A very modern MS

A week in books
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The Independent Culture
The literary world was intrigued this week by the claim that a French publishing house has discovered the manuscript of a hitherto unknown novella by Jane Austen in a Montparnasse vault. Entitled Lady Catriona's Muff, it appears to date from 1795 or 1796, when the novelist was 20 or 21 and taking her first adult steps in fiction. If the French house's attributions stand up to examination, the MS will be seen to have been written after North-anger Abbey and a year before Sense and Sensibility.

Dr Nanda Brookenham, a lecturer in English at Sussex University and long- standing authority on Austen, called the discovery of the new MS "terrifically exciting. Many Jane-ites have suspected that the trail did not end with the discovery of Sanditon [the fragment Austen was working on when she died]. Lady Catriona shows the mind of a young and unusually spirited Jane, in some respects a `teenager', though she would not have recognised the word, of course. Its setting and idiom will raise a few eyebrows in the academy, mark my words."

Indeed. The novella deals, more explicitly than the rest of the Austen oeuvre, with the rituals of flirtation and romance, with the theme of sexual promiscuity before marriage, even with - unimaginable to more old- fashioned Austen readers - the trauma of single parenthood in the repressive society of the 1790s. Its heroine, Kate, is a well-born and credulous innocent (a proto-type of Harriet Smith from Emma) who visits, aged 17, her Aunt Sadie's seedy home in Nether Wallop, Hampshire. Appalled by the poverty of her surroundings, the heavy drinking of her opium-addicted Aunt and the foul language of her coarse-grained cousins, Mick and Keith (the latter known as "Mister Thrice-Knightly"), Kate is forced to take part in degrading rituals that ridicule her aristocratic lineage and abuse her person (hence the title). By the end, however, she persuades them to lead judicious and mannerly lives, and learns to be less hasty in judging the worth of others.

The literary world will naturally be divided about the worth of this unusual text. Students should order their copies without delay from: Editions Fou d'Avril, 323 rue de L'Odon, Paris, France.