BOOK REVIEWS    Sue Parrill, Editor

The Gigantic Inspiration of Laughter


The Cambridge Edition of the works of Jane Austen
Edited by Peter Sabor.
Cambridge University Press, 2006. lxix + 502 pages. Hardcover.  $120.00.

Reviewed by Joseph Wiesenfarth.

Peter Sabor’s splendid edition of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia begins with an introduction marked by thoroughness and restraint. Its three sections introduce us to the composition and publication of the Juvenilia; to their reception as they made their painfully slow way to the public; and to their literary significance. The deadly pace of the publication of these early works, which Jane Austen wrote between ages 11 and 17, was due, first, to the family and, second, to editors, neither wanting to endanger the reputation of an author whose major novels had established her as a classic of English fiction. James Edward Austen-Leigh mentioned the existence of the Juvenilia—thinking them “crude experiments of a child”—in his Memoir of 1869, and R. W. Chapman disliked readers having them, calling the appearance of Love & Freindship an “act of espionage or exhumation”; later on, sensing a market, he eventually published them all.

G. K. Chesterton was an early champion of the Juvenilia, contending that their inspiration was the same as that of Rabelais and Dickens: “the gigantic inspiration of laughter.” That is to say, he realized that these were works of art worthy of reading in their own right. But not until Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic were they treated as such. Until then critics read the Juvenilia to determine how they prepared Austen to write her novels. But subsequent to The Madwoman, the intrinsic value of the early works became part of interpretative readings of Jane Austen. Sabor contributes to this strand of scholarship as he concludes his introduction.

He points to Austen as a girl of her time, both aware of and writing about, among other things, heterosexual and homosexual relations. She also fills her early writings with other events that would make her Victorian descendants equally reluctant to publish them: “murder, suicide, violence, theft, verbal abuse, gluttony and drunkenness.” These are present in the novels, too, but immersed in the formality of manners. One need only read Norbert Elias’ definitive History of Manners to realize just how raw an assortment of human antics an evolving code of manners had to tame. But other than an overview of the themes of the Juvenilia, Sabor does not attempt to deal with the individual stories and plays to provide separate interpretations of them. He does provide ample explanatory notes—129 pages of them—for anything a reader may want to know. These are aids to interpretation, to be sure.
Sabor is meticulous in his editing of the manuscripts. It is always a matter of choice in the way that task is accomplished. Does one keep the ampersand or substitute the word and for it? Does one supply missing quotation marks from a set that has been opened but not closed? Does one indent a paragraph or not when the manuscript leaves one in doubt? There are many such choices that an editor must make, and Sabor makes his decisions and applies them consistently. The only way to avoid such editorial choices is to reproduce the three manuscript volumes of the works—180, 264, and 140 pages, respectively— which no publisher is likely to do any time soon. Happily, though, this volume does reproduce the manuscript copy of Jane Austen’s History of England with Cassandra’s illustrations. The holograph gives the reader a sense of the kind of difficulties an editor faces.

There are further delights beyond the Juvenilia that Sabor provides by giving us Austen’s marginal annotations in Oliver Goldsmith’s The History of England (1771). She wrote these marginalia when she was 15 before writing her own hilariously prejudiced History, supporting the Stuarts and their allies and savaging Oliver Cromwell—“ Detestable Monster!”—and his followers. Rereading Austen’s own history after digesting her comments on Goldsmith’s is an exhilarating indulgence not to be missed.

Another item of interest that Sabor publishes is a letter that appeared on 28 March 1789 in The Loiterer, a periodical that James Austen launched in Oxford earlier that year. In the ninth issue, James purports to print a letter written by “Sophia Sentiment” urging him to publish something that would interest “the fair sex.” Sabor states in detail the arguments for and against this letter’s being written by James’ sister. But ask yourself who but Jane Austen could have written this: “get a new set of correspondents, from among the young of both sexes, but particularly ours; and let us see some nice affecting stories, relating the misfortunes of two lovers, who died suddenly, just as they were going to church. Let the lover be killed in a duel, or lost at sea, or you may make him shoot himself, just as you please; and as for his mistress, she will of course go mad; or if you will, you may kill the lady, and let the lover run mad; only remember, whatever you do, that your hero and heroine must possess a great deal of feeling, and have very pretty names.”

You may have to mortgage the farm to buy this volume, but you’d be mistaken not to.

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.23, no. 2, Summer 2007, p. 25

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