Editor's note: our web-trotting blogger, Delicia, has been combing the internet to find other groups discussing Austen's juvenilia, helping to expand our community. Make note of other upcoming discussions she's identified for us!
Austen in Boston is a group of Janeites who meet regularly to indulge themselves in everything Austen, including afternoon teas, ventures to historic homes, and movie viewings. Fortunately for those of us outside of Boston, this group of Austen enthusiasts also hosts virtual book clubs and we're all invited! One recent book club focused on Jane Austen’s unfinished novella, Catharine, or The Bower. We hope that this recap gives you new perspectives on your reading in preparation for JASP 2023 and encourages you to participate in future virtual book discussions for Austen In Boston.
Austen In Boston’s virtual book clubs are very informal and cozy. You definitely feel like you’re amongst friends. The book club leader is witty and has an astute understanding of Jane Austen’s style and narrative voice. Everyone is encouraged to share their thoughts, which results in an array of interesting snippets of information and engaging analysis. To begin our discussion, the book club leader gave a brief background to Catharine. Dated August 1792, Catharine, or the Bower is in Volume the Third of Austen’s juvenilia.
As a provocative opening, we were told of a conspiracy theory about Jane Austen. That's right: with great talent come even greater conspiracy theories, especially when that talent comes from humble origins. Writers with no formal education, low social status, or little exposure to the outside world are sometimes viewed as being incapable of producing
distinguished literary works. In his self published book, Jane Austen: A New Revelation (2014), author Nicholas Ennos contends that Jane Austen was too poor, uneducated, and unworldly to have written the novels attributed to her. As the daughter of a rector, living inconspicuously in a small English village, Austen seems - to Ennos at least - too ordinary to have written such timeless masterpieces. Ennos asserts that the true author is Austen’s worldly and educated cousin, Eliza de Feuillide. I’m reminded of the brilliant quote from Disney Pixar’s Ratatouille: "Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere." (For more information about Ennos’ book and counterarguments to his theory see Jane Austen in Vermont’s blog.)
Event attendees were quick to assert that the strongest evidence against this theory is Austen’s juvenilia, particularly Catharine, or The Bower. Readers see Austen’s wit, satirical eye, and astute observational powers blossoming in Catharine. One participant noted that Austen’s distinct narrative voice is present in both the juvenilia and the mature novels. Catharine, or The Bower is also a comedy of manners like Austen’s mature novels, in which Austen shows her power of observation. As one attendee put it, Catharine is the bridge from the earlier juvenilia to the mature novels.
As we moved into discussing the novel, attendees were asked to reveal their favorite moments from the story. One fan favorite was Camilla Stanley pretending to have read Charlotte Smith’s novels. When Catharine asks Camilla if she has read Smith’s novels, she enthusiastically confirms and refers to the novels as “the sweetest things in the world”. And which of Smith’s novels does she prefer?
Emmeline, of course. Hardly a surprising reply, as Emmeline has been the cause of literary buzz. Catharine presses her to provide specifics as to why Emmeline is the best. Despite her high praises, Camilla can offer no support for her assertion: ‘Oh! I do not know anything about that- but it is better in everything- Besides, Ethelinde is so long-.' Nice try, Camilla.
Attendees discussed the story’s emphasis on the value of friendship and how the friendship with Cecilia and Mary impacts Catharine. Careful attention was given to the bower featured in the novella's title. The bower was planted by Catharine and her friends, Cecilia and Mary Wynne. The death of Mr. Wynne had unfortunately dispersed the family: Cecilia is sent to India to marry, and Mary has become a companion for a distant relative. The bower is a sanctuary for Catharine, a place of solitude she can run to when she’s distressed, and a physical symbol of the friendship between Catharine and the Wynne sisters. With the conjunction 'or' being placed between Catharine and the bower attendees pondered whether Austen is asserting that the story is about the girls' friendship just as much as it is about Catharine. Or perhaps, as one attendee concludes, Catharine herself is as much a physical embodiment of the girls' friendship as the bower is.
Because Catharine is unfinished there is speculation as to how the romance would’ve turned out. Would Catharine’s love interest, Edward Stanley, have turned out to be a Henry Tilney or a John Willoughby? The book club leader mentioned that Catharine, or The Bower was completed by a retired English professor, Leo Rockas.
Fanfiction can be a subject of contention amongst Janeites. Attendees were reminded that Jane Austen herself indulged in fanfiction when she wrote a dramatic version of Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison.
Attendees also discussed Jane Austen film adaptations. It was agreed that at least two of Austen’s juvenilia works would make great one-hour televised productions: Catharine, or the Bower and The History of England. Do you agree? Is there any other Austen juvenilia you’d like to see adapted for tv or film? I would love productions of Catharine and The History of England. Austen's reworking of Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison would also make a pleasing Masterpiece Theater production. (Does anyone have Andrew Davies' phone number?)
Aside from the discussion on Catharine, or The Bower, attendees discussed various Austen-related events and organizations they have participated in including the Mount Dora Jane Austen Festival, JASNA, and, of course, the Jane Austen Summer Program. This is such a testament to Austen’s enduring legacy; Janeites are always seeking opportunities to share their passion for Austen and her works.
Join Austen in Boston for future virtual events including their upcoming discussion on Lady Susan (Sunday, March 26). Confirm your attendance here and be sure to have a look at the discussion questions.
These online discussions are great, but no substitute for the in-person discussions we'll enjoy June 15-18 on UNC-Chapel Hill's lovely campus. Won't you join us?
And current middle- and high-school teachers, don't forget to apply for our Teacher Scholarships! (Due April 7)