Jane Austen (1775-1817) is, arguably, a household name. Adaptations of her writings and biography abound, albeit in varying degrees of faithfulness to the original. Film, mystery novels, musicals and even a video game focus on “Jane” or are inspired by her. Add to this the perennial academic interest in her works, and Jane Austen achieves the status of one of the most widely read authors in English literature.
Yet Jane Austen’s works have never taken the public by storm. She published only four novels while she was alive — Sense and Sensibility in 1810; Pride and Prejudice in 1811; Mansfield Park in 1814; and Emma in 1815. Then, only months after her death in 1817, her family published Northanger Abbey and Persuasion together.
This publication record––suggesting that Jane started writing late in her life, was prolific, and had great publication success––doesn’t do justice to the story of Jane Austen and her writing career. At various times she was able to earn significant income––for a writer and a woman at that––but it was sporadic and she lived all of her life with her immediate family whose financial situation was precarious. The Austens were, however, part of the landed gentry that Jane writes about, and often parodies.
By the 18th and 19th centuries, “landed gentry” no longer meant “nobility,” or even reliably indicated land ownership––the form of wealth considered more prestigious than that achieved through business affairs or work of any kind, beyond certain esteemed positions in the military, the clergy, and the diplomatic or judiciary system. The term did, however, still signify upper classes in Britain and carry with it prestige.
Jane Austen’s writing, focusing as it does on the trials and tribulations of such a privileged class, can appear trifling and even a bit tiresome. But the window she provides into the life of her times, along with her veiled political commentary, is deceptively revealing. She wrote anonymously for much of her career, no doubt to avoid the criticism that her biting irony could attract. When her brother published a biography of Jane, after her death, interest in her work increased. The six novels by Jane Austen have not been out of print since their appearance in a collected edition in 1833.
The publication, in 2013, of Jane Austen’s Manuscript Works adds a new dimension to any analysis of her writing. Because it’s a book by scholars, perhaps thinking they are writing mostly for scholars, little thought seems to have been given to a more scintillating title. It could just as well be called Naughty Jane or What Was Jane Austen Thinking!?
And therein lies the beauty––and fun––of this book that one can only hope will find a place beside the novels, as well as on the critical theory or textbook shelves. Jane Austen’s Manuscript Works is really a collection of her short stories, written when she was very young, along with a novella, and two novels, one unfinished, that follow chronologically. Anyone familiar with the published novels will recognize many of Jane Austen’s themes in these earlier works, particularly the antics caused by strict class structures and the fate of young women whose families can’t afford to leave them well-off. The “pride and prejudice” involved in social relationships is especially obvious in the role of marriage as a strategic alliance more often than as a coming together of lovers.
But after these basic common concerns, the unpublished early works are a source of surprise and amazement.
Consider the story of Frederic and Elfrida, betrothed for some years but held back from marrying by Elfrida’s indecision, or what might have, at the time, been called her modesty:
Elfrida, who had found her former acquaintance were growing too old and too ugly to be any longer agreable, was rejoiced to hear of the arrival of so pretty a girl as Eleanor with whom she was determined to form the strictest friendship.
But the Happiness she had expected from an acquaintance with Eleanor, she soon found was not to be received, for she had not only the mortification of finding herself treated by her a little less than an old woman, but had actually the horror of perceiving a growing passion in the Bosom of Frederic for the Daughter of the amiable Rebecca.
The instant she had the first idea of such an attachment, she flew to Frederic and in a manner truly heroick, spluttered out to him her intention of being married the next Day.
To one in his predicament who possessed less personal Courage than Frederic was master of, such a speech would have been Death; but he not being the least terrified boldly replied, “Damme Elfrida––you may be married tomorrow but I won’t.”
This is the voice of 12-year-old Jane Austen, writing in 1787.
The burlesque nature of Austen's writing is constant throughout the juvenilia and although it lessens as she matures, the writing all of the works in this volume are cutting and direct.
Here is another short excerpt from the juvenilia, this time from Henry and Eliza, Eliza having stolen money from her adoptive parents, run off with the lover of her next guardian, being destitute after a jail term and returning to her original benefactors who are reconciled with her after the following explanation from the mother to the father :
Four months after you were gone, I was delivered of this Girl, but dreading your just resentment at her not proving the Boy you wished, I took her to a Haycock and laid her down. A few weeks afterwards, you returned, and fortunately for me, made no enquiries on the subject. Satisfied within myself of the wellfare of my Child, I soon forgot I had one, insomuch that when, we shortly after found her in the very Haycock, I had placed her, I had no more idea of her being my own, than you had, and nothing I will venture to say could have recalled the circumstance to my remembrance, but my thus accidentally hearing her voice which now strikes me as being the very counterpart of my own Child’s.”
Between 1786 and 1793, Jane writes stories that she divides into 3 volumes (exercise books, really; now called her “Juvenilia.”) The family performed theatre works at home and Jane read her stories aloud to their delight. She takes a seemingly wicked pleasure in describing those who drink too much, especially women “who had partaken too freely” of the claret. Genteel conversation is, rather, “pumping her with so much dexterity” and “the elegant manners of Lucy” include her harassment of a “gentleman” with constant letters offering her hand to him in marriage, followed by her arrival at each of his homes, culminating with her being caught in a trap set in the gardens of his country house.
Although her family would for decades after her death promote her character as that of “good aunt Jane,” a docile, genteel person, the manuscript works reveal not only a record of how she created her novels, but also a surprisingly open and scathing analysis of the plight of women whose only chance for security revolves around their ability to attract a wealthy husband. The great opening line of Pride and Prejudice––“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”––rings with clearer irony after reading pages of the Juvenilia.
Jane Austen’s Manuscript Works includes approximately half of her Juvenilia, all of her later fiction––a novella called Lady Susan, an early draft of a novel, left untitled but now referred to as The Watsons, and her final novel, also untitled, but known as Sandition––along with appendices that provide some of her letters, fragments of earlier drafts of the works, along with an excerpt from Mary Wollstonecraft’s Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), and a review of Emma by the one of the most famous writers of the time, Walter Scott.
The simple clarity of the book is also a credit to the editors’ introductory essay, which provides interesting context and an illuminating guide through the book. They have all produced other detailed, scholarly works. Linda Bree is Editorial Director, Arts and Literature at the Cambridge University Press and the editor of the Broadview Edition of Jane Austen's Persuasion. Peter Sabor is Professor of English and Canada Research Chair in Eighteenth Century Studies at McGill University, and the editor of the Broadview Edition of Sarah Fielding's The History of Ophelia. Janet Todd is President of Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge and the co-editor of the Broadview Edition of Charlotte Smith's Desmond.
A sample of Austen’s handwriting on the cover of the book makes clear the contribution the editors have made: anyone who enjoys the works of Jane Austen will delight in these new stories, now approachable in easily readable form. The footnotes, far from being dense and never slowing down the narrative, add often hilarious explanations of Jane’s double meanings and constant word play. Her vocabulary is rich and her allusions to other works of the time show her to be highly literate and well read, itself an indication of the changing times in which she lived.
|Sense and Sensibility, first edtion|
But another major force in Austen’s lifetime also has an impact on how we view Austen today. The few references in Austen’s works to military and political events makes it easy to forget that Austen was writing before, during and after the French Revolution and that for most of her life France and Britain were at war. And it has been said that the French Revolution––happening outside Britain––was the most important event in British history. It’s not that Austen was untouched by the Revolution: two of her brothers were in the Royal Naval Academy, another was in the Militia and her cousin Eliza’s husband––the French army officer, Jean-François Capot de Feuillide, was guillotined in Paris in 1794. Eliza later married Austen’s brother, Henry.
Not only were events of the French Revolution personally felt by Austen, but she was in the midst of the Romantic Period of British literature, for which the French Revolution was a major concern. It’s easy to forget that Austen was born just five years after Wordsworth and three after Coleridge. Although Austen is relentless at exposing social issues and the twists and turns of fate that have more to do with class and money, there is little of the Romantic concern for the limitless potential of the human being, what my professors called man’s sharing in the Godhead. Being female and poor obviously brings the heavens down to earth.
Austen deviates from the Romantic tradition in such a way as to be thought of as, perhaps, anticipating the Victorian era, which is usually considered to have begun with the reign of Queen Victoria in 1837. When we think of Victorian writers most of us would think of Charles Dickens and the “Dickensian” exposure of class differences. He was born in 1812 right near the end of Austen’s life. Scholars also attribute the start of the realist novel, with its seemingly objective narrator, psychologically developed characters, and minute descriptions of the realities of domestic life––to Austen, but they are always thinking of her published works.
That Jane Austen was to successfully engaged both in the development of the realist novel and in anticipating the Victorian concern with class ––while still in her childhood–– is truly amazing.
Reginald Sauvages, PhD, is the nom de plume of a local bibliophile (read: bookworm) who goes on building bookshelves and buying paperbacks for the beach so sand doesn’t ruin favourite clothbound books, even while owning an e-reader.