Wishing the Juvenilia away: Austen’s advice to Caroline

Stream: Session D
Date: Thursday, 21 July 2022
Time: 10.30 am – 12.30 pm

Abstract

Caroline Austen wrote in 1867 that her aunt Jane, at the end of her life, had discouraged her from writing until she was 16, and had said that she herself wished that she had waited until she was older. She advised Caroline to spend her teenage years reading, rather than writing (‘My Aunt Jane Austen’, Memoir ed. Kathryn Sutherland, 174). It is likely that Volumes 1, 2 and 3 of her teenage writings, are selected from writings dating from between 1787 and 1793, the years when Austen was aged between 11 and 15 (Teenage Writings, ed. Kathryn Sutherland). Caroline was 12 when Austen died in 1817. Austen did not destroy the volumes and they were inherited by Cassandra who bequeathed them in turn to various male relatives, including Caroline’s brother James Edward, who received Volume 3. These works are, of course, now admired for their vivacious audacity. The idea that Austen wished that she had not written these brilliant and outrageous fragments is unsettling to the twenty-first century reader. We value them for many reasons: for the evidence of Austen’s experiments with contemporary literary forms, for the insight they provide into the teenage Austen’s attitudes and tastes, and for their sheer hilarity. We can also see, in the juvenilia, the mature Austen learning her craft. However, as Charlotte Wood writes, an artist can be embarrassed by the very thing that gives their work life and verve (The Luminous Solution 168-169). She might well, in later life, have looked back on the flagrant amorality of stories like ‘Jack and Alice’ and ‘The Beautifull Cassandra’ with mixed feelings, particularly, perhaps, as she faced her imminent death. As Sutherland writes, ‘For compassion and fellow feeling these stories substitute anarchy and self-gratification.’ In Emma, for example, the heroine must learn difficult lessons in her transition to adulthood: in the juvenilia much more serious transgressions go unpunished and unremarked. In this paper I will suggest some reasons for her advice to her niece, in the context of writing advice she gave to her other young relatives and of the ethical world of the works of her maturity.

Caroline was 12 when Austen died in 1817. Austen did not destroy the volumes and they were inherited by Cassandra who bequeathed them in turn to various male relatives, including Caroline’s brother James Edward, who received Volume 3. These works are, of course, now admired for their vivacious audacity. The idea that Austen wished that she had not written these brilliant and outrageous fragments is unsettling to the twenty-first century reader. We value them for many reasons: for the evidence of Austen’s experiments with contemporary literary forms, for the insight they provide into the teenage Austen’s attitudes and tastes, and for their sheer hilarity.

We can also see, in the juvenilia, the mature Austen learning her craft. However, as Charlotte Wood writes, an artist can be embarrassed by the very thing that gives their work life and verve (The Luminous Solution 168–69). She might well, in later life, have looked back on the flagrant amorality of stories like “Jack and Alice” and “The Beautifull Cassandra” with mixed feelings, particularly, perhaps, as she faced her imminent death. As Sutherland writes, “For compassion and fellow feeling these stories substitute anarchy and self-gratification”. In Emma, for example, the heroine must learn difficult lessons in her transition to adulthood: in the juvenilia much more serious transgressions go unpunished and unremarked.

In this paper I will suggest some reasons for her advice to her niece, in the context of writing advice she gave to her other young relatives and of the ethical world of the works of her maturity.

GILLIAN DOOLEY is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow in English literature at Flinders University, South Australia, and a Visiting Fellow in Music at Southampton University, UK. She has published many books and essays on literary and related topics. She has a particular interest in Jane Austen, often with an emphasis on music. She was co-convenor of the “Immortal Austen” conference in Adelaide, July 2017, and she has been curating and presenting programs of music from Austen’s personal collection since 2007. From 2017 to 2021 she created a detailed index of each of the 500–600 items in the Austen family music collections.