Book reviews

Juvenilia by Jane Austen

What struck me most about Jane Austen’s Juvenilia or Catharine and Other Writings was the distinctiveness of the author’s voice even though she was a very young teenager when she wrote the first stories in this collection.

The first story, Frederic and Elfrida, is funny and ridiculous. Frederic and Elfrida are first cousins who are so much alike, apart from “the shape of the face, the colour of the Eye, the length of the Nose and the difference of the complexion” that no one could tell them apart. One of them was male and the other female, which didn’t occur to those who were confused! This story included a character who suicided after having accepted two marriage proposals while another couple aged 36 and 63 were convinced to wait until they were older before they married.

Jack and Alice started with the birthday of Mr Johnson, who “was once upon a time about 53; in a twelve-month afterwards he was 54, which so much delighted him that he was determined to celebrate his next Birth day by giving a Masquerade to his Children and Freinds.” The main characters were often drunk and one character died from alcohol poisoning. To further heighten the drama, the story ended with a murder.

The Beautifull Cassandra was dedicated to Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra. It is described as a novel in 12 chapters, however the chapters are very short, some of them only a single sentence. The story tells of the adventures of a young woman who wore an elegant bonnet, ate six ices, knocked down a pastry cook, curtseyed to a Viscount, ignored an enemy and failed to pay a Coachman for his services during the course of her day.

The main character of The Three Sisters decided to marry a man she did not love for his wealth, as well as to deny either of her sisters the opportunity to marry him instead. This unpleasant young woman and her would-be husband bickered and appeared to dislike each other so much that it seemed as if they had been unhappily married to each other for years.

Love and Freindship was written when Jane Austen was fifteen. The story of the ill-fated Laura’s youthful romance and adventures were told in a series of letters to her young friend Marianne, warning to her not to make the same mistakes as she did in her youth. Not surprisingly considering the topics covered in previous stories, Laura’s marriage did not appear to be legal and she and her dear friend Sophia, with whom she went off adventuring, were a pair of thieves and frauds. There is enough fainting and running mad in this story to please anyone who enjoys dramatics, but the underlying warning is not to lie in the damp when you repeatedly faint lest you catch a chill and die.

Lesley Castle is also written in letter form, but this time there are a number of female characters writing the letters. The story is deliciously gossipy and includes completely different evils to previous stories, this time divorce and adultery. One female character insulted another with a disguised compliment, which was funny to read but also a sad reminder that some elements of human nature never change.

The author inserted her own opinions about the royal families into The History of England, which is famous for containing very few dates and a strong bias towards the Stuarts.

The final short novels are Evelyn, where all the inhabitants of the district are far too generous for their own good and Catharine, which appeared to be the beginning of a longer, more serious novel. The heroine of Catharine was a young woman who had been brought up by an aunt too diligent of her niece’s reputation to allow her the opportunity to mingle in society. The story began with the heroine’s sorrow in the loss of her dearest friends from the neighbourhood after the death of their parents which set a sadder, more realistic tone than the previous stories. A visit from relatives gave Catharine an opportunity for romance with a frivolous young man, however he unexpectedly left for France and the story ended soon after with no indication of what might have happened next.

The collection also included sections containing fictional letters, scraps of writing, poetry and prayers.

Each story is dedicated to one or another of Jane Austen’s friends or family, for reasons such as Martha Lloyd having assisted the author to finish her muslin cloak, or to encourage her brother Francis Austen to encourage him in his career as a sailor.

It seemed clear to me that Jane Austen’s family didn’t censor her work or attempt to guide her away from some of the unseemly subjects she wrote about. Instead, I felt that they encouraged her to poke fun at topics that are usually considered too serious to joke about. The books she wrote as an adult certainly weren’t as fantastical as her Juvenilia but I’m grateful she continued writing books which allowed us to laugh at the things she found ridiculous.

My edition of this book included a lengthy introduction, a chronology and explanatory notes all of which I enjoyed and appreciated.

Catharine and Other Writings was book twenty three in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

Comments on: "Juvenilia by Jane Austen" (15)

  1. Sounds like fun – I’ve never read her juvenilia. You can sort of see how Lady Susan was a step between these fantastical stories and her more realistic adult ones. Intriguing to see her development!

  2. Yes, it was interesting to watch her stories develop. The stories weren’t perfect but they were loads of fun. I’m still surprised at how much of her own voice came through the stories and am trying to think of contemporary novels where the author’s voice is so strong. I think it is more fashionable now for the author not to be as much a part of the story.

  3. Yes, and we seem to want them to change their voice from book to book, maybe because so many books are written in the first person these days? That was much rarer back then, I think.

  4. I haven’t heard of these stories and I’m trying to read and re-read her novels from the beginning. These sound lots of fun and you make a good point about the authors voice, something to think about.

  5. I think Charles Dickens inserts some of his own personality into his books too.
    That makes sense, if an author writes all of their book in the first person then all of their stories would read too much like The Ongoing Adventures of the Author if they didn’t change the narrator or their own personality.

  6. In that case, Juvenilia is where you’ll start! I think you’ll enjoy the stories too, they are loads of fun.

  7. I like The Ongoing Adventures of the Author! you’ve certainly given me something more to think about. . .

  8. Yes, I think it would be impossible to read Dickens and not know it was him. His distinctive voice often makes me wonder why he doesn’t get pastiched more often.

  9. Or perhaps a title if you’re planning on writing something yourself?

  10. Perhaps he was, when he was a bestselling author at the peak of his career. I don’t think his style is imitated now, though. Shame. I’d read that!

  11. I love that you did this Rose. I’ve read all her Juvenilia over the years and some more than once, but my JA group is going to do them again by volume, with volume 1 next month. I look forward to reading them again.

    I love the insight they give into her voice, and I like your point that her family encourageD her.

    Love the cover of yours. Mine is a boring old classics ed. I bought in the 70s.

  12. Reading this with a group will be a delightful experience! That is something to look forward to.
    I’m still really taken by the idea that even as a teenager no topic was off limits for her writing. I didn’t get the feeling that she was trying for shock value, rather that she used various sins to amuse her audience.
    I also love reading authors whose works were designed to be read aloud, there is a special quality to them that I recognise (although would struggle to describe).
    I’ve got another copy with a portrait of a young woman on the cover, but prefer the pretty cover 🙂

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