What Jane Read: A Turning Point

When Jane Austen was eleven, her formal schooling — which entailed two stints in boarding schools, neither of which it seems she particularly enjoyed — ended. But once again established at home, she was fortunate to have the run of her family’s unusually extensive collection of books, as well as the library of her neighbors, the Lefroys, to which she is said to have free access.

From the chapter called "Reading" in "Young Jane Austen" by Lisa Pliscou. Illustration by Massimo Mongiardo. Publisher: Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing.

The chapter called “Reading” focuses on a significant turning point in young Jane’s life. Illustration by Massimo Mongiardo in “Young Jane Austen: Becoming a Writer.”

By all reports, the young Jane was a voracious reader, and omnivorous in her tastes: poetry, plays, novels (both elevated and trashy), sermons; essays about manners, society, life; books about history and books about travel.

Thinking of this, I was fascinated to read an article in The Atlantic called “Secrets of the Creative Brain,” in which neuroscientist Nancy C. Andreasen comments, “Many creative people are autodidacts,” thriving in an environment in which they can pursue their interests at their own pace.

And in his insightful book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says:

“You cannot transform a domain unless you first thoroughly understand how it works . . . the old Italian saying seems to apply: Impara l’arte, e mettila da parte (learn the craft, and then set it aside). One cannot be creative without learning what others know, but then one cannot be creative without becoming dissatisfied with that knowledge and rejecting it (or some of it) for a better way.”

What spot-on descriptions of the young Jane!

Not only did Jane have hundreds of books available to her, she also belonged to a family that was lively and intellectual — one in which people not only read, they wrote, too. A great many letters came and went; Mr. Austen, a rector, wrote sermons, and Mrs. Austen, witty, sometimes acerbic poetry. Jane’s older brothers wrote essays and poems, as well as bits and pieces of plays.

So it is, perhaps, not totally surprising that around age 11 or 12 Jane shifted from being a passive reader to a more critical, responsive one. Still, what a huge shift it was, and particularly so given her age!

She began writing little notes in the margins of books — little comments — when she found something that seemed silly, misguided, or outright wrong to her.

For example, in a history book that favored the Tudor queen Elizabeth over the Scots queen Mary Stuart, Jane wrote firmly, No. No. A Lie. And: Another lie.

At some point in her youth, Jane wrote up several imaginary marriages for herself in her father’s parish register. How fun to see the names “Fitzwilliam” (Mr. Darcy’s first name in Pride and Prejudice) and “Edmund” (as in Mansfield Park’s love interest Edmund Bertram) show up. It’s easy to imagine kind, indulgent Mr. Austen laughing at young Jane’s literary prank!

And going back even earlier, Jane had a French textbook given to her when she was eight. In it, many years later, we see — in a child’s scrawl and presumed to be Jane’s — the decidedly non-academic sentences Mothers angry fathers gone out and I wish I had done.

From Claire Tomalin's "Jane Austen: A Life."

From Claire Tomalin’s “Jane Austen: A Life.”

I find these anecdotes charming, and very moving and exciting as well. These pranks, these scribbles, represent Jane’s very first “baby steps” in her journey toward becoming a writer. She is becoming dissatisfied, as Csikszentmihalyi describes it; she has begun to transform her domain.

Something as small, as simple, as decisive as No. No. A Lie: in these few words we can glimpse the promise of the brilliant writer she is soon to become.

This excerpted post appears with the kind permission of the Calico Critic, where it was originally published.