Long before Anne Elliot longed for Captain Wentworth, long before Lizzie matched wits with Darcy, Jane was just another Austen who enjoyed telling a good tale.
Writing was obviously a necessary skill in an age with no electronic communication. All families with members who travelled - like Austen's sailor brothers - depended on letters to stay in touch (and letters now held by the Huntington Library show the Austens wrote charming letters). Beyond letter-writing, stories and the written word played an important part in the Austen family household. Jane’s father, in addition to being the local clergyman, ran a boy’s school where he taught, among other things, how to read. Jane’s mother would compose her own verses from time to time and demonstrated a sparkling wit. Those of you who read Clare Tomlinson's biography of Austen for the 2021 JASP may remember how verbally playful Mrs. Austen was, and how she used verses to heal sibling quarrels. Cassandra Leigh Austen, Unknown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The family would also perform plays in their barn, bringing life to the words on a page.
Austen-Leigh, J. E. (1798-1874), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
James Austen, the eldest of the Austen children and the dedicatee of Jane Austen's juvenile comedy in two acts, The Visit, would write comic prologues to these family plays. However, as he got older and went off to Oxford, he had his own ambitions of being a writer. In January of 1789, when Jane was only 13, James established a periodical called The Loiterer that he wrote, edited, and published. Like most "periodical essays" of the day, James modeled his paper on The Spectator (1711-12), Joseph Addison and Richard Steele's wildly successful series. Periodical essays like The Spectator, The Rambler or The Idler (Samuel Johnson's mid-century entries in the genre), or Eliza Haywood's The Female Spectator (1744-46) were clear forerunners of today's blogs. Each series relied on the conceit of a fabricated narrative voice, often with a "club" of equally fictionalized helpers. The essays came out one to three times a week, and featured short discussions of a wide range of literary, social, and cultural topics. The Loiterer promised to publish every Saturday, and was to be sold for three-pence. Henry became a contributing writer to this endeavor and some scholars have been tempted to speculate that Sophia Sentiment, a concerned reader complaining about the absence of good female characters, was actually Jane writing under a pen name (read more). By the end of the run, there were 60 issues of The Loiterer, which can be viewed online here.
James Austen, Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Brother and sister both show tremendous skill at mimicking popular genres with a wink at the audience in the process - Jane by plundering contemporary novels for tropes to borrow, and James by adopting the urbane satire of previous authors. Did James’ brash writing style influence Jane’s juvenalia or did they already share a similar sense of humor? Did he make writing look easy for her or did she already know she had a story to tell? Tell us what you think!
Special Announcement: Spend a Day Out With Emma!
Join us Dec. 3 in Chapel Hill, N.C., as we celebrate "Emma" with a day of presentations, crafts, holiday shopping and more, all leading up to Kate Hamill's new stage adaptation of the novel by PlayMakers Repertory Company.