The Uses of Division

Jane Austen, Teenage Writings

Oxford World's Classics, 400pp, £8.99, ISBN 9780198737452

reviewed by Francis O'Gorman

When did the category of teenager, as we comprehend it, come into existence? The Oxford English Dictionary dates the word to the United States in 1941 and ‘teenage’ to 1921 in British Columbia. In Great Britain at the end of the 18th century, the category as now understood was certainly not available. The age of consent, apart from anything else, was only raised from 12 to 13 in 1875 (and to 16 only in 1885). That alone meant the early teenage years were sharply different from ours. And of course what you might be expected to do, to read, and to be taught, in the last decades of the 18th century from the age of 13 onwards – the teenage years – depended, as it does differently now, on class and sex, as well as on geographical location within the countries of the British Union. It is important to detach the current cultural baggage around ‘teenager’ from the word’s function as a mere descriptor of chronology – and to remember that Austen knew neither of them.

That conceptual problem set aside, though, it is worth asking whose teenage writing is worth reading – or listening to. Mendelssohn, with the Octet (1825), provides a reminder of how serious an artistic achievement might date from teenage years in beginning of the 19th century (Mendelssohn was 16); Thomas Chatterton’s whole poetic career, in the previous century, suggests what influential poetry a teenager might leave behind. But what about comic writing? We have become accustomed to the idea that we can make fun of teenager writing, which is assumed to be gauche and embarrassingly confessional. But if our assumption might be that literary parodies of teenagers can make for some mischievous pleasures, Jane Austen’s approach was to be parodic herself.

Austen’s reading was wide (not ‘indiscriminate’ as the blurb to this edition says, making it sound as if you should only read to a programme). And of what she read she made various kinds of fun, largely by sceptical imitation or playful misappropriation. And she did it with – often enough – laugh aloud dexterity. One of the charms of reading Northanger Abbey (not Austen’s own title as it is always important to remember) is the difficulties in following the divisions between the serious and the playful, the sincere and the parodic. Rather like Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771), the uncertainty of what kind of voice we are reading defines, and rewardingly confuses, the pleasure of reading. Here is a distinctive experience of that which the literary critic John Bayley would call the uses of division. (Incidentally, Austen appears to be making some kind of comment on The Man of Feeling in her ‘The Adventures of Mr Harley’ but not one very much to the point.)

Austen’s teenage writing – actually, much of what is in this new edition was written when she was 11 or 12, so not a teenager at all – is more consistently playful. Here she is, borrowing scenes, ideas, and characters from across the breadth of her reading, and turning them to her own arch and funny purposes. Of course one can see continuities with the mature fiction – some of ‘Kitty, or The Bower’ tries out characters and responses that would in due course appear in Northanger Abbey, for a start. But what is often most engaging and amusing about this bravura writing is Austen’s unrestrained comic mayhem, which was softened and made more presentably subtle in later years. This is Austen at home, making her family laugh; writing for an audience she knew rather than the readers of her published works whom she did not. And goodness me, can she make us laugh. In ‘Sir William Mountague’, we find Austen the writer of crime fiction (to the length of a whole page and a half). In this story, Sir William shoots dead Mr Stanhope, a rival in love. Appalled, his sister (Emma – Austen’s fondness for the same names is unabashed) shows up. ‘She [Emma] begged some recompense, some atonement for the cruel Murder of her Brother. Sir William bade her name her price. She fixed on 14s’. That – like so many of the comic lines in this edition – simply becomes funnier the more one reads it. The Mountague story concerns – apart from murder – the not exactly predictable teenage subject of sexual anarchy: Sir William is an inconstant man whose views on the marriage vows are—well, he does not appear to have any views. It is possible to see the seeds, here, of the Crawfords in Mansfield Park (1814). But what is more apparent in this brief fizz of wit is the comedy of a young but extraordinarily adroit writer who never allows the reader for a moment to think that what he or she is reading is merely real.

Austen is interestingly opinionated about English and Scottish history. She is famously pro-Mary Queen of Scots and ‘partial to the roman catholic religion’; she mocks what the 19th century would call Whig history – history that is perceived as a narrative of progress – just as she is openly, amusingly, impatient with arguments in writing about history altogether. Austen’s acts of ‘proof’ in her ‘History’ are as amusing as her frankness about their inadequacy: Austen’s ‘History of England’ is, she says unblushingly, ‘By a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian’. Some of the pungency of that description is in the reader’s sense that Austen is implicitly doubting whether historians are, generally, other than that anyway. Few of Austen’s subjects escape unscathed from this collection of writing. She makes parodic amusement wherever she can find it. Austen’s family’s unapologetic prejudice against the name ‘Richard’ tells us, at the most local of levels, something rather wonderful about just how random, domestic, and cheerfully without good reason her comedy could be.

The manuscripts of this writing are divided between the Bodleian and the British Library, and are all online. This new edition, building on the work of generations of Austen scholars including the seminal RW Chapman, is exemplary. This is at once a fully scholarly version – it could have appeared in the Oxford English Texts series – and a brilliantly readable one. The editors, Kathryn Sutherland and Freya Johnston, are both scrupulous and generous, and have, apart from anything else, provided us with an ample sense of what or whom Austen might be parodying from her reading. The only thing I would have changed is the software. The Introduction was passed through a system that, in order to keep the justification, breaks words disruptively across lines with hyphens ('bookmak-ing'; 'appear-ance'; 'fea-tures'). Disrupting is what Jane Austen did – though not like this. She grows up, after writing these tales. And as she did so, she dialled down her wayward, subversive, and youthful energy. But, thank heavens, she did not do so completely.