Catharine and Other Writings, by Jane Austen (Oxford World’s Classics) – A Review

Catharine and Other Writings, by Jane Austen (Oxford World's Classics) 2009“Beware of swoons, Dear Laura …  A frenzy fit is not one quarter so pernicious; it is an exercise to the Body and if not too violent, is, I dare say, conducive to Health in its consequences — Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint –”  Letter 14, Laura to Marianne, Love and Freindship 

Jane Austen grew up in the perfect fertile environment for a writer. Her family was highly educated and passionate readers, including novels which were considered by some in the late 18th-century as unworthy. Educated predominately at home, her father had an extensive library of classics and contemporary editions at her disposal. In her early teens, she began writing comical and imaginative stories for her family and close friends as entertainments and transcribing them into three volumes that would later be known as her Juvenilia. The plots and characters of these short stories are filled with unguarded satire, comical burlesque and “splendid nonsense”; — shrewd parodies of contemporary novels, historical figures and even her own family engaged in unprincipled deeds: lying, cheating and occasionally murder. Described by her father as “Effusions of Fancy by a very Young Lady Consisting of Tales in a Style entirely new”  they represent the creative beginnings of a clever and perceptive mind whose skill at keen observation of social maneuverings and the importance of wealth, so valued in her mature works, are apparent from the early beginnings. 

If you have consumed all of Austen’s major and minor novels, this reissue by Oxford University Press of their 1998 edition is an enticing treasure. In Catharine and Other Writings, we are introduced not only to a writer in the making, but a collection of prayers, poems and unfinished fragments of novels written in maturity and rarely reprinted. As with the other Oxford editions of Jane Austen’s works reissued in the past year, this edition contains excellent supplemental material: a short biography of Austen, notes on the text, a select bibliography, a chronology of Austen’s life, textural notes, insightful explanatory notes and a superb introduction by prominent Austen scholar Margaret Anne Doody that details the inspiration from her family and her environment that influenced and formed Austen’s creative mind.  

“Jane Austen was not a child as a writer when she wrote these early pieces. She possessed a sophistication rarely matched in viewing and using her own medium. She not only understood the Novel, she took the Novel apart, as one might take apart a clock, to see how it works – and put it back together, but it was no longer the same clock. Her genius at an early age is as awe-inspiring as Mozart’s.” pp xxxv 

What I found so engaging in this collection was the lightness and comical devil-may-care freeness in Austen’s youthful approach. It was like a rush of endorphin to a dour mood, taking you outside of your troubles and elevating you into a magical world of a youthful imaginings and farcical fancy. I have several favorites that I will re-read when I need a laugh, especially Love and Freindship, The Beautiful Cassandra and The History of England. Not all of the works are comical. When Winchester races  is a verse written when Austen was mortally ill and dictated from her deathbed to her sister Cassandra three days before her death. It is her final work. A moralistic piece, it resurrects the ghost of St. Swinthin who curses the race goers for their sins of pleasure. 

When once we were buried you think we are gone

But behold me immortal! 

An interesting choice of subject for the last days of her life, and ironic in relation to what acclaim she has garnered since she has gone. Like St. Swinthin, Jane Austen is indeed immortal! 

4 out of 5 Regency Stars 

Catharine and Other Writings, by Jane Austen (Oxford World’s Classics)
Edited by Margaret Anne Doody and Douglas Murray
Oxford University Press, USA (2009)
Trade paperback, 424 pages
978-0199538423