Culture Writer Francesca Herring reviews the non-fiction book Jane Austen, Early and Late which discusses how Austen’s teenage writings influenced her later novels
It is a truth universally acknowledged that anyone in want of a good book must turn to Jane Austen. Known as the author of titles such as Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s work has had an impact spanning over 200 years now (some credit of her legacy is of course due to Colin Firth for his take on Mr Darcy in the 1995 adaptation). While Austen is remembered for her romantic novels, Freya Johnston in Jane Austen, Early and Late looks at her early teenage writing and makes a strong case for reading and remembering these youthful texts as much as one would with Austen’s other work.
Jane Austen is responsible for creating several literary heroines that have become household names: Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and Anne Eliot to name a few. In Jane Austen, Early and Late, Johnston prefers to focus on the workings of Austen’s early writing from a time when Elizabeth Bennet was nothing more than a name. Johnston is keen to remind people that a lot of what they love in Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Austen’s other novels, originates in her first works. Yet why don’t we know more about them? This question is something that Johnston discusses. It transpires that many people did not like Austen’s early work, including her own family. They believed that her early work was not as sophisticated as her novels and thus were hesitant in publishing it. Johnston seeks to change this point of view in her work, and it was something that I, as a self-proclaimed Jane Austen mega-fan, enjoyed reading about. Now that Austen’s lesser-known works are getting much more credit thanks to work from the likes of Johnston, hopefully, we get another Austen adaptation starring Colin Firth.
Johnston also discusses extensively Austen’s social and family life, an interesting focal point for anyone who loves Jane Austen or just loves a biography. For context, Jane was born in 1775 in Hampshire to a family of several brothers and a sister, Cassandra, with whom she had a close bond. It is Cassandra that Johnston particularly focuses on in Jane Austen, Early and Late. This is because, after Austen died, it was Cassandra who began to create an order of Austen’s novels, an order which Johnston suggests had consequences. Cassandra made Jane Austen look to be a very productive writer, one whose prime began when her novels did. This, as Johnston discusses in her book, is another reason why her early works are often disregarded. Why would we read Austen’s early work when her novels are from her prime?
In recent years, lots of different publishing houses have produced some beautiful editions of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia; Penguin Random House has released Austen’s Love and Freindship and Other Youthful Writings in their Clothbound Classics collection (which I am a very proud owner of). I think that while the edition of this book is wonderful, as Johnston argues in Jane Austen, Early and Late, it is its literary content that should count. Austen’s teenage work should be seen as a predecessor to her late novels, one that allows her to borrow names, locations, and plots. Some hesitancy to reading Jane Austen is often due to the tendency for her novels to be quite similar: a young woman ends up falling for the man that was there all along. Yet Johnston makes a very good argument for this similarity, identifying that Austen uses a cast-list for her work, and each novel brings a different character to the forefront. The fiery Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is very different to the calm and quiet Jane Fairfax in Emma, yet Jane has a striking resemblance to the protagonist of Persuasion, Anne Eliot. Johnston identifies this cast-list back to Austen’s youthful texts and shows that rather than measuring Austen’s growth as an author, she should be remembered for the genius she was throughout her life.
Jane Austen, Early and Late was a very thought-provoking read for me as a lover of all things Jane Austen. It made me question whether I’ve perhaps been prejudiced towards some of Austen’s work and favoured her novels over the rest of her writing, recommending Emma to all of my friends rather than Love and Freindship. I would heartily and wholly recommend Jane Austen, Early and Late to anyone who loves Jane Austen, who wants to learn more about her or wants to start reading her work. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and cannot wait for it to be released in October 2021.
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