Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Jane Austen's Juvenilia

Chapter the 10th

Cassandra was next accosted by her freind the Widow, who squeezing out her little Head thro' her less window, asked her how she did? Cassandra curtseyed and went on.

(from The Beautifull Cassandra. A novel in twelve chapters, in Doody, ed., Catherine (42)).

The grad novel class has finally reached some of my favorite materials in this course, Austen's juvenilia. For whatever reason, students feel less inhibited about commenting about her style and her technique when these are laid out in her tiny vignettes. I sometimes feel that Austen's novels appear so strong, and so self-sufficient, that students, even grad students, feel that they have little to say about them except in terms of her characters. And since I've been pushing the literary historical reading of the novel this term, I want students to see JA as a reader and, in effect, as a critic, as she engages in those early parodies.

One of the effects of teaching this course has been to force me back onto my chronologies, and to think about Wollstonecraft's struggles with the novel form in the eighties and nineties, while a 15 year old Austen seems able to swallow Burney whole, and deliver up exquisite little routines like the masking scene in Jack and Alice, where we admire a male Masker dressed as the Sun:

The Beams that darted from his Eyes were like those of that glorious Luminary, tho' infinitely superior. So strong were they that no one dared venture within half a mile of them; he had therefore the best part of the Room to himself, its size not amounting to more than 3 quarters of a mile in length and half a one in breadth. The Gentlemen at last finding the fierceness of his beams to be very inconvenient to the concourse by obliging them to croud together in one corner of the room, half shut his eyes by which means, the Company discovered him to be Charles Adams in his plain green Coat, without any Mask at all (12).

This is as good a joke as I've seen on the male paragon, which I suppose is as much Grandison as anything else, but a lot of the class were left wishing that they had more like this in Austen (oddly, this semisurrealist style seems to have crept back into Sanditon). There is something so consciously indelicate in these skits, so deliberately improper, and so inventive stylistically, that everyone was hoping to see a whole novel like this.

Having said all that, I always feel a twinge teaching Austen, because I believe that Austen's reworking of the sentimental novel helped to eclipse, permanently, her sources: Johnson, Richardson, Lennox, Burney, Edgeworth, possibly even Wollstonecraft, all these writers never seemed the same after she was done. She is a strong reader, perhaps one of the best readers of the preceding century's fiction, and as such she becomes as much an obstacle as an aid to understanding the writing that she reworked. And I wonder whether my own loyalties are with her or with the eighteenth century writers whose work made that amazing self-assurance possible.

Best wishes,

DM