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Involving Students

Student Contributions

"Writing an Introduction", by Jeffrey Herrle

The experience of writing an introduction for the Juvenilia Press edition of Catharine, Or the Bower was a memorable one for me. I offered to write the piece shortly after the English 660 (The Eighteenth Century Novel) class decided to produce the volume. Having worked extensively on Jane Austen's mature work before, I was enthusiastic about the prospect of immersing myself in a study of her early work, in order to see how she became the writer we know, and to understand how exactly her literary talents developed.

Writing the introduction, as well as working on the textual editing and annotations of the edition, gave me a new appreciation for Jane Austen. Since one aim of an introduction is to contextualize the work at hand in as many ways as possible, I set about presenting the known biographical conditions under which Catharine was produced--Austen's age when she wrote the novel, where she lived at the time, what her family circumstances were--and the contemporary literary and historical milieu. Moreover, for the sake of Austen readers not conversant with her juvenilia, it was also appropriate to situate this early work in light of her well-known, mature work. The sketchy biographical details that are available on Austen's teenage years enabled me to argue forcefully that Catharine provides the clearest window into her character as a teen. Because I came to discover that Catharine marks a significant transitional point in Austen's literary development stylistically, I began to view it as skilled apprentice-work that looks forward to the master craftsmanship of the six mature novels. Austen's personal interest in origins, history, genealogy, the English literary tradition, and contemporary landscape theory, provided me with an appropriately Austenian means of reading Catharine.

The greatest challenge for me, and one which gave me new-found sympathy for scholars who write introductions to literary works, was finding a way to compress my ideas about the text. My introduction started out as an article-length essay about Catharine. Deciding what would and would not remain in the necessarily much shorter introduction was like pulling teeth! Here, however, the suggestions and advice my classmates and Juliet McMaster offered were very helpful. After several revisions of my work, which I would present to the class each time, the introduction finally took on the form in which it now appears. The collaborative effort involved in producing the introduction, and the edition as a whole, gave rise to a healthy, cooperative classroom environment. Furthermore, it was exciting to be writing for the first time in my life a piece that would not be read once by a single instructor, but several times by a wide-ranging audience that would include scholars, Janeites and casual readers.

In effect, Jane Austen's apprentice-work provided me with an opportunity to do some apprentice-work of my own. My 'introduction' not only introduced me to the delights of Jane Austen's juvenile work, but also gave me an early introduction to publishing and editing processes that are so much a part of academic work today.

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