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The Jane Austen You Haven’t Read

December 11, 2023

By Brian Boone

Happy 248th birthday to Jane Austen, early 19th century author whose works about human quirks and the mannered dance of relationships makes her relevant long past the Regency period in which she first anonymously published her novels. She only published four books in her lifetime, and they’ve all been widely read and repeatedly adapted. Here’s a look beyond Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma to the stuff for the true Jane-iacs. 

Love and Freindship

A 14-year-old Jane Austen wrote an epistolary novel—in which the plot is conveyed entirely by a succession of letters sent between fictional characters—called Love and Freindship(The misspelled title was intentional.) The 1790s work is a combination of a comical fairy tale and a spoof of romantic novels—Austen employs a running joke wherein women driven to swoon and faint by acts of love and woo endure horrible bad luck. (Oddly, the 2016 film Love and Friendship isn’t based on Austen’s work of mostly the same name, but another early work, Lady Susanposthumously published in 1871.)

History of England 

In 1791, 15-year-old Jane Austen collaborated with her older sister, Cassandra, on this high concept parody of a British textbook of the era. Named after Oliver Goldsmith’s pompous History of England, in common use since 1764, Cassandra provided 13 watercolor illustrations for Austen’s 34 pages of mocking text that poke fun at both English history and the way it’s written.

Sir Charles Grandison

Austen started in 1793 and finished in 1800 a stage play called Sir Charles Grandison, or The Happy Man, a Comedy in 6 ActsIt’s another parody of the literature of which the primarily but extensively home-schooled Austen was familiar—works of prose literature shortened, cleaned up, and adapted into brief plays for inclusion in student textbooks. Austen lampooned Samuel Richardson’s 1753 novel The History of Charles Grandison in such a manner. 

Catherine, or The Bower

An attempt at a realistic novel—years before that would become a mainstream literary phenomenon, 17-year-old Jane Austen wrote Catherine, or The Bower in 1792 and 1793. She never did finish a full draft of the manuscript about a lonely teenager raised by her cruel wealthy want who spends long passages thinking about her fate under a shady bower.

The Beautiful Cassandra 

This is 12-year-old Jane Austen’s deft and ambitious deconstruction of literary forms, questioning even what constitutes a “novel.” Following a lengthy, flowery, and overwrought dedication to Austen’s sister, Cassandra, the meat of the book follows. It consists entirely of a scant list of chapter titles and occasional explanation of Cassandra’s errand-running trip to London and back.

Thousands of letters

In the 1800s, mail was delivered several times a day, as letter-writing was a primary (and voluminous) form of communication in Europe and the U.S. To that end, there’s evidence that Jane Austen wrote more than 3,000 letters. Unfortunately, only around 160 of those notes remain extant to this day. Her older sister and most frequent recipient of the letters, Cassandra Austen, destroyed most of them. She didn’t want Jane’s scathing commentary about their relatives and friends to get out, nor anything untoward about the family to be seen by prying eyes.  

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an individual in possession of a good mind, must be in want of a Jane Austen title for their personal library. And Canterbury Classics can happily oblige.