Jane Austen: Sanditon, Minor Works, Juvenilia

April 13, 2021

     I decided it was time to re-visit Jane Austen’s minor works and juvenilia, as it’s been 25 years since I last looked. I wondered how Andrew Davies had been able once to develop the screenplay for an entire TV series out of the unfinished final novel, Sanditon, of which there are only about 80 pages. It begins promisingly, suddenly, with a carriage accident which throws various characters together, and is centred around the machinations of a seaside property speculator. It has quite a satirical feel to it, as there’s no real depth or development to any of the characters in such a short space, and I felt she must be sending them up. And she is still very much focused on the financial difficulties faced by women in her time.

Similarly The Watsons focuses on match-making, and the need for a woman to try and marry well to ensure future financial security. In this unfinished novel one can see glimpses of how she will develop characters, situations and relationships in the well-known novels.

Lady Susan is an epistolary novel, and this had me doing some thinking about that old and now forgotten form. The archetype is LaclosLes Liaisons Dangereuses, which I recall reading and enjoying at university. But it was a difficult read, as one needs a way of keeping track of who all the characters are, who is/ has written to whom, who knows what and who doesn’t know it; all of these are far more difficult than following the plot of a more conventional novel, and I wonder if that is the main reason the epistolary form has fallen into desuetude. One can do a lot with shifting perspectives it is possible to create through the timing and sequencing of the letters, and yet I imagine the writing of such a novel is also rather difficult for the author. Lady Susan is a very interesting character, and the novel is worth a read for an insight into eighteenth-century machinations around marriage.

The various juvenilia are very interesting indeed; many short, many unfinished, trial pieces almost, and marvellous when one realises they came, most of them, from the pen of a teenage girl and clergyman’s daughter. They are often deliberately ridiculous, yet you can already see Austen’s sharpness of observation, and how she delineates character and suggests authorial judgements, all of which eventually become aspects of her literary greatness. Even at a very young age, she is conscious of the parlous financial situations of many respectable women. You see a style of writing which, when toned down, less extravagant and more matured, I suppose, becomes the wit, the subtlety and the irony that is developed at much greater length in the major novels. I don’t think any of the works I’ve mentioned are ‘must reads’ but they are valuable insights into the development of a great writer.

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