“But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in … a great deal of it must be invention,” says Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. In Young Jane Austen: Becoming a Writer, Lisa Pliscou cites Catherine’s words as inspiration for her “speculative biography” of the period from Austen’s birth to the age of twelve, when she began to focus on writing stories. Lisa knows about my interest in introducing Jane Austen to children, so she sent me a copy of her new book, and I’m glad she did because I had heard about it and I was curious to read her version of Austen’s early years. Noting that few facts are known about this period and acknowledging that she risks satisfying “neither the most stringent biographer nor the reader anticipating a great deal of dialogue and description,” Lisa offers an imaginative recreation of Jane Austen’s childhood.
A series of brief meditations on such topics as “Home,” “Play,” “Evening,” “Leaving Home,” “School,” and “Cousin Eliza” illuminate crucial moments in Austen’s childhood – such as the transitions from the Austen family home to her foster home in the village of Steventon and, later, to Mrs. Cawley’s school in Oxford and the Abbey School in Reading – and highlight important aspects of daily life in the Austen family, including helping with chores, listening to others read books and newspapers aloud, attending church services, and playing outdoors.
The thread that connects all the pieces of the story is a question Jane Austen must have returned to again and again: what opportunities are open to girls? This was an excellent question in the late eighteenth century and it’s an excellent question now. Lisa draws attention to possible answers throughout her book. In the section on “Play” she writes, “You could go to the big barn and pretend you were a king or a monster or a sailor or a tossing ship, and be as loud as you liked – even if you were a girl.” She imagines young Jane watching as her brothers’ lives took shape – James studying, Edward travelling, George being sent away because he had fits and could not speak or hear – and coming to the realization that “Home was not a place where you stayed forever.”
Jane’s older brother James was known as “the writer in the family,” after Mrs. Austen’s assessment of his talents, and Lisa explores what Jane might have thought about that label. It’s easy to imagine her wondering whether there could be more than one writer in a family, especially given that Mrs. Austen wrote letters and verses and Mr. Austen wrote letters and sermons. Young Jane – Lisa calls her Jenny, the nickname her father gave her when she was born – is a reader, and she interprets the world around her as if it is a story. When her sophisticated cousin Eliza comes to visit, Lisa says, “To Jenny it seemed as if Eliza had stepped straight from the pages of a book.” Jane is fascinated by books about people, especially “awful old Queen Elizabeth,” “poor Mary Stuart,” and heroines whose “saintly goodness” is amusing, and she is curious about books that tell young ladies how they ought to behave. “What could a girl do?”
Lisa suggests that the questions Jane Austen asked as a young child led her to the realization that she could do something exciting with words and stories. At the end of Young Jane Austen, “Jenny – Jane – picked up her pen, and began to write.”
This moment is only the beginning of Jane Austen’s development as a writer, of course, and in fact it isn’t the end of this biography either. The book doesn’t take up the question of what Austen wrote as a child; instead, the second half of the book repeats the story from birth to age twelve, this time with annotations instead of illustrations. The first half of the book will be especially appealing to young readers, with Massimo Mongiardo’s delightful sketches of Jane, her family, and her home. The second half of the book will be of interest to older readers who want to know about the sources Lisa has drawn on in imagining Jane’s early years.
At first I was somewhat surprised at the way the book is organized – the second part repeats the text of the first part, in addition to providing notes. But I think the division and repetition are quite helpful. Younger readers can ignore the second half if they wish, while those who want to read the details in that section won’t find themselves flipping back and forth between text and endnotes.
I think Young Jane Austen is a charming book, of interest to readers of all ages in its imaginative retelling of central events in Austen’s life and its exploration of questions over which she must have puzzled. I have two main criticisms to offer. One is the overuse of italics – I think L.M. Montgomery’s Mr. Carpenter is right when on his deathbed he advises Emily Starr to “Beware – of – italics” in her writing (in Emily’s Quest). The other is that I wish the book continued beyond the point at which Austen began to write. I would have liked to hear more commentary on the development of Austen’s juvenilia.
But that is a separate topic, and one Juliet McMaster addresses in her own new book, Jane Austen, Young Writer, forthcoming later this year from Ashgate. Juliet’s book is based on her years of research on the juvenilia: she founded the Juvenilia Press and has edited many of Jane Austen’s youthful writings, including The Beautifull Cassandra, which is one of my favourites. (She also wrote a guest post for my Mansfield Park celebrations last year.) Young Jane Austen and Jane Austen, Young Writer are very different, but for many readers – admittedly not the younger readers for whom Lisa’s book will be an introduction to Austen’s early life – they will be complementary.
Read more about introducing children to Jane Austen’s life and works on my page “Jane Austen for Kids.”