What I'm working on over summer: Joanne Wilkes

20 February 2017
Professor Joanne Wilkes

We're catching up with our researchers to find out what they will be working on over the summer.

With the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's death approaching this year, Professor Joanne Wilkes is focusing on Austen's writing that was not published during her lifetime.

Part of this unpublished work is from early in her writing career.

Joanne explains that Austen was a "smart and precocious" teenager. "She was very perceptive about social and literary conventions from a young age. A lot of her early work parodied these conventions."

"Some of it was quite outrageous, the characters would do things that you wouldn’t expect a 13 year old to know about." Joanne says that the people looking after Austen’s reputation after her death wanted her to be seen as respectable.

"Her family was embarrassed by this material, and they chose not to publish this work."

Alongside this juvenilia, Austen also died with three uncompleted novels: 'Lady Susan', 'The Watsons', and 'Sanditon'. Joanne explains that there have been about a dozen attempts at continuing and publishing 'The Watsons' alone.

"These works have been a magnet for people who want to finish unfinished novels."

"One of Austen’s nieces expanded 'The Watsons' into a long Victorian novel in the 1850s, and there were other continuations in the 20th and 21st centuries."

These continuations have provided fertile ground for Joanne’s research.

"When you read books like that of varying quality, it highlights things about Jane Austen. The interest of it is what these continuations make you realise about Austen herself."

Alongside these unpublished works, Joanne is also continuing her work on the history of the critical reception of Austen. Austen was compared to Shakespeare in the 1840s for her characterisation, and this comparison was discussed a lot in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.

Joanne is interested in why people compared her to Shakespeare, and whether this is a useful comparison. She is likewise fascinated by the enduring popularity of both Shakespeare and Austen.

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