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‘A Lucky Confluence of Interests and People’: ISLJ and JASP to hold conferences together

Note from the editor: You can check the schedule to see when ISLJ events are being held (and check frequently, as some details may still change). And don't forget to visit Jane Austen Books' curated offerings of Jane Austen-related titles from our speakers (we aren't able to host the booksellers live on campus, but their virtual bookstore has everything you'll need to immerse yourself in this year's topic!).

Photo courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica, painted by Michele Gordigiani, 1858; in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

At JASP 2023, you get access to two conferences for the price of one! (who doesn't love a BOGO?) The International Society of Literary Juvenilia advocates for the research, teaching and dissemination of literary works by young writers. With JASP's focus on Austen's Juvenilia this year, co-ordinating meetings and events was a natural collaboration. As part of this year’s ISLJ conference, a group of graduate students in the English and Comparative Literature department at UNC-Chapel Hill have been working alongside scholars to compile a volume of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s juvenilia. We spoke to two of the graduate students about their experience working with EBB’s poems and what JASP attendees can take away from their presentation on June 15.

Interview with Sarah Walton:

1. Why did your group decide to take on this research project?

The English and Comparative Literature Department at UNC is lucky to have many excellent scholars on faculty, and Dr. Beverly Taylor is one of them. She has long worked on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Dr. Laurie Langbauer—another favorite professor for those of us studying the 19th century—has done quite a bit with juvenilia. JASPers will recognize both professors as wonderful JASP discussion leaders. Long story short, when they proposed that graduate students get involved in putting together a volume of EBB’s juvenilia, we jumped on the chance to work with them, to learn more about juvenilia as an area of study and EBB in particular, and to bridge the gap between the two conferences we knew would be happening in June 2023 (ISLJ and JASP). It was a lucky confluence of interests and people!

2. How does EBB's juvenilia compare to Jane Austen's?

Genre’s a big difference: EBB wrote a lot of poetry, and Austen, as we Janeites know, tended to work more in prose. But their writing also differs tonally. Austen’s sense of humor is front and center in her juvenilia, almost to a fault. They’re rollicking, silly, even slap-sticky stories (which I adore); it’s not hard to imagine that much of what Austen wrote was meant to entertain her siblings and friends. EBB’s is also family-oriented—many of the poems are written for family birthdays, and in general, they’re filled with references to her beloved brothers and sisters—but it reads more like the beginnings of her work as a major Victorian poet. Austen’s beloved voice is absolutely discernible within her early writing, and by Lady Susan, it is arguably only a couple steps away from the narrative voice we get in NA, but I think what makes her juvenilia so fun for fans is how surprising (even shocking!) it can be as compared to the novels we know so well. Not to shortchange EBB, though: there’s lots of fascinating stuff going on in her early work, not least the feeling that she was truly a deep thinker and observer of her times.

3. What would you like JASP attendees to take away from your panel and why?

Much of the conversation will be about the process of wading through large quantities of material and information in order to extract those pieces that feel relevant to our moment or important to EBB’s. That is, we’re describing the editorial process, which becomes especially interesting and complicated when working as a group. I think this is the kind of thing that might appeal to a lot of JASPers, whether they’re fellow teachers, or graduate students, or just committed readers invested in the process of bringing texts like Austen’s to people’s bookshelves. Plus, longtime JASPers should recognize most of the panel!

Interview with Eric Bontempo

4. What can JASP attendees expect to see at your panel?

I think JASP attendees will really enjoy getting to know another nineteenth-century woman writer during our panel. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is primarily known for the poetry she wrote as an adult—works like Sonnets from the Portuguese, Aurora Leigh, "The Cry of the Children," and "The Runaway Slave at Pilgri's Point." Our hope has been to recover the poetic works she composed as a child. Most of the panelists are graduate students that have been involved with JASP for years at this point, and this is an opportunity to see further excellent work that comes out of the Department of English & Comparative Literature at UNC. We will describe our working group's editing process, which involved several different layers of work. We first had to conceptualize EBB's tremendous poetic output as a child into various sub-themes. Each of us took the lead on a particular sub-theme or category.

5. Which poems of EBB's are you editing, and which one is your favorite? Why?

I am editing EBB's juvenilia that falls under the category of Religion & Spiritual Formation. Elizabeth grew up attending a Dissenting congregation fairly regularly with her father until she got sick, and as a child, she composed many hymns and poems that reflect her early interest in theology and, at some points, her religious enthusiasm. I would have to say that my favorite is a poem that she entitled "The Cathedral," which reflects a Protestant vision of what the Church should do and be in the world. EBB's religious enthusiasm would vacillate over the years; however, when she wrote this particular poem at the age of ten, she was learning to express her own brand of spirituality. The poem begins memorably with her command, "Nations awake—and homage pay / To God—and joyful yield thy sway / To Him!" As a 10-year-old, Elizabeth Barrett boldly experiments with her poetic voice by expressing her feelings and thoughts about the purpose of religion in the world. She grew up reading the Romantic poets, like William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, John Keats, and Percy Shelley, and their expressive (and political) poetry certainly influenced her own early poetry.

6. Why do you feel it is important to study juvenilia?

Whether it is Jane Austen's juvenilia or Elizabeth Barrett Browning's juvenilia, I believe that studying the earliest works by these writers is important because it offers a fuller picture of who these extraordinary writers were. We can learn about the conditions under which they learned to hone their craft. We can learn about their early interests and their early attempts to express themselves in prose, in poetry, and in other mediums. And, for me personally, it's a reminder that it is so, so important to cultivate the imagination in young people.

If you’re curious to learn more about the study of juvenilia, visit the ISLJ’s website and attend panels on George Moses Horton and illustrated manuscripts by children in the Cotsen Children’s Library on Thursday.


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