Review: Catharine and Other Writings, Juvenilia by Jane Austen
Something kept stopping me from reading on. I thought a part of it was that I had let her get into her head so much, I was almost afraid of her letters. After reading Charlotte Brontë’s Unfinished Novels, I decided to take a quick sweep by the letter A in the Fiction section of the library. And there, wedged between Emma and Mansfield Park was Catharine. I knew immediately that this was what I’d been waiting for.
Ever since Patricia Rozema’s 1999 treatment of Mansfield Park, I have craved Austen’s juvenilia. And this was the very first time a copy had been readily available at the library. It’s titled Catharine and Other Writings. Essentially, it’s the transcription of the three notebooks that Jane kept in her adolescence (age 12 to 18). It does for the Austen lover what Charlotte & Branwell’s stories of Angria do for Brontë lovers.
It reminds me very much of when I was younger, playing Barbies with my sister. Making up stupid-ass stories about their families; brushing out Ken-doll John Smith’s hair so he looked like Michael Bolton. There’s such resonant disregard for propriety that you do not see in her novels among the heroes, heroines and admirable side characters. Northanger Abbey is the exception, because she wrote it when she was still quite young. But even there you feel her reining in the silly girls and making them into strong women.
The main characters in these works are the infrastructure for all of her accessory characters. The Bennet sisters, the Musgroves, the Bertrams, the Elliots, Mrs. Elton, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Marianne Dashwood, Lady Susan, General Tilney, Admiral Croft, Willoughby: they are all there. You can feel the wheels turning in her mind as you progress page by page.
This is what I have been missing. This is why I could not move on into her letters. It wasn’t because I was afraid to let her into my head; it was because I didn’t have the foundation. You can read all you want about Jane. You can read every history and every commentary by Deirdre Le Faye, you can read every opinion, every essay, ever finicky and sorely balanced sequel to her novels, you can watch every treatment of her works on film from every angle; still you will not understand.
Her juvenilia from dedications at the beginning of each volume down to every pen stroke that she edited, up to the spot in her prayers where you can feel (without even looking into the notes) the author change from Henry to Jane; every one of these things are hers.
This is the magic of Oxford World’s Classics. I’ve discussed this before in the case of Dumas – why I won’t read translations by other publishers, etc. OWC breathes life back into Jane’s lungs. If you’ve ever seen the Rozema “Mansfield Park”, you’ll know Jane’s “A History of England” (as well as “Love and Freindship (sic)”: “Beware of fainting-fits....Beware of swoons—Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint—“. ) OWC gives you not only what history she’s speaking of, but why she speaks in such a tone; why she was atypical in preferring roman Catholicism; why she characterizes herself as anti-Tudor. It defines every questionable word and motive, and not in a condescending way.
It is as if 16-year-old Jane were sitting next to you in 1792 explaining her word choice. And now I know I can move on, into her letters. Now that I know not what she has written, or been, but who she is.