Austen and Alice Are Bizarre

December 2, 2015
Aliisa Lee

Before we graduate, Princeton students complete a little something called the 

senior thesis
And by little, I mean not little at all. The senior thesis is a culmination of research, thought, argument and writing developed over senior year, or earlier if you're really on top of it, and ultimately printed into your own beautiful hardbound book of knowledge, which is then archived somewhere in the annals of Princeton thought. The nature of the thesis varies per department, but all in all it's a well-renowned process of joy and fear, dread and discovery. 

And that's what I'm headed into this year! To learn what I've decided to focus my English thesis on, come over to my Firestone Library Locker. 

firestone locker
Congrats if you guessed Jane Austen! As a prize you can write my thesis for me.

(Just kidding, Honor Committee, I love nothing more than working in accordance with University regulations!)

My thesis adviser is Professor Claudia Johnson, who also happens to be one of the most preeminent scholars on Jane Austen in the world. I'm particularly focusing on Jane Austen's juvenilia, the label generally given to the work she wrote from ages 11 to 17. Trust me, focusing a thesis on Jane Austen's teenage writing is much more worthwhile than reading my teenage writing.

Currently, I'm typesetting and illustrating her "Frederic and Elfrida" for a midterm creative project, so I'll give you a little look at some of the gems in this particular story. 

New and fashionable bonnnet
There are adventures that center around new and fashionable bonnets. 

There's that time Charlotte gets proposed to twice, first by "an aged gentleman with a sallow face & old pink Coat."

Old guy proposal
She says yes, because it's awkward otherwise. And then, moments later, she's asked again by "a young and Handsome Gentlemen with a new blue coat."
Dashing proposal
She can't account for it, but there's something in his appearance that leads her to accept him. 

Young Jane Austen's writing has all the sharpness, wit, and careful control of language you would expect from the author of "Emma" and "Persuasion." The content on the other hand is a little more... unexpected. One of my favorite lines in this text:

Please be aware the same Jane Austen we know so well for Darcy and Keira Knightley was first writing scenes of rampant defenestration.


IT'S AMAZING. The burlesque of this early work is just so bodily, dramatic and hilarious in a way that her later published work cannot be. The juvenilia is full of illegitimate marriages, slapstick violence, extreme fainting fits, intoxicated ladies, murder, eyes that literally shine like the sun, and a whole host of wonderful and bizarre situations. Young Austen clearly took delight in entertainment through language, a combination of the ridiculous and mundane fitted into writing that surprises, inverts tropes, and simultaneously mocks and loves fiction. 

And that's the start of what I'll be exploring in my thesis! I may also take up the English department on the critical-creative option and give the dramatic energy of the juvenilia some illustrated body. Should be a good time.

While working on a 75-80 page project is intimidating, junior year independent work helps build up to the project. Last year, we completed a fall and a spring junior paper (JP), or little baby theses. For the spring JP, I turned to "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," a work different from Austen, but also bizarre. My first point of interest lay in the opening scene, which I've illustrated below: 


The book begins with Alice being bored by a book. Weird!

More specifically, Alice is bored by a book without "pictures and conversations," which is exactly what "Alice in Wonderland," the physical book, contains. The exploration led me to look closely at the older sister's role in the story, the parallels of Wonderland and reading, Lewis Carroll, retelling, and nostalgia through literature. 

JP selfie

While focusing on a different text, I'll be drawing on my JP experience to inform my thesis process. I'll hopefully keep you updated as this year and my work progresses! Till then, you can find me writing about an Austen in all her craziness.


closing thought

Sometimes I look at what I write and draw, and I just realize, "Hmmm Aliisa, you're kind of strange." 

And then I go to our cultural masterpieces like "Pride and Prejudice," knowing every Jane Austen novel has an undercurrent of that girl kicking her characters out windows. And I think, "Eh, we're all pretty weird," so might as well keep doing what I'm doing. 


Aliisa Lee finis