Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Reading Jane Austen

I'm under instruction to read Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice. And to read them slowly. Whether a reread of the novels (especially a re-read of the novels) or a frivolous couple of hours watching any of the period dramas, or even Clueless or Bridget Jones's Diary, it is alway a pleasure to return to Jane Austen. Get cosy, open the cover, read:

'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,' and you are transported back in time, through your teen or pre-teenage years and your first encounter with Austen, all the way to Regency England.

In novels, Austen tells us,

'the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.' (Northanger Abbey)

But as writers, we also read Jane Austen to try to figure out how it's done - the memorable characters, convincing dialogue, tension, pacing, the lot. Despite Virginia Woolf's assertion that 'of all great writers, (Austen) is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness', we spent a profitable week examining Northanger Abbey - blueprint for aspiring novelists - for clues, and they're all there. Now it's just a matter of putting them into practice...

A couple of points of interest:

In Austen, 'he said' can become 'he cried', whereas in contemporary writing circles the belief is that the plainer the identifier, the better. Austen also uses -ly adverbs: 'he said gravely', 'she said doubtingly'. Personally, I love variety in identifiers, and -ly adverbs too - I was reared on a diet of Enid Blyton, after all ('Timmy barked dolefully') - and feel greatly curtailed when advised to drop 'he murmured, murmuringly'.

The Comforts of Bath, Rowlandson, The Pump Room, 1798
And another workshop favourite, show don't tell, is quite disregarded by Austen, who has no qualms about telling, and even telling us that she is telling:

'It is now expedient to give some description of Mrs Allen... She had neither beauty, genius, accomplishment, not manner.'

Telling not showing, and a lesson in economy to boot.


  1. Nice post, Paula.

    While I agree that Austen had a great story telling gift, I believe that the development of the novel form has moved on from those days.

    Whether you agree with that or not, readers these days tire easily when telling and adverbs aren't accompanied by an involving story, interesting characters and curious details, all of which Austen was renowned for.

  2. Thanks, Laurence.
    While it is true that tastes change, Austen is still widely read some two hundred years on. I absolutely agree that, whatever the style or the period of the writing, the characters and the story must be engaging.