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174 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION J. David Grey, ed. Jane Austen's Beginnings: The Juvenilia and "Lady Susan." Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989. xxii + 272pp. It is refreshing in a volume dedicated to celebrating and reviving interest in Jane Austen's juvenilia to read the following comments: "One cannot help but feel that many of the earliest scraps would never have seen the light of day if they had been by another hand" (p. 177). Or: "The juvenilia, I believe, could well have been left, not in the wastebasket but in a drawer, for study by scholars, who I venture to suspect are pretty much the only people who ever really peruse them" (p. 178). Jane Austen would have agreed with this unsentimental assessment. Indeed, of all the sentences in this collection, these sound most like something from her own pen. They were written by Joan Austen-Leigh, a collateral descendant of the author, and they represent the coolest judgment of the early works. At the other extreme is Hugh McKellar, who writes with particular admiration for Lady Susan and considers it "vintage Jane Austen." Most of the contributors to this lively and diverse collection of essays fall somewhere between these positions and would agree with Margaret Drabble and A. Walton Litz, who in two brief but excellent introductory pieces argue both for the intrinsic charm of the early works and for their value for anyone interested in the development of the craft of a great writer. John McAleer reminds us that Austen's juvenilia was written between the ages of eleven and seventeen (1787-93) and that the twenty-seven pieces were later copied into quarto notebooks. Some of these pieces are fragments, many are miniature novels written in epistolary form. Other than Lady Susan, the best known of the early writings are probably "Love and Freindship" and "The History of England." We learn from such works what Austen read as a child and young woman, what she found ridiculous and extravagant in literary convention and human behaviour. It is not surprising that some of the humour is silly, but what is remarkable is the early show of wit, unusual intelligence, and an extraordinary sensitivity to language. Several contributors note the thread of violence that runs through the juvenilia . Since a major target of Austen's early satire was the Gothic romance, this is to be expected. Yet John Halperin and Claudia L. Johnson see other implications in a youthful sense of humour that could sometimes be deadly, harsh, and angry. Halperin stresses the "hostility" in all satire and the demands it makes for "a cold-blooded assessment of aesthetic and moral values" (p. 30). Even the adolescent Austen in her seemingly most innocent and frivolous writing shows, according to Halperin, that detachment, moral distance, and coldness inherent in the satirical mode. Johnson argues persuasively that, from the beginning , Austen's démystification of polite language and manners and her exposure of convention have strong political implications. Though her attacks on class snobbery and sexism are not accompanied by overtly ideological formulas or REVIEWS 175 reformist agendas, they nonetheless point in progressive directions. Johnson acknowledges that Austen always remained a novelist of manners, but it is her contention that "to be such at her time was inevitably to be a political novelist , and to treat the conventions that govern life and fiction not as sacred dicta but as interested structures" (p. 57). Virtually all of the essays in this collection are worth reading for one reason or another. Some contain descriptive information about Austen's method of composition and the editing and publishing history of the manuscripts; others provide a critical approach to the juvenilia. For the critic, the challenge is to take the early writings seriously, but not too seriously, to do them justice but not to overburden slender satires with a critical paraphernalia which their sharp modesty can render as ridiculous as a Gothic folly in an eighteenth-century garden. Among the contributions that escape this snare with particular grace and provide the reader with fresh insights into Austen are those by Christopher Kent, Deborah J. Knuth, Patricia Meyer Spacks, and Edward Copeland. In a fascinating discussion...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-0243
Print ISSN
0840-6286
Pages
pp. 174-176
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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