On this day, 28 January 1813, Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice was published. Over seventeen years had passed since she finished writing her original version of the book, then called “First Impressions”, when she was just twenty years old. Now, at the age of thirty-seven, as Austen at last held a published copy in her hands, she called it “my own darling Child”.
Most of us know Austen only as the writer of six novels that were published in just six years and two months, from Sense and Sensibility in 1811 to Persuasion in 1817, published five months after her death. Freya Johnston’s illuminating new book, Jane Austen, Early and Late (Princeton University Press, 2021) argues that, by limiting our perspective to these mature novels, we aren’t getting a complete picture of Austen as a writer. Her “juvenilia”, or teenage writings, are usually seen as unimportant, even embarrassing, but Austen herself “preserved, returned to, and revised her earliest unpublished works long after she became a published author,” Johnston points out.
One of these works is Austen’s comical “The History of England”, which she wrote in 1791 when she was fifteen and, in her own words, a “partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian.” It was a tongue-in-cheek response to the Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith’s weighty schoolroom text, The History of England, from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II (1771). Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra privileged the women’s stories and portraits over the men’s – and this “partial, prejudiced” view of history is detectable in Austen’s later novels too. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine complains that history tells her
nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kinds, with wars and pestilences, in every page; the men are all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome.
It’s worth remembering that the first version of Northanger Abbey was, like Pride and Prejudice, written when Austen was a precocious, and wildly talented, young woman.
© Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved
‘Wild Child’, my essay on Jane Austen, appears in this month’s Dublin Review of Books.