Jane Austen’s youngest works fill three bound folios, and though many show hints of the fine mind that would one day write and publish great books, all of them naturally share similar limitations consistent with a child author. Some are left unfinished, others merely under-developed. What makes these stories less compelling—aside from the author’s young age—is a subject of curiosity for students of literature. Catherine, or the Bower—which appears in Volume the Third of Austen’s notebooks of juvenilia—represents one of the author’s first serious attempts to write a novel. She no doubt spent a good amount of time crafting the piece, and making amendments. Unfortunately, Catherine struggles to get off the ground, hindered by a remarkably awkward opening paragraph that stretches over four pages. In it, Austen overreaches, attempting to explain and introduce far more than many readers can absorb on first reading. Moreover, her inadequate pronoun references and loose sentence structures contribute to the impression of verbosity and ambiguity, and fatigue the reader.
Austen logically opens Catherine with a description of her heroine’s history and unfortunate circumstances. Almost immediately, however, the subjects of sentences become difficult to follow in a cascade of pronouns. We know Catherine is an orphan, and that she goes to live with her aunt. We are told that “she tenderly loved her,” but it is not particularly clear whether Austen is telling us that Catherine loves her aunt but is not convinced that this aunt loves her, or that this aunt loves Catherine but has not convinced Catherine of that fact. The multiple potential antecedents of “she” and “her” leave some doubt.
Austen attempts to minimize the ambiguity further along in the paragraph by setting her pronouns in context. Thus, when the narrator tells us that “Kitty had heard twice from her friend since her marriage, but her letters were always unsatisfactory, and though she did not openly avow her feelings, every line proved her to be unhappy,” we recognize through context that it cannot be Catherine who is married and unhappy. Still, within one clause the word “her” refers to both Catherine and Catherine’s friend. Likewise, the same holds true for “she” (and “her” and “herself”) in reference to Catherine and her aunt in this astonishing sentence:
Her aunt was most excessively fond of her, and miserable if she saw her for a moment out of spirits; Yet she lived in such constant apprehension of her marrying imprudently if she were allowed the opportunity of choosing, and was so dissatisfied with her behavior when she saw her with Young Men, for it was, from her natural disposition remarkably open and unreserved, that though she wished for her Niece’s sake, that the Neighborhood were larger, and that She had used herself to mix more with it , yet the recollection of there being young Men [sic] in almost every Family in it, always conquered the Wish.
In Catherine, we must scour preceding lines to identify the subjects and objects of pronouns with multiple potential antecedents. “They” and “them” confuse as easily as “she” and “her.” One potential solution to this problem would be to replace some pronouns with characters’ proper names.
Lamentably, though Austen introduces a great many characters, she initially leaves some nameless. Of the fourteen figures introduced within the first paragraph of Catherine, three are not given proper names at all, but remain “husband,” “daughter,” or “son.” Those left unidentified may be incidental figures at this early stage in the novel, but some important characters’ identities are treated haphazardly. Catherine’s only friends are first described simply as “two amiable Girls” before being labeled the “Miss Wynnes.” Curiously, they are called by surname before their father, who, though introduced earlier, is still known only as “the Clergyman of the Parish.” After more than a full page the Miss Wynnes are referenced again, this time as “Sisters,” then, finally, as Mary and Cecilia. Austen might have tidied the first paragraph of Catherine considerably, and eliminated some ambiguity, by referring to the Wynne daughters straightaway by first name.
Shockingly, Austen treats the identities of the most important figures in the first paragraph of Catherine in similar fashion. Many readers will recognize Kitty as a nickname for Catherine, and, therefore, be spared confusion when the narrator begins using both names interchangeably. But Catherine’s aunt is left nameless until two and a half pages into the story, when, inexplicably, the narrator tells us that “the living at Chetwynde was now in the possession of a Mr. Dudley, whose family unlike the Wynnes were productive only of vexation and trouble to Mrs. Percival and her Niece.” Thus, it appears to be in passing that we learn our heroine’s name is Catherine Percival, and her guardian attains an identity besides “aunt.” Six other characters have been referenced by proper name before Mrs. Percival. Austen’s neglect on this count seems almost careless.
Perhaps most striking of all the idiosyncrasies in the first paragraph of Catherine is the seemingly meandering nature of the text. Syntactically, the sentences appear to proceed without direction, drifting from subject to subject:
They were the daughters of the Clergyman of the Parish with whose family, while it had continued there, her Aunt had been on the most intimate terms, and the little Girls tho’ separated for the greatest part of the Year by the different Modes of their Education, were constantly together during the holidays of the Miss Wynnes.
In those fifty-seven words, the subject of the action changes four times, from the daughters, to the family, to the Aunt, then back to the daughters. Absent periodic or parallel structure, no author could hope to hold together such long sentences (one quoted above exceeds a hundred words). Given the affinity the young Jane Austen was known to have for Samuel Johnson—an acknowledged master of complex sentence structure—it is surprising that her syntax in Catherine could be so awkward.
All successful authors of fiction improve their craft and hone their skills through practice. Mature works will, in general, display a certain polish that early pieces lack, even if, in many instances, young authors write with more energy and enthusiasm. Through experience, all great artists find their own voices and adopt means of expression that suit them and, if they are lucky, satisfy legions of readers. Jane Austen undoubtedly achieved both mastery of her craft and considerable success during her career. An odd paradox for Austen—and many other creative artists besides—is that the same talent and skill she employed in her mature masterpieces has caused a spotlight to be cast upon on her less finely wrought creations, and exposed to scrutiny much of what she never intended for public consumption. Some readers have approached these youthful pieces from the perspective of the mere fan. But students of literature, in particular, find it useful to examine Austen’s juvenilia for insights into her creative process, and mine her early works for evidence of the great author that first emerged publicly in 1811 with Sense and Sensibility.
Had Austen, once established, wished to resurrect Catherine for publication, she would have no doubt begun her revisions by breaking apart the novel’s first paragraph. Thirty-six long sentences are too many to hold together in the absence of a coherent narrative, and few authors could hope to lay out a cohesive plot in the short space of an opening paragraph, even one that extends beyond four pages. In an unforgettable way, however, Jane Austen would prove that the converse holds true; that by reducing the opening paragraph to the barest essentials, she could convey the most meaning in the fewest words: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”