Life in the Raw
History of England
or The Bower
Reviewed by Joseph Wiesenfarth.
Jane Austen gathered her youthful writings into three volumes, imitating the three-volume novel of her day. Each of these stories comes from a different volume with Volume the First at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, being the least accessible to scholars and not at all to general readers. Consequently, Peter Sabor’s complete and thorough description of it in his “Note on the Text” in Frederic & Elfrida is welcome indeed. Volume the Second is often on display at the British Library, opening on an illustrated page of The History of England. And Volume the Third is kept in the same library’s manuscript collection. Each of the editions reviewed here is edited either from a manuscript directly or from a facsimile of a manuscript, and each reproduces the text as Jane Austen wrote it, misspellings and all. They give us, then, the most accurate texts of these stories.
All three volumes are illustrated, and Juliet McMaster’s note on her procedures for illustrating Frederic & Elfrida indicates the kind of care that has gone into her work. My one reservation in her illustrating The History of England is that her drawings have greater clarity than Cassandra Austen’s, which are reproduced in black and white from drawings in color and therefore lack the line and clarity of McMaster’s and may seem unequal to them. (Interested readers can find Cassandra’s portraits in color in Deirdre LeFaye’s 1993 facsimile edition published by the British Library.)
The introductions to each volume are scholarly and thoughtful, with Jan Fergus’s showing those qualities to their best advantage. Sylvia Hunt lays out in detail the sources on which Jane Austen drew to write Frederic & Elfrida with its “florid dedication to a patron,” its “distressed heroine” who is easily overcome by emotion, its “manipulation of time,” and its “exotic locations.” She also connects it to persons and events in and around Steventon when the eleven-yearold Austen wrote this rollicking story.
Jeffrey Herrle’s introduction connects Catharine or The Bower with a “gothic ruin because it is rugged, incomplete, and representative of an early, ambitious style.” He nonetheless explores some of its subtleties in indicating, first, that the title suggests the Bower is, symbolically, the same as Catharine and, second, that it is also symbolic of female sexuality since Catharine helped build it as a girl and it is the place where, age sixteen, she is first kissed. Although she is only kissed on the hand, the event makes her maiden aunt hysterical to the degree that she wants to destroy the bower. Herrle also makes connections through the characters with Austen’s mature fiction.
Since Catharine is a fragment, the editors have devised a multiple choice test for its readers. Taking the test encourages the reader to turn Catherine into a novel with a completed plot. Collectively choosing their own answers to their pointed questions allows the editors to provide a one-page outline (Our Last Word) of an ending even as we are given a blank page (Your Last Word) to compete with them. A generous and playful way to end a helpfully annotated edition.
Thorough annotation characterizes Jan Fergus’s edition of The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st. Her introduction treats it throughout as a collaborative effort of Jane and Cassandra, the one doing the writing and the other providing the illustrations. But at the same time Fergus indicates that “No picture is worth a hundred of Austen’s words, let alone a thousand.” Why? Because Jane Austen has a “double vision” that Cassandra cannot replicate in her drawings: “ironically examining and exposing her own prejudices while maintaining them nonetheless.” Austen’s admiration of the Stuarts and especially of Mary Queen of Scots and her scorn for the Tudors, especially Elizabeth, also enable her with Cassandra’s help to make “these two powerful women central” to their history; indeed, Fergus argues that the Austen sisters’ “major revision to conventional Tory British history…lies in their pointed inclusion of women” in it. With their short comic history these two teenagers, she suggests, have done what Oliver Goldsmith, David Hume, and Tobias Smollett could not do: revise history and question “assumptions about gender.”
Part of the fun of reading Jane Austen’s Juvenilia is that it gives us human passions in the raw: “the intimacy between the Families of Fitzroy, Drummond, and Falknor, daily encreased till at length it grew to such a pitch, that they did not scruple to kick one another out of the window on the slightest provocation.” And that’s mild compared to suicide, murder, imprisonment, lechery, drunkenness, gluttony, and gratuitous insults galore. As a girl Jane Austen gives us all those things undisguised that she later shows us to be held in check by a system of manners in her six classic novels. We do well to remember that manners developed to tame instinctual life and develop a civil society, as Norbert Elias unequivocally demonstrated in The History of Manners. Happily we have the Juvenilia to show us that Jane Austen knew instinctual life well enough to give it to us, hilariously, in the raw. And we should be grateful to Juvenilia Press for bringing us books like these to see it as only Jane Austen could show it.
Joseph Wiesenfarth is a Founding Patron of JASNA and has written extensively about Jane Austen. His most recent book, published in 2005, is Ford Madox Ford and the Regiment of Women.
JASNA News v.22, no. 2, Summer 2006, p. 18
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