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

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Jude Fawley (“Age masquerading as Juvenility”), as an uncanny combination that well describes the character of Austen’s unpublished work, “a montage of beginnings and endings, an unlikely jamming together of youth and age”.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
Church Times Bookshop £18

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