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The beautiful, proto-feminist snark of Jane Austen's juvenilia


For LitHub, Devoney Looser writes about Jane Austen’s juvenilia, which apparently included much snark and many cute misspellings. Check out the excerpt below, or the full version on LitHub.

The literary type of burlesque also peels off layers. Where a parody sets out to mimic conventions and make us laugh, a burlesque relies “on an extravagant incongruity between a subject and its treatment.” They are bolder and more coarsely humorous pieces that go beyond silly copies, like turbo-charged parodies. Austen’s burlesques were full-on irreverent, turning a thing on its head, forcing us to peek underneath to see its naked absurdities.

Written when she was between the ages 11 and 17, Austen’s juvenilia offers 74,000 words of unpredictable snark. It includes the rowdy Jack and Alice, in which unrepentant male and female gamblers at a masquerade party must be “carried home, Dead Drunk.” It includes the epistolary Love and Freindship (yes, that’s an ei, not an ie), which begins, in its first letter, “You are this Day 55. If a woman may ever be said to be in safety from the determined Perseverance of disagreeable Lovers and the cruel Persecutions of obstinate Fathers, surely it must be at such a time of Life.” Most of the juvenilia’s evil deeds go unpunished, and its heroines recommend running mad over fainting.

We have no idea how much revision Austen did on these 27 handwritten stories and dramatic pieces, how she imagined their audience, or how many readers each actually had. Family members were among the first. We know that because of Austen’s frequent dedications to family members and friends. “Lesley Castle,” dedicated to her brother Henry, includes his own handwritten reply to her dedication, as he pretends to have his bank give her a large sum for her writing. For my money, these youthful writings are Austen’s most astonishing achievement after the six novels.

The juvenilia was published posthumously in dribs and drabs, first by Austen’s descendants and then by other editors, many decades after her death in 1817. There is no evidence she sought publication of any of them during her lifetime. But if she had, there may have been a market awaiting her. Austen must have known that girl-writers her own age, like Anna Maria Porter (1778-1832) and Elizabeth Benger (c. 1775­–1827), were publishing their juvenilia in the 1790s, albeit with far more conventional literary products. Both Porter and Benger also exaggerated their youth, probably to appear greater prodigies and sell more copies. (I discuss this youth marketing phenomenon further in my Cambridge Companion to Women’s Writing in the Romantic Period.)

*Image of Jane Austen via Wikipedia