By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
Jane Austen may have collaborated with family on some of her early works. Whether or not that’s true, she seems to have had her family in mind as a first audience. Most of these writings include fulsome, over-the-top dedications to members of her family. These dedications suggest there was early family support of her craft and, potentially, early reading aloud of her work.
Experimental Early Writings of Jane Austen
Most of the 27 separately titled pieces of Austen’s juvenilia weren’t published until the 20th century, more than a century after her death. Some pieces are very short.
The story The Female Philosopher is made up of just one fictional letter of a few hundred words. Love and Freindship, also in epistolary format, that is, fiction made up of letters, consists of 15 meaty epistles. Catharine, or the Bower, a longer work, is usually described as a sort of bridge between the early writings and the six full-length novels.
Taken together, the three volumes of juvenilia show us the earliest efforts—the fictional training-ground of a master stylist. They show us her deep reading not only in ‘great literature’—a category that was still emergent in her era—but a familiarity with the opposite of great literature.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Critics on Austen’s Writings
One 16th-century commentator, John Colet, coined an antonym for the word literature. He called it blotterature. It’s not necessarily a word that Austen herself would have known, but she would have been familiar with the concept that it was trying to get at.
Blotterature meant books that were imagined to have fallen below polite standards of learning. The genre of the novel in Austen’s era was regularly viewed by critics not as great literature but as trashy blotterature.
Austen knew the sort-of fiction writing that was beginning to gain respect, by authors such as Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Oliver Goldsmith, Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and others. But she also knew the fiction writing that critics had consigned to the bottom of the barrel. She must have been a student of all kinds of fiction and prose writing and likely approached these texts with avidity, insight, and a spirit of playful fun.
The juvenilia shows solid evidence of that. Austen grasped fictional conventions so well that she not only copied them but was able to craft incredibly perceptive send-ups of their tics and tropes. For example, The Beautifull Cassandra is humorous short fiction, but it’s much more than that, too.
Novels as Pocket Books
Austen’s juvenilia consists of three notebooks, neatly organized and labeled as Volume the First, Volume the Second, and Volume the Third. These titles may seem to show a lack of imagination, but the better conclusion to reach is that it points to something very clever.
Novels in the 18th century were regularly published as smaller-sized books—pocket books, in effect. They were cheaper, more ephemeral objects, not showy collector’s items. Yet novels were also quite long. As a result, it was common for them to be published in two to five separate parts; three volumes were typical. A ‘triple-decker novel’ would become a widely understood term by the mid-19th century.
What Austen did with her juvenilia, then, was to arrange it as one complete novel would have been published in her day, in three volumes. It’s possible that her organization of these manuscript writings emerged by coincidence, although that seems unlikely. It was probably done to honor, or to mock, the novel’s typical three-volume format. Perhaps it was both honoring and mocking it at once. Whatever it was, Austen’s three-volume structure for the juvenilia was meaningful.
Three-volume Structured Juvenilia
The first volume is made up of her shortest, earliest works. It had 14 pieces, dramatic and fictional in form, thought to be written from 1787 to 1793, when the author was 11 or 12 to 18 years old. Volume the Second has nine pieces, including one longer story, Love and Freindship, as well as Austen’s mock-history titled The History of England. These works are believed to have been written from about 1790 to 1793, so from about ages 14 to 17. The last volume, Volume the Third, has two longer pieces, Evelyn and Catharine, or the Bower, from around 1791–1792, when Austen was 16 or 17 years old. Altogether, one might call it 74,000 words of explosive snark.
It’s important to acknowledge that Austen probably completed other early writings, not just these. Some are tentatively attributed to her, such as the short periodical piece in The Loiterer and a dramatic adaptation of Richardson’s novel, Sir Charles Grandison. Others are titles of lost works that might have been written by her.
However, when one talks about Austen’s early writings, the work included in the three volumes of the juvenilia are usually the ones that are meant.
Common Questions about Jane Austen’s Exploratory Early Writings
One 16th-century commentator, John Colet, coined an antonym for the word literature. He called it blotterature. Blotterature meant books that were imagined to have fallen below polite standards of learning.
During the 18th century, it was common for novels to be published in two to five separate parts; three volumes were typical. A ‘triple-decker novel‘ become a widely understood term by the mid-19th century.
Jane Austen’s juvenilia consists of three notebooks, neatly organized and labeled as Volume the First, Volume the Second, and Volume the Third.