From the desk of Tracy Hickman:
The first time I read a collection of Jane Austen’s juvenilia, I remember relishing the sheer fun and silliness of the stories and plays. It was a slender paperback that included transcriptions of selected works from the original notebooks written from 1787 to 1793. These handwritten notebooks had circulated within Austen’s family during her lifetime and were later given to family members by her sister Cassandra, but the stories were not published until the twentieth-century. Because none of Austen’s six completed and published novels exist in manuscript form, these early notebooks are rare examples of her fiction that have survived intact “in her own hand” and reside in the collections of the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Volume the First) and the British Library (Volume the Second and Volume the Third).
The three-volume set, In Her Own Hand, gives Austen fans the opportunity to read Jane’s handwriting in facsimile pages that match the size of the original notebooks, the color of the paper, and the brown-black iron gall ink that Austen used. Inkblots, smudges, and revisions pepper the pages, giving the reader a glimpse into Austen’s early creative process. When faced with deciphering a difficult word or phrase, text transcriptions by Austen scholar Robert W. Chapman provide a handy reference. Each volume contains an introduction by Professor Kathryn Sutherland that places the writings in context and highlights important aspects of the stories and sketches such as their chronology and how they relate to later Austen works. As Sutherland points out, these notebooks were not Jane Austen’s private journals but rather “confidential publications” that were “intended and crafted for circulation among family and friends.” (6)
Illustration from Volume the First: Steventon Rectory, Hampshire (Jane Austen’s birthplace)
Volume the First is dominated by “knockabout humor” that can be characterized as “violent, restless, anarchic and exuberantly expressionistic.” (6) While they stand in complete contrast to the mature novels, these action-packed stories reveal a young writer familiar with a range of eighteenth-century English fiction:
They are the virtuoso display of a writer who knows how fiction works, through plotting and narrative pattern, well enough to imitate a bad writer following a hackneyed paradigm. (7)
In Volume the Second, Austen settles down a bit. This is the longest of the three notebooks and the most carefully structured. According to Sutherland:
…the pieces here achieve a more unified sensibility without sacrificing any of their comedy. Indeed, Volume the Second has a good claim to be Jane Austen’s funniest work; it is impossible not to laugh out loud while reading it. (5)
This notebook includes “Love and Freindship” which includes the famous line “Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint–” as well as the spoof “History of England” with thirteen watercolor medallion portraits by Cassandra. This satirical history “by a partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian” is one of my favorite works of Austen’s juvenilia.
Facsimile from Volume the Third: Evelyn
Volume the Third is the shortest of the notebooks, containing two early novellas, “Evelyn” and “Kitty, or the Bower,” usually referred to by its revised name, “Catharine.” This volume differs from the earlier two, as it represents what Professor Sutherland calls “a shared writing space” with a new generation of Austens:
Critics have long recognized substantial continuations to both stories, inserted years after their initial composition, in the hands of Anna Austen (later Anna Lefroy) and her younger half brother James Edward Austen (later James Edward Austen-Leigh). But it now seems probable that many small local revisions to the manuscript…assumed by previous editors to be Austen’s own, were also introduced by another hand, most likely James Edward’s. (8)
Anna and James wrote continuations to “Evelyn” that are included in the notebook and James contributed the final four pages to “Kitty, or the Bower” and revised its title and main character’s name as “Catharine.” It is little wonder that Aunt Jane was a favorite with her young nephews and nieces: what fun they must have had creating imaginary scenes and stories together.
In Her Own Hand is a unique contribution to the world of Austen publications. This boxed set of three hardcover volumes is beautifully designed and presented: the jewel in the crown of a Janeite’s book collection. Abbeville Press, an independent publisher of fine art and illustrated books, has clearly put careful thought into bringing these manuscripts to a wider audience. The facsimile notebooks draw readers into Jane Austen’s family circle, as we share the well-worn pages among friends and relatives: laughing over passages, examining revisions, and tracing our hands across the pages. Kathryn Sutherland’s engaging and thought-provoking introductions help the reader to share in the fun of many of the Austen family’s jokes while also gaining a greater understanding of the world they lived in. Readers will be entertained and inspired by this experience of Jane Austen’s “playful apprenticeship in the art of bookmaking.” (9)
5 out of 5 Stars
In Her Own Hand: Volume the First, Volume the Second, and Volume the Third, by Jane Austen, introduction by Kathryn Sutherland
Abbeville Press (2014)
Boxed set of 3 hardcover volumes (696) pages
Cover image courtesy of Abbeville Press © 2014; text Tracy Hickman © 2014, Austenprose.com
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