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The Austen-Curious Reader: Miss Austen - The Child Prodigy

By Eden Iazeolla


Hello to all my wonderful Jane Austen Juvenilia Enthusiasts!

As we are quickly approaching the end of 2022, we are also getting closer to the end of Jane Austen’s first volume of her Juvenilia. So far in my reading of her early writings, Austen has shown me a side to her that I had no idea existed. I have loved exploring her funny, nonsensical, absurd writing and have gained a newfound respect for her growth as a writer.

With Thanksgiving having just passed, I can say that I have been incredibly grateful for Austen’s youthful voice giving me a break from my weekly responsibilities. You could imagine how welcome a relief it can be to go from reading Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment, for example, to Austen’s “The Beautiful Cassandra.” With Thanksgiving on the mind, I hope you all got to spend some wonderful time with family and friends, and – of course - eat some amazing food! For an interesting Thanksgiving Austeneque read, don't miss Mila Mascenik’s recent blog, “A Regency Thanksgiving? Regency Dinner Meals and Traditional Thanksgiving Ones.”



One of my favorite parts in this week’s readings took place in “The Beautiful Cassandra.” During this adventure, she “proceeded to a Pastry-Cooks where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry Cook, and walked away” (Austen, The Beautiful Cassandra). There is something so epic in this “chapter” that I could not stop thinking about it. Cassandra's exploits reminded me of some of Austen’s other Juvenilia heroines like Elfrida from “Frederic and Elfrida.” Elfrida's mocking tone about amiability hinted at Austen’s dislike of the mannerisms and expectations she was supposed to uphold. If you remember, Elfrida started our conversation on what defines Austen's heroines, and Cassandra is adding further complexity to these notions. 


Illustration by Juliet McMaster in her edition of "The Beautiful Cassandra"


With her consumption of ices, her disinterest in the viscount, and her refusal to pay anyone, Cassandra is more of a delinquent than a well-behaved, respectable woman. Austen's goal of getting a laugh from her audience is easily discernable here. She created these outrageous burlesque stories to evoke pleasure in her readership, which was typically her family. According to Peter Sabor’s footnotes in The Cambridge Edition of The Works of

Jane Austen: Juvenilia, "The Beautiful Cassanda" scholars speculate that the charcter is based off Austen's eldest sister Cassandra. This is because the piece was written shortly after the Austen family traveled to London and the dedication is made out to her. In the dedication and the text, I cannot tell if Austen is being ironic and making fun of Cassandra's bad behavior on the London trip (a theory expanded on in Sabor's footnotes), or if she is offering a story to Cassandra that will surely make her laugh just because it is nothing like her. The dedication reads: 


"Madam, you are a Phoenix. Your taste is refined, Your Sentiments are noble, and your Virtues innumerable. Your Person is lovely, your Figure, elegant, and your Form, majestic. [...] your most obedient humble Servant The Author."


In all the buttering up Austen is doing here to Cassandra, I am going to speculate that Austen's text is a mockery of Cassandra's behavior from the weekend prior. However, I must admit this may be coming from a biased perspective. Last week, my brother did spend a whole hour complimenting me before he made me the butt of all his jokes at Thanksgiving dinner. But, I digress; I think there are two fun points of view through which to analyze "The Beautiful Cassanda." The first is Austen's constant mockery of 18th century expectations and etiquette through her heroines, and the second is her mastery of entertainment and younger "sibling-ism" through her farce and irony. 

On the topic of mockery of etiquette and expectations in the 18th century, Austen makes a scene of it in her play, "The Visit." In this short play, Austen doubles down on the physical farce she has explored in previous stories. In the scene where Miss Fitzgerald miscounted the number of chairs she needed for her dinner party, she exclaims to Sophy, "if your Ladyship will but take Sir Arthur in your Lap, and Sophy, my Brother in hers, I believe we shall do pretty well" (Austen, "The Visit"). If you think about it, it would be quite a funny sight to imagine a man sitting in a woman's lap while they enjoy dinner. Physical farce is deliberately used to make Austen's audience laugh because it is such an absurd scene to witness. In addition, Austen uses the fact that it was inappropriate for men and women to be seen in such close contact in public, even if they were married. Thus, Austen parodies the expectations of men and women for the benefit of her audience.


For the last reading for this week, I wanted to switch up the pace and look at what Austen is doing with the epistolary convention in "Amelia Webster." It is the first recorded piece of work we have from Austen using the epistolary format - or letters as a form of storytelling - but this is not the last we will see in the Juvenilia (or indeed in the manuscript stage of her mature prose). From my understanding of Austen's experience with letter writing, she was quite fond of it. Throughout the Juvenilia, Austen wrote many of her dedications in letter-like formats, always signing them off as “Your Humble Servant The Author.” In addition, many of the aspects of Austen's life we know as fact come from letters she sent to friends and family. Further, some of her favorite authors, like Samuel Richardson and Frances Burney wrote epistolary novels. I would suggest that all these factors lead to Austen being attracted to the epistolary convention. But as with most of her juvenile writing, to be attracted to it means to play with it.

Illustration by Juliet McMaster in her edition of “Amelia Webster”

In Austen’s “Amelia Webster,” she manages to fit in the story of three marriage proposals in seven short letters. In one of the letters Amelia Webster sends to Matilda Hervey, Amelia writes two sentences that read


"Dear Maud Believe me I'm happy to hear of your Brother's arrival. I have a thousand things to tell you, but my paper will only permit me to add that I am yr affect. Friend Amelia Webster" 


In this letter, Amelia gives us nothing, even going as far to abbreviate "affectionate." Then, Amelia proceeds to write a second letter that gives us the same amount of energy that the first did, repeating the same cliché about being out of paper. However, through Amelia’s bare minimum, Austen skillfully characterizes her. We can understand from the short letters Amelia writes that she does not share Matilda’s fondness for their friendship, since she always ends her letters so quickly. In addition, Austen makes Amelia out to be wealthy. During the 18th century paper was expensive and Amelia has no problem with wasting it on a letter that she doesn’t seem to want to write at all.


Austen also does a great job at characterizing the Herveys. Specifically, she paints both siblings as being on the make. She does through both siblings' instigation of matchmaking and George threatening Beverly with the notion that if he doesn’t marry his sister, he will “mortally offend” him. This threat can be considered a bit pushy and ridiculous, thus solidifying our understanding of George and Matilda’s characters.

Although Austen gives us characterization in this short piece, she does choose to leave a lot out of the story. Typically, in epistolary novels, the author will give background and explanations of situations in their character’s letters that educate the reader on what is going on; this exposition is necessary for the reader of the novel, but seems like contrived content for the recipient of the letter. Austen does none of this in “Amelia Webster,” leading the reader to be left in the dark for much of the text. Essentially, Austen is writing her epistolary novel in a form that is more like actual letter writing rather than a fictional convention. Furthermore, this effect can hint that Austen is mocking the artificiality of the epistolary convention because it is not actual letter writing, but fiction. Thus, Austen can use the epistolary convention effectively through her characterization, while making fun of it at the same time. At such a young age, Austen shows us her craft and artistry in the epistolary convention in “Amelia Webster.” This makes me excited to see what she does in “Love and Friendship” and Lady Susan, which are both memorable early works of Austen's that are also epistolary.


As I am about to sign off and retire my laptop to read a book, I hope you all will leave some of your thoughts and comments down below for me to read. I am always curious about your thoughts when it comes to the Juvenilia or your favorite Thanksgiving meal.

If you are interested in keeping up with our Austen-Curious book club, in two weeks we will be covering "The Mystery" and "The Three Sisters."

We will be posting updates and reminders on the book club and all things JASP on our social media. You can find us on Instagram (@janeaustensummer), twitter (@jaustensummer), and Facebook (@janeaustensummerprogram).

Ta-Ta!

Eden