February 2014 meeting: Catharine, or The Bower

Prepared by Marilyn, with contribution from Jessie

The time has come – after a few false starts the meeting discussed Catharine, or The Bower. The work has been dated most likely at 1792, and was written at Steventon when she was aged 17. It appeals as the item in the Juvenilia that had most potential.

It is inevitable that readers would look for predictions of the style we have become accustomed to in Austen’s work. Catharine is a work on the threshold of becoming a mature novel. There is evidence of revision as the final paragraph was in a different hand, suggesting it was transcribed in the 1800s perhaps in part by nieces or nephews, and may have been edited at Chawton (Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, 2009). Changes that suggest a later transcription include references to the ‘regency walking dress’ as the text was updated to conform to details that would appeal to Regency readers.

The first sentence is a memorable piece of Jane Austen’s writing. It recalls the expectation that heroines are often orphans (cf Northanger Abbey’s opening paragraph describing Catherine Morland and her mother’s not dying, and the motherless Emma Woodhouse).

The concept of the bower or a retreat is revisited in later works such Richardson’s Clarissa and Charlotte Collins’ private space used as a retreat from Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice.

As a work indicating a developing style, the characterisation is more impressive than the plot creation. Catharine’s desire for independence, despite the restricted upbringing imposed by her Aunt who insisted, for instance, that she avoid the company of officers who were not sought-after companions in 18th century fiction. Perhaps Catharine is an independent thinker, despite her upbringing, and may be an early Elizabeth Bennet in her questioning and satirising the behaviours of the day – commenting that Stanley took half an hour to get ready. Catharine loved dancing, was intelligent and was given the key to her aunt’s library so that she had read Charlotte Turner Smith whose novels Emmaline and Ethelinde were a favourite of Austen and may have influenced her writing. As a character, Camilla, by comparison does not sparkle and foreshadows Isabella Thorpe in her ignorance of geography and reading, her focus on fashion and her empty-headedness. Mr Percival and Stanley are perhaps precursors of Mr Woodhouse and Willoughby or Henry Crawford.

Predictions of the outcome of this unfinished work were that Catharine may retreat to the Bower, or be swept off her feet by Stanley, or perhaps she would be rejected by his family because of her poverty and face a lonely future.

The work is suggestive of a conduct book for women. The Indian journey reflects that taken by Jane Austen’s cousin Philadelphia Hancock who was orphaned and sent to India where she entered an unsatisfactory marriage as a result.

Catharine’s aunt provided further unsuitable modelling in her conservative political views of the French Revolution and the Jacobin threat and criticism of Queen Elizabeth I. Such references to politics appear here but political comments are absent from future works.

The setting in a village with four families suggests the focus of future works.

We noted the evolving writing style with use of assonance and alliteration that is already highly developed such as ‘Who from her solitary situation’ (p. 209), ‘To pity and persecute her friend’ (p. 222) and ‘His father’s forgiveness of faults’ (p. 252).

The lengthy conversations between Catharine and Camilla could have been read aloud to provide evening entertainments for the family.

This was an enjoyable read and valuable discussion that was followed by quotations and a quiz prepared by Jessie.

Next meeting

Our next meeting on 15 March will focus on servants in Jane Austen’s novels, and will include discussion of Longbourn by Jo Baker.

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