Friday, August 03, 2007

Jane Austen's Juvenilia

This week I read Jane Austen's The Watsons and the collection of short bits entitled Lesley Castle, both published by Hesperus Press.

The Watsons is a good beginning to a novel; the characters are quite sharp and unpleasant and it would have been intriguing to see Austen in a darker vein. However, as said in the introduction, Austen's unpleasant life situation (father's death and resultant worries about female dependance and survival) was parallelled by the story while she wrote, and perhaps she just didn't want to dwell on the dire possibilities in her fiction. The relationships between sisters and the attractions of a rich charmer compared to a more serious man are important elements which she seems to have carried through in other works. How I wish she would have continued with this! Nevertheless, it is worth reading as extra Austen once you've read and reread the six novels.

Lesley Castle is a collection including the epistolary fragment it is named for, which was written by Austen at 16. It is amusing, filled with entirely shallow women being catty about one another, for example, a London lady says to her country friend:

How often have I wished that I possessed as little personal beauty as you do; that my figure were as inelegant; my face as unlovely; and my appearance as unpleasing as yours! But ah! what little chance is there of so desirable an event.

If finished, this satirical take on the epistolary novel would have stood beside her satirical take on the gothic novel, Northanger Abbey. This collection also includes the family amusement A History of England. It is a series of sketches and tongue-in-cheek paragraphs on some of England's rulers. It is obvious it was written for home entertainment as it includes instructions for a charade, which I assume she performed. The last piece is Catherine. It details Catherine's way through the world once taken in by a maiden aunt on the death of her parents. This aunt is quite strict, and Catherine's taking up with a young man is met with some disapproval. When the fragment concludes, her love interest has left England and she is at loose ends. There is so much potential in this story; Catherine is a wonderful creation and I would have liked to hear her complete story. I think it's interesting just to see how some of the themes of her later books are being worked over even while she's a young writer, especially knowing the mastery of her later works. It's fascinating to read these bits for that look into the writer's mind.

It's a pleasure to read more of Jane Austen's work and think of how much more she could have written & published. I preferred reading the beginning of The Watsons and trying to imagine what she would have made of it, more so than reading all the current 'redos' of Austen, some of which have been quite pedestrian indeed. Except for one favourite, Mary Street's The Confession of Fitzwilliam Darcy, which is excellent; quite Austen-like in tone and diction. Though I read it in a large print edition with horrendous cover art, I see it is being rereleased in paperback next spring. Finally!


  1. I've read (and re-read) the six main novels, and so I'm now interested in reading some of the unfinished work and youthful work. I really enjoyed reading Lady Susan and The Watsons not so long ago.

  2. I just read about Lesley Castle over at Bookfoolery & Babble's site. Now must add The Confession of Fitzwilliam Darcy to my list.


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