May 2021 meeting: Juvenilia, Volume the third

In May we completed our discussion of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, having discussed Volume the first last November, and Volume the second in March. Volume the third contains just two pieces, both written in 1792 when Austen would have been 16 to 17 years old:

  • Evelyn
  • Catharine, or The bower

As before, members tackled the topic from different angles, but we’ll start with the member who, as in previous meetings, looked at the history of the manuscript itself.


Austen’s sister Cassandra inherited the manuscripts, and from her they went to nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh. The volume remained in the family, and in 1951 was owned by James’ grandson, Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh, when Chapman published the first edition. It remained in the family until 1976, though it had been deposited in the British Library in 1963. The family auctioned it, via Sotheby’s, on 14 December 1976, and it was bought by the British Rail Pension Fund. The British Library bought it from the Fund on 27 September 1988 for £120,000, with the help of a grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

Other interesting facts are that:

  • Neither of the pieces were finished in Austen’s hand, with material added later in two hands, believed to be James Edward Austen Leigh and his daughter Anna (or, Jane Anna Elizabeth Lefroy, or, J.A.E.L.).
  • Austen left blank pages between the end of “Evelyn” and “Catharine”.
  • Four loose sheets were found in the volume, containing an alternative ending to “Evelyn” signed by J.A.E.L.
  • There is evidence of revision, with Catharine, sometimes called Kitty, and Mrs Peterson sometimes Mrs Percival.
  • The “Effusions of fancy, by a very young lady, Consisting of tales, In a style entirely new” inscription is in a different hand, which has been attributed to Austen’s father, though authority for this is unknown.

The works

One member shared Margaret Anne Doody’s Introduction to Penguin’s Catharine and other writings. Doody provocatively suggests that Austen tamed down her writing after the Juvenilia, not because she was maturing, but to meet the marketplace, after suffering two rejections with Susan and First impressions. She discusses various ways in which the Juvenilia are approached, and their drawbacks. They can be seen as pointing to later writings (but then you miss their own effects). There are also the “biographical” and related “moral” approach. Our member felt she has a point but argued that it is valid to look for author’s worldviews in their work, that we can see ongoing Austen interests in these early works – women’s place, city versus country, education of young women vs accomplishments.

Also, Catharine is more realistic, which suggests that Austen was already “taming” her work in her youth.

Doody also argues for the subversiveness of this early work. This was not recognised by early critics like David Cecil, but it was by GK Chesterton who praised these early works, in 1922:

”she was original … naturally exuberant … she could have been a buffoon like the Wife of Bath if she chose. This is what gives an infallible force to her irony. This is what gives a stunning weight to her understatements.”

Doody concludes that “Austen in maturity made a choice … wrote the realistic novel of courtship … related to the style of novel that had frightened her, stimulated her, and made her laugh … She could not laugh so loud in the later works … She could not be wild … she had to become genteel, and act like a lady. She could draw characters like the Steeles and the Crawfords … without sending them to the poorhouse or the guillotine for their wickedness, but she had to pretend that the world was better and its general fictions more reliable than she knew them to be”.


Most of the group spent more time on the longer work, “Catharine”, but a couple did look specifically at Evelyn, which is a rather absurd, or preposterous story, about the idyllic town of Evelyn. A young man comes to town and wants to live there, but there are no homes. However, a family, when he asks for their house, immediately and willingly gives it up – and their daughter’s hand in marriage – to him. The story continues …

One of our members, a teacher, looked at it as she’d look at the writing of the 15-year-old students she used to teach. She felt the work revealed an increasing understanding in Austen of there being a bigger audience for her writing. Austen uses authorial intrusion, and moves beyond a simple plot structure. She also slows down the pace – which was fast and furious in most of the earlier Juvenilia – by using description, such as of setting.

Another member described it as an example of nonsense writing, and noted that some have not wanted to publish it because it doesn’t fit in with Austen’s style of writing.

Two members referred to Normandin’s paywalled article which explores “Evelyn” as being about “the gift”. Normandin argues that “Evelyn” is often overlooked, partly because it doesn’t suit the feminist project. Its protagonist is male and its females lack the refreshing assertiveness much of the juvenilia. But, he argues that “Evelyn” is worth considering because it attempts “with extreme and hilarious rigour to imagine a true gift”. He argues that Austen’s awareness of ‘how giving permeates literary language makes “Evelyn” one of the most formally self-conscious things she ever wrote”. He believes it could be western literature’s “keenest examination of the gift because not in spite of its its absurd frivolity.”

Meanwhile, we questioned whether this story reflected Austen’s attitude to how society worked or that she just wrote the silliest story imaginable.


Members generally agreed – along with many critics – that Catharine indicates more serious writing, and that it shows a clear transition between the more exuberant earlier juvenilia and Lady Susan. We generally agreed that it is more structured, developing its ideas more slowly. We saw hints of Catherine Moreland in Kitty, and Austen’s exploration of money, beauty, power and prestige.

One member’s research revealed the fact that the Austen-Leighs suggested that the story of the elder Wynne girl (one of Catharine’s friends) was drawn from life because it describes, with some exaggeration, the fate of Jane Austen’s aunt, Philadelphia Austen, who was sent to India in 1752 and was married within 7 months.

Members responded in various ways to the work. One felt on first reading that it was a lovely romance but then came to think Catharine hollow, and taken in by Edward Stanley’s good looks. However, Catharine was, she said, good at “coming back” at her aunt Mrs Peterson/Percival.

One member shared the ideas of Juliet McMaster, who, with a team of students, edited Catharine for the Juvenilia Press. She looks at Catharine as an incomplete work, and, using the six published novels as her model, speculates on who the hero would have been, who, that is, Catharine would marry. She works carefully though Catharine, comparing narrative points with the novels, to produce her theory of where Austen might have taken the story.

Another member was interested in pointers to Austen’s later writing: the use of music, the theme of sensibility, the criticism of “fashionable” acquisition of accomplishments by young women, the effect of poverty on young women (which was taken up in the unfinished The Watsons). She was interested in the idea that Austen had done some later editing of the work, wondering why, given that, she left in reference to a harpsichord which was, by Austen’s adulthood, an old-fashioned instrument. She also noted Austen’s use of letters to move the narrative on.

Our member wondered whether it was sad that Catharine accepted that Edward “had nicked off”, and whether it meant that Austen was already accepting life as a spinster.

It was also suggested that “Catharine” is a spoof of conduct books.

Finally, we wondered who proofread her work, and how much influence the family had on her plotting. Catharine does, we thought, end abruptly.


Other business

Our next meeting is June 19 at 1.30pm, in the NLA Friends’ Lounge, on Children in Jane Austen’s novels. 

3 Responses to May 2021 meeting: Juvenilia, Volume the third

  1. wadholloway says:

    I liked Doody’s point but is there any evidence surviving that Susan was more ‘juvenile’ than Northanger Abbey (apparently only the ms title page of Susan remains)

  2. […] July meeting was inspired by Jane Austen’s juvenilia work, Catharine, or the Bower. As usual, members tackled the subject from different […]

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