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.