February 8, 2022

A delightful read for any Austen fan. Jane Austen, Early and Late review

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Jane Austen, Early and Late

Book Cover Princeton University Press

Two centuries after her death, Jane Austen remains one of the most widely celebrated and read authors of all time.

Arguably, there are few English-speakers who have never heard of Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility — if only because of the numerous Hollywood and BBC adaptations of the novels.

Jane Austen is best known for these six novels from the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, which crowned her a giant of English literature and defined the very peak of the Romantic period. However, there are also Austen’s ‘juvenilia’ – several early, often unfinished pieces which were withheld from public consumption until decades after Austen’s death, mostly because the novelist’s family believed they might harm her reputation (and their bank accounts).

Johnston’s book is a delightful read for any Austen fan, yet those who are less familiar with these such novels might find the dense network of references hard to follow.

In Jane Austen, Early and Late, an Oxford University lecturer, Freya Johnston argues Austen’s early and late work are inextricably bound together and should be equally read and cherished. The structure of the book provides six lenses through which Johnston connects Austen’s early and late works. While “Histories” discusses the sense of timeline in Austen’s novels and the difference between a character’s perception of time versus the narrator’s knowledge of “real-time”, “Dying with Laughter” considers Austen’s work in the context of her personal life. Perhaps the best section of the book is “Developing” which considers Austen’s authorial development and whether to order her books by its date of publication or creation length. Readers and critics alike often categorize “later” works as better in comparison to “early” ones.

As most Charlotte Brontë fans, myself included, would likely agree, Jane Eyre (1847) is her masterpiece, not the dreary Villette (1853) with its unreliable and unlikeable narrator. Johnston proves the same can be said for Austen: distinguishing between early and late is fruitless in determining which of her works are “better”. Johnston uses a chronology of Austen’s longer novels — compiled by Jane’s sister, Cassandra — to suggest the time spent on two distinct novels cannot be separated into different periods of her life.

It is well known to Austen’s fans that Pride and Prejudice began as an epistolary novel titled First Impressions; she began the latter in 1796, published the former in 1813, and in the intervening years wrote Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Mansfield Park (1814). The origins of her full-length stories can be traced back to her juvenilia. For example, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland, can be traced back to young Austen’s Kitty Peterson in “Kitty, or the Bower.” Johnston makes similar connections between other pieces of Austen’s “early” work and across other aspects of her published novels.

Jane Austen, Early and Late

by Freya Johnston

Princeton University Press

2021
296 pp
$29.95 / £25.00

If there is any drawback in Jane Austen, Early and Late, it lies in the narrow audience the book appeals to. Those who have already read Austen’s longer works and are familiar with some of the major adaptations would appreciate learning about the origins of her stories and how Austen developed her characters.

For example, Pride and Prejudice’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet first entered the fictional world in First Impressions, when Austen was a young woman, only to be developed for 16 years to come before she was ready to meet the larger audience — by the time Pride and Prejudice was published, Austen turned 37.

The degree of insight makes Johnston’s book a joy solely reserved for Austen fans. Others would likely find little interest in these minute details or find the parallels between Northanger Abbey and Persuasion tiresome – although I must confess I never knew Northanger Abbey contains 24 instances of “persuasion”, only eight fewer than the 32 in Persuasion!

Johnston’s message remains clear from beginning to end: value Austen’s juvenilia. I know I will, but will non-fans likewise consider these shorter works equal to her longer ones? The question of whether it is possible to reconstruct how Austen is taught remains. Will future school children begin their English lessons with “Frederic & Elfrida” or Pride and Prejudice? Only time will tell.

Written by:

author_bio

Noemi Elliott

Fiction & Poetry Section Editor

Singapore / United States

Co-founder of Harbingers’ Magazine

Born in 2003, Noemi Elliott divides her time between Singapore and the United States. Noemi holds American, British, and Hungarian citizenship and speaks English, Hungarian, and Mandarin.

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