The Beautiful, Proto-Feminist Snark of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia
74,000 words of raucous, handwritten amorality
My ten-year-old son has become immersed in Erin Hunter’s bestselling Warrior series. Two dozen books into this bibliophilic journey, he provides daily reports to me on the novels’ fighting feline characters and their shifting names and nicknames. (Most use star, thunder, or cloud as a prefix or suffix.) I’ve heard about these fighting tabbies in great detail for months now, but I can’t keep their names straight for the life of me. I know the Warrior series isn’t immersing my son in Literature with a capital L, but I tell myself that it’s tween reading that could very well prepare him to tackle Doctor Zhivago one day. A source of sadness to me is that the young Jane Austen isn’t around to burlesque feral cat fiction, because it would be something my son and I could enjoy together. (For the record, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties  is not even in the ballpark.)
The teenage Jane Austen was a burlesque genius. “Burlesque?” some of you may say. “Are we talking about the same Jane Austen? The one whose novels have those dreamy heroes and lots of marriages?” If you need to scare up your college literary terms handbook to look up “burlesque,” you’re not alone. When I first use the word in teaching Austen’s juvenilia, a few students always mistakenly think I’m talking about striptease. In a sense, they are not that far off.
The literary type of burlesque also peels off layers. Where a parody sets out to mimic conventions and make us laugh, a burlesque relies “on an extravagant incongruity between a subject and its treatment.” They are bolder and more coarsely humorous pieces that go beyond silly copies, like turbo-charged parodies. Austen’s burlesques were full-on irreverent, turning a thing on its head, forcing us to peek underneath to see its naked absurdities.
Written when she was between the ages 11 and 17, Austen’s juvenilia offers 74,000 words of unpredictable snark. It includes the rowdy Jack and Alice, in which unrepentant male and female gamblers at a masquerade party must be “carried home, Dead Drunk.” It includes the epistolary Love and Freindship (yes, that’s an ei, not an ie), which begins, in its first letter, “You are this Day 55. If a woman may ever be said to be in safety from the determined Perseverance of disagreeable Lovers and the cruel Persecutions of obstinate Fathers, surely it must be at such a time of Life.” Most of the juvenilia’s evil deeds go unpunished, and its heroines recommend running mad over fainting.
We have no idea how much revision Austen did on these 27 handwritten stories and dramatic pieces, how she imagined their audience, or how many readers each actually had. Family members were among the first. We know that because of Austen’s frequent dedications to family members and friends. “Lesley Castle,” dedicated to her brother Henry, includes his own handwritten reply to her dedication, as he pretends to have his bank give her a large sum for her writing. For my money, these youthful writings are Austen’s most astonishing achievement after the six novels.
The juvenilia was published posthumously in dribs and drabs, first by Austen’s descendants and then by other editors, many decades after her death in 1817. There is no evidence she sought publication of any of them during her lifetime. But if she had, there may have been a market awaiting her. Austen must have known that girl-writers her own age, like Anna Maria Porter (1778-1832) and Elizabeth Benger (c. 1775–1827), were publishing their juvenilia in the 1790s, albeit with far more conventional literary products. Both Porter and Benger also exaggerated their youth, probably to appear greater prodigies and sell more copies. (I discuss this youth marketing phenomenon further in my Cambridge Companion to Women’s Writing in the Romantic Period.)
Penguin Books’ new paperback edition of Austen’s juvenilia, Love and Freindship and Other Youthful Writings, edited by Christine Alexander, reproduces the entirety of the known juvenilia, which Austen had carefully copied into three books, labeled Volume the First, Volume the Second, and Volume the Third. Several writings that fall beyond those volumes are also included in Alexander’s fine edition.
Alexander, the book’s editor, is a world expert in children’s literature and in the juvenilia of female authors from Austen to the Brontës to Virginia Woolf. That expertise is felt throughout the edition, both in its learned introduction and its judicious explanatory notes. Alexander is especially to be lauded for having included, along with Austen’s The History of England (“by a partial prejudiced, and ignorant Historian”), her older sister Cassandra’s illustrated portrait medallions, which originally accompanied the manuscript text. As Alexander points out, one of these portraits may be a representation of Jane Austen’s own face. Alexander claims that Jane’s face has been “positively identified” as the model used by Cassandra for her drawing of Mary, Queen of Scots, but “positively” seems a stretch. We may speculatively identify but hardly positively identify. (Alexander’s argument for the attribution is made here.) In Alexander’s edition, Cassandra’s illustrations are reproduced in black and white, not color, but you can view digital copies of the original color illustrations, along with facsimiles and transcriptions of all of the extant Austen manuscripts at the Jane Austen Fiction Manuscripts site.
In Love and Freindship and Other Youthful Writings. Alexander also wisely chose to include Lady Susan, an epistolary novella with a delicious, adulterous female heroine-villain, the recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon. The extent to which we readers are supposed to despise or admire Lady Susan is unclear. She has power—especially over men—which she uses ruthlessly for as long as she can get away with it. She’s clever. She’s beautiful. She’s a liar. Lady Susan is a human train wreck, a hot mess, but many readers can’t help being charmed by the character’s manipulative intelligence, just as the gullible men who come under her spell are taken in by her sex appeal and uncanny ability to reflect back what they want her to be.
Lady Susan was likely composed in Austen’s early adulthood; its manuscript pages have several 1805 watermarks, meaning that she was still recopying it and probably revising it when she was nearing 30. Lady Susan may not strictly speaking be a youthful writing, but it repays a careful read. This text, too, seems poised for another moment of resurgence. A film version adapted and directed by Whit Stillman just debuted to rave reviews at Sundance. Unfortunately, Stillman has confusingly renamed Lady Susan, calling it Love and Friendship (with an ie), thereby dooming those of us who know our Austen to offering years of corrections and explanations to those who don’t. (Reader, regardless of your previous level of expertise, you now have been enlisted among those who do!)
The Beautifull Cassandra offers readers a perfect appetizer for what they’ll find on their plate when ordering up Austen’s youthful writings (read the full text here). A text from 1788 in Volume the First, The Beautifull Cassandra includes 12 micro-chapters in which the heroine, instead of falling in love and running off with a viscount, falls in love and runs off with a bonnet. These details alone eviscerate the most formulaic prose fiction of the day. Nowhere near a “novel” in its length, Cassandra is dedicated to Austen’s older sister, Cassandra Austen (1773–1845), who was Jane’s “closest collaborator,” as Alexander notes. Despite the sisters’ closeness, there’s no reason to believe that the Cassandra of Jane’s story is based on the real Cassandra. Cassandra Austen was one of eight children (two daughters) of a Steventon rector. The Beautifull Cassandra is the “only Daughter of a celebrated Millener in Bond Street,” a hat maker with a fashionable London address.
This fictional Cassandra does not fall in love with just any bonnet, certainly not the first bonnet to come along. It’s one her mother has made to order for a wealthy Countess. Escaping her parents’ millinery shop with another woman’s hat on her head, Cassandra sets out to “make her Fortune.” Her attempt would last seven hours. For a lot of heroines, that exit from the parental home would be precisely the moment when a handsome man, whether a villain or a preserver, would be thrown in her way. But when Cassandra finds herself in just this situation, passing an attractive Viscount, she walks right by him to devour a gluttonous amount of dessert.
A common novel trope involved heroines being kidnapped, assaulted, or carried off to forced marriages in carriages. But Austen’s Cassandra voluntarily gets into a common hackney coach, in effect choosing a Greyhound bus over the sterotypical stretch limo. Then, instead of going anywhere interesting, Cassandra heads to a London suburb and abruptly turns around, coming back to precisely the same spot. So far her journey entails little action or suspense. But then comes the conflict. She has no money and cannot pay the driver! She’s forced to give up to him her true love—her stolen bonnet—in order to make payment. The novel’s last “chapters” involve Cassandra’s ridiculous and inconsequential interactions with minor female characters. She passes Maria in silence, is accosted by a nosy widow, and finally, returns home to hug her mother. Cassandra’s adventures end happily ever after, without a marriage or a moral lesson.
The Beautifull Cassandra might even be said to offer an amoral lesson. Typical novels would have stretched the story from seven hours to seven months and put the heroine in harm’s way, rather than in control of her destiny. The attractive man introduced would have sought the heroine’s hand, despite the obstacles to their marriage that would inevitably have arisen. The obstacles would have produced allies or rivals or both, though all would be resolved in an ending offering a lesson about filial duty or the importance of an early education. Perhaps thrown in would be a stern warning not to seek your fortune or defy your parents. Jane Austen was having none of it. (Her six full-length novels show only remnants of this youthful perspective, although their moral lessons, when she offers them, remain more equivocal than was the norm.) The Beautifull Cassandra, in comparison to the novels that it burlesques, is sometimes more wild—Stealing! Overeating! Traveling unaccompanied without incident!—but also far less so. In the end, nothing happens. Tomorrow is another day.
What makes The Beautifull Cassandra especially clever is that you don’t even have to know those fictional formulas to appreciate it. The following line is characteristic of its stand-alone humor. The heroine “proceeded to a Pastry-cooks where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry Cook and walked away.” This is authentic Austen, but we might be forgiven for mistaking it for a mash-up novel. Here we have a heroine gorging herself on sweets, committing violence and theft, then walking away from the crime unscathed and unpunished.
All you’d need are a few brain-eating walking dead to make this line resemble voice-over narration for Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (2016). Austen’s juvenilia, Lady Susan, and that recent film have much in common. All juxtapose the comic and the tragic to shock us into re-seeing them. Austen’s texts also play with traditional gender roles, showing the ways in which heroines and heroes are delimited and limited. For decades, critics have been calling Austen’s Juvenilia the most feminist of her surviving writings. With Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, we now have an Austen film adaptation that specifically touts Austen’s and its own feminism in its actor interviews and marketing. It’s evident that we’ve arrived at a cultural moment when readers and audiences are highly receptive to a snarky feminist—and not a cozy romantic—Jane Austen.
A wider embracing of Austen’s youthful writings now would seem a no-brainer, because there’s no better place to find that version of her amplified than in her juvenilia and Lady Susan. As Austen moved into full-length works, she increasingly distanced herself from making sport of the literary techniques and motifs of her day, toning down her most direct attacks on what heroes and heroines were supposed to be. She left burlesque behind for more subtle forms of social and literary critique. Austen scholars continue to argue about what led to this distancing, about what it means. Did she sell out, or did she “mature”? Did she become more conservative, or did she set out to hide her progressive impulses more effectively?
No matter how we make sense of it, the juvenilia shows that Austen was a child-writer of great, raucous, gender-role-defying fun, an irreverent observer of life’s ridiculous conventions and fiction’s silly habits. In children’s books terms, we might say that Austen’s juvenilia resembles Goodnight Mr. Darcy or Go the F**k to Sleep more than it does Goodnight Moon. There is room for all kinds of literature, of course, but burlesques can be just the thing when you’re faced with the hundredth rendition of more serious fare about two little kittens, a pair of mittens, bowls of mush, and quiet old ladies whispering “Hush.” The beauty of Jane Austen’s juvenilia is that it has no truck with whispering.
Featured image may or may not be a portrait of Jane Austen at age 13.