Jane Austen’s Juvenilia cover

Jane Austen’s Juvenilia

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Professor Kathryn Sutherland explores how Jane Austen’s education and upbringing shaped her childhood writing, and considers the relationship between these early works and her adult novels.





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Jane Austen’s Juvenilia

Juvenilia Writings

Professor Kathryn Sutherland explores how Jane Austen’s education and upbringing shaped her childhood writing, and considers the relationship between these early works and her adult novels.

Juvenilia are childhood writings, works produced by an author or an artist in their youth. Three of Jane Austen’s notebooks survive containing early short works in a variety of genres (stories, dramatic sketches, verses, moral fragments).

Teenage writings

Teenage writings

Public Domain

Some Of Her Writings

They are inscribed on their front covers Volume the First, Volume the Second and Volume the Third, consciously imitating the publishing format of 18th-century novels.

The earliest pieces probably date from 1786 or 1787, around the time, aged 11 or 12, that Jane Austen left the Abbey House School in Reading. The latest dated entry is ‘June 3d 1793’, when she was 17. Two of the notebooks, Volume the Second and Volume the Third, are among the treasures of the British Library; Volume the First is held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Semi-Public Manuscripts

All three notebooks are confidential publications;

that is, they are semi-public manuscripts intended for circulation and performance among family and friends. Unlike many teenage writings (then and now), these are not secret or agonised confessions entrusted to a private journal and for the writer’s eyes alone. Rather, they are stories to be shared and admired by an audience; most are accompanied by an elaborate dedication to a family member or friend, and they are filled with allusions to shared jokes and events.

Seeking Admiration

These are sociable texts, produced by a precocious young writer showing off her talents and expecting to be admired.

All three notebooks exhibit evidence of heavy wear, which suggests they were frequently read and perhaps their mini-plays were acted. Later additions to Volume the Third, in the hands of Jane Austen’s nephew, James Edward Austen, and her niece, Jane Anna Elizabeth Lefroy, imply that the notebooks may have been used by the next generation to practice their writing skills.

‘History of England’

Public Domain

‘History of England’

Jane Austen’s ‘The History of England’ is a comic account of England from Henry IV to Charles I as told by ‘a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant historian’. The history, written when Austen was only 16, was a parody of published histories and in particular of the four volume The History of England from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II (1771) by Oliver Goldsmith.

The Subject Matter

What is the subject matter of the juvenilia?

Jane Austen’s earliest writings appear to have little in common with the restrained and realistic society portrayed in her adult novels. By contrast, they are exuberantly expressionistic tales of sexual misdemeanour, of female drunkenness and violence. They are characterised by exaggerated sentiment and absurd adventures. Running through them is a pronounced thread of comment on and wilful misreading of the literature of her day, showing how thoroughly and how early the activity of critical reading informed her character as a writer.

Her Inspiration

Jane Austen’s earliest writings are comic imitations or parodies of popular novels:

of the classic Sir Charles Grandison by her favourite Samuel Richardson; of Oliver Goldsmith’s schoolroom textbook, The History of England (4 vols, 1771); of the essayists Joseph Addison and Samuel Johnson; and of the anthologies of moral pieces and ‘Elegant Extracts’ which formed the staple of young ladies’ education ‘The History of England ... By a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant Historian’ in Volume the Second is a collaboration with her sister Cassandra who provided 13 coloured caricature portraits.

The spoof history is consciously modelled on Goldsmith’s History, with its prefatory hope that ‘the reader will admit my impartiality’ Goldsmith too includes medallion portraits of kings.

The Rebellious Young Women

Common to all three notebooks is their portrayal of confident, wilful, even rebellious young women:

heroines like Charlotte Lutterell of ‘Lesley Castle’ (Volume the Second) and Catherine or Kitty, as she is usually styled, in the longer ‘Kitty, or the Bower’ in Volume the Third. Kitty is a more naturalistic figure than the farcical adventurers of the earlier tales but, like them, she is independent and outspoken

Elegant Extracts

Public Domain

Elegant Extracts

Jane Austen gave this book to her niece Jane Anna Elizabeth in 1801, inscribing a dedication on the inside cover.

Reflections

How is the juvenilia reflected in Austen’s novels?

Jane Austen did not simply outgrow her juvenile notebooks. There is ample evidence that the same critical intelligence that created these satirical depictions of the conventions and stereotypes of late 18th-century fiction, conduct books and stage farce, continued to work within the more realistic framework of her mature novels. First drafts of books eventually published as Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey were written soon after the last of the juvenilia.

Reflections (Cont.)

It is not too fanciful to find traces of the strong-minded heroines of these early experiments in Elizabeth Bennet’s unladylike energy (‘crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles’, Pride and Prejudice, ch. 7) and Emma Woodhouse’s dangerously undisciplined imagination.

Background

Jane Austen was born into a family of talented amateur writers.

Her mother wrote playful verses, riddles and charades; her elder brothers James and Henry jointly founded and largely wrote a humorous weekly paper, The Loiterer, while students at St John’s College, Oxford. The paper ran for 60 numbers from January 1789 to March 1790 and was issued commercially, though its circulation was small.

There were plenty of models for it among popular 18th-century periodicals, like Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s Spectator (first series 1711-12) and Henry Mackenzie’s The Mirror (1779-80) and The Lounger(1785-7).

Jane Austen

Jane Austen

Public Domain

Born To Write

Such papers were conversations in print, partly simulated and partly genuine interactions between writers and readers.

James Austen also wrote poetry, and during the 1780s he devised new prologues and epilogues for the plays staged by the Austen children at amateur family theatricals. James and Henry Austen undoubtedly influenced Jane Austen’s teenage compositions

British Library

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