Think Jane Austen is all about familial devotion and docile love affairs? Think again! Oxford University Professor Kathryn Sutherland tells us all about Austen's racy teenage works.
Jane Austen published her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, at the age of 35, but from at least 11 years old, she was writing short stories and sketches. Think of them as what they are—teenage writings. Naughty, bold and funny, they're among the best comic writings in English.
Though written between the ages of 11 and 17, the first substantial selection of the teenage writings only appeared in print in 1922, more than a hundred years after Austen's death.
Virginia Woolf, who greatly admired Austen, described her teenage stories as the best antidote to the stifling cosiness of her popular reputation.
Girls behaving badly
The teenage writings are not "The Secret Diaries of Jane Austen Aged 13 ¾". They contain no confidences about passions or crushes or jealousies. Written to be admired by an audience, they're all about performance and showing off. Most are accompanied by an elaborate dedication to family members or friends.
"These are stories about girls behaving badly: drinking, stealing, and fist fights are the order of the day"
The teenage stories appear to have little in common with the restrained and realistic society of Austen’s adult novels. These are stories about girls behaving badly: drinking, stealing, and fist fights are the order of the day. One heroine, Anna Parker, announces in a letter to her friend that, having murdered her father and mother, "I am now going to murder my Sister."
Anna Maxwell Martin and Anne Hathaway as Cassandra and Jane Austen in Becoming Jane (2007)
Jane and her sister Cassandra were the only girls in a large family of boys. Their father ran a boarding school for more boys, and so their home was filled with teenage boys, all living and sleeping in close quarters. It must have been alive with sexual tension! The teenage stories are filled with elopements, risky jokes and boyfriend stealing.
Cocking a snook at education
The teenage writings make fun of the limited syllabus that passed for education for well-bred girls at the end of the 18th century. Education then consisted of a little art and music, a bit of geography and history (reduced to tables of important dates and events) and advice on home economics.
With no female admittance to universities and no careers open to women, any education girls received was intended to prepare them to be dutiful wives and mothers.
"The young Austen devoured junk and classic fiction alike. She poked fun at it all"
The girls in the teenage Austen’s stories reject all advice on ladylike behaviour: one girl, Charlotte Drummond, consumes a huge meat feast (a young hare, a brace of partridges, pheasants, and a dozen pigeons) shortly after accepting two offers of marriage; another, Alice Johnson, is addicted to gambling and permanently drunk.
In other stories, geography lessons are mocked and distorted: her characters have absolutely no idea of the map of Britain, making crazy journeys from Bedfordshire to Middlesex via South Wales.
Portraits of Henry IV, Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I illustrated by Cassandra
Aged 15, Austen wrote a spoof The History of England, as told by "a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant historian." Her sister Cassandra, three years older, added coloured illustrations of kings and queens based on members of the Austen family: Elizabeth I is depicted as a wicked, cartoon version of their mother, with Mrs Austen’s exaggerated long nose; and Mary, Queen of Scots (whom Jane much admired) is an idealised, romantic image of Jane herself.
Laying the groundwork
In an age when novels for teenagers scarcely existed as a specific category, the young Austen devoured junk and classic fiction alike. She poked fun at it all. The mini-novels that make up the bulk of the teenage writings show her wilfully misreading to test how fiction works.
What ingredients must a novel contain and still be a novel—action, character and setting? But do characters need to be believable? Do their actions need motives? In the mini-novel entitled Jack & Alice, the one character the reader never meets is Jack. Who is Jack?
Keira Knightley and Rosamund Pike as Elizabeth and Jane Bennet in Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Once we have read the teenage stories, it's easy to see traces of their independent, feisty heroines in those of the adult novels: in Elinor Dashwood’s need of a stiff drink to help her cope with sister Marianne’s hysterics in Sense and Sensibility...
“'Dear Ma’am', replied Elinor … 'I have just left Marianne in bed … if you will give me leave, I will drink the wine myself'”
...and in Elizabeth Bennet’s unladylike energy in Pride and Prejudice:
"crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles’ on her way to nurse her sister at Netherfield Park"
The teenage writings are little exercises or experiments in the art of fiction; they are also critical tools by which to open up and discover, in a different light, Austen’s six famous adult novels.
A note about the author:
Kathryn Sutherland, Professor of Bibliography & Textual Criticism at the University of Oxford, will be in conversation at Leicester Square Theatre on Monday 13th March for a special edition of "Austentatious" as part of London Book & Screen Week.
Her new book Teenage Writings is publishing 6th April 2017.
Enjoyed this story? Share it
*This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you.