When we think of Jane Austen, we think of her novels, the movies and miniseries based on them, as well as that idealistic yet ultimately romantic female protagonists that always helm her works. This Regency era writer tells the tale of women who want more but are limited by societal constraints. But when the author was younger, she wrote stories through a different perspective. They were still literary commentaries on the England of her time, but they were a lot racier than her subsequent pieces.
Austen began writing at the age of eleven. What researchers, scholars, and critics find amazing is that from such an early age, her works already featured the confident narrative voice that would become her staple. However, these early writings included references to sex, violence, and alcohol, all the things nobody would associate with the woman who’d write under the pseudonym “A Lady.” Lucky for us, the British Library has tasked itself with recovering the young Austen’s stories and presenting them to the world.
This unprecedented literary treasure would prove to be a breakthrough, considering the secrecy of society at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. According to Oxford University English professor Kathryn Sutherland, “Jane Austen’s earliest writings appear to have little in common with the restrained and realistic society portrayed in her adult novels.”
As for the writing style used during these early works, British Library curator Sandra Tuppen says, “It’s very satirical. She’s quite assured in taking off the style –and you find that right through the teenage notebooks.” The first volume of her work is an outline for a twelve-chapter novel as well as a comedic dedication and index to match. The author’s famous witty humor was already quite evident from these first narrative blueprints.
The sixteen-year-old Austen wrote the parody Austen’s History of England, where she made fun of a textbook of the time. The author’s sister, Cassandra, who is know very well known by Austen fans, illustrated the accompanying designs to this farcical version of the England’s royal history.
These notebooks were part of an Austen tradition where friends, relatives, and acquaintances would read the writings created by members of the family. These notebooks included several inside jokes created for its readers. This practice of writing and presenting her work from such a young age are likely to have prepared Austen for later on in life, when she would need to send her work to publishers and have it scrutinized by others.
In regards to these early texts, Tuppen claims, “They are characterized by exaggerated sentiment and absurd adventures. (…) they’re racier than her later novels –there’s murder and violence, which don’t crop up in her later novels– she’s obviously got these from the stories that she read, so she must have had access to some racy literature.”
After the recovered notebooks, titled Volume The First, Volume The Second, and Volume The Third, were further examined and analyzed, specialists determined that the first drafts of novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey were written shortly after the final notebook, considering the way certain characters were sketched or described.
It’s always fascinating to notice how a famous personality thought or began working on their craft before their big break and how their young mind already hinted at what would later become their trademark pieces. One thing is for sure: Jane Austen was a woman ahead of her time, even from a young age. Her ideas and social commentary from her teens prove that she was not an ordinary person, but “A Lady” who would be remembered for years and years after.
Translated by María Suárez