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Jane Austen's House Virtual Book Club Recap: Teenage Writings



Jane Austen’s House in Chawton, England held their first virtual book club of the year which was focused on the Teenage Writings. About 20 Janeites from around the world, including the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, and Norway discussed some of Austen’s teenage writings. We hope that this recap will give you new insights to your reading in preparation for JASP 2023 and encourage you to participate in future virtual events for Jane Austen’s House.

Image courtesy of Jane Austen's House

These virtual book clubs usually follow the same format: a short quiz, the context of the book, questions for discussion, and an activity. This format places the reading in its larger context and stimulates literary analysis and reflection. The discussions are informal, and the book club leaders exude an infectious love for Austen.


Can you answer a few of these questions from the short quiz? (Answers are at the end of the article.)


1. Complete the following line: “Madam, you are a ____________________”


2. Who was ‘Sir William Montague’ dedicated to?


3. In ‘The Mystery’, what is the mystery?


Austen’s Literary Upbringing


One of the book club leaders presented a slideshow about Jane Austen’s education, both formal and informal.


Pencil Drawing of Steventon Rectory. Image from Jane Austen's House.

Jane Austen spent the first 25 years of her life in Steventon, where about 40 families resided. She only had two years of formal education- one year when she was six years old in which she caught typhus and another year when she was about 11 years old but the Austens could no longer afford it. It was around this time that Jane Austen started writing her juvenilia, or teenage writings. It was through these writings that Austen discovered her voice, or as one of book club leaders called it Jane’s ‘Let It Go’ moment.

Scholars have often referred to Steventon as “the cradle of her genius”. She had access to her father’s library which contained over 250 books– an impressive number, especially at a time when books were a luxury item. The Austens were a literary, bookish family participating in writing, word games, and putting on theatricals in the barn. They were enthralled with books and storytelling. A neighbor named Madame Anne Lefroy was a published poet and a role model for Jane. She opened her library to a young Jane and offered feedback on her writing. When Madam Lefroy opened a school Jane helped her with some lessons.



Portrait of Madame Anne Lefroy. Image from Becoming Jane Fansite.

Discussing the Teenage Writings


A few participants read the teenage writings after reading Austen’s major novels, but for many the teenage writings were new. Why have Austen’s teenage writings been largely neglected? One participant conjectured that these writings are unexpected and quite different from Austen and the idea we have of her. Given the teenage writings given the rampant scandal, rebellion, and general bad behavior with no consequences this is a very valid point. Someone made the observation of the juvenilia being included with the novella Lady Susan, making these works seem like fragments in comparison.


Participants then discussed the dedications. What do the dedications tell us? The dedications were for people who knew her well and understood her sense of humor. She sees her writings as gifts- meaning she values her writing. And she wants to share her writing with an audience. She dedicates most of her work to her family showing she loves them. The dedications give a glimpse of the family dynamics. A favorite dedication among participants was the one for ‘Sir William Montague’. Such a scandalous story to be dedicated to a younger brother! One wonders what little Charles Austen thought of the randy Sir William Montague. There may have been in-jokes in the stories that only her family may have been aware of. Oh how the event-goers wished to be in on the jokes!

The discussion moved on to the form of the teenage writings. How is a young Jane Austen pushing the boundaries of literary form? The Beautifull Cassandra is described as a novel in twelve chapters with each chapter only being a paragraph. Surely this isn’t really a novel, at least not the accepted view of the novel form. This was perhaps Austen’s way of playing with the reader. She may have been satirizing the new trend of novels. It was noted that she was trying different modes of writing such as the epistolary form in Amelia Webster. She is also poking fun at the popular works of her day such as conduct books for women and epistolary novels. One participant noted that the novel Amelia Webster may be making fun of the long novels of the period (we’re looking at you Samuel Richardson). Perhaps Jane Austen was ahead of her time in using literature as a form of literary criticism. There is an interplay of her brother, Henry Austen, as a wealthy patron in Lesley Castle. A participant remarked that Austen may have been satirizing the common practice of literary patronage. Austen also plays with eighteenth century literary tropes. It was noted that in “The Beautifull Cassandra” it would be a young man, not a woman, going on adventures and trying to make his fortune.


Image from The British Library.

How does the theater influence Austen’s teenage writings? Participants noted that the teenage writings focus on dialogue like in a play and seem to be written as performances. Chapters function as scenes for example in The Beautifull Cassandra. One participant noted that the ribald aspects and comical relationships apparent in the teenage writings are similar to eighteenth century comedies.



How is Jane Austen pushing the moral propriety in her stories? The stories feature shocking elements such as murder, poisonings, drunkenness, and abandoned babies. She also challenged stereotyped gender roles. For example, in ‘Henry and Eliza’ Eliza crosses the English Channel. The female characters travel without chaperones participating in unladylike behavior.


Perhaps this is why the juvenilia was not “revisited”, as was the case with her early drafts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. The characters and stories may have been deemed too radical. As one participant put it just as the characters in her mature novels have to “settle” a bit with the society they live in Austen must “settle” with the expectations of the publishing industry. Many participants agreed that Austen may not have revisited the teenage writings simply because she felt they were finished and the “best bits" would be incorporated into the mature novels.


Speaking of the mature novels, are there any similarities between characters in the teenage writings and the mature novels? Charles Adams in Jack and Alice was likened to Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Both are described as proud and perceived as being cold and indifferent. The excitable Amelia Webster is seen as a precursor to Lydia Bennet from Pride and Prejudice and, especially, Isabella Thorpe from Northanger Abbey. And perhaps Sir William Montague was the inspiration behind the silly, self-absorbed Sir Walter Elliot of Persuasion.


What do the teenage writings show us about Jane Austen’s upbringing? It was noted that the girls in the family were treated as intellectual equals in the Austen household. And they weren’t sheltered from the “real world”.



Fast Forward… A teenage Jane Austen in 2023

Image from Twitter

Participants were asked to ponder whether or not a teenage Jane Austen in 2023 would be on social media. It was generally agreed that yes, Jane Austen would definitely be a social media queen. Social media allows for stories to be told immediately to a wide audience; how could young Austen resist? And which platforms in particular would she fancy? While Austen may not have been outwardly political, Tik Tok as a vehicle for political and social change may have still caught her interest. Another participant could definitely see Austen uploading her family’s theatrical productions onto YouTube. It was mentioned that the word limit on Twitter is perfect for Austen’s razor sharp, witty barbs. “The Beautiful Cassandra” might work really well as a twitter thread, in fact. . . Instagram would be the perfect platform for a young Jane to peruse the fashion of the day and see what the ‘ton’ are wearing. And finally Tumblr was suggested for shipping couples, giving and receiving book recommendations, and participating in fandoms. What would she think of today’s Jane Austen fandom!

Image from Goodreads

But would a teenage Jane Austen have a social media addiction? We are reminded that reading books in the eighteenth century was seen with the same wariness and disapproval that social media is met with today. Young people having their heads stuck in books was the eighteenth century equivalent to kids today having their eyes glued to a screen. If only parents in the eighteenth century knew how lucky they were in that respect!










Which characters would you invite to a dinner party? It was no surprise that the lively Cassandra from A Beautifull Cassandra was the fan favorite amongst participants. Her adventures most unbecoming of a lady (or anyone for that matter) would make for enthralling conversation!


The vigorous discussion ended with a reflective activity. If you were a writer what would your dedication say? Who would it be for? Participants get to flex their creative muscles for this fun activity.

Dedication from Austen to her cousin, Eliza, Comtesse de Feuillide. Image from the British Library

Shanon Hale's dedication in Austenland. Image from Pinterest.
















Be sure to attend Jane Austen’s House next virtual book club, Lady Susan on March 7. Book your tickets here. Check back on our blog for a recap of the event.



Quiz Answers: 1. Phoenix, 2. Jane’s brother, Charles Austen, 3. We never find out.


 

Come join us for FOUR DAYS of stimulating discussions and witty Austen humor at JASP 2023, June 15-18, on UNC-Chapel Hill's beautiful campus!




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