Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Teenage Writings of Jane Austen

Recently, in an effort to save a few bucks, I decided to close out my storage unit at one of the those chain places.  I had a hazy recollection of what was inside my unit having last been there a year ago.  I sorted through boxes of books, reboxed those I wished to take home with me and prepared the rest to be donated to a local charity.  I also had several boxes of manuscripts and notebooks which I put into their own stack to take back to my now very crowded apartment.  Inside, I rediscovered almost fifty volumes of journal writing, with many more notebooks un-numbered but dated.

I thought this would be a treasure trove.  Finally, with all my journals in one place, I could study them to see my thinking patterns over the years and to mine them for possible essays in the future.  This could be the key to a decent memoir.

I was deeply disappointed.

Let’s just say that I realized how much I repeat myself.  How interesting can it be to see entry after entry bemoaning the lack of time to write, the discouragement, the disappointment, the rejection.  Sure, there were glimpses of life in my description of what was happening then, snippets of events and special days, but the majority was just the daily drudgery of being a reader, a writer, and a teacher.  The notebooks were full of my own manic mood swings, mostly to the darker side.

There are good journal-writers around.  Anais Nin, Susan Sontag, and the recently published compendium of David Sedaris' work gathered over the years from 1977 to 2002, to name just a few.  I have always been a sucker for writers’ and artists’ diaries; they offer, in the best case scenario, the inside scoop on how a book or article came to be, or what it was like to live through a significant time.  Don’t we all live in significant times?  More often, though, I encounter what I saw on the pages of my own notebooks:  the complaining and whining of a poor writer or artist.  It is too late now to end this hobby; I love reading writers’ journals and always will.

So it was with great interest that I opened a recent publication of Oxford University consisting of three early notebooks from a teenage Jane Austen that contained some stories and outlines demonstrating her extraordinary ability only beginning to surface.  Austen was a voracious reader of all kinds of writing from the staid to the pulpy, a greedy omnivore of anything she could get her hands and eyes on.  In fact, she decorated and arranged her notebooks in the publishing style of the day, the editors of Jane Austen:  Teenage Writings (Oxford University Press, 2017) tell us.  Kathryn Sutherland and Freya Johnstone have done an excellent job compiling the book from those initial three notebooks stored in the Bodleian Library at Oxford (Volume the First) and the British Library in London (Volumes 2 and 3).  This girl had her eye set on a goal and her talent is obvious from the beginning.

When she began the notebooks in her eleventh and twelfth year, around 1786, Jane was already a precocious reader, and of course reading in those days was primary entertainment on a cold winter’s night.  People gathered for what the editors call “sociable reading,” which was more of a performance of the work than a traditional reading aloud.  Clearly, Jane was after positive affirmation for her writing, and the notebooks show her development as a novelist as she experimented with story, character, scene, and tension.  What is also clear here is her sense of humor, namely a sharp wit and gift for observation, which is evident in several selections.  The stories are really outlines; some chapters are barely given a sentence of development.  She was simply trying out techniques she had learned from her own reading of novels, and that is what makes this volume so interesting to Austen fans and scholars.

Austen practiced her craft throughout her life, often for the private amusement of her family.  Her nephews and nieces inherited these notebooks and using their aunt’s words as a jumping off point, actually continued some of the notebook stories in their own hand.  This made the editors’ job critical to determining what was written by Austen and what was added later by another family member.  In many cases, the plots and characters function as a primitive fan fiction that we see on the internet today.

Austen’s work here is also rendered much as it was found, with spelling and grammar errors.  This was the time of Samuel Johnson, and dictionaries and regular spellings were largely absent from publishing.  People were left to spell phonetically and creatively before standardization kicked in as we see today.  This adds the hint of a child’s work to the book, but the adult Jane is there, too.

For Jane Austen fans, this book is necessary and worth acquiring.  If one has read some of her work before, or has yet to experience this gifted writer, the novels are really Austen at her finest.  Notebooks are for trying out things—characters, lifestyles, themes, symbols.  Journals are for practice, and therefore, some should never see the light of publication.  Although authors throughout history have had their papers burned when they are gone, we are in the age of the digital archive now, and writers often donate large caches of their papers to libraries for the benefit of researchers.  However, could something in those archives actually damage a writer’s reputation?  In every case, the interest in what is going on in a writer’s mind or within her labyrinthine ruminations often reveal a mode of thinking, a way of seeing the world.  Therein lies the value of writers’ notebooks.

In studying her teenage writings, we see the roots of the major English novelist we have come to love in Jane Austen.  However, for most fans, having the novels is enough, leaving the fragments and early musings to scholars to study and parse.

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