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The Austen-Curious Reader – What's a Boy to Do?

By Eden Iazeolla

Hello to all my fellow Jane Austen Juvenilia Enthusiasts!

I hope you all enjoyed reading our Halloween-esque blog on October 31st. For those of you who have not had the chance to read it yet, we continued our discussion about how heroines are being defined in Jane Austen’s early Juvenilia.

As a change of pace, this week, I thought we could dive into how young Austen is imagining heroes in her early writing.

When I began writing this blog, I assumed I'd be able to connect our three focus stories this week, “The Adventures of Mr. Harley,” “Sir William Mountague” and “Memoirs of Mr. Clifford,” to gender inequality in the 18th century. However, after further reviewing the texts, I realized that all three stories were dedicated to her brothers (the first to Francis, already away at sea, and the second two to young Charles, only nine at the time). Why would Austen lampoon men, only to dedicate the stories to her young brothers with whom she enjoyed warm friendships? This suggested a new understanding of the satire in the texts I was reading. Perhaps Austen is puncturing the traditional narrative and social stereotypes projected onto men during the 18th century in order to appeal to her family audience in a ridiculous and humorous way.

Looking at “The Adventures of Mr. Harley,” the story - brief as it is - seems to reflect a micro-version of the traditional hero arc, in which the hero leaves home to embark on an adventure, then returns when the adventure is complete. However, in the last part of this story, Austen exits this traditional arc to insert another outrageous and impractical recognition scene.

Mr. Harley had only been away at sea for half a year; he returned home in a stagecoach that had a few other passengers. One of the passengers he observed as being “about 17 with fine dark eyes and an elegant shape; in short Mr. Harley soon found out, that she was his Emma and recollected he had married her a few weeks before he left England” (Austen, “The Adventures of Mr. Harley”).

Through this scene, Austen’s use of an unrealistic recognition scene works against the traditional hero narrative. Depicting Mr. Harley as being consumed by his heroic adventure and completely forgetting he has a wife is a way for Austen to mock the unrealistic expectations this type of narrative creates. This pulls her readership, aka her brothers, into the laugh and suggests a self-conscious mockery of the ridiculous standards that Mr. Harley is shown as striving to meet. These narrative arcs are simply unachievable, because in the real world would a husband really forget his wife exists?

In “Sir William Mountague,” we see a similar pattern of excess take place. Sir William is introduced through seven generations of male forbears, with no mention of mothers or siblings; he is the product of a relentless procession of primogeniture. This man of men asks his would-be wife, Lady Percival, to "delay [their] wedding for a short time," because he wanted to participate in the hunting escapades of September first. "Men and their toys," or sports (in this case), is one of the oldest stereotypes in the book. I am sure we have all met one or two men who would trade anything for courtside seats to a Laker’s game. So, by Sir William denying Lady Percival her wedding day to protect his hunting day, Austen exaggerates this ridiculous notion.

Sir William becomes a further stereotype when he pursues a seemingly endless list of women, moving from one to the next as convenience and location dictate. The lack of concern (and constancy) that Mountague and Harley display takes stereotypes about men to their farcical extreme. The excess of the parody leaps from #notallmen to #notANYmen.

Finally, looking at the "Memoirs of Mr. Clifford," most of what we know about the character is an exuberant catalog of his possessions. Mr. Clifford is described as a "very rich young man" who kept a lot of carriages. The narrator could only "remember that he had a Coach, a Chariot, a Chaise, a Landeau, a Landeaulet, a Phaeton, a Gig, a Whisky, an Italian Chair, a Buggy, a Curricle, and a wheelbarrow," which we are told is only half of the total. Speaking of men and their toys. . .

In the 18th century, there were hierarchies among carriages and coaches analogous to how we rank cars today, and both are a way to display wealth and prestige. While the very wealthy might have more than one vehicle (especially for traveling differing distances), eleven (or twenty-two!) conveyances is heading into Jay Leno-level collecting.

In this scene, Austen is mocking the stereotype that men must flaunt what they possess in society. In his excessive consumption, Mr. Clifford ceases to be a real person and becomes a parody of the status-seeking man.

I hope you all enjoyed reading 13-year-old Austen challenge 18th century stereotypes as much as I did. I think these readings provided some interesting commentary on how Austen is appealing to her audiences, and how little some stereotypes of men in the 18th century have changed over the last two hundred years. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on Austen’s heroes, so please leave some comments down below.

For the upcoming book club in two weeks, we will be diving into Austen’s “The Beautiful Cassandra,” “Amelia Webster,” and “The Visit.”

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).




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. There are three different options for attending at different price points, including online options!


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