The Novel Jane Austen Wrote When She Was Twelve

When the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle was asked whether he read novels, he famously replied, without missing a beat, “Oh, yes—all six, every year.” And without missing a beat we get the joke, of course, not because we believe that Jane Austen’s novels throw all others into the shadows (though we do), and not because they bear annual rereading (though they do), but rather because we all know—or think we know—that she wrote six of them.

But Austen wrote more than six novels. Along with Love and Freindship and Lady Susan, which enjoy modest fame, Austen proudly subtitled several shorter works as “A Novel”—such as Jack and Alice: a Novel and Henry and Eliza: a Novel. But these, though enjoyed by a handful of avid enthusiasts, are mostly unknown to the general public. Written for the amusement of her family, these works belong to the collection of early writing referred to sometimes as the “juvenilia” or “minor works,” both terms being rather disparaging, and most recently as “Teenage Writings.” Variously described—by Austen herself—as novels, tales, odes, plays, fragments, memoirs, and scraps, the juvenilia consist of twenty-seven pieces written from 1787 to 1793, when Austen was between the ages of eleven and eighteen. Austen was demonstrably attached to these works, in 1793 transcribing them into three stationer’s notebooks and entitling them Volume the First, Volume the Second, Volume the Third, each paginated and each including a table of contents. That Austen esteemed these pieces is proven by the very existence of these volumes, presented as if together they might constitute a magnum opus, a three-volume novel in the manner, say, of Pride and Prejudice or Emma. That she continued to return to these works once she grew up is proven by her emendations in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, and by her allowing a niece and nephew to try their hands at finishing some as late as 1814–16. That Austen’s closest relations continued to treasure them is proven by the fact that Austen’s sister, Cassandra, the keeper of Austen’s literary effects, carefully preserved these volumes after Austen’s death, and upon her own willed them to her brothers and her nephew.

Included in Volume the First, The Beautifull Cassandra: A Novel in Twelve Chapters, written when Austen was twelve, is among the most brilliant and polished of these youthful “novels.” Dedicated to Austen’s sister Cassandra, The Beautifull Cassandra is the only one of Austen’s works with a heroine of this name. We have no direct knowledge of any inside jokes connecting Cassandra Austen to her fictional namesake, but the shared name alone might account for the affection and indulgence with which Austen treats this exceptional heroine, who walks through London much as the two sisters may have during their 1788 visit to that city. Nowadays, we would probably classify The Beautifull Cassandra as a tale, sketch, or novella, but Austen’s own choice of “novel” says a lot about her sense of humor, to be sure, and also about her ambition. Weighing in at only 465 occasionally misspelled words, each chapter consisting of only one or two sentences, The Beautifull Cassandra narrates the wild and slightly criminal adventures of the titular character, as she leaves her maternal roof to flounce around London, eating ice cream (without paying), taking cab rides (without paying), and encountering a handsome young gentleman and lady (without speaking), and all to return home hours later with whispered joy: “This is a day well spent!” A masterpiece of novelistic minimalism, it deserves to be read by everyone who loves Jane Austen, by everyone who loves novels, by everyone who possesses a keen sense of the absurd, by every parent to every child in the interests of cultivating an ear for the cadences of English prose, by everyone who loves a laugh.

Like many of Austen’s youthful writings, The Beautifull Cassandra experiments vigorously with literary conventions—with dedication, with stock diction, characters, and incidents, with sentence structure, and, of course most strikingly, with chapter length. Indeed virtually every sentence plays parodically upon our expectations concerning what we’re reading. Consider Austen’s opening gambit, which takes aim at the conventions of literary dedication, notoriously fulsome during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. John Dryden, for example, dedicates his State of Innocence to the Duchess of York with characteristically labored flattery: “[W]hile You are in sight, we can neither look nor think on any else. There are no Eyes for other Beauties: You only are present … Our sight is so intent on the Object of its Admiration, that our Tongues have not leisure even to praise you: for Language seems too low a thing to express your Excellence.” Austen follows suit with the ludicrously hyperbolic, if more concise, compliment that opens her dedication to Cassandra. “You are a Phoenix” both explores and explodes the absurd adulation of dedicatory discourse.

Next, the young Austen turns her parodic attention to the formal, tripartite sentence structure so common in eighteenth-century prose:

Your taste is refined, your Sentiments are noble, & your Virtues innumerable. Your Person is lovely, your Figure, elegant, & your Form, magestic. Your manners are polished, your Conversation is rational & your appearance singular.

Ideally, three-part parallel construction imparts a sense of the writer’s intellectual vigor by demonstrating how she or he can pack disparate material into a coherent and dignified whole. Austen spoils the effect by composing three three-part sentences in a row, each marked with the same rhythms, and each employing terms so formulaic as finally to sound perfectly inane.

Since The Beautifull Cassandra shows us how exquisitely tuned Jane Austen’s ear was to small units of prose at so early an age, it’s worth looking even more closely at this style of sentence, which she probes a good deal in her early works. In Jack and Alice, for example, she shows how deeply she understands parallel constructions in this description of a character named Lady Williams: “Tho’ Benevolent & Candid, she was Generous & sincere; Tho’ Pious & Good, she was Religious & amiable, & Tho Elegant & Agreable, she was Polished & Entertaining.” Making our way through this complex sentence, we expect to proceed through a series of three finely balanced pairs of antitheses, only to find that Austen has fooled us by presenting us instead with a pair of equivalences, thus obliging us to reread her sentences in order to account for our perplexity. In The Beautiful Cassandra Austen is less extravagantly absurd, but she still delights in playing with sentence structure and producing eloquent nonsense: “Your Person is lovely, your Figure, elegant, & your Form, magestic.” When we encounter a sentence such as this, we are lulled into supposing that each element in the unfolding series of three will be distinct, yet held together and mastered through the power of parallel structure. But no! Here Austen once again amuses herself by making those three elements—person, figure, and form—virtually synonyms, thus confounding the very purpose of tripartite sentence structure to begin with and turning the whole sentence once again into a joke.

In all these cases, we might say that the very young Jane Austen is having simple fun with the grandiosity of specific words and structures and just leave it at that. But then we have to ask ourselves, what sort of twelve-year-old has already become so well read as to have mastered the weights, rhythms, and registers of the English language? What sort of twelve-year-old already possesses, first, the curiosity to understand how words or sentences or any literary conventions work, and, second, the brilliance and confidence to parody them? For this particular twelve-year-old, parodic imitation is not a means of mockery and dismissal, but rather a means of exploring the properties of any given form, much as, in Northanger Abbey, she would both spoof and pay homage to gothic fiction. So, yes, Austen is having fun, but it is not simple fun. It is deep and very smart fun, the kind of fun that emerges from wide and engaged reading, the kind of fun that makes us smart enough to read her properly.

And that is only the beginning. As the novel proceeds, Austen continues to set us up for laughs, making us aware of our assumptions about what happens, and to whom, in novels by thwarting those assumptions. Cassandra is just sixteen when the novel starts, a promising age for Austenian heroines to begin their careers: Catherine Morland is seventeen, Marianne Dashwood sixteen, and Fanny Price is ten when we first meet her and eighteen by novel’s end. So Cassandra is the right age for a heroine, though the description of her as “lovely & amiable” might arouse our suspicion by being a bit too pat, too clichéd to be credible, conveying nothing in particular, and less than nothing the more we learn about her. Cassandra has just chanced to “fall in love.” This seems to comply with novelistic codes, for aren’t all heroines supposed to pine for their heroes? Evidently not, for the object of Cassandra’s affection turns out to be a bonnet. That love certainly has a touch of the transgressive about it, for Cassandra no sooner sees the bonnet than she steals it—an act described with playfully highfalutin euphemism as placing it “on her gentle Head” and walking out the door. Unlike most heroines—take Lydia Bennet, for example—Cassandra is indifferent to men. Clad in her beloved bonnet, she takes no interest in the dashing Viscount of——, whom we might have assumed to be the mandatory love interest. But Cassandra has no wish to linger. Instead, she makes a beeline for the pastry shop in order to indulge another passion: ice cream. This she does not, like a true heroine, daintily taste, but downright “devours,” and in not one, nor two, nor even three servings, but six. Having sated her appetite, she then “knocks” down the shopkeeper, who demanded his pay, and walks away.

Clearly, Cassandra is no ordinary heroine. A paragon of cheerful irresponsibility, Cassandra regards the world as her oyster. She seizes and enjoys what she wants, and what she wants is not cheap: a bonnet made to order for a countess, according to the latest fashion, would be expensive, and ice cream was a luxury item. She proceeds on her adventures without any care for the scruples of economy that worried eighteenth-century heroines. Indeed, Cassandra has no apparent regard even for the basic rules of law—such as not assaulting or stealing from people—so it should not surprise us that she also flouts the rules of propriety: young ladies should not travel alone, and they definitely should not appear in public without a head covering, as Cassandra does from Chapter Seven on. Like Lydia Bennet, whose crime is of a decidedly different nature, Cassandra’s unruliness goes entirely unpunished; but unlike Lydia, Cassandra is permitted to charm us by her unflappable liveliness. The Beautifull Cassandra is propelled by its heroine’s serial wishes. Each of Cassandra’s mini- or non-adventures concludes merely with a determination to have more, much as she wanted one serving of ice cream after another. A kinetic heroine, Cassandra is always on her way somewhere—she “walked away,” she “walked on,” she “went on, ” she “ran away”—always exiting the frame and commencing another chapter.

By Austen’s time, the formal unit of the chapter had become so basic to novels that it had ceased to be noticed as the convention it was. This had not been so in Daniel Defoe’s novels or in epistolary novels by Samuel Richardson or Eliza Haywood, but virtually all of the later novels that Austen read and enjoyed were structured by chapters. What, then, could Austen have meant by making such a point of drastically reducing the length of her chapters to barely a sentence or two? Given that most of Austen’s early writing proceeds from and in turn creates a dazzling formal self-consciousness, exploring the function of conventions, stock characters, and diction by parodying them, it is possible that one of Austen’s targets here is the prolixity of popular fiction during her time, which stretched out little matter into long chapters and then into three or five volumes. By conspicuously reversing such practice here, foreshortening her chapters almost to the breaking point, Austen may be asking how many novels could or should be reduced to a sentence or two.

But there is another possible way to account for the spareness of chapters in The Beautifull Cassandra. For generations, readers have been divided into two major camps: those who “get” Jane Austen and those who emphatically do not, those who see her richness and complexity and those who see nothing and who accordingly look with a mixture of incredulity and contempt upon those who disagree. “Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point,” Charlotte Brontë peevishly asked George Henry Lewes, who admired Austen. More scornfully still, Ralph Waldo Emerson complained, “I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate … Never was life so pinched and so narrow … Suicide is more respectable.” And in his infamous “Jane Austen: A Depreciation,” an address delivered to the Royal Society for Literature in 1928, H. W. Garrod damns Austen as an “irredeemably humdrum” writer, “as incapable of having a story as of writing one—by a story I mean a sequence of happenings, either romantic or uncommon.” What bewilders and annoys these readers is the absence of event, or more precisely of what they consider to be interesting, grand, or significant event. For them, nothing happens in Austen’s novels: characters and actions alike are ordinary and undramatic.

Unlike The Beautifull Cassandra, many of Austen’s early works are teeming with remarkable incidents. In the hilarious “Scrap” entitled “A Letter from Young Lady, whose feeling being too Strong for her Judgement led her into the Commission of Errors which her Heart disapprove” from Volume the Second, for example, patricide is only the first among the “Errors” committed by the heroine:

I murdered my father at a very early period of my Life, I have since murdered my Mother, and I am now going to murder my Sister. I have changed my religion so often that at present I have not an idea of any left. I have been a perjured witness in every public tryal for these past twelve Years; and I have forged my own will. In short, there is scarcely a crime that I have not committed.

But the best part of this inventory is the sublimely fatuous deadpan with which it concludes: “But I am now going to reform.” From homicide we turn to suicide in Frederic & Elfrida, where the sweet-tempered Charlotte, “whose nature … was an earnest desire to oblige every one,” amiably accepts two successive proposals of marriage and is so shocked to recollect her “double engagement” the next morning that she throws herself into a stream and floats, Ophelia-like, back to her village, “where she was picked up and buried” by her friends. Alcoholism reigns supreme in Jack and Alice, where the principals are often passing the bottle, arguing noisily, and carried home “Dead Drunk”. In Henry and Eliza, cannibalism makes a cameo appearance, when the heroine, having escaped a dungeon with her two children, “began to find herself rather hungry, and had reason to think, by their biting off two of her fingers, that her Children were in much the same situation.” Manifestly Austen could make a lot happen when she wanted to, though of course these overblown events are so ridiculous as to be more likely to irk rather than please any reader in search of “romantic or uncommon” adventures.

The Beautifull Cassandra is markedly different. It is the first novel by Jane Austen fully to embrace the uneventful. True, Cassandra is a tad felonious, but stiffing a pastry chef and a coachman, knocking down the former and plonking her bonnet upon the head of the latter, surely fall short of the passionate adventures that Brontë or Garrod wanted from interesting narrative. Cassandra’s ride to Hampstead, for example, is pointedly unremarkable. Her journey there and back takes up no more than a single sentence. No action or encounter or observation emerges from this outing, and she returns immediately to “the same spot of the same Street she had sate out from” for no apparent purpose and to no apparent effect, except for running up her coach fare and obliging her to make a quick escape. When she comes upon the mysterious Maria and they “trembled, blushed, turned pale”—clues that in any other novel of the time would suggest that some conflict has taken place in the past and that some dramatic event is about to transpire—Austen thwarts our desire for an upshot. Nothing happens except more forward movement out of the frame. The Beautifull Cassandra thus anticipates Austen’s mature novelistic practice by eschewing grandiose adventure. It experiments—in a rather extreme way—with writing on what Austen would later call a “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory,” taking that narrowness about which Emerson and others complained and turning it into a rich field for her artistic originality.

What makes The Beautiful Cassandra so fabulous and so enduring is its stylistic mastery. Reading Austen’s youthful works, only parts of which had just been published, for the first time, Virginia Woolf spotted exactly this quality, remarking that even though Austen’s youthful writings surely entertained Austen’s family circle, they were meant “to outlast the Christmas holidays.” Austen was writing for posterity, even at age eleven: “She was writing for everybody, for nobody, for our age, for her own; in other words, even at that early age Jane Austen was writing.” In its wisecracking, experimentation, and parody, the youthful writing shows a stunning audacity, virtuosity, and, most of all, authority. The juvenilia are important, then, not only because they lead to Austen’s mature work, but because so many of them are perfect works in their own right, in which Jane Austen first realizes and relishes her status, as she proudly signs herself here, “THE AUTHOR.”

Claudia L. Johnson is the Murray Professor of English Literature at Princeton University.

Text excerpt from Afterword and illustration as published in The Beautifull Cassandra: A Novel in Twelve Chapters by Jane Austen. Afterword by Claudia L. Johnson. Artwork by Leon Steinmetz. Copyright © 2018 by Princeton University Press. Artwork copyright © 2018 by Leon Steinmetz. Reprinted by permission.

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