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Jane Austen’s Juvenilia and the Pleasures of Recognition

By Lesley Peterson

If you are sitting down to read Jane Austen’s juvenilia for the first time, you are in for a good deal of pleasure (not to mention the not-so-occasional guffaw, snort, giggle, or gasp).

Perhaps, like me, once you are finished you will decide that you need to read them more than once; and then, you may be sure, the pleasures will continue to pile up. Me, I can’t get enough of them.

Images from Juliet McMaster's illustrated edition of Beautiful Cassandra (courtesy of Juvenilia Press, click link for ordering information)

Young Jane Austen was not afraid to write about pleasures, including selfish ones. Her first complete novel is The Beautiful Cassandra, written when she was about twelve. It follows the heroine Cassandra through twelve tiny chapters of naughty fun—a fun that only begins when Cassandra heads out without a chaperone in a purloined bonnet. Here is “Chapter the 4th” in its entirety:

She then proceeded to a Pastry-cooks where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry Cook and walked away. (54)

When it comes to ice cream, Cassandra is not going to let something as minor as an empty reticule get in the way of her pleasure! From the energy of Austen’s prose, I think we should infer that Cassandra finds some pleasure in knocking down the Pastry Cook, too.

Such moments may be startling, may confront us with the unexpected and completely unfamiliar, but there are also many moments of recognition to look forward to, and there are pleasures to be found in these as well. In Jane Austen’s keen awareness of the difficulties a young woman faces when she has to try to make her way through the world with no money, you may recognize a dominant theme in all six of the mature novels; in Cassandra’s love of walking and her willingness to walk away from people who displease her you may recognize Lizzie Bennet. Perhaps this will even lead you, as it has led me, to read what Jane Austen scholars have said about the juvenilia, in order to see what other moments of recognition are in store. Juliet McMaster, for instance, points out the ways in Austen reverses “conventional gender attitudes” (6) in “Jack and Alice.” In this story (one of my favourites), we might recognize in the egotistical Charles Adams a combination of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy and Lizzie Bennet! Charles Adams considers himself to be

“… a perfect Beauty—where would you see a finer figure or a more charming face. Then, sir I imagine my Manners and Address to be of the most polished kind; there is a certain elegance a peculiar sweetness in them that I never saw equalled and cannot describe—.” (28)

He certainly has Darcy’s pride. But what man would describe himself as “a perfect Beauty”? When his neighbor Mr. Johnson suggests his daughter Alice to Charles Adams as a bride, Adams replies, “Sir, I may perhaps be expected to appear pleased and gratefull for the offer you have made me: but let me tell you that I consider it as an affront” (28).

If you’ve read the famous proposal scene in Pride and Prejudice, this will sound familiar!

Jane Austen wrote her first pieces for an audience she knew well: her family and close friends. She was familiar with what they had read—they had listened together to many a book being read aloud of an evening in the family circle, after all—and in her juvenilia she offers such readers the pleasure of recognition as well. No doubt her first audience enjoyed that moment of recognition when they saw in Charles Adams an exaggerated version of Sir Charles Grandison, the too-perfect hero of Samuel Richardson’s novel by the same name.

By the time Jane Austen started writing her juvenilia, she had read so many novels that she was not only an expert in certain novels (like Sir Charles Grandison) but also an expert in novels in general, and you can expect to find her extending her take-no-prisoners approach to many novelistic conventions as well as to individual works. In fact, one of the conventions she skewers most skilfully in “Love and Freindship” (probably the best-known of her juvenilia) is something known as the recognition scene: a dramatic scene in which the hero or heroine encounters a long-lost parent or grandparent and yet—somehow—the two recognize one another as kin. Such scenes have ancient origins—they go back at least as far as Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex and can also be found in Shakespeare (in The Winter’s Tale, for instance). But by the late eighteenth century they had become so popular, so commonplace, that they had become ripe for mockery, and Jane Austen was not one to miss the opportunity. Here is her recognition scene, from “Love and Freindship:”

… our Attention was attracted by the Entrance of a coroneted Coach and 4 into the Inn-yard. A Gentleman considerably advanced in years, descended from it—. At his first Appearance my Sensibility was wonderfully affected and e’er I had gazed at him a 2d time, an instinctive Sympathy whispered to my Heart, that he was my Grandfather.
Convinced that I could not be mistaken in my conjecture I instantly sprang from the Carriage I had just entered, and following the Venerable Stranger into the Room he had been shewn to, I threw myself on my knees before him and besought him to acknowledge me as his Grand-Child.—He started, and after having attentively examined my features, raised me from the Ground and throwing his Grand-fatherly arms around my Neck, exclaimed, “Acknowledge thee! Yes dear resemblance of my Laurina and my Laurina’s Daughter, sweet image of my Claudia and my Claudia’s Mother, I do acknowledge thee as the Daughter of the one and the Grandaughter of the other.” While he was thus tenderly embracing me, Sophia astonished at my precipitate Departure, entered the Room in search of me.—No sooner had she caught the eye of the venerable Peer, than he exclaimed with every mark of Astonishment—“Another Grandaughter! Yes, yes, I see you are the Daughter of my Laurina’s eldest Girl …. He folded her in his arms, and whilst they were tenderly embracing, the Door of the Apartment opened and a most beautifull Young Man appeared. On perceiving him Lord St Clair started and retreating back a few paces, with uplifted Hands, said, “Another Grand-child! What an unexpected Happiness is this! To discover in the space of 3 minutes, as many of my Descendants!” (120–21)

As I have argued elsewhere, the pleasure that parody offers readers always depends on recognition (101). But I also believe that one good parody deserves another. For this reason, I will be offering a writing workshop as part of JASP 2023, titled “What’s So Funny about the Late-Eighteenth-Century Recognition Scene: Exploring Young Jane Austen’s Parody in ‘Love and Freindship’ and a Chance to Write Your Own.” We will look at some of the texts that Austen parodies, including Fanny Burney’s Evelina and The Critic by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and then, taking what we have learned from them and from Austen, we will write our own original—and guaranteed hilarious—recognition scenes. What an unexpected Happiness!

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Juvenilia. Ed. Peter Sabor. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.

McMaster, Juliet. Jane Austen, Young Author. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2016.

Peterson, Lesley. “Young Jane Austen and the Circulation-Library Novel.” Journal of Juvenilia Studies 3.2 (2020–21), 94–125. Doi: 10.29173/jjs57.

Editor's note: The Jane Austen Summer Program is delighted to welcome both Lesley Peterson and Juliet McMaster to our 2023 Program - don't miss the chance to learn more directly from them! (HK)


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