling are the changes made in the juvenilia around 1809, when Jane Austen resumed writing after the depressing years in Bath and Southampton. It was at that time that she made inquires about Susan (later Northanger Abbey), which had been sold in 1803 but never published, and started to revise the originals of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. As part of this new interest in writing she returned to the juvenilia. An addition to “Evelyn” contains a letter dated “Augst 19th 1809,” and although Brian Southam believes the hand is not Jane Austen’s the style rings true to me. The letter contains the news that “Our Maria, our beloved Maria is no more, she breathed her last on Saturday the 12th of Augst,” a fact that Mr. Gower has forgotten to convey to Maria’s parents over the past week. Well, in 1809 the 12th of August was a Saturday; it was also the day when Parliament rises and the grouse season opens, and the excitement of all that presumably distracted Mr. Gower from attention to lesser matters. This strikes me as a quintessential Jane Austen touch.
Other changes, this time in “Catharine,” show Jane Austen’s continuing involvement with the juvenilia. Writing to Cassandra on 24 January 1809, shortly after the publication of Hannah More’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife, she said:
You have by no means raised my curiosity after Caleb; – My disinclination for it before was affected, but now it is real; I do not like the Evangelicals. – Of course I shall be delighted, when I read it, like other people, but till I do I dislike it.
Soon after Coelebs entered “Catharine” as an up-to-date substitute for “Seccar’s explanation of the Catechism” (published in 1769), one of the books Mrs. Percival bought for Catharine in order to “breed [her] up virtuously.” This change has often been remarked upon. What I think has not been noticed is the fact that the substitution of Mrs. Percival for Mrs. Peterson throughout the manuscript also resulted from a recent experience. On 7 October 1808 Jane Austen wrote to Cassandra that “We have got a new Physician, a Dr. Percival, the son of a famous Dr. Percival of Manchester, who wrote moral tales for Edward to give to me.” (Thomas Percival was the author of A Father’s Instructions; consisting of Moral Tales, Fables, and Reflections, designed to promote the Love of Virtue).
Looking at the juvenilia as we must through the lens of the mature novels, what strikes one most is Jane Austen’s swift and sure progress toward the threshold of her distinctive way of feeling and telling. “Catharine” and Lady Susan represent major advances when we compare them with some of the knockabout pieces in Volume the First. The stages in the composition of the juvenilia – the movement from burlesque to what the authors of the Life called rather condescendingly “immature story-telling” – have often been charted, and I won’t rehearse them today. I would like to point out, however, that this movement is encapsulated in The Loiterer, the weekly periodical that James and Henry Austen edited (and largely wrote) while they were at St. John’s College, Oxford, in 1789-90. The Loiterer is virtually an index to Jane Austen’s early interests, both literary and social, and provides the best contemporary introduction to the world of the juvenilia. Almost every essay uses techniques of irony, parody, and mock-serious narrative, showing how common this form of criticism was in the Austen household. The early issues are rather crude burlesques (such as James’s “Diary of a Modern Oxford Man,” No. 4), but in the later issues, especially those written by Henry, there is a movement away from simple burlesque and parody toward a more complex merging of narrative structure with ironic methods, a tendency which foreshadows Jane Austen’s own development after Love and Freindship. The Loiterer appeared at a crucial time in Jane Austen’s early life, when she was – as Virginia Woolf vividly imagined – a young girl of fifteen “laughing, in her corner, at the world,” and whether or not she helped in the writing (I believe she did), The Loiterer played a major role in her artistic education.
To me the most interesting of the juvenilia are “A Collection of Letters” (especially the third letter), “Evelyn,” and “Catharine or the Bower,” since in these pieces we can glimpse the writing to come. The dialogue exposes individual personalities, not stock characters, and the narration – in Marilyn Butler’s words – “so closely tracks the heroine’s consciousness that it often approximates to ‘free indirect speech’.” To me this subtle blending of the author’s voice with the voices of her characters was Jane Austen’s greatest achievement, and her major legacy to the nineteenth-century novel. In some ways Lady Susan (whatever date we assign to its composition) represents a cautious retreat from what Jane Austen was attempting in “Catharine.” It almost seems as if Jane Austen were frightened by what she discovered in writing “Catharine,” or at least felt that she did not yet have the skills needed for sustained “free indirect speech.” In its manners and characters Lady Susan is a move back into the more familiar world of eighteenth-century satire and comedy; as has often been noted, Lady Susan was formed out of Jane Austen’s literary experience, not the actual world of the 1790s that she knew so well. And its epistolary structure (which we know was also the form of Elinor and Marianne, written at about the same time) likewise marks a retreat to safer and more familiar ground. It is not until The Watsons that we hear again the distinctive voice that occasionally controls the narrative in Volume the Third.
In his searching review of the 1870 Memoir Richard Simpson made a judgement that has become the motto for almost all serious study of the juvenilia.
It is clear that she began, as Shakespeare began, with being an ironical censurer of her contemporaries. After forming her prentice hand by writing nonsense, she began her artistic self-education by writing burlesques .… That the critical faculty was in her the ground and support of the artistic faculty there are several reasons for believing.
This is brilliant and telling commentary, all the more so because Simpson wrote it without the juvenilia before him. But taken too literally it can lead to a purely “literary” view of the juvenilia which implies that Jane Austen lived only through books, and that her early artistic education was solely a matter of exploring and then discarding, by means of irony and satire, the conventions of the late eighteenth-century novel. This is all true, but in the juvenilia she is also exploring the manners of her time; engaging with current ideas (some of them political); and even in an indirect way learning how a woman could express her deepest feelings through fiction. I hope we can talk this morning about issues such as these, as well as the more familiar topics. And as we do I’m sure we shall discover that Jane Austen’s own artistic life calls into question one piece of advice she gave to her niece Anna: “till the heroine grows up the fun must be imperfect.”