Back when I was young and stupid, I didn’t think much of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, the short sketches and fragments she wrote between the ages of roughly eleven and eighteen. I still cringe at the memory of a note I wrote to the then-president of the Jane Austen Society of North America lamenting the decision to devote the 1987 Annual General Meeting to a discussion of these early works. (I can only hope that no copy remains in JASNA’s archives.)
In many spheres of life, it's arguable whether age has brought me wisdom, but in my appreciation for the Juvenilia, it definitely has. Now I can see that these charming and hilarious pieces, many of them satires of the literature of Austen’s day, offer useful insights into her development as a writer.
Maybe I would have gotten there sooner if I’d had the chance to take what University of Pennsylvania students refer to as “the Jane Austen-Taylor Swift class”: a first-year seminar, offered for the first time last fall, that considers the juvenile works of a number of artists, including those two.
The syllabus doesn’t seem to be available online, but a piece in the university newsletter reports that the course, taught by Penn lecturer Melissa Jensen, also discusses early writing by Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, the eighteenth-century Black American poet Phillis Wheatley, and the contemporary activist Malala Yousafzai.
According to the article, Jensen—herself the author of novels for young adults--regards Austen “as ‘a proto-feminist satirist,’ not as a romance novelist” (and thank goodness for that). “I want my students to focus on the constraints around gender that underly the classic literature of love and marriage,” she says, “and to have substantial discourse around the interplay between society and literature and historicism.”
Jensen’s students seem to have embraced the class and found ways to apply its lessons to their own lives. “Jane Austen and Phillis Wheatley and Taylor Swift all faced different struggles, but they were all struggles that they resonated with specifically because they felt marginalized and unheard,” one student, Nathalie Mejia, told the newsletter. “They were innovative in their craft at such a young age and continued to develop their style as they grew up. Looking at them as a young woman is particularly inspiring, and I want to seek out courses that encourage me to push myself and be bold as they were.”
I’m always glad to see young women seeking out challenges, although I’d quibble with Mejia’s Austenian interpretation—I don’t think there’s much evidence that Austen felt “marginalized and unheard” even in adulthood, let alone as a teenager. But hey: Differences of opinion make for interesting classroom discussions. I'd sign up for this course immediately, if only I could turn the clock back to my younger, stupider days.