Introduction to Jane Austen’s Teenage Writings

Professor Kathryn Sutherland introduces Jane Austen's wild and surprising teenage writings - full of girls behaving badly, speeding plots and cartoonish characters. There's no doubt about it, this is Austen as you've never seen her before!

Jane Austen published her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, at the age of 35.  Less well known is that between the ages of 11 and 17 she wrote stories and sketches to entertain her family and friends.  She copied many of them into three notebooks, inscribing their front covers with the words ‘Volume the First’, ‘Volume the Second’ and ‘Volume the Third’. She was pretending to be a published writer. The notebooks in her original handwriting are now among the treasures held in the British Library, London, and the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Jane Austen’s teenage stories are spoofs, imitations, and parodies of the kinds of books she was reading.  Many of them make fun of the limited syllabus that passed for education for girls at the end of the eighteenth century: a little music, a little geography and history (reduced to tables of important dates and events), advice on home economics and household management.  The emphasis was on training girls to be good wives and mothers. The teenage Jane Austen rejects all of this.

The girls in these stories refuse all advice on ladylike behaviour: they eat too much; they drink and gamble; get into fights; one girl steals money and then runs off with another girl’s fiancé.  These are stories about girls (and some boys) behaving badly. Unlike Austen’s famous, mature novels, where action is limited and emphasis is on psychology (the heroine’s inner life) and the slow unfolding of motive and events, these mini-novels proceed at a hectic pace: they are all action and almost motive-less.  Characters are constantly on the move. Plots are drastically cut down and speeded up in cartoon style.

Most of the stories are no more than a few pages long; and this is another way the teenage Austen mocks the tedious long books that were approved reading.  As you might expect, though, the comedy has a purpose.  These little stories show that Austen was already training herself to be a writer.  They ask questions about literary form: what ingredients must a novel have in order to be a novel—action, character and setting.  But must characters be believable? Do their actions need motives?  How fantastical can settings be? In using her stories to ask such questions, she tests how fiction works.

In the mini-novel ‘Jack & Alice’, the one character the reader never meets is Jack.  Who is Jack?  Must a named figure (even someone styled a hero) appear in his own story?  ‘The beautifull Cassandra’, a short tale written for Austen’s beloved sister Cassandra, is preceded by a page-long dedication which is a literary composition in itself, leisurely and super-polite in its extravagant praise of the tale’s recipient.  By contrast, the ‘story’ that follows is no more than a set of chapter headings and frantic, unconnected bursts of action tracking Cassandra’s madcap adventures as she criss-crosses London from Bond Street to Hampstead, back down to Bloomsbury Square and home again to Bond Street. Here is a writer turning the conventions of storytelling and the mechanisms of plot inside out: what does it mean for a dedication to be longer than the story that follows? How unhinged and random can action be and still make sense?

In ‘Amelia Webster’, Austen makes fun of the novel-in-letters, a fashionable form in the eighteenth century.  Novels-in-letters were long, allowing all the characters to address one another in rambling epistles—a way of exploring psychology and motive.  The great master of the novel-in-letters was Samuel Richardson whose works stretched to seven (or more) volumes.  In ‘Amelia Webster’, however, the letter writers find their paper (and so their thoughts) are used up after only a sentence.  How short and empty might a tale be and still make a kind of sense?

These stories all engage in acts of deliberate misreading.  Misreading is a form of critical engagement, a way of understanding: by pulling something apart, to see how it works; by exaggerating its different elements to test where the boundaries lie; by removing some parts to see what happens to the bits left behind.  The teenage Austen’s comic misreading shows how thoroughly and how early the activity of critical reading informed her style as a writer.

And another thing: these are stories written to be admired; to show off.  They are all about performance. Each one is accompanied by an elaborate dedication to a member of Austen’s family or a friend. The dedications spin fanciful and provocative connections between dedicatee and story: ‘Sir William Mountague’, dedicated to Austen’s nine-year-old brother Charles, is about a young man who keeps falling in love with and proposing to women.

The teenage Austen was a rebel and a critic. Her characters are resourceful and independent-minded; they act on instinct and on impulse. And unlike the heroines of the adult novels, they have no inner life—they are all action and no regrets. Their behaviour is shocking and liberating.  As readers we tend to discover the teenage writings after the adult novels, with their absence of event, their polite moral codes and their dutiful daughters suffering agonies of boredom in suffocating drawing rooms.   Everywhere in the teenage writings bad behaviour (especially female bad behaviour) is rewarded or left unchecked.

Jane Austen never completely outgrew her teenage stories.  She never finally closed their pages.  Many years later, here at Chawton Cottage (now Jane Austen’s House), she reopened her teenage notebooks in company with a younger generation, her nieces and nephew.  Working together, they used the stories for creative writing classes, to learn together the rules of composition and to scribble continuations and revisions to their aunt’s original stories.

Once you have read the teenage stories, it is easy to see traces of their rebellious independent characters in the heroines of the mature novels: in Elizabeth Bennet’s unladylike energy, ‘crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles’ on her way to see her sister at Netherfield Park (Pride and Prejudice, chapter 7); or to find in spoilt, selfish Emma Woodhouse’s dangerous way of playing with the feelings of others the trace of any number of self-important heroines from the teenage fiction.  The teenage writings are little experiments in the art of the novel; they are also critical tools by which to open up and discover, in a different light, Austen’s six famous adult novels.