Book reviews

Archive for the ‘Austen – Jane’ Category

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.

The Watsons by Jane Austen

 

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After reading The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn recently, I went to my book case to pull out my copy of Jane Austen’s The Watsons. Only a few chapters remain after the author abandoned the story. My copy contains an introduction and notes by Margaret Drabble of how Jane Austen intended the story to continue, as told to her sister Cassandra, then reported to her nieces many years later.

The Watsons starts with Emma Watson on her way to stay with neighbours to prepare for a ball. Emma is accompanied by her elder sister, Miss Watson, who is unable to attend the ball as she is to look after their invalid father. During the journey, Miss Watson gossips about the friends and neighbours who Emma can expect to meet at the ball, introducing us and Emma to them. These people are unknown to Emma as she has only recently returned to the neighbourhood, having lived with her aunt and uncle since she was a small child.

Emma was expected to have been her aunt and uncle’s heir, but after her uncle died her aunt unexpectedly remarried, and Emma returned to her own family home, with no further expectations. When Emma returns, she barely knows her own siblings.

At the ball, Emma won the heart of little Charles Blake, who came to dance with his sister (Miss Osborne) but was disappointed when she threw him over so she could dance with other men (who are adults and not related to her – understandable, but hard on little Charles). Emma asked Charles to dance and was noticed for her kindness as well as for her pretty face by the local suck-up, Mr Tom Musgrave, the high and mighty but socially inept Lord Osborne and Mr Howard, Charles’ gentlemanly tutor.

There was a little more to come after the ball, but the story was abandoned at around 17,000 words for reasons which are unknown, but guessed at. Some people think the story was too close to Jane Austen’s own story, while others suggest she was too miserable in Bath to continue, or to busy, or too lacking in privacy and time to write. Probably there are as many opinions as there are readers.

This may be arrogant of me but as a reader, I like to think I’m part of the story and have a say too! (shades of Lady Catherine de Bourgh?) but I think Jane Austen abandoned The Watsons partly because the story’s ending was too obvious to her. I am certain she would have had twists and turns coming up, but from the first few chapters seemed clear who the heroine, the villain and the hero were and what each of their trials would be.

The Watsons is fascinating though. The characters are interesting, some likeable and some not, due to Jane Austen’s knack of writing them so we know and recognise them for who they are in a few words.

 

 

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