The Raucous Themes of Jane Austen’s Early Writings

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Life and Works of Jane Austen

By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University

There has been a resurgence of interest in the juvenilia in the early 21st century, treating it as worthy of study in its own right. The darker themes and unbounded energy of the childhood writings prompt critics to recognize more such moments in the full-length works, too. It’s an invitation to investigate what it is we think we see when we read the full-length novels. Let’s take a look at what Jane Austen wrote in her younger days.

A vintage picture of a group of people having dinner party with a lot of food and alcohol
The juvenilia written by Jane Austen provide evidence of her incredibly wide reading, her lively spirit of literary and social rebellion, and her unquestionable early genius. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Early Exhibits of the Extraordinary

In Austen’s early writings, it wasn’t just about humor. It was also about learning and sociality. The juvenilia provide evidence of her incredibly wide reading, her lively spirit of literary and social rebellion, and her unquestionable early genius. It’s not just the off-color themes. The texts also repeatedly display a strong taste for female independence.

Yet readers and critics have long struggled to make sense of Austen’s intentions in the juvenilia due to their complex tone.

Understanding Henry and Eliza to Understand Austen

Austen’s short piece Henry and Eliza, written circa 1788-1789, describes a mother with her children living in impoverished circumstances. It is told that Eliza, who was once rich, had been imprisoned by an evil duchess, but manages to escape with her children. She does so by throwing her clothes and her children out of a window and by selling her clothes. Then, Austen writes of this wronged mother, “She began to find herself rather hungry, and had reason to think, by their biting off two of her fingers, that her Children were much in the same situation.”

It’s easy to read over that line and miss the punch line, because Austen has cleverly buried it in the middle of the sentence, as if this behavior is perfectly normal. The mother, finding herself ‘rather’ hungry—one has to admire that casual use of ‘rather’—’had reason to think’ that her children may be hungry too. This is on the basis of this evidence: their “biting off two of her fingers”.

This is comic cannibalism. Because it’s just two fingers, one might call it, jokingly, light cannibalism. Eliza’s starving children are perfectly moderate as to the number of their mother’s fingers they take for food.

Austen is being outrageous here. This is the kind of conundrum that is found throughout the juvenilia. The labels that scholars tussle over to describe Austen’s work here include parody, burlesque, and satire.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane AustenWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Critics on Henry and Eliza

What’s funny about Austen’s treatment of the subject of the victimized mother and her starving children is that it is the mother herself who doesn’t notice that her children are hungry. And this is despite her own hunger! She “has reason to think” that her children need food when she notices that they’ve bitten off two of her fingers. The “reason to think” is presented nonchalantly, and the bitten-off fingers are so offhandedly presented that it must be an exaggerated joke.

So, the story is clearly a parody. A parody imitates and exaggerates, usually with irony—in other words, by saying one thing and meaning another-—for comic purposes.

The story Henry and Eliza is also a more specific form of parody, called a burlesque. That’s because it takes on the material in a way that is more coarse and broad in its humor. A burlesque takes something serious and treats it unseriously or takes something light and treats it with the utmost seriousness.

Finally, one might ask whether this is a satire. A satire is a text that does its comic work not only to entertain or exaggerate but also to make people think, often for a political purpose. Here, the line prompts us to question our assumptions about mothers as selfless caregivers. It points out that mothers are not naturally or necessarily more caring.

The serious point is that Austen is not just poking fun at the genre of the sentimental novel in Henry and Eliza, she’s poking fun at gender stereotypes and typical gender roles. It’s something she does across much of the juvenilia.

Famous Juvenilia Texts of Austen

Portrait of Henry IV by Cassandra Austen. A medallion illustration from Jane Austen's 'The History of England'.
Jane Austen’s The History of England identifies itself as written ‘by a partial prejudiced, and ignorant Historian’. (Image: Cassandra Austen/Public domain)

The most famous text in the juvenilia may be Love and Freindship. Note that freindship is spelled with an ei. One thing critics debate is whether this was an intentional or accidental misspelling, or a legitimate alternative spelling. Freindship with an ei had once been an acceptable alternate spelling of the word. However, it had become archaic by Austen’s day.

The story is made up of 14 letters. The letters describe Laura’s life’s adventures, and are supposedly written for the benefit of Isabel’s daughter, Marianne, and they are written to teach her how to live. In reality, the letters are anarchic, violent, and improbable in the extreme. They are also side-splittingly funny.

The second most famous piece in Austen’s juvenilia is The History of England, a send-up of schoolroom histories. It identifies itself as written “by a partial prejudiced, and ignorant Historian” and boasts that it contains very few dates.

A notable feature of this text is that it was produced in collaboration with sister Cassandra. Cassandra provided illustrated portrait medallions to accompany Jane’s manuscript text. One critic, Christine Alexander, argues that Cassandra’s drawing of Mary, Queen of Scots may be a representation of Jane’s own face.

Importance of Juvenilia

The reputation of the juvenilia has changed over time. With the rise of the second wave of feminist literary criticism in the 1960s and 1970s, a different approach to the juvenilia emerged. The early writings were seen anew as proof of an early Austen who’d been a far more free, liberal, and independent thinker, but who became tamed, conservative, or subdued in the full-length novels.

Today, the study of Austen’s juvenilia incorporates positions and debates raised by all of these strands of criticism. Few now would dismiss them as insubstantial. Most agree they’re significant. One Austen family member disparaged a portion of them as ‘betweenities’. It is a label that has been taken up more positively by critics who imagine them as writings that help us to grasp the author’s development from a brilliant, anarchic amateur to a polished, professional novelist.

Common Questions about the Raucous Themes of Jane Austen’s Early Writings

Q: What is parody?

A parody imitates and exaggerates, usually with irony—in other words, by saying one thing and meaning another—for comic purposes.

Q: What is burlesque?

A burlesque takes something serious and treats it unseriously or takes something light and treats it with the utmost seriousness.

Q: What is satire?

A satire is a text that does its comic work not only to entertain or exaggerate, but also to make people think, often for a political purpose.