I’ve been musing for a while about how much fun it would be to organize a class for undergraduates centered around the theme of creative writing by youthful authors. Perhaps because of the Romantic association between individuality, genius, and youth (an idea that persists in present-day cultures of information technology), 18th- and 19th-century literature is wonderfully full of examples of juvenile authorship. In this post, I’ll just name a few examples of texts that might pair well together in a class on juvenilia in the 18th and 19th centuries, with special focus on the Romantic period. I’d welcome the additional suggestions of readers!
Lady Mary Pierrepont (later Montagu),The Adventurer, ed. Isobel Grundy and others. “In this allegorical tale, the 14-year-old Lady Mary Pierrepont expresses all the jaded wisdom of a writer with absolutely no romantic experience. The result is one of the most captivating epistolary romances of 1704, never before available in print.”
Jane Austen, Jack and Alice, Henry and Eliza, The Beautifull Cassandra, Love and Freindship, and Lady Susan. These texts show a young Austen exploring with emotional and situational extremes, such as kidnapping, drunkenness, seduction and lechery, which she would later refine into the “regulated hatred” of her published novels. These texts would be very well paired with Northanger Abbey, and particularly the passages about Gothic novels.
Percy Shelley, Zastrozzi, ed. Germaine Greer. Though his juvenile novels are relatively understudied, Shelley’s earliest published work, which he wrote at 18, deserves attention for its unusual presentation of the “love of a juvenile for a mature woman” (as Greer says), and particularly for the mature woman’s awesomely Gothic amalgam of lechery with murderous rage. I have previously taught this novel as a comparative text for Frankenstein, which Mary Shelley also wrote at the age of 18.
Jane Austen, The History of England . The epitome of the witty and satirical Austen at age 15: a topsy-turvy and parodic view of English schoolbook history narrated “by a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian,” with accompanying illustrations by her sister Cassandra.
Robert Louis Stevenson, First Writings, ed. Christine Alexander, with Elise McPherson. “At the age of six, R.L.S. styled himself as “The Author” of a “History”. Here we see him demonstrating the creativity of “Child’s Play” in texts as various as biblical history, naval adventure, travel writing and antiquarian records.” This could be beautifully put alongside Treasure Island.
Juvenilia as Career: Foreshortened Poetic Genius
Thomas Chatterton, Songe of Alla, Ode to Liberty, and final fragment. Chatterton, who created the faux-medieval persona of “Thomas Rowley,” had a striking poetic career before his death by suicide at 17 in 1770; he was to prove to be a major influence on the Romantics.
John Keats, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” the Odes, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” The Eve of St Agnes, Lamia, “When I Have Fears,” “This Living Hand,” “Bright Star.” All of these poems reflect Keats’s struggle with mortality, and the role of art to preserve a youthful personality beyond death.
Poetic Juvenilia, Reviews, and Repudiation
Byron, Hours of Idleness and English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. Byron’s earliest publication was harshly critiqued for its schoolboy translations of Latin verses. The poet retaliated with the (far more original) satire on his reviewers, which in later life he retracted.
Keats, excerpts from Endymion; John Gibson Lockhart, “Review of Endymion“; Shelley, “Preface to Adonais“; Byron, “Who killed John Keats?”, excerpts from Don Juan. Keats’s Endymion was charged with similar kinds of sophomoric tendencies — but he allegedly died for it, as Shelley and Byron would later attest.
The Great Victorian Novelists: Dickens, The Brontës, Eliot
Charles Dickens, The Bill of Fare, O’Thello & Other Early Works,
ed. Christine Alexander, Donna Couto and Kate Sumner. As Alexander writes, “[his] juvenilia [shows] his genius for story telling, his creation of comic characters, and his love of the theatre. Like David Copperfield, [these stories] throw light on a young man in love, bursting with inventiveness and struggling to shape his ideas into the kind of public performance that would lead to fame. This is the early road that would lead to ‘The Inimitable.'”
The Brontës, Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal: Selected Writings, ed. Christine Alexander. In a single volume, we have presented the legendary fantasy world that the Brontës sustained for decades. Documenting the political controversies of Glass Town, Gondal, and Angria, they produced miniature novels and magazines, modeled on Blackwood’s Edinburgh, that gave rise to their major poetry and novels. This is an extensive volume; the texts could be read on their own, or, alternatively, with Jane Eyre and the poems of Emily Brontë.
George Eliot, Edward Neville, ed. Juliet McMaster and others. “A swashbuckling narrative set in Chepstow Castle during the English Civil War. This fragment of a historical novel, with its equestrian hero confronting a time of civil and religious upheaval, and its dark villain proudly brooding in his castle prison, has its lasting appeal as the first fiction we have from the hand of the great novelist we know as George Eliot.” Perhaps a pairing with Romola for the historical fiction component — or with The Mill on the Floss for its account of Victorian children’s education?
Children Writing the World
Maria Edgeworth, The Double Disguise, ed. Christine Alexander and Ryan Twomey. This play was written when Edgeworth was eighteen, and it anticipates her most original novel, Castle Rackrent, with the writer’s “first Irish character sketch and her first attempt at Hiberno-English.” Clearly, Castle Rackrent is the favorite accompaniment to this text.
Iris Vaughan, The Diary of Iris Vaughan, ed. Peter F. Alexander and Peter Midgley. “Iris Vaughan’s Diary, begun when Vaughan was only seven, is as much autobiography as Diary. It also gives a charming, keenly observed and brilliantly amusing picture of colonial Africa as Victorianism made way for the twentieth century.”
When quoted, the text descriptions come from Juvenilia Press (University of New South Wales), which has a very useful list of relevant works of juvenilia organized by century.