First Published: Posthumously – Writen c.1786-1817
Pages: 504 (Hardback)
Form: Collection of juvenilia, short stories, and unfinished novels
This rare collection is a must for all Jane-ites. It represents what Richard Church regarded as Jane Austen’s literary work-basket, and contains some of Austen’s earliest work – her hilariously brief History of England, illustrated by her favourite sister, which is a worthy forerunner to 1066 & All That, to the unfinished Sanditon, the novel of her maturity on which she was working at her death aged 42. Also included are two epistolary novels, Lady Susan and Love and Freindship (sic), The Watsons, Catherine, Lesley Castle, Evelyn, Frederic and Elfrida, Jack and Alice, Edgar and Emma, Henry and Eliza and The Three Sisters.
The History of England is illustrated by Cassandra Austen
While I thought Lady Susan was absolutely great, I would probably only recommend Austen’s juvenilia and her later unfinished novel to people who are really interested in Austen and her development as a writer. Personally (and although a fan I’m not an Austen worshiper) I thought the juvenilia was absolutely fascinating and would have loved to see the finished versions of the two abandoned novels. If that sort of thing doesn’t interest you, though, and you want a completed story then just go for Lady Susan or give this book a miss completely and stick with Austen’s published novels.
‘The [. . .] shorter tales in this collection: [. . .] vary in their storytelling skill and characterisation, but in each we can see glimpses of the writer Jane Austen was to become.’ (afterword)
The juvenilia is a mixed bag, some of it is recognisably similar to the Austen we’re all used to but some of the earlier stories are downright batty. In even the earliest of them, though, Austen is skewering and mocking the manners and socially expected behaviours of her time. And it’s really interesting to see the progression from outright, even absurd, parody of them in her early works to the more subtle social commentary found in her published novels. It cements for me, once again, that Austen’s novels are more concerned with social issues and subtle satire than they are with romance. A very interesting look at Austen’s development as a writer but, to be honest, these stories are only of real interest because of the stories she later went on to write and if you’ve not read Austen before this really isn’t where to start.
The Watsons and Sanditon I don’t have much to say about. They both open strongly, have a great cast of slightly absurd characters, and looked to be going somewhere interesting and a bit different to Austen’s other novels when they are abruptly cut off. I would love to have read the finished versions of both of them – but obviously that will never happen and I’m not much interested in reading somebody else’s continuation of either.
Lady Susan, though, is complete and it’s the main reason I bought this book. I’ve been wanting to read it since I first heard of it, looked up a plot synopsis.
Lady Susan is a deliciously different short story than what one might from expect from Austen. It’s in epistolary form for one – although letters do play a big part in almost all of Austen’s novels and a huge part in her juvenilia – and the title character and primary narrator is actually the villain (or anti-hero), rather than the heroine of the piece. And she’s brilliant.
Recently widowed, impoverished, and widely known for her flirtations, Lady Susan is forced to leave her friend’s house in scandal and settle herself with her brother-in-law, Mr. Vernon and his family. Once there she immediately sets about trying to make Mrs. Vernon’s brother, Reginald, fall in love with her – purely for the sake of keeping herself amused and to get one up on Mrs. Vernon. She also plans to force her daughter, Frederica, to marry a rich but obnoxious man by keeping her utterly miserable and socially ostracised until she agrees.
Lady Susan is nasty, manipulative, self absorbed, deceitful and an absolutely horrid, abusive mother. But she’s also a very compelling character. The epistolary format of the story means that, as well as reading other character’s opinions on her we also get to see how she acts and thinks in her own words. And the story is at it’s best when Lady Susan is writing to her friend and co-conspirator, Mrs Johnson, revealing just how uncaring, and unsympathetic she is. On a friend’s husband: ‘… of what a mistake were you guilty of marrying a man of his age! just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout; too old to be agreeable, too young to die.’ on her daughter: ‘She is a stupid girl, and has nothing to recommend her‘ and on her flirtation with Reginald: ‘ There is exquiste pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person predisposed to dislike acknowledge one’s superiority‘. I kind of loved her.
But the epistolary form is also the story’s undoing. In the end the narrator has to abruptly apologise that the story could not reasonably be told through letters anymore (just as it looked like it might be getting tense for Frederica) before shifting into a very short and clumsy third-person account to tie up all the lose ends. It’s a really, really, unsatisfactory way of concluding it and it feels like Austen had written herself into a corner and then decided just to give up and move onto something else. But I liked the main body of the story, Frederica and Reginald were both a bit wishy washy but I enjoyed Lady Susan and her self absorbed lack of compassion and utter two faced-ness immensely. ‘Strong female characters’ don’t have to be nice. And a main character who toys with several men for her own amusement whilst having an obviously sexual affair with a married man…that’s pretty ballsy.
All in all a fascinating collection of Austen’s work – but probably only so for those already fans of Austen and interested in her early and unfinished works.