I’m still working my way through Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, concentrating for the moment on the short writings in Volume the First, which were written between 1787, when Austen was just 12 years old, through 1790. These short pieces were written in notebooks and read aloud to her family and friends.
Edgar and Emma is a “novel” with three chapters that take up about four pages. The first chapter gives an interesting description of the Marlows, Sir Godfrey and Lady Marlow and their two daughters, Emma being the youngest. Sir Godfrey doesn’t understand why they are staying in “deplorable Lodgings” in a “paltry Market-town” when they own three houses where they could be living instead. Lady Marlow agrees, not knowing why they have stayed so long, but Sir Godfrey says it was solely for her pleasure. Austen’s humor emerges right away, when readers discover that they have been living in these Lodgings at a “great inconvenience” for two whole years!
While the first chapter seems very similar to how Austen sets the scenes in the beginning of her later novels, the final three chapters are very quick, without much character development but much melodrama and tragic romance. Austen seems to enjoy poking fun at overly emotional women who are quick to faint, cry, or lock themselves away forever when minor setbacks occur in their relationships. In Edgar and Emma, readers are never really introduced to Edgar, who is merely mentioned. We just know that he is the eldest son of the Willmots, whose family is so large that they can’t all fit in the family’s coach. Only nine could travel at one time, and they took turns.
Emma is eager to see her dear Edgar, but he is not one of the Willmots to come calling when the Marlows return home. I’m not going to say where Edgar is or describe Emma’s over-reaction, but Austen creates so much drama with such simple language and sparse prose. I was laughing out loud at Emma’s hysterics, and I could image Austen chuckling herself as she composed these lines. There is not much of a plot in Edgar and Emma, and of course, the characters could have been fleshed out more, but the only thing really missing from this piece is dialogue, which Austen later proved to master. Although many of the works in the Juvenilia are unfinished or really short and quick, like Edgar and Emma, readers can see little glimpses of the characters she would create later on in her novels.
Henry and Eliza is among my favorite works in the Juvenilia. This one is a little longer at seven pages, and the young Austen really went all out with the melodrama and tragedy in this one. Eliza was found at the age of 3 months (amusingly already able to talk) under a Haycock by Sir George and Lady Harcourt, who took her in. Much is said about Eliza’s beauty and happiness that it seems Eliza could do no wrong. However, she is quickly cast out by her adopted parents when she is caught stealing a banknote.
Such a transition to one who did did not possess so noble & exalted a mind as Eliza, would have been Death, but she, happy in the conscious knowledge of her own Excellence, amused herself, as she sate beneath a tree with making & singing the following Lines. (page 34 in the The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen: Volume VI: Minor Works)
Because Eliza is just so darn wonderful (except she’s already proven that she’s not and will continue proving that in the pages ahead), she finds a new living situation right away as the Humble Companion to the “Dutchess of F.” Eliza and the Dutchess’ daughter were poised to be such good friends, sisters even, until Eliza steals away her lover, Mr. Cecil. Henry and Eliza marry quickly, then leave for the Continent, worried about the Dutchess’ reaction. From there, Austen infuses her story with a pursuit by the Dutchess’ army of 300, tragedy in Henry and Eliza’s marriage, captivity in a tower, a hilarious escape, and an even funnier reunion with the adopted parents who tossed her out and her mother’s serious problems with memory loss. It was one of the silliest, most ridiculous stories I’d ever read, and definitely the light entertainment I’m so in need of these days.
Finally, I read The Beautiful Cassandra, which was dedicated to Austen’s sister, Cassandra. It’s a novel in 12 chapters, but is really short at only a few hundred words and about four pages. Each chapter encompasses only a sentence or two, making it perfect for readers who need a little Jane Austen fix every now and again. Cassandra is an only child; her mother is a “Millener” and her father is of noble birth. When she turns 16, Cassandra, described as “lovely & amiable,” falls in love with a bonnet made by her mother and wears it as she walks out of the shop and into the world “to make her Fortune.”
Cassandra engages in a host of silly and senseless activities. For instance, she eats six ices and doesn’t pay, then takes a Hackney Coach to Hampstead and immediately after arriving turns around and goes back. And of course, she couldn’t pay the driver. Cassandra may be beautiful as the title suggests, but she doesn’t have much sense. She sets out to make something of herself, but returns home after almost seven hours, declaring the day “well spent.” It seems as though Austen and her sister shared a similar sense of humor, and I’m sure her sister Cassandra was nothing like the Cassandra in this short tale.
I’m having a lot of fun trying to read all of Jane Austen’s published works. The Juvenilia obviously isn’t as good as her novels, but it’s a must-read for Austen fans, and these short writings are quite entertaining. I love how I can flip through my edition of the Minor Works until something catches my fancy. I hope to read more from the Juvenilia in the coming year.
Disclosure: The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen: Volume VI: Minor Works is from my personal library.
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