Epistolarity and material culture in Jane Austen’s juvenilia

Stream: Jane Austen
Date: Friday, 20 May 2022
Time: 1.30 pm – 3.00 pm


This paper considers the young Austen’s attention to the potential and shortcomings of an especially fetishized eighteenth-century ‘thing’, the letter. The epistolary fiction of the eighteenth century repeatedly draws attention to the (imagined) materiality of the letters out of which it is supposedly constructed. Pamela Andrews, for instance, sews into her clothing the forbidden correspondence that makes up the text of Pamela (1740). The content of Pamela’s letters as much as their physical proximity to her body appear to carry equal erotic charge for Mr B., who through accessing Pamela’s correspondence seeks at once to come closer to her mind and her body. Epistolary fiction is littered with references to its constitutive letters’ production, transmission and reception. Printers employed innovative techniques in order to maintain the central fiction of epistolary novels – that the ‘letters’ were collected (or found) and edited, rather than invented. The very printing of such novels, however, already gave the lie to this generative fiction. In the move from manuscript letter to printed novel, the material experience of reading genuine correspondence was inevitably lost. This was far from the only shortcoming, however, of epistolary fiction. The suspensions of disbelief required by the format were at odds with a persistent interest in fictional realism. The authorial difficulties created by epistolarity’s central premise were already, at the time of Austen’s birth, leading to a steep decline in the popularity of the once-dominant literary form. As a child, Austen delighted in epistolary fiction, but she had a keen eye for its absurdities. Her juvenilia is littered with inset letters that mock the convention, and her epistolary stories lampoon the genre which inspires them. The young author is nevertheless scrupulous in attending to the material specificity of the best epistolary fiction, carefully reproducing the appearance of the letter on the (manuscript) page. This paper explores what Austen’s juvenilia can tell us about the experience of reading epistolary fiction in the late eighteenth century, the period of its first decline. Austen’s satire of the form throws its limitations into sharp relief. Thus, ‘Amelia Webster: an interesting & well written Tale’ (Austen, Volume the First) deliberately sets out to be conspicuously uninteresting and badly written. It operates, however, as hilarious expert criticism, comically and insightfully deflating the pretentions of the genre it imitates, and in so doing succeeds in being both interesting and well written. Again and again in her epistolary fiction, Austen deploys the form not only to poke fun at the self-absorbed excesses of her characters, but also to satirise epistolarity itself. Letters left inconveniently in trees, passing implausibly between characters in the same house, or who never meet, letters, moreover, that are insistently, absurdly short: all these combine to produce Austen’s criticism of an epistolary novel that would nevertheless dominate her early compositions. This paper is particularly interested in the epistolary tales of Volume the First, considering these – along with a few select instances from Volume the Second – both on their own terms, and with reference to their echoes in Austen’s later novels.


Olivia Murphy (Presenter), University of Sydney
Olivia Murphy has published extensively on Jane Austen, women’s writing and Romanticism. She is the author of Jane Austen the Reader: The Artist as Critic (Palgrave 2013) and the co-editor of Anna Letitia Barbauld: New Perspectives (with William McCarthy, Bucknell University Press, 2013) and Romantic Climates (Palgrave 2019). Her articles on Austen’s juvenilia have appeared in Eighteenth-Century Life, Textus and Clio. In 2016 she and Mary Spongberg were awarded an ARC Discovery Project grant to investigate Austen’s mother’s family, the Leighs of Warwickshire. She is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sydney.