Reports on Teaching Juvenilia

Jane Sloan, from Redlands, reports on Apprenticeships in Writing: The Value of Studying Juvenilia

In Term 3 of 2012, I had the great pleasure of teaching a course on juvenilia to a group of Year 10 students. Sandra Hamilton, Head of the English Department at Redlands, a co-educational independent school in Sydney, devised an introductory programme designed to acquaint students with the youthful writing of a wide range of authors, including the Brontës, Jane Austen, and Margaret Atwood, among others. This student-focused, self-directed project grew out of a collaborative relationship with Professor Christine Alexander, Scientia Professor in the School of the Arts and Media at UNSW and Director and General Editor of the Juvenilia Press, whose areas of academic specialisation include the child writer and literary juvenilia.

Drawing on Alexander’s work, and making use of the numerous publications available from the Juvenilia Press  (a catalogue is available at:, students undertook a series of research tasks in order to explore the initial question: What can juvenilia teach us about the lives and imaginations of well-known writers? This led to them later tackling the more complex, and ultimately self-reflective question: What is the value of studying juvenilia?

Each pupil was asked to choose one juvenile text for close study. Alongside their reading they focused on how historical context informs literary production. This was explored through extensive research via print and online resources into the significant biographical, social, and historical events affecting the writer’s life. A mini-biography was created from the notes they took whilst working during class time in the library, and also at home.

Students quickly came to realise that, as in their own lives, familial relationships and the more immediate social context, for the most part, tended to exert the greatest influence on the works they were reading. Volumes borrowed from the household’s library informed the budding writers’ compositions in any number of ways and the kinds of conversations heard around the dining table and in the sitting room influenced the form their dialogue took. Their characters were often derived from people they knew or from the fiction they were reading.
My Year 10s also speculated about other possible influences. With regard to Austen’s comic portraits in her early work, Love and Freindship, S.M. wrote: ‘This suggests that either Austen was born with the gift for comedy, or that humour was highly valued in the Austen household. Considering her work was often read aloud to the family, and much later references to Love and Freindship in letters between family members suggest this was a particular favourite, the latter can be assumed, though her confidence was more likely a result of the combination of both.’ M.O. was intrigued by the theme of abandonment in George Eliot’s juvenile novel, Edward Neville, and linked this to the death of her mother in early childhood and the absence of her father due to his job.

Further, juvenilia provided them with insights into the workings of the writers’ minds. Looking at The Rectory Magazine, Lewis Carroll’s family magazine, of which he was both editor and major contributor, E.W. wrote, ‘Studying his juvenile works helps me deepen my understanding of his imagination.’ She went on to explore his fascination with logic and mathematics and his use of puns and wordplay. C.C. said the following about Austen’s abiding fascination with attitudes about socially accepted behaviour: ‘From a young age, she clearly found them silly. Humorous. Ridiculous. Much like myself and most other teenagers of today do. Social proprieties seem to mask open, honest expression, which tends to result in confusion and trouble.’

Reading works written by individuals not far removed in age from themselves appeared to give my students the confidence to engage in a very direct and critically astute manner. They weren’t shy about suggesting, for instance, that Austen was showing off and trying to impress her family by using big words and convoluted sentences, nor were they reluctant to point out when they thought plot construction and characterisation were clumsy or implausible.
M.O. was more forgiving, making use of a superb quotation from James Fenton’s The Strength of Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 26) where he states:

We are never such kleptomaniacs as in our juvenilia. We steal from our masters. We steal from our friends, from our enemies even. We try out tones of voice for which we are ill suited. We write as if we belong to some other period. We are suckers for gorgeous words such as nenuphar, asphodel and pelf. And because we are not as yet in command of our vehicle we get out of control. We reveal ourselves inadvertently and we inadvertently commit ourselves to some point of view that isn’t really ‘us’ at all.

She went on to point out that ‘an accomplished person of any kind is sculpted throughout their youth, borrowing and trying out ideas from others, until they find themselves. Their interests, disinterests, pleasures, displeasures, aspirations are formed, and after enduring many years of adolescence, they evolve into their own unique selves.’

Once this part of the course was complete, students were then asked to compare their chosen volume with a mature work by the same writer, examining thematic recurrences and the development of a voice or style, or any other links they were able to find.

The summative assessment involved writing a 1500 word essay reflecting on the value of studying juvenilia. However, before asking them to begin drafting their responses, I introduced my students to the genre of the personal essay.
I provided them with extracts from pieces I’d enjoyed, ones that took a distinctly subjective approach and in which the writers often used anecdotes or other autobiographical material to explain their fascination with the subject they were exploring. These we read out loud, analysing them much as we would any other work of literature, but specifically with an eye to trying to adopt or imitate aspects which we thought were successful or particularly appealing.

We spoke about the importance of coming up with a captivating title and about the work that a carefully chosen epigraph can do in framing the text that follows. We wrote draft paragraphs using the third person singular pronoun ‘one’—which my students came to realise sounds pompous and presumptuous—and then changing to first person in order to chart the differing effects of point of view.

I think the final results are remarkable. Many of the essays I read knocked my cotton socks off. Here are a few examples: ‘Of Time-Aware Rabbits and Other Shattered Dreams’, an appreciation of the value of Carroll’s juvenilia, begins with an epigraph from Shakespeare: ‘Thereby hangs a tale’. E. W. then goes on to write:

When I was little, my Dad used to read to me bedtime stories. Amongst the many, of course, was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I loved the book dearly. I could not stop thinking about it. Many restless nights came and went as I thought about how I could one day end up in Wonderland, just like Alice. [. . .] From the window of my bedroom overlooking the backyard I would spend the afternoons watching rabbits hop by. Rabbits, rabbits and even more rabbits; there were too many for me to count! None of them, however, had waistcoat pockets or watches.

I find her title and opening remarks utterly engaging, and what follows is entrancing, amusing, and beautifully written. (Other titles included ‘Of Jest and Wit We Do Write’, ‘ The Older the Wiser’, and ‘Jane, Emma & Catherine: Where Their Stories Begin’.)

In her cleverly titled ‘Juvenilia: Writing Your Own History’, S.R. wrote a witty, insightful response which begins:

Like may people, at some point in my childhood I dreamed of becoming famous. Admittedly, as a shy and somewhat physically awkward child, I was never cut out for stardom, but I wanted to be someone of historical significance, someone whose life and work would still be studied centuries after death, someone worth a biography. Reminiscing about this dream, I began to ask myself: suppose someone did end up writing my biography, what would they write?

Having understood that writing as if you were having an intelligent conversation with your reader creates a sense of intimacy and interest, she used a similar style in her own work.

Shaking off the strictures of a typical high school essay structure and mode of address, the Year 10s wrote in ways that stirred my heart and intellect. I found myself charmed and thrilled. I laughed aloud, I ooh-ed and aah-ed, I scribbled notes on post-its; I couldn’t wait to get back to their essays when my reading was interrupted.

Christine Alexander and other academics working in this field regard juvenilia as an important aspect of literary study. It is due to their pioneering work that my students have now had the chance to develop a deep understanding of the worth of investigating this often overlooked genre.

[The Child Writer from Austen to Woolf, edited by Christine Alexander and Juliet McMaster, proved to be an invaluable resource, allowing me to frame our investigations in the classroom in a confident and informed manner. The Juvenilia Press titles are inexpensive, at about $12 a volume they are an ideal investment for school libraries. Information is available at the Press’s website about the work Professor Alexander has done with schools who have been involved in editing works of juvenilia for publication.]


Rob Breton from Nipissing University, Canada, tells you about his experience:

In 2006 I taught a fourth-year honours seminar at Nipissing University on Juvenilia. It was a hugely successful course for a number of reasons, including the students' enthusiasm for the material, the variety of ways that we were able to approach the texts, and the editions available from the Juvenilia Press. The assistance provided by the JP made the course an all round pleasure to organize and teach.

The students crowded into the course, attracted by the novelty of it, by the idea of juvenilia in general, and more specifically by the early writings of popular literary figures such as the Brontës and Jane Austen. Most of the students were initially surprised that so much child writing exists, and then doubly surprised and pleased by its quality. I’ve never experienced since the volume of chatter that I would hear before we started our classes - chatter on how much they loved the stories. But of course the students learned that juvenilia is worthy of serious study, has great depths of meaning, and reveals as much about the world in which it was produced as does adult literature.

Students also appreciated the different ways that we read juvenilia. Jane Eyre becomes a new novel when read in the context of Tales of the Islanders; Pride and Prejudice becomes an even better book (if one can believe that’s possible) shadowed by Austen’s incredibly lively The Three Sisters or Jack and Alice; and Under the Volcano takes on sobering meanings when read besides Malcolm Lowry’s Satan in a Barrel and other early stories. But juvenilia also works extremely well by itself and need not be paired with adult literature. Opal Whitely and Iris Vaughan, especially, are complete reads and together with other JP selections suggest that juvenilia has some of the features of a genre, or at least can be studied in that way.

Finally, my course on juvenilia was successful because of the Juvenilia Press and the wonderful editions of juvenile writings they have provided us with. They are scholarly editions in every way, but include as well a spirit of youthful creativeness with their numerous illustrations. My students wanted more and more of these affordable, collectable books and seemed proud to own them. I ordered many for my course, which was easy to do, and saw the students begin to enjoy owning a series of smartly crafted books. The Juvenilia Press was instrumental in making the course the success it was. I look forward to repeating the experience of working with everyone at the JP as I teach the course again.

Rob Breton
Nipissing University,
North Bay, ON, Canada


Pamela Nutt from Presbyterian Ladies' College (PLC), Sydney, tells you about her teaching experience:

In 2010, eight students from PLC Sydney worked with their teacher to edit some of the juvenile writings of Mary Grant Bruce, under the mentorship of Professor Christine Alexander, General Editor of the Juvenilia Press. The students were in the Year 11 Advanced stream and had been identified as gifted and talented throughout their high school years. My experience described here may be a useful model for other teachers keen to work on juvenilia and critical editing, and to incorporate this into their current teaching.

The students were volunteers and the programme was embedded in their Preliminary Studies in English. Initially, students worked in class at least once fortnightly. It was their responsibility to keep up with the work that the rest of the class was doing in the core programme for the year. Work was also expected of the students away from class time.

The New South Wales Advanced English Syllabus for Stage 6 (Preliminary) has as a key objective that "Students will develop skills in independent investigation, individual and collaborative learning". The skills of analysis and synthesis will be evident as students become involved in "collecting, selecting, interpreting and drawing conclusions about information and ideas in a range of texts in … social, historical [and] cultural … contexts". They are to "[make] connections between information and ideas … synthesizing these in a range of texts". Furthermore, the Preliminary Extension English course includes in its Rationale that "accomplished, analytical and imaginative" students "refine their understanding of the cultural roles and significance of text". In understanding how and why texts are valued, students will consider "the relationships between text and the culture in which it was composed", explore the relationship between language and values and consider "why some texts may be perceived as culturally significant". The skills developed in independent investigation and the refining of the clarity of their own writing "to meet the demands of increasing complexity of thought and expression" are most fitting as components of research skills developed through the Juvenilia Press project.

Towards the end of Preliminary Studies the students were given the opportunity to work full time on the project and substitute this work for the work that the rest of the class was doing in another unit. One student chose to complete both units of work. Although using all class time on the Juvenilia project, students were still doing much work outside class time. Their study relating to the works of Mary Grant Bruce was examined in the yearly examinations, where they achieved a very high standard.

Initially, the students worked at transcribing the text from photocopies of the late nineteenth-century newspaper that published Bruce's early stories. This was challenging, as not all of the text was physically easily readable. There were also errors and idiosyncrasies in the text that provided the students with their first exercises in editorial decision-making. Critiquing the stories was a natural extension of this work and a skill in which they had previous experience. Thus the project slotted in neatly with their regular programming. Contextual elements were quickly identified, along with the values inherent in the texts. This again extended the work that was part of Advanced English programming in Preliminary English.

Developing an understanding of the relationship between text and context provided early independent research topics for individual students. As a group, the students identified aspects of the stories to research and report to the group. Discussions resulting from this reporting became the basis for a wide range of endnotes, with some topics forming a part of the introduction and some becoming appendices.

Further studies relating to linguistic analysis of the stories yielded much new knowledge to the students. In this area, they exceeded, I believe, what was being achieved by students in the traditional course. The further the work progressed, the more they were able to bring studies in other areas (Art, Music and History, for example) to bear on their English studies. Their varied skills and interests added much to the project.

The artists were a part of the research and writing team as well and their artwork, particularly in the case of one student, was richly enhanced by the research being undertaken. There was a strong sense of the relationship of writing, artwork and context.

Of very great benefit to the students was the opportunity to work with academics within the university system. Engaging with Professor Christine Alexander and Dr David Blair, an expert in linguistics, gave them excellent models of tertiary education. They responded positively and productively to these encounters.

Working with secondary students at this level is not without its difficulties. In a school with many competing co-curricular activities, and where able students are encouraged to participate widely, students found allocating and prioritizing time a challenge. The school also has a demanding assessment programme that needed to be accommodated. Student illness, sometimes serious, was another matter to be contended with.

The engagement and determination of the teacher in the project is a key factor, as is the overall mentoring given by the General Editor. Support from the school itself was also essential element, not the least important being the funding of the project. Overall, the project represented a very positive experience in giving gifted secondary students an experience of a level of study that they will meet at university.

Pamela Nutt
Former Head of English
Presbyterian Ladies' College, Sydney
May 2011

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