Last in the series We Want More Austen! about the less-known works of Jane Austen.
And so we come to the end of our expedition through Jane Austen’s minor, unfinished, and juvenile fictions. (I have left out a couple of pieces too slight to discuss, all of them less than a page long.) It seems fitting to end with the story fragment “Catharine: or, The Bower” because it is one of the few among her youthful pieces that offers a glimpse of the great writer who was to come. Throughout most of this journey, we have been in the amusing but shallow realm of satire and parody. “Catharine,” by contrast, is an ambitious project full of psychological insight that touches on themes central to Austen’s adult writings: the emptiness of pride based on rank versus the inestimable value of a well-developed mind; the virtue of candor (in the old sense of an open, straightforward nature) versus the destructiveness of phony manners; and the vulnerability of young women in a society designed for their disempowerment.
“Catharine” is also full of echoes of Jane Austen’s own life experiences—from the poor but meritorious clergyman’s family with two daughters (like herself and Cassandra) to the young woman sent to India to be married off to a much older man (like her kinswoman Philadelphia Austen). The narrator is no emotionally distant, snarky commentator; she is right inside the mind of her heroine, showing us the world through her eyes. At age sixteen Jane dedicated to her sister Cassandra “the following Novel, which I humbly flatter myself, possesses Merit beyond any already published, or any that will ever in future appear, except such as may proceed from the pen of Your Most Grateful Humble Sevt.” Did she know even then she was destined to be one of the greatest masters of the form?
To the story: Catharine (or Kitty) Percival (or Peterson) is an orphan, as any romantic heroine should be, brought up by a strict, overprotective aunt who goes to great lengths to keep all young men out of her path lest she contract an unsuitable alliance. Mrs. Percival won’t even invite her relations, the Stanleys, “people of Large Fortune & high Fashion,” to visit at her country house, Chetwynde, until their son is safely off on the Grand Tour (the story was written in 1792, just before war broke out with the French Revolutionary government and travel to the Continent became impossible). Catharine’s childhood was warmed by the presence of two congenial friends in the local clergyman’s family, Cecilia and Mary Wynne; but the death of the clergyman has scattered the family—the elder Miss Wynne to India, now married to a much older man whom she does not like, and Mary to serve as a companion in the household of Lady Halifax, dependent on distant relatives for even the clothes on her back. Together these three friends in their early years had planted a bower in Mrs. Percival’s garden, which, now grown to maturity, is Catharine’s haven and chief comfort.
There is now a dearth of congenial society in Catharine’s life: kept away from all the local families with sons of marriageable age, she sees only the family that has taken the Wynnes’ place at the parsonage—Mr. and Mrs. Dudley and their daughter, arrogant and spiteful in the extreme. Mrs. Dudley, “an ill-educated, untaught woman of ancient family, was proud of that family almost without knowing why, and like [Mr. Dudley] too was haughty and quarrelsome, without considering for what.”
But things are about to look up for Catharine: her kinsman young Mr. Edward Stanley being safely in France, his parents and sister, Camilla Stanley, arrive at Chetwynde for a protracted visit. Catharine is in high hopes of making a new friend, but Camilla is about as deep as a rain-soaked pavement, and they struggle to connect. As with Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey, the two characters are established for the reader through a conversation about books:
Catharine: For my own part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short.
Camilla: So do I, only I get tired of it before it is finished.
A brilliantly depicted airhead, Camilla (it rapidly becomes apparent) is a classic unreliable narrator, and Catharine, who has a good head on her shoulders despite her isolated upbringing, soon learns to doubt everything she hears from her.
Still, the arrival of Mr., Mrs., and Miss Stanley brings a fresh adventure for our bored heroine. Although he is supposed to be on the Grand Tour, the Stanleys’ son Edward unexpectedly appears on the scene, having returned to England unannounced because his favorite hunter has taken ill (Frank Churchill alert!). He is a lively, charming man, and he and Catharine rapidly fall into a kind of bantering intimacy, offering up sparkling conversations that would do justice to Elizabeth Bennet and Colonel Fitzwilliam. The reader can see warning signs about this seemingly promising male character, but he is enough to put the sheltered Catharine into a flutter. In addition to the peppy dialogue, we are treated to a ball scene full of mortifications and misunderstandings. I do love Jane Austen’s ball scenes!
The young people’s rapport strikes fear into the hearts of Mrs. Percival and Mr. Stanley, both of whom have their reasons for deprecating any alliance, and Edward is sent away, leaving the heroine in doubt about the degree of his interest, as well as of her own. Sadly, the story soon breaks off—to the great disappointment of this reader at least, who was just beginning to see intriguing possibilities. It is populated by some amusing secondary characters, and the conflicts are just beginning to emerge when we run out of pages.
I hope you have enjoyed the series We Want More Austen! And I look forward to reading new and more inventive Austenesque stories based on some of the vivid characters and outrageous plots found in Jane Austen’s less-known works. Hmm, I confess to being a bit tempted myself. . . .
It has been a pleasure keeping company with you all! Abigail Bok is the author of “A Summer in Sanditon” in the Meryton Press short-story collection Sun-Kissed: Effusions of Summer, and of an Austenesque novel, An Obstinate, Headstrong Girl.