Jane Austen, Early and Late, by Freya Johnston, Princeton University Press, 296 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0691198002
On November 1st, 1797 a Hampshire clergyman, Reverend George Austen, wrote a respectful letter to the publisher Thomas Cadell in London. He stated that he had in his possession “a Manuscript Novel, comprised in three Vols. about the length of Miss Burney’s Evelina”, and politely asked about the expense of publishing it “at the Author’s risk; & what you will venture to advance for the Property of it, if on perusal, it is approved of?” The letter was sent back immediately, with a curt “Declined by Return of Post” scrawled across the top. Cadell was new to the publishing world, and understandably cautious. But “as publishing blunders go”, the biographer Claire Tomalin writes, “it was still one of the worst ever made through laziness”.
That’s putting it mildly. Since its publication in 1813, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice ‑ the first version of which she had completed in 1797 ‑ has sold well over twenty million copies worldwide and inspired countless adaptations and loosely connected spin-offs, from television dramas to Bollywood romances and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Although Austen herself fretted that her novel was “rather too light & bright & sparkling; ‑ it wants shade”, it has also attracted serious attention in Eng Lit departments and elsewhere; the philosopher AC Grayling recently cited it as one of the five most important books of ideas, alongside Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.
It is tempting to speculate about an alternative history for Jane Austen’s writing life. What if the publisher had said yes, and her novel “First Impressions” had been published in 1798, as her clergyman father intended? We would never have had Pride and Prejudice, true, but she might have produced another novel, equally as good, by 1800. After all, when Thomas Cadell turned down her manuscript without even looking at it she was already revising another novel, “Elinor and Marianne”, scrapping its original epistolary form and renaming it Sense and Sensibility, while also writing the first draft of “Susan”, the novel that would later become Northanger Abbey. By 1799 she had completed three major novels, and she was still only twenty-three. What other books and essays would she have written if she had found a wider audience sooner?
Yet those works remained unpublished, and history tells us a different story. Reverend Austen did not try again, and for the next ten years Jane Austen transported her three unpublished manuscripts from one rented house to another. It wasn’t until 1809, when she found her permanent home in a cottage in Chawton, that she regained the peace and concentration she needed to try to establish herself as a published writer. Sense and Sensibility was published in October 1811, and ‑ after she “lop’t and crop’t” her original manuscript ‑ Pride and Prejudice in January 1813. As Tomalin memorably put it:
When Jane Austen wrote the first draft of Pride and Prejudice, she was twenty, the same age as Elizabeth Bennet. By the time it was published in 1813 she was thirty-seven: almost old enough to be Elizabeth’s mother.
Seventeen years had gone by between the composition of Pride and Prejudice and its long-delayed publication, and when Austen held the first copy of the published book in her hands she called it “my own darling Child”.
In this extraordinary burst of creativity, Austen wrote a new work, Mansfield Park, which was published to critical acclaim in May 1814. By then she was already writing another novel, Emma, which she completed in March 1815, as the deposed French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his army marched north to seize power once again. After the Battle of Waterloo, the Prince Regent graciously found time to let Austen know that he enjoyed her novels and to suggest that her next book might be dedicated to him. Emma was published with its dutiful royal dedication in December 1815, and during 1816 Austen wrote a novel called “The Elliots”, which she completed in early 1817 but was too ill to see through to publication. She died in July 1817, at the age of just forty-one. Her sister Cassandra made sure that her final completed novel, Persuasion (as “The Elliots” was renamed), was published five months later, together with Northanger Abbey, which Austen had written under the working title of “Susan” twenty years previously. Her brother Henry, now a clergyman himself, wrote a biographical note to accompany the double edition, claiming that his sister suffered nothing worse than “little disappointments” in her life. It was the beginning of a stage-managed version of Jane Austen’s literary history.
Jane Austen’s writings are usually portrayed in simple terms as moving seamlessly from immaturity to maturity, with a firm division between the teenage and adult works. To borrow the language of her early biographers, she began with “juvenile tales” and “childish effusions”, progressed to the (wonderfully named) “between-ities” and ended with the novels proper. In an illuminating new book, Jane Austen, Early and Late, Freya Johnston argues that by limiting our perspective to the six completed novels, published in just six years and two months, we aren’t getting a complete picture of three substantial decades of Austen’s writing life. As Johnston points out, the gap between composition and publication of three of her novels mean that “arguments can be made for thinking of Austen’s early work as late, her late work as early, and at the same time”. The distance between the precocious teenager and the mature novelist is not as great as most people think.
Yet her loving family did not choose to acknowledge this. After her death, Johnston writes, “family members retained control of her manuscripts for decades, permitting only the gradual and partial release of texts deemed a risk to the status of the increasingly renowned six novels”. These dangerous texts, to be suppressed at all costs, were Austen’s first known literary works, begun around 1787, when she was eleven or twelve, and concluding in 1793, when she was seventeen. Now referred to as the “juvenilia” or “teenage writings”, these twenty-seven pieces include “Lady Susan”, “Love and Freindship” and “History of England” among other works and were carefully transcribed into three stationer’s notebooks that Austen’s father had given her. Johnston makes the case that the fiction cannot easily be separated from the juvenilia, or one stage of writing from another, as “Austen preserved, returned to, and revised her earliest unpublished works long after she became a published author”.
But not everyone who claims to love Austen’s work extends their affection to her teenage writings. When the contents of one of her youthful notebooks was published in full for the first time in 1933, RW Chapman, who wrote the preface, was deeply uneasy about allowing such “minor works” to see the light of day: “It will always be disputed whether such effusions as these ought to be published; and it may be that we have had enough already of Jane Austen’s early scraps.” It was a strangely dismissive remark for someone who had dedicated his life’s work to preserving Austen’s writings, and his final sentence is particularly stark: “The only sure way to prevent it is the way of destruction, which no one dare take.” These were strong words for an Oxford scholar, particularly as they were written in an age when Nazis were burning books. Even in the late twentieth century, the co-founder of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Joan Austen-Leigh (great-granddaughter of Jane Austen’s nephew) confidently stated that “the juvenilia, I believe, could well have been left […] in a drawer, for study by scholars, who I venture to suspect are pretty much the only people who really peruse them”. But Austen cherished these early writings, transcribed and edited them, and protected them as carefully as her other darling children, her novels.
You can see why some readers would prefer it if she hadn’t. “Jane Austen’s earliest writings appear to have little in common with the restrained and realistic society portrayed in her adult novels,” the Austen scholar Kathryn Sutherland observes. “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.” Tomalin describes Jane Austen as “a tough and unsentimental child, drawn to rude, anarchic imaginings and black jokes”.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in her riotous spoof “The History of England”, written in 1791 when she was fifteen and ‑ as she describes herself ‑ a “partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian”. Johnston devotes a full chapter to it, called “Histories”, and it is one of the best things in her excellent book (Austen’s notebook can be viewed in full in digital form on the British Library website by following the link to “Jane Austen’s juvenilia”). Designed primarily to entertain the Austen family, “The History of England” is described in Jane Austen, Early and Late as “a document of teenage rebellion” that plays serio-comically with the subjects of ancestry, succession and the dispossession of women, a theme she would return to in her novels. It is worth pointing out that it is also good, knockabout fun. Austen laments the lack of “amiable Men” in the English Civil War, speculates about turning men into women and redresses the gender imbalance of previous histories by including female characters in each of its royal portraits, exquisitely painted by her sister Cassandra. It’s a worthy forerunner of 1066 And All That and about as far from Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price as it is possible to get.
Austen’s “The History of England” was a response to the Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith’s schoolroom text The History of England, from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II, published in four volumes in 1771. Goldsmith, who studied at Trinity College Dublin, is better known nowadays as the author of the novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and the play She Stoops to Conquer (1771) than as a historian. But he was also, for most of his short working life, a Grub Street journalist who needed to make money and he spotted a financial opportunity in abridging David Hume’s six-volume History of England (1754-62). Goldsmith’s History of England was written “not to add to our present stock of history, but to contract it”, as he modestly puts it in his preface. “It is hoped,” he adds, “the reader will admit my impartiality.”
The young Austen was having none of this. “Oh! Dr. Goldsmith Thou art as partial an Historian as myself!” she wrote in the margin of his book. She was asserting her presence as a well-informed female reader, doubtless encouraged by her father, and rather than wilful misreadings, as Sutherland puts it, her comments reveal her active engagement with the text. The marginalia can be seen in the appendix to Johnston’s book, which has magnified photographs of the relevant passages from Goldsmith’s history. Austen’s comments range from the rabble-rousing (“Nobly said! Spoken like a Tory!”) to the ironic (“Oh! To be sure!”) and the world-weary “My dear Dr G ‑ I have lived long enough in the world to know that it is always so”. In one margin she writes “Fiddlededia”, a delightful word coined by Goldsmith’s friend Samuel Johnson, according to James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, published in 1791, the same year as “The History of England”. Austen’s comments weren’t all humorous or tongue-in-cheek. After a moving passage about the misery and devastation of war, she writes “The best Thing in the Book”, responding to the power of Goldsmith’s words as we might expect of the novelist she would become.
Throughout her life Jane Austen the historian was in constant dialogue with Jane Austen the novelist, Johnston reminds us. This can be heard in the passage in Northanger Abbey, written not long after the “History of England” in which Catherine, a keen reader of Gothic fiction, complains that “history, real, solemn history” tells her “nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences, in every page; the men are all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all ‑ it is very tiresome.” Austen’s interest in history is still present in the novel she wrote twenty years later, Persuasion, when Anne Elliot, who is defending the constancy of women, is told by Captain Harville that “all histories are against you, all stories, prose and verse … But perhaps, you will say, these were all written by men.”
Austen would always favour fiction over history. But perhaps ‑ to go back to the idea of speculative histories ‑ we might wonder, if she’d had more years in which to develop in other directions as a mature writer, whether she would have returned to her youthful passion for history. After all, in 1813 she told a sceptical Cassandra that even her darling Pride and Prejudice “wants to be stretched out here & there with a long Chapter […] of something unconnected with the story; an Essay on Writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparte ‑ or anything … I doubt your quite agreeing with me here ‑ I know your starched Notions.”
Ann Kennedy Smith studied French and German at Trinity College Dublin and is now a freelance writer and researcher based in Cambridge. Her reviews and essays have been published in The Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, History Today and Slightly Foxed. More details on her website https://akennedysmith.com