Juvenilia, by Jane Austen
Though this book goes under the name Love And Friendship for those who would wish to read it, in reality it is a collection of Jane Austen’s fragmentary but immensely witty and sarcastic juvenilia, which includes two short epistlatory novels, Love And Freindship (Jane Austen’s spelling is no more skilled than my own), as well as Lesley Castle, a collection of letters, one work on the History of England by a prejudiced historian that I have previously reviewed , a one-act play, as well as a few other shorter fragments, including a tale called “The Female Philosopher.” All told, these texts could all be read easily in the course of an hour or two, making them a pleasant and short way to pass a portion of the afternoon.
As someone who is fond of reading the novels of Jane Austen, I presume I am speaking to others who are likewise fond of her literature. The writings of Jane Austen as a precocious and witty teen are largely of interest to those who are fond of her more mature and polished later works, and who are willing to overlook the youthful immaturity and exhuberance of her work because they have an appreciation of the wit and humor that come among the general silliness. Make no mistake, these are silly works, but they are the silliness of someone who is intelligent and biting even in her funniest and most light-hearted moments. Included in this biting ironic sense of humor is a sad (in retrospect) joke about Jane Austen being a spinster, which is what she became, as well as other comments about her own miseducation.
As a whole, the short works included in this volume show how Jane Austen developed her wit and honed it in scraps of writing before showing six polished novels of genius to the world to be appreciated after she was dead and buried. Rarely do we get the chance to see an author at work developing competence, working on familiar themes to be developed later, and honing his or her craft. A modern writer would probably be content to work on fan fiction or writing blog entries or articles for a school or local newspaper, but Jane Austen honed her craft in writing novels in letter form where she explored concerns that would fill her more mature and lengthier works: concerns that included the struggle to find a suitable spouse, true and false friendship, family relationships, including the cruelty or folly of one’s relatives, illegitimacy, debt, inheritance issues, elopement, sense and sensibility, pride, treachery, misfortune, and other questions of taste and morality. She explores some of the destinations which would fill her better known novels, places like Bath and London and also Gretna Green. She commented on the supposed problems that would come to women who read novels (which was thought to be brain-rot at the time), and even tried out some names that she would later use, like Willoughby and Dashwood.
As a lighthearted and sometimes cynical parody of the romantic novels of her time, what this collection of works provides is the chance for those who appreciate Jane Austen’s adult work to see how she came to polish her famous bits of ivory and came to hone her razor wit. Though these writings are a bit disorganized, the fact that even as a teenager Austen was able to write memorable and quotable works, and not take either herself or her world too seriously (a common fault among writers) suggests that from an early age she felt the need to be critical of what was around her. One can only imagine what sort of childhood led her to be such a cynical and worldly wise teenager, but she was clearly not an innocent even as a young woman. The results of her passionate devotion to writing, and her ability to take the material of melodrama and tragedy and to turn it into witty novels that have endured the test of time despite changes in fashion and culture and societal mores, are plain to see, which makes these teenage writings worthy of note despite their unpolished and fragmentary nature.