The Paris Review

The Novel Jane Austen Wrote When She Was Twelve

When the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle was asked whether he read novels, he famously replied, without missing a beat, “Oh, yes—all six, every year.” And without missing a beat, we get the joke, of course, not because we believe that Jane Austen’s novels throw all others into the shadows (though we do) and not because they bear annual rereading (though they do) but rather because we all know—or think we know—that she wrote six of them.

But Austen wrote more than six novels. Along with and , which enjoy modest fame, Austen proudly subtitled several shorter works as “a novel”—such as and . But these, though enjoyed by a handful of avid enthusiasts, are mostly unknown to the general public. Written for the amusement of her family, these works belong to the collection of early writing referred to sometimes as the “juvenilia” or “minor works,” both terms being rather disparaging, and most recently as “teenage writings.” Variously described—by Austen herself—as novels, tales, odes, plays, fragments, memoirs, and scraps, the juvenilia consist of twenty-seven pieces written from 1787 to 1793, when Austen was between the ages of eleven and eighteen. Austen was demonstrably attached to these works, in 1793 transcribing them into three stationer’s notebooks and entitling them , , , each paginated and each including a table of contents. That Austen esteemed these pieces is proven by the very existence of these volumes, presented as if together they might constitute a magnum opus, a three-volume novel in the manner, say, of or . That she continued to return to these works once she grew up is proven by her emendations in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, and by her allowing a niece and nephew to try their hands at finishing some as late as 1814–16. That Austen’s closest relations continued to treasure them is proven

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