Jane Austen’s juvenilia

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.

Teenage writings

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). 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.

Volume the Second: Austen juvenilia

Contents page from Volume the Second. The Latin phrase at the top of the page shows that the book was a gift from her father.

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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. 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.

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. 

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.

'History of England': Austen juvenilia

History of England': Austen juvenilia [folio: ff. 85v-86r]

‘The History of England… By a partial, prejudiced and ignorant Historian’, written by Jane Austen and illustrated by her sister Cassandra, pokes fun at history books of the time, especially Oliver Goldsmith’s The History of England (1771).

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Copy of Elegant Extracts given by Jane Austen to her niece

Jane Austen gave this edition of Elegant Extracts to her niece Jane Anna Elizabeth, as the inscription at the front indicates. Elegant Extracts contains selections from famous prose works; anthologies such as these were a staple of young ladies' education.

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Copyright: © Jane Austen's House Museum

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

'Volume the Third': Austen juvenilia

Manuscript of ‘Catharine, or the Bower’, in Volume the Third. The novella contains a heroine whose independence and honesty prefigures some of Austen’s later female characters.

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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. 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). 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.

Letter from Jane Austen to her brother Frank, 26 July 1809

Letter from Jane Austen to her brother Frank, 1809 [folio: f. 7r]

This letter consists of a congratulatory poem written by Jane Austen to mark the birth of her brother Frank's son. The Austen siblings grew up composing riddles, poems and charades to amuse one another.

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The Loiterer: Periodical written and edited by Jane Austen's brothers

The Loiterer: Periodical written and edited by Jane Austen's brothers [page: title page]

Jane Austen’s brothers James and Henry Austen founded the weekly publication The Loiterer in 1789, while they were students at Oxford.

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  • Kathryn Sutherland
  • Kathryn Sutherland is a Professorial Fellow in English at St. Anne’s College, University of Oxford. Her research interests include writings from the romantic period, Scottish Enlightenment, textual theory and Jane Austen. She is currently directing an AHRC research project: Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts: A Digital Edition and Print Edition (to be published by Oxford University Press).

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See also

More articles on: Childhood and children's literature

More articles on: The novel 1780-1832

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