The year 1787 was an important one in the lives, specifically the writing lives, of both Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary Wollstonecraft, already the author of Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, began work on her first novel, Mary, A Fiction. In addition to writing and governessing—she was working as a governess while she wrote the novel—she had also already worked as a companion to a lady of means and founded and run a school to support herself and sometimes her sisters. Shortly thereafter, she would leave for London to begin a life supporting herself by her writing. She was twenty-eight years old, and although she would struggle throughout her life with the notion of independence and what was necessary to truly have it, she was on her own.
Also around 1787, but at around the age of eleven, Jane Austen was of course in a very different situation: at home with her family in Steventon. Nevertheless, this is the year—as far as we can know—that she began the writing of her juvenilia at home with her family. At this point in her life, she had been away to school twice, briefly, and seen the dispersal of several of her elder brothers to school, travel, and careers. Still, the years of writing the juvenilia were comparatively ones of stability, living with her parents and sister, among others, in the place where she was born.
Although their lifetimes do overlap—Wollstonecraft was born only sixteen years before Austen—their publication histories are separated by more than a decade. Mary Wollstonecraft died in 1797 and published between 1787 and 1798 (posthumously); Jane Austen’s works were published between 1811 and 1817 (posthumously). But this period of time in which Jane Austen was writing the juvenilia, from 1786/1787 to perhaps 1793, overlaps significantly with Wollstonecraft’s early publications and especially with one of Mary Wollstonecraft’s longest-running projects: her contribution of book reviews to a new liberal periodical, the Analytical Review.
Janet Todd describes the Analytical Review as “consisting almost entirely of reviews which quoted copiously from the books under discussion” (not unusual for works of this type at the time), “aimed at a general educated public of liberal persuasion” (14). Wollstonecraft was invited to contribute to the Analytical Review at the outset by one of its founders, her publisher Joseph Johnson (14). In their Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Todd and Marilyn Butler compiled hundreds of book reviews likely to have been written by Wollstonecraft—all the reviews having been published anonymously. Almost all of the included works were published between 1788 and 1792, closely matching the years Austen was likely writing the juvenilia, 1786/1787 to 1793.
The Analytical Review was known for its liberal views and reformist bent, at odds with the way that Jane Austen’s home environment, in her youth as well as later years, has usually been portrayed. In Jane Austen and the Enlightenment, however, Peter Knox-Shaw argues for a Jane Austen who is a product “in a large measure [of] the Enlightenment, more particularly from that sceptical tradition within it that ﬂourished in England and Scotland during the second half of the eighteenth century” (5) and presents several pieces of evidence of a more liberal reading list in her youth than might have been presumed: one of the books provided for her education was Thomas Percival’s Tales, Fables and Reflections, “a manual on science and liberal opinion disguised as a conduct book,” which had once been a brother’s (17); and her brothers’ literary production The Loiterer, also available to her at this time, is “liberal in tenor” (28). A. Walton Litz has also argued for and examined The Loiterer as “a record of the ideas and opinions which prevailed in Jane Austen’s early environment” (252) and provides evidence that Austen would have been familiar with “Rousseau’s ideas on education” as well as the writer Madame de Genlis (253). Knox-Shaw even notes that one reformist essay in The Loiterer, authored by Henry Austen, uses “a phrase that would have pleased Mary Wollstonecraft”: “the rights of humans” (41). I have been able to find no evidence, however, that Jane Austen had access to the Analytical Review or any works by Wollstonecraft.1
When Wollstonecraft began writing her book reviews for the Analytical Review, her most recent publication was her first novel. Perhaps accordingly, her first reviews and many that follow are reviews of works of fiction; many, however, are less reviews of the novels themselves than critiques of the conventions of contemporary fiction that she found exercised therein—reviews that often consist of mockery or ridicule. Since Austen’s juvenilia also often satirizes or burlesques the conventions of contemporary fiction, I wondered, what if the young Jane Austen had been reading Wollstonecraft’s reviews of fiction—perhaps as they were published—during the years that she was writing the juvenilia?
Austen likely read the works in the juvenilia to members of her family; Peter Sabor notes Henry Austen’s claim, in his “Biographical Notice of the Author,” that “Austen’s works ‘were never heard to so much advantage as from her own mouth; for she partook largely in all the best gifts of the comic muse’” (xxxvi). There was also a tradition in her childhood of home readings of dramatic works, including, possibly, at least two lost works that might have been written by Jane or another member of the family (unless, of course, she invented them from whole cloth for a joke in one of her dedications in the juvenilia). As she read with the gifts “of the comic muse,” Austen also wrote the juvenilia with an intention to amuse. Proof, if a reader of the juvenilia could doubt it, may be found in her dedication to The Beautifull Cassandra to her sister: “If therefore the following Tale will afford one moment’s amusement to you, every wish [of the author] will be gratified” (Juvenilia 53).
One of the ways Austen seeks to amuse readers, or herself, in the juvenilia is in sending up the popular fiction of her day. Donna R. White notes that “[t]he words most often used to classify Austen’s juvenilia are satire, parody, and burlesque,” and many writers have noted the many ways in which Austen’s juvenilia mock the conventions of the sentimental genre so popular at the time (e.g., McMaster; Rivero). If Austen, consciously or unconsciously, sat down to mock the conventions of the sentimental novel when she wrote many of the works in the juvenilia, she would have found not just permission (which she did not need!) but encouragement (probably the same) had she read many of Wollstonecraft’s book reviews in the Analytical Review. Ridicule was Wollstonecraft’s chosen weapon in a quest she makes clear in the very first review that Todd and Butler include in their collection:
An analysis of novels will seldom be expected, nor can the cant of sensibility be tried by any criterion of reason; ridicule should direct its shafts against this fair game, and, if possible, deter the thoughtless from imbibing the wildest notions, the most pernicious prejudices; prejudices which influence the conduct, and spread insipidity over social converse. (19)
The dangers that await readers of sentimental novels, or the dangers of encouraging excessive sensibility more generally, cannot be fended off with cold reason. Instead, Wollstonecraft seeks to poison the well of sentiment for the reader by making the excesses and vices of sentimental novels ridiculous.
At times Mary Wollstonecraft will appear to find these conventions merely humorous in themselves, writing, for example, that “the affected fashionable cant of sensibility . . . affords the humorist a fair field” (153). But two years after she first began reviewing novels, she again explains:
Every attempt to laugh vice out of countenance, and make vanity shrink back unabashed, wounded by the shafts of ridicule, deserves praise; for when things are unnatural, a very little colouring will make them appear ridiculous to those careless observers, who go with the tide, and must peep through the magnifying glass of other men’s wit, before they can discern the real nature of the objects that continually surround them. (254)
Wollstonecraft ridicules unworthy fiction to help readers perceive its true nature. This imposition of distance between the reader and the work of fiction is also at play in the juvenilia, perhaps to similar effect if not quite with similar didactic intention.
Juliet McMaster notes a “consciousness of medium” throughout Austen’s works that is “much to the fore in the juvenilia too. This is art that humorously draws attention to its own fictionality” (186). Discussing Austen’s relationship with the sentimental novel, “which she both critiqued and embraced,” Albert J. Rivero argues that “for Austen, the best kind of sentimental novel would be that which inoculates its readers against its potentially toxic effects by teaching them to read critically, with discriminating minds as well as feeling hearts” (208). This “inoculation” may be one that Wollstonecraft seeks to impart through ridicule in her book reviews, and the mature Austen will achieve this subtle integration of the work of the sentimental novel experienced through the observer’s feeling and critical faculty. With “consciousness of medium,” however, the juvenilia exploit for humorous effect many of the conventions of fiction that Wollstonecraft ridicules in the Analytical Review, only one of which is excessive sensibility: both will also mock, one humorously and one critically, affected language, improbability, and derivativeness, which often go hand-in-hand.
At times, Wollstonecraft-as-reviewer will depict reviewers as almost persecuted by the sameness of novels they have been asked to review—their sheer quantity and the relentless, unvarying sameness of their faults. In this review of Julia de Gramont, in which she criticizes the affected language of the novel, she begins by briefly dispatching two other faults:
It is almost sufficient to say of this insipid production, that its preposterous incidents, and absurd sentiments, can only be equaled by the affected and unintelligible phrases the author has laboriously culled. The style adopted by an able pen, was never before so miserably caricatured; abstract qualities are continually introduced instead of persons, and flowing periods in the place of sense. . . .2 We shall subjoin some quotations, many sentences we only present, as a mere collection of words, for the meaning they were designed to convey, we could not comprehend. (27)
Cruelly, the review then ends with a long list of quotations of painfully affected language, many of which do seem impossible to comprehend.
At other times, the affected language is a fault not worth rehearsing: “The language is affected; and it has all the faults we have before enumerated” (83); “The language is affected, and the plot a most absurd fabrication” (119); “The story, sentiments and language, are on a par so very far below criticism, that it would be absurd to particularize faults” (154). The suggestion that the words were collected from some works of fiction and then rejumbled and deployed, meaninglessly, in another, is perhaps the most specific and most telling charge.
Austen’s deployment of affected language in the juvenilia—used incisively, skillfully, or hysterically—can be more fully appreciated by considering some of the quotations Wollstonecraft included in her review of Julia de Gramont:
Dissimulation and coquetry were strangers to that innocent bosom, animated only by the delicate sensibility of conscious innocence.
Ah, no! my fatal presence would dim with tears your hymneal torch!
Your son, happy that your approbation sanctifies his choice, has breathed to Mademoiselle Neuville accepted vows.
Her head reclined to rest the cheeks of her expiring lord; and animated alone by the pearly dew of sensibility. (28)
This language recalls the assumption of Edward’s father in Love and Freindship: “‘Where Edward in the name of Wonder (said he) did you pick up this unmeaning Gibberish? You have been studying Novels I suspect’” (108). In Julia de Gramont these phrases fall like lead balloons: in the juvenilia, however, they are used to humorous effect. Sometimes Austen makes the language ridiculous in itself, as in “‘cruel Charles to wound the hearts and legs of all the fair’” (25). Other times her work makes the conventions of the language ridiculous. Consider this line from A Collection of Letters: “‘Oh! How I admire the sweet Sensibility of your Soul, and as I would not for Worlds wound it too deeply, I will be silent.’” It could almost have been taken from Julia de Gramont, but what surrounds it in context is pure Austen.3
“Dear Lady Scudamore interrupted I, say no more on this affecting Subject. I cannot bear it.”
“Oh! How I admire the sweet Sensibility of your Soul, and as I would not for Worlds wound it too deeply, I will be silent.”
“Pray go on.” said I. She did so. (211)
Like Wollstonecraft in her reviews, Austen in her juvenilia uses both the language and conventions of the sentimental novel in making them ridiculous: Rivero describes the process at work in Love and Freindship as Austen’s “typically mangling sentimental novel conventions into bathetic clichés” (209).
Could Austen have “caught” this perception and mockery of novels’ clichéd language and plots from reading Wollstonecraft’s book reviews? Similar attitudes can also be found in The Loiterer. Litz singles out for analysis an “early contribution” by James Austen, “Sophia Sentiment,” which mocks the conventions of the novels in a style similar to the juvenilia, and a late contribution by Henry Austen and a co-author on composition, which humorously prescribes “a row of Nouns . . . drawn up in the front and rear; . . . several Substantives . . . mounted on stately Adjectives. . . . A band of proper names enters with great dignity into a sentence; and there are enough ready to enlist in any cause” (qtd. in Litz 260).4 Compare McMaster’s portrayal of the juvenilia as characterized by an “aesthetic of exuberance, of excess, . . . a gargantuan delight in plethora,” quoting, among other things, the juvenilia’s recitation of Mr. Clifford’s having “‘a Coach, a Chariot, a Chaise, a Landau, a Landaulet, a Phaeton, a Gig, a Whisky, an italian Chair, a Buggy, a Curricle, & a wheelbarrow’” (174). The publication dates of The Loiterer, from 1789 to 1790, overlap those of Wollstonecraft’s reviews. The reviews themselves note parodies and attempts at burlesques of popular fiction already in existence. It seems probable that both the Austens and Wollstonecraft had encountered similar criticisms of novel clichés and clichéd language. This similarity of experience is more evident in another mutual target of Austen and Wollstonecraft’s mockery: the cult of sensibility.
If Austen had been able to read the Analytical Review, she would have noticed Wollstonecraft’s ridicule of the cult of sensibility as well as earnest appeals to reason in arguing that this kind of sensibility has ill effects. For Wollstonecraft, excess sensibility ruins lives and weakens women. In her first review, in which she argues that “ridicule should direct its shafts against this fair game,” she explains the dangers of the “cant of sensibility”:
Young women may be termed romantic, when they are under the direction of artificial feelings; when they boast of being tremblingly alive all o’er, and faint and sigh as the novelist informs them they should. Hunting after shadows, the moderate enjoyments of life are despised, and its duties neglected; the imagination, suffered to stray beyond the utmost verge of probability, where no vestige of nature appears, soon shuts out reason, and the dormant faculties languish for want of cultivation; as rational books are neglected, because they do not throw the mind into an exquisite tumult. The mischief does not stop here; the heart is depraved when it is supposed to be refined, and it is a great chance but false sentiment leads to sensuality, and vague fabricated feelings supply the place of principles. (19)
Wollstonecraft argues that readers instructed by the “artificial feelings” depicted in novels do not merely learn to “faint and sigh,” which might seem harmless. They also become unable to appreciate ordinary life over the improbable and exciting, unable to counter their own imaginations by applying reason, and quite possibly unable to follow principles rather than their feelings.
In later reviews, Wollstonecraft alludes more briefly to these dangers when reviewing novels in which sensibility is affected, unnatural, artificial, or false, deploying the shafts of ridicule (or sometimes contempt) against them. She does praise feelings that come from life, from nature—as long as they don’t have what she judges to be an immoral tendency. Sensibility is a powerful tool that is difficult to use well, but fashionable imitations of it are everywhere, and she describes them in language that applies to some of the ingredients, though of course not the spirit, of the juvenilia:
Sentimental to the very marrow, the tender feelings are torn to tatters, and the shreds vain gloriously displayed. Sudden death, everlasting love, methodical madness, bad weather, a breaking heart, putrid body, worn out night cap, etc. etc. Nothing but sentiment! the finely fashioned nerves vibrate to every touch. (120)
Unnatural characters, improbable incidents, sad tales of woe rehearsed in an affected, half-prose, half-poetical style, exquisite double-refined sensibility, dazzling beauty, and elegant drapery, to adorn the celestial body, (these descriptions cannot be too minute). (82)
Fancy does not make amends for the absence of sense, nor interest force us to forget how far probability is lost sight of in a ridiculous display of false sensibility; for the gentlemen, as well as the ladies, faint, lose their senses, are dying one hour, and dancing with joy the next. (119)
Wollstonecraft also notes “the absurd fashion that prevails of making the heroine of a novel boast of a delicate constitution; and the still more ridiculous and deleterious custom of spinning the most picturesque scenes out of fevers, swoons, and tears” (370). Fevers, swoons, and tears are generously distributed through the juvenilia. In fact, the juvenilia may check off every single item in the lists above, with gusto, if we are willing to consider the “french net nightcap” (92) in A Beautiful Description of the Different Effects of Sensibility on Different Minds as worn out.5
The consequences of the cultivation of this delicate constitution and overdevelopment of sensibility are parodied in much of the juvenilia, and the “deleterious” effect often shown is a hero or heroine unable to function in ordinary life. When Sophia and Laura indulge their sensibilities in Love and Freindship, Sophia dies of a chill caught as she lies on the ground in a faint, but Laura reports that “‘the bodily Exertions I had undergone in my repeated fits of frenzy had so effectually circulated and warmed my Blood as to make me proof against the chilling Damps of Night’” (132). The lesson the dying Sophia imparts is not to avoid excessive and thus dangerous sensibility but rather to “‘Run mad as often as you choose; but do not faint’” (133). A young woman who is “‘good tempered, civil and obliging’” but lacks “‘Delicate Feelings or refined Sensibilities’” is an “‘Object of Contempt”” (131).
In Austen’s juvenilia characters steeped in sensibility encounter others who are not and, even if they don’t hold in contempt that lack of sensibility or “delicate feelings,” are completely unequipped to understand them. When they are caught stealing, Laura and Sophia challenge “‘the ill-grounded Accusations of the malevolent and contemptible Macdonald’”:
“[N]othing but our freindship for thy Daughter could have induced us to remain so long beneath thy roof.”
“Your Freindship for my Daughter was indeed been most powerfully exerted by throwing her into the arms of an unprincipled Fortune-hunter.” (replied he)
“Yes, (exclaimed I) amidst every misfortune, it will afford us some consolation to reflect that by this one act of Freindship to Janetta, we have amply discharged every obligation.” (126–27)
The juxtaposition of these different ways of understanding the world is humorous, but the characters remain impervious to the perception of reality.
Although both Wollstonecraft, in her reviews, and Austen, in the juvenilia, mock the excesses and illuminate the dangers of novels of feeling and excessive sensibility, it is possible to trace Jane Austen’s likely exposure to these ideas from earlier, and possibly common, sources, again via The Loiterer. Litz says about “Sophia Sentiment” that “the notion of a young lady whose attitudes to life are shaped by her reading suggests that the Austens were familiar with Charlotte Lennox’s Female Quixote, and possibly with No. 115 of The Rambler” (259). Knox-Shaw notes “a piece [by Henry Austen] that lays the blame for an ‘excess of sentiment and susceptibility’ on a tradition of novel writing introduced by the ‘great Rousseau’” (61–62).” It is also one of the themes in Charlotte Smith’s Emmeline (Magee 121, 131), a novel mentioned in the juvenilia. Wollstonecraft, who wrote about Rousseau’s use of sensibility and reviewed Emmeline, would likely also have been familiar with these other sources and similar contemporary critiques.
Reading Wollstonecraft’s book reviews, Austen might also have noticed Wollstonecraft’s argument that improbability in novels makes them ridiculous and is a weakness: it interferes with the working of curiosity and thus fails to engage the reader. “The story is so very improbable, that far from interesting, it seldom awakens curiosity,” she writes of one novel (119); “the incidents so unconnected, the changes of scene so frequent, that interest is seldom excited, and curiosity flags,” she writes of another (486); and again, “A few incidents so abrupt that they certainly do not lose their effect by being anticipated; on the contrary, they rather excited our astonishment than interest” (33). I do wonder what young Austen’s response might have been if she read this review of Calista, A Novel:
The strange adventures here related, can answer no good purpose, nor can distress interest, when we so plainly see the hand of the author, pulling the wires to make the puppets act foolishly, only to have an opportunity to faint, run mad, etc. etc. The characters are wild caricatures . . . and can only be exceeded by the absurd series of misfortunes, which are accumulated and tangled together, without a shadow of probability, to lend them support or excite sympathy. (167–68)
“[T]he hand of the author, pulling the wires to make the puppets act foolishly, only to have an opportunity to faint, run mad” may be a specific criticism of Calista, but the author of the juvenilia exercises this power in the same way that she adds the “ingredients” of a sentimental novel—frequently, and with knowing glee.
In addition to flaws in the composition of the novels themselves—affected language, stock clichés, excessive appeals to sensibility, and improbability of events (all ridiculed in the juvenilia)—Mary Wollstonecraft often ridicules works for being imitations, copies, or derivatives of other popular works. This criticism often overlaps, as Jane Austen would have noticed had she been reading the reviews, with Wollstonecraft’s criticism of young, female, and especially young and female authors.
“From reading to writing novels the transition is very easy,” Wollstonecraft writes in her second review, “and the ladies, of course, take care to supply the circulating libraries with ever varying still the same productions. . . . [A] frivolous imagination . . . gives life to the scenes it has delighted to revel in” (199). In the next issue she writes:
Truth compels us to declare that we open a novel with a degree of pleasure, when written by a Lady, is not inserted in the title page; it is almost needless to premise, that we allude to the flock of novelists who by painting in gaudy colours the idle reveries of their imaginations, neither cultivated by experience nor curbed by fixed principles, mislead. (121)
A year later, she notes that a novel “evidently written by a lady, is like so many other flimsy novels we have read, that we scarcely know how to characterize it. . . . Without a knowledge of life, or the human heart, why will young misses presume to write? They would not attempt to play in company on an instrument whose principles they know nothing of” (191). The root of the criticism is that the work is constituted by imaginings based on experiences gained in books rather than in life. Here the effect of excess and false sensibility, which when imbibed from sentimental novels spoils young people for ordinary life, has driven them to create more such works—which will have a redounding effect on other readers.
Wollstonecraft also ridicules authors who have attempted to follow even more closely in the model of great works with close copies, continuations, sequels, etc. For example, Wollstonecraft frequently targets the apparently numerous imitators of Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey: “Alas poor Yorick!” she writes of what she calls a sentimental journey, “If an earthly wight could punish thee for having . . . scattered unseemly weeds amongst the sweet flowers genius had culled, thou wouldst be condemned to review all the sentimental wire-drawn imitations of thy original interesting pages” (120). Wollstonecraft also had to contend with the many imitators of Samuel Richardson and Frances Burney. But the danger of these works is not merely their inferiority in execution to the originals. Again, Wollstonecraft argues that fiction should be true to life, not derived from books.6
One such criticism might have been of particular interest to a young Jane Austen; Wollstonecraft writes the following of Charlotte Smith’s Celestina, a Novel:
This ingenious writer’s invention appears to be inexhaustible; yet we are sorry to observe that it is still fettered by her respect for some popular modern novels. For in the easy elegant volumes before us, she too frequently, and not very happily, copies, we can scarcely say imitates, some of the distressing encounters and ludicrous embarrassments, which in Evelina, etc. lose their effect by breaking the interest. . . . [T]he reader . . . would turn, knowing something of the human heart, with disgust from the romantic adventures, and artificial passions, that novel reading has suggested to the author. It were indeed to be wished, that with Mrs S.’s abilities, she had sufficient courage to think for herself, and not view life through the medium of books. (388)
Charlotte Smith was writing novels during the same decade that Wollstonecraft was writing (1788 to 1798). Wollstonecraft dealt with her as an author of books to be reviewed, as well as one of the authors that other works sought to imitate—a kind of double copying, if this criticism of her work were to be accepted. Smith was also an author well known to Austen: in Catharine, or The Bower the heroine and Camilla Stanley discuss Smith and her novels Emmeline and Ethelinde during their exchange of novel-reading bona fides (249). There are also references to Emmeline in The History of England.7 If Austen had access to Wollstonecraft’s reviews, might she have paid special attention to the reviews of Smith and of Emmeline? What might she have thought of Wollstonecraft’s critique?
For works of serious fiction, or fiction she took seriously, Wollstonecraft’s reviews were neither quick nor dismissive and can contain long synopses of plot as a service to readers. In her review of Emmeline she provides an extremely long and detailed summary—and although the effort is in earnest, the result has a somewhat comic effect, and a callous one:
Lord Montreville is persuaded to do justice to his niece, his son insisted on it, and is soon after very luckily killed in a duel, vindicating his eldest sister’s honour; and Emmeline, no longer restrained by pity, is at liberty to give her hand to the man who already possessed her heart. (26)
In Wollstonecraft’s synopsis of the work, the telescoping of the events of the plot imposes a certain amount of distance, a consequent removal of sympathy, and an awareness of the medium of the fiction. Austen’s juvenilia reflect a similar kind of comedy—though in Austen’s case intentional. As McMaster notes, in Austen’s juvenilia, “distress is made matter for laughter” (179–80). Although throughout her reviews Wollstonecraft censures quick transitions for rendering events absurd or improbable or interrupting the feelings of the reader, who should be in sympathy with the character, the very nature of a synopsis provides all these elements in abundance. A young Austen, even as a fan of Emmeline, might have appreciated the unintentional humor: in her juvenilia, quick transitions add to the absurdity and thus the humor of situations, reveal the inauthenticity behind expressed sentiments, or “telescope” the fiction. McMaster even writes that Amelia Webster “reads like Sir Charles Grandison in telegram” (186).
In addition to finding some elements of Wollstonecraft’s reviews funny, what would Jane Austen have thought them? Magee notes that Austen continued to be influenced by Charlotte Smith, incorporating elements of her work but “eliminat[ing] the unnatural situations of plot-ridden novels” (131). Further, if we look back at what Wollstonecraft ridicules in the Analytical Review and Austen sends up in the juvenilia, we can see a list of elements that are either absent or presented at an observer’s remove in Austen’s mature works. Affected language and improbable situations are absent. Excessive sensibility is dealt with at length in some of the novels, but the reader, rather than being “transported” or “swept away” unquestioningly, is drawn to examine critically the effects. And the tropes of fiction that Austen does retain may be borrowed, but they are presented in a way that seems drawn from life rather than books: the feelings are authentic. That brings us to another of the traits of fiction Wollstonecraft consistently values: character that seems drawn from life.
What might Wollstonecraft have thought of Austen’s mature works, if she had been able to read and review them? The mature novels conform to the list of dos and don’ts that Wollstonecraft established. In addition, two of Wollstonecraft’s reviews suggest that Austen’s work would have won her praise. The first is something of a negative proof: she writes of Mary Robinson’s Hubert de Sevrac that the author “seems to have fallen into an errour, common to people of lively fancy, and to think herself so happily gifted by nature, that her first thoughts will answer her purpose. . . . [S]he could write better, were she once convinced, that the writing of a good book is no easy task” (486). Austen’s reworking of her early novels, and the surviving glimpse of her rewriting process in the last chapters of Persuasion as well as the works themselves, argue for her understanding that, to use Wollstonecraft’s language, good books are the “fruit of matured invention” (486)—no easy task. Wollstonecraft’s praise of Frances Burney in another review suggests how Wollstonecraft might have valued Jane Austen’s work: “The distinguishing talent, indeed, of M. d’Arblay, and it is of the highest order of talents, is the giving life and motion to her characters, the reader greets them as new acquaintance, and acquaintances whom he cannot easily forget” (467). It is a judgment many have made of Austen’s characters.
If the young Jane Austen did stumble across Wollstonecraft’s book reviews, she might have found some of them funny and in line with her own sense of humor about conventional fiction, despite Wollstonecraft’s strictures on young and female writers. What might the mature Austen, writing her mature works, have thought of the possibility of Mary Wollstonecraft’s reviewing her books? Although her philosophy of fiction is in some ways in line with Wollstonecraft’s, the answer might be found in Northanger Abbey, in the narrator’s comment on novel-writing: “Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure” (30).
1In what comes closest to a direct reference to either Godwin or Wollstonecraft that I am aware of, Austen wrote to Cassandra of a visitor, in 1801, “He is as raffish in his appearance as I would wish every Disciple of Godwin to be” (21–22 May 1801). Godwin’s Memoir of Mary Wollstonecraft had been published in 1798 and his novel St. Leon in 1799. Knox-Shaw argues that Austen “engaged with” St. Leon in Sense and Sensibility (15).
6Her Advertisement for Mary, A Fiction notes “how widely artists wander from nature, when they copy the originals of great masters. They catch the gross parts; but the subtile spirit evaporates; and not having the just ties, affectation disgusts, when grace was expected to charm” (5). Her own work, she asserts, is valuable because original and thus truer to nature.