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Discovering Humor in Austen’s Juvenilia

Jane Austen didn’t just write the romance novels you know.

I never picked up an Austen novel—or even wanted to—until I attended an Education Week presentation by Adjunct Faculty Jane Hinckley (Interdisciplinary Humanities) about the writings of the young Jane Austen. Hinckley’s presentation, “Appreciating Austen’s Juvenilia and Lady Susan,” was an introduction to Teenage Writings (an anthology of Austen’s first works), The History of England, and Lady Susan.

Hinckley started her presentation with excerpts from Teenage Writings. A few of the best samples came from Jack and Alice,” an uncharacteristically short nine-chapter novel about a woman named Alice who is a gambler and a drunkard. Austen describes the character Alice as a woman who “has many rare and charming qualities, but Sobriety is not one of them.” And while Austen included Jack (who is Alice’s brother) in the title, she only mentions him in one paragraph. “The Hero of this Novel,” as Austen calls him, “never did anything worth mentioning,” except die and leave Alice as “the sole inheritress of a very large fortune.”

After Teenage Writings, Hinkley moved on to The History of England and Lady Susan. The History of England shines as a riotous, satirical accounting of England’s royalty. Lady Susan, a novella, features a nefarious femme fatale written in a tone different from Austen’s many teenage and adult writings. For example, the main character proclaims her friend’s husband to be “too old to be governable, too young to die.”

Hinckley’s attendees laughed and asked insightful questions about the young life of this favorite author. Many (including me) left with a motivation to read the published collections of Jane Austen’s juvenilia to discover more of her playful and satirical voice.

Jane Hinkley standing with her presentation slides at Education Week