*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Book review: Jane Austen, Early and Late by Freya Johnston

by
22 December 2023

This scholar upsets the conventional picture, says Michael Wheeler

THERE was a time when juvenilia and “teenage writing” were regarded simply as stuff to be got through on the way to the “mature” writings of some literary celebrity. No longer. In the case of Jane Austen, beloved of scholars and general readers alike, proper attention has been paid to the earlier writings — stories, dramatic sketches, verses, histories — for some years. Freya Johnston, University Lecturer and Tutorial Fellow in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford, not only contributes to the field of “early” Austen, but also revises everything written on the subject to date in a work of stunning originality. And her book raises the question whether it makes sense to speak of an early and a late Austen at all.

Most obviously, the first of the Big Six novels to be written, Northanger Abbey, and the last, Persuasion, were published together posthumously, and thus last. The first three — Northanger, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice — were reworkings of earlier writings, and stylistic and thematic continuity across the full range of Austen’s work provides the basis for Johnston’s argument, and her title.

Most readers encounter the early writing only after reading the later, another example of the first being last. Johnston invokes Edward Said’s comments on Hardy’s young Jude Fawley (“Age masquerading as Juvenility”), as an uncanny combination that well describes the character of Austen’s unpublished work, “a montage of beginnings and endings, an unlikely jamming together of youth and age”. Kathryn Sutherland, another Oxford scholar, has commented that Austen’s manuscripts “appear to represent early and later drafts compacted into one”. Redrafting can be a delaying tactic, and the published novels show signs of a reluctant attitude towards closure.

The delicate but strong web of argument which is spun in this book, by an author who has read everything written by Austen’s contemporaries and everything written about her, will delight the scholar. General readers who are willing to follow the book’s intricacies will also be rewarded with a range of fascinating insights into a writer whose œuvre has become almost too familiar, so great is her popular appeal.

Does the strange form of the title “North-hanger”, for example, show traces of a Hampshire accent, “hangers” being familiar to those of us who live in that county? For Fanny and Edmund in Mansfield Park, the subject of Antigua is an entertaining and pleasing one, which “constitutes a major obstacle to interpreting the scene [vol. 2, ch. 3] as a criticism of imperialist tendencies”. And, in an age of pious ejaculations on the subject of death, Austen’s last piece of writing, dictated on her deathbed in Winchester, is a comic poem.

 

Dr Wheeler is a Visiting Professor of English at the University of Southampton and author of Jane Austen and Winchester Cathedral (Winchester Cathedral booklet).

 

Jane Austen, Early and Late
Freya Johnston
Princeton University Press £20
(978-0-691-22980-5)
Church Times Bookshop £18

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards

 

Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available

 

SAVE THE DATE

Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website

 

ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

 

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)