Austen-Curious Reader - "Catharine, or The Bower"
By Eden Iazeolla
Hello to all my Brilliant Jane Austen Juvenilia Enthusiasts!
Happy Late Valentine’s Day to you all! I hope it was filled with friends, loved ones, or even a good book (my personal favorite). If you are someone who prefers a book date over a dinner date, I hope the book you chose was this week’s focus piece, “Catharine, or The Bower.”
I had so much fun writing this week’s blog post and cannot wait to see how the Austen in Boston book club covers the same piece on March 5th. If you are interested in joining in on the fun, please see Delicia Johnson’s blog for more details.
“Catharine, or The Bower,” like “Lesley Castle,” was one of Austen’s later Juvenilia pieces. She completed this novel in 1792, putting her at about 17 years old. In last week’s book club, I discussed “Lesley Castle” and the growth of Austen’s craft throughout her Juvenilia. I find that my reflection on “Catharine, or the Bower” is no different.
In this novel, Austen explores the heart and mind of a young girl named Catharine, or Kitty. Lonely and sheltered by her Aunt Percival, Kitty is often found under the bower she planted with her childhood best friends, thinking over her circumstances. This is up until the Stanleys come to visit, bringing with them their daughter, Miss Stanley. Delighted to have a potential new friend, Kitty works on getting to know Miss Stanley, while battling her Aunt Percival’s overbearing expectations (Illustration is from Juliet McMaster's Juvenilia Press edition of "Catharine, or The Bower").
One of the aspects that stood out to me in this text is her growth in realism, specifically in her ability to create believable people. Ironically, what highlighted this was her continued use of exaggerated and unbelievable characters (so dramatic teenage Austen of her). The two characters that reflect this juxtaposition are Catharine (Kitty) and Miss Stanley. In “Catharine, of The Bower,” Miss Stanley exhibits the traits that Austen mocks in heroines, whereas Kitty (her established heroine of the novel) seems like someone you could meet at a café.
One of the scenes where you see Kitty and Miss Stanley’s characterization contrast is when Kitty gets a toothache and cannot attend the ball. Despite Kitty’s reluctance to accept her fate, she ends her self-pity by considering “that there were Misfortunes of a much greater magnitude than the loss of a ball” and she carries on the day with “tolerable composure.” Has anyone ever woken up with a toothache and been unable to get out of bed or carry on with your day? I know I haven't, and Kitty is not doing that either. I like how she considers all the other misfortunes that could be worse than a toothache, because there are many (as we all know), hence making her seem more realistic or relatable.
What makes me laugh though is Miss Stanley’s very different response to Kitty’s toothache. In her attempt to sympathize with Kitty’s pain, Miss Stanley says
I declare I had rather undergo the greatest Tortures in the World than have a tooth
drawn. Well! How patiently you do bear it! How can you be so quiet? Lord, if I were in
your place I should make such a fuss, there would be no bearing me. I should torment
you to Death.
In our blog covering “Love and Friendship,” we discussed how the characters in that piece possessed exaggerated sensibility. When sensibility is exaggerated it can lean into the territory of being insincere and fake. I would consider Miss Stanley’s sensibility in this scene to follow along those lines. Although toothaches in the 18th century did not have aspirin or 21st century medicine to take care of them, Miss Stanley is trying too hard to sympathize with Kitty’s pain and ends up focusing on her own imagined discomfort instead. She exclaims that if she were to have the toothache, she would torment Kitty to death with complaints. What is ironic in this sentiment is that even without the toothache, Miss Stanley is tormenting Kitty to death, so much so that Kitty “left the room tired of listening to a conversation which tho’it might have diverted her had been well, served only to fatigue and depress her, while in pain.”
Another note I picked up on in this piece is Austen’s editing of her own work. After finishing the Juvenilia, Austen would continuously revisit her pieces, editing and improving them. The editor of my edition, Peter Sabor, included many of the edits Austen made in the footnotes of my text. In one of the scenes where Austen and Miss Stanley are discussing their acquaintances, Miss Stanley remarks
the Miss Halifaxes are quite delightful. - Maria is one of the cleverest Girls that ever
were known – Draws in Oils, and plays anything in sight. She promised me one of her
Drawings before I left Town, but I entirely forgot to ask her for it. - I would give anything
to have one.
In response, Kitty just changes the subject. However, the footnotes reveal that Kitty had additional things to say about Maria’s promised painting. Austen edited out the
Why indeed, if Maria will give my Friend a
drawing, she can have nothing to complain
of, but as she does not write in Spirits, I
suppose she has not yet been fortunate