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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The wild subversiveness of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia did NOT disappear in her novels-it just went underground!

In the 2/18/15 edition of the Times Literary Supplement, there is an excellent review (which I only first saw today) by the always forthright and insightful Paula Byrne of new editions of JA’s Juvenilia edited by Kathryn Sutherland and Christine Alexander, respectively. I particularly enjoyed, and was struck by, the resonance of the following comment by Byrne with my own thinking:

“As Kathryn Sutherland writes in her introduction to a splendid new edition of the “juvenilia”: “Jane Austen’s earliest writings are violent, restless, anarchic and exuberantly expressionistic. Drunkenness, female brawling, sexual misdemeanour and murder run riot across their pages”. When I was a schoolteacher, nothing gave me more pleasure than shocking cynical teenagers by teaching Austen’s early works. Without knowing the identity of the author in question, though recognizing the eighteenth-century style of the work, the students were invariably delighted by the irreverent, Monty Pythonesque absurdity of the comedy. The knowledge that this was the work of an early-teen Austen, known to them only as chronicler of the marriage plot, increased their pleasure.”

It happens by serendipity that my attention was brought to the fiction written by Austen before her six complete, published novels by recent news reports that filming (in Ireland) of Whit Stillman’s upcoming adaptation of the early twenty-something Jane Austen’s short epistolary novella Lady Susan is now complete. For reasons known only to Stillman, it is entitled Love and Freindship, thereby creating  confusion for Janeites who might recognize this as the title of one of JA’s earlier Juvenilia, which has a completely different plot from Lady Susan. But the good news is that release of the film cannot be that far off in the future.
As far as I can gather online, which is not much, the following IMDB blurb makes it sound like the film will stick to Lady Susan:  “Set in the 1790s, Love and Friendship centers on beautiful widow Lady Susan Vernon, who has come to the estate of her in-laws to wait out colorful rumors about her dalliances circulating through polite society. Whilst there, she decides to secure a husband for herself and her rather reluctant debutante daughter, Frederica.”

That sounds pretty bland, which I hope is not matched by the tone of the film itself. I.e. I hope the full-bore sociopathy of Lady Susan is faithfully preserved by the cleverly subversive Whit Stillman. And I am looking forward to seeing it, with cautious optimism.

The serendipity of these two recent online pieces about Jane Austen’s juvenilia for me is that it raised in me renewed hope that film adaptations like Stillman’s, watched by viewers who read pieces like Byrne’s, and editions like Sutherland’s and Alexander’s, will help project into the wider Janeite world (which still widely subscribes to the Myth of Jane Austen that Byrne touched on one aspect of, as quoted above) the radically unsettling notion of a young adult Jane Austen writing a story told from the point of view of an amoral, witty, sophisticated sociopath whom you would expect to see as the protagonist of a frankly subversive text like Liaisons Dangereuses. Definitely not your grandmother’s or your schoolchild’s Jane Austen.

This all also got me thinking yet again about the awesome power of that Myth to make Janeites believe ten impossible things before breakfast, and to blind them to what would otherwise be obvious in her writings, had they been written by another author. I.e., when I think about the high B.S. quotient of scholarly and lay opinions that Jane Austen as an adult put aside her “childish” anarchism and became a political and religious conservative who wished to preserve the status quo in sexist Regency Era England, and who would never never never put any sex in any of her novels, I want to laugh—except that this blind acceptance of such a distorted view of Jane Austen—like the cow-like expression on the Bowdlerized version of the hard-edged countrywoman whom Cassandra sketched, that the Bank of England wants to put on the new 10 pound note---is absurd beyond a laugh, as Jane Austen herself might have put it.  It’s very very sad.

To be more precise about how the Juvenilia fit into the Myth of Jane Austen, the whopper that has been sold to an unsuspecting Janeite world is the still mostly universally held notion that:

ONE: Jane Austen, between the ages of 13 and 18, wrote a number of short pieces of Juvenilia which (it is also universally recognized) are filled with every variety of social mayhem, including violent murder—all presented with an over the top, unapologetic, exuberant, almost savage glee and wit, that could only come from the pen of a teenaged genius of a girl who reveled in letting the dark side of her imagination run wild and free. She was reacting to the pervasive hypocrisies and cruelties of the supposedly mature, Christian, and benevolent society into which she was born, and she took no prisoners whatsoever; and

TWO: A few years (we don’t know exactly how many) after her last Juvenilia, Catherine or the Bower, she produced a startlingly mature novella, Lady Susan (broken off abruptly as if in midstream, just when it was getting really complicated and interesting, as if she suddenly became bored with the writing, and wanted to get it off her desk) which, in a much more polished style, nevertheless continued that same spirit of dark anarchy and rebellion against prudent societal norms which suffuses all the Juvenilia; but then; and yet, mysteriously,   

THREE: The Austen family (most of all that arch-deceiver, James Edward Austen Leigh,  JA’s nephew), joined by the mainstream of modern Austen scholars like Deirdre Le Faye, has managed to convince the Janeite world that Jane Austen abruptly abandoned the divine madness of her youth and early adulthood, and that she suddenly started writing novels which were diametrically opposed to those earlier productions. Instead, they are supposed to demonize the two characters from Austen’s novels who most closely remotely resemble Lady Susan’s smooth, sophisticated sociopathy: Lucy Steele who comes from the gutter (Sense &Sensibililty) and Henry Crawford who comes from elite society (Mansfield Park)—both of them relishing their power to manipulate others with ease.

Whereas Occam’s Razor would dictate a much simpler one-step explanation for what we see in Jane Austen’s six novels, all published after she was 35 years old—which is that she NEVER gave up her youthful perspective, but became such a masterful writer in her maturity that she was able to hide the savagery of her satire in plain sight just beneath the surface of her novels, and preserve it safe from censorious critics who would have crucified her, and kept her novels from even being published, had she been as overt in them as she was in Lady Susan and her Juvenilia.

So, it should be really interesting to see if Stillman really dishes out a cinematic version of Sevigny’s phallic lobster (Google to see what I am referring to), and raised a bunch of Janeite eyebrows wondering what exactly is going on in an “exploitative” adaptation of “poor Jane Austen”.

I personally can’t wait, and have every hope that Stillman’s film will be very very subversive, and will therefore then be greeted with howls like nothing we’ve heard since Patricia Rozema gave us her 1999 Mansfield Park  with Sir Thomas Bertram as a savage monster raping his slaves on his Antiguan plantation—an interpretation of MP that is ENTIRELY supported by the text of the novel itself, when read with proper sensitivity to JA’s subtextual hints.

Bring it on! And let the real Jane Austen finally be seen for who she was as a precocious ;teenaged writing rebel, and who she remained till her dying day as a subtle mature writing genius rebel.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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