This post starts with a confession. Previous to reading Jane Austen’s Juvenilia for the Samuel Johnson Book Club, I’d never finished an Austen novel. I’d dallied with Pride and Prejudice but starting it on the night-bus home from a drum-n-bass club underneath Leicester Square (I received some strange looks from the bouncers after they found it in my pocket).
I also have to confess that the copy I bought (containing both Austen and Bronte Juvenilia) wasn’t complete, more embarrassing because the editor of the Cambridge edition of the Juvenilia was present…I was very intrigued about diving into the unknown. He told us how the books were discovered, that various manuscripts were flogged off by impoverished members of the Austen family, finding there way into the British and Bodleian Libraries, who guard their precious works very closely.
After reading the Juvenilia (or what I had of it) I was delighted to discover how very funny I found it. As the writing grew more sophisticated, the humour was less sharp (and far less silly) but it remained throughout and I was far keener to pick up an Austen book again. These earlier works are stripped down, they are short novel parodies that especially burlesque the sentimental novel. There was something about the works that reminded me very much of ‘Modern Novel Writing,’ a work by William Beckford (of Vathek fame) who created a sentimental novel by chopping up other sentimental novels and recontextualising them. We had great fun sharing our favourite absurdities; those crying themselves to death, those running mad and those falling in love with every person they meet.
One of the highlights of the evening was a group reading of the play ‘Mystery’. (Full script here https://www.janeausten.co.uk/the-mystery-an-unfinished-play). In this short piece, the audience repeatedly finds itself just at the end of something interesting. As short as the play is, it’s a wonderfully sustained joke and there were many laughs in its short time.
We also discussed the issues of editorship, many of us having suffered from overzealous editors who feel the need to explain even the smallest and most obvious details. We wondered about the impact of the internet on those styles of editorship, where simple details can be looked up.
The evening went by very quickly, and we again bundled off to the pizza place to surprise the waiters with our fruity choices of pizza.
Next week, we flex the biceps and carry the weight of Boswell as we discuss his meeting with Johnson.