Mark your calendars, Janeites! The day we’ve barely dared to imagine in our most fervid fantasies is nearly here! On October 28, we’ll finally get to read. . . a previously unknown Jane Austen novel! Or so you might believe were you to stumble across this listing on Amazon’s UK site, which promises imminent access to a volume entitled Jane Austen's Lost Novel: Its Importance for Understanding the Development of Her Art. The book appears to be an annotated transcription of a little-known 1806 novel called Two Girls of Eighteen—a work that survives in only two extant copies and was “never previously identified as Jane's.” Apparently, the story concerns a pair of sisters, incorporates elements of the Gothic, and includes plot details borrowed from Clarissa, the best-known work of Samuel Richardson, one of Austen’s favorite writers. “Jane appears to be testing in this the capabilities of such forms for expressing what she was trying to achieve,” the Amazon promotional copy claims. “Through the character of Charlotte, who is attempting to write a novel, she deliberates at length the sort of thing that she herself might write. Her reflections on such subjects as medicine, law, the rights of women, etc. take us below the glossy surface of the major novels and show us the complex web of thought that lies beneath.” Good heavens! you’re thinking. This is a seismic literary discovery! Why wasn’t it on the front pages of the world’s leading newspapers? Why have I heard nothing of it until now, a mere month before publication? Yes, well. . . about that. . . You don’t have to look far to find evidence that this publication represents something less than a revolution in Austen studies. Major publishers would surely vie for the rights to a genuine Lost Austen Novel, and major scholars would kill to edit the manuscript. This volume, however, is self-published and attributed to one P.J. Allen, “a pseudonym for an editor who would prefer to remain anonymous.” The discoverer of a previously unknown Jane Austen novel doesn’t want credit for the find? Call me crazy, but – to paraphrase Elizabeth Bennet – I never saw such a person. Indeed, a bit of Google-enabled snooping reveals that a version of this work was first issued five years ago by Robert Temple Rare Books, a UK-based online bookseller that sometimes publishes its own stuff. Robert Temple’s catalog lists its Austen book as “an analytical essay” of 60 pages, whereas the new book is apparently a full-fledged edition, weighing in at 224 pages.
Curiously, the older version is credited not to “P.J. Allen” but to “Osric Allen,” the author of five other Robert Temple publications, including a short treatise on prime numbers and a science fiction novel entitled Pornogram. It may or may not be relevant that, according to Wikipedia, Robert Temple Books was co-founded, and is apparently still run, by a man named Peter Allen. Meanwhile, Two Girls of Eighteen has often been credited to one George Walker (1772-1847), a successful bookseller and music publisher with a sideline as a Gothic novelist. “He wrote numerous novels after the then popular style of Mrs. Radcliffe,” the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography notes. The 1899 edition of the DNB credits Walker with the authorship of a dozen titles, among them Two Girls of Eighteen; the shortened entry in the most recent edition of the DNB, however, mentions only three by name, not including Two Girls. So what is Allen’s case for attributing the novel to the young Austen? It’s difficult to tell from the introductory material and somewhat fragmentary excerpt on the Robert Temple website, but Allen seems to give considerable weight to perceived similarities in style and incidental detail. In 2015, at least, even he seems to have acknowledged that his case was far from airtight: Of one claimed similarity between Two Girls and an item of Austen’s juvenilia, he writes, “This is the only direct external evidence for it being hers. It is unfortunately rather slight, and cannot, I think, be regarded as proof positive of the novel having been her work.” Needless to say, no such hedging appears in the promotional copy for the new book, and the original title (A Lost Novel of Jane Austen?) has lost its question mark. We’ll have to wait until next month’s publication to discover if that’s because Allen has uncovered dramatic new evidence of Austen’s authorship. Personally, I’m not holding my breath. I suspect that the thrill of reading a previously unknown Jane Austen novel is going to remain the stuff of Janeite fantasy.