Catharine, or the Bower
by Jane Austen,
in Catharine and Other Writings
edited by Margaret Anne Doody and Douglas Murray.
World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, 1993.
“[When] the Bower began to have its usual influence over her Spirits, she contributed towards settling them, by taking out a book, for she had always one about her, and reading.”‘Catharine, or the Bower’
Catharine, also known as Kitty, lives with her aunt Mrs Percival at The Grove, Chetwynde, five miles from Exeter, far from “the hot House of Vice” that is London. We may suppose that, as with her author at the time of writing, Kitty is sixteen years old; but we’re immediately told that, unlike her author, she “had the misfortune, as many heroines before her, of losing her Parents when she was very young.”
When we discover that her aunt is determined to preserve Kitty’s virtue by closely scrutinising, supervising and warning off any young man that crosses the girl’s path, we recognise that Austen is playing on common fairytale tropes; and so our task appears a simple one – to see how the story plays out. Unfortunately, we don’t get the joy of that because this, begun in 1792 as one of Austen’s first essays in novel-writing, remains incomplete.
Though there is evidence that, a score of years later, she was tinkering with this youthful fragment – removing outdated practices such as powdering the hair, and inserting references to the newly instituted Regency – she never did progress with this promising start. Yet, even at this stage, we can recognise some of her trademark themes.
Despite her circumstances Kitty has had a comfortable time up till now: with access to books she’d enjoyed the company of the sisters Wynne, amenable daughters of the clergyman presiding at Chetwynde, and they’d helped her construct her retreat, the arbour or garden bower. However, when Rev Wynne dies one sister is sent to be married off to a man twice her age in British Bengal and the other is in Scotland as a companion to Lady Halifax’s own daughters. Of the Wynne boys, one is a Lieutenant in the army and the other has gone to sea.
Bereft of close companions – for, like her parents, the daughter of the new clergyman is snooty and uncongenial – Kitty is at first grateful when her aunt’s relatives come to stay because Camilla Stanley appears to be a possible new best friend. Unfortunately, Kitty soon finds Camilla has “an Understanding unimproved by reading and a Mind totally devoid of Taste or Judgement.” Since we know Kitty’s own “imagination was warm, and in her Freindships […] enthousiastic” this proves another impediment to her happiness.
Until Camilla’s brother Edward unexpectedly appears, and then her spirits lift. Here is someone who pleasantly but habitually cocks a snook at etiquette and convention, and even risks Kitty’s reputation and virtue, not to forget her aunt’s outrage, by being in the girl’s company unchaperoned. Kitty is bowled over and fancies herself in love, but Edward suddenly and without warning leaves Chetwynde …
You might think that Austen is imagining the course of true love definitely not running smoothly, and that despite misunderstandings and mishaps Edward and Kitty will eventually get back together. Yet is this a scenario we can unhesitatingly identify in her published novels? For Edward is described as an “unaccountable” being; indeed we’re immediately told that Kitty gives not “a Moment’s recollection on the vanity of Young Women, or the unaccountable conduct of Young Men.” Unaccountable can mean either “inexplicable” or “irresponsible”, so which is it in this case? Is Edward in his dalliance with Kitty in truth a precursor of Frank Churchill in Emma?
And what of the other fleetingly mentioned young men in the Wynne family? Only Charles is named, and like Fanny Price’s brother William in Mansfield Park and Frederick Wentworth in Persuasion he is a seaman: can we read anything into this profession? We’ll never know of course.
What is evident however is Austen’s emerging, almost fully fledged literary capabilities. Here are fully rounded characters, with entirely credible psychologies; here too are her telltale touches of authorial humour, subtle yet telling and honed to perfection in her impressive juvenilia; also evident is her sure handling of fairytale motifs to raise our expectations, all the better to confound them.
I read Catharine in an informative annotated edition of her mostly adolescent writings, aided by detailed textual and explanatory notes which clarify Austen’s own approach to creating and revising her fiction. Contained, along with the unfinished Evelyn, in the final volume of her three notebooks, it marks a sea change in her previous work by attempting a fully grown-up novel, and hints at later work – there is even a mention of a Lady Susan! Even in its fragmentary state Catharine is a precious legacy from a precocious talent.