by Vic Sanborn, Oct 4, 2010
Jane Austen wrote about the art of writing in her letters to family, friends, and acquaintances, and followed her own advice.
In her letters to her sister, Cassandra, niece Anna Austen, and Rev. James Stanier Clarke, Jane Austen revealed her thoughts on writing. While she did not adhere to the strict rules of punctuation, her observations about character development and staying true to what you know are sound advice for all authors today.
Jane Austen wrote letters, plays, and stories ever since she was a young girl, whether she was motivated to write or not. At times she struggled. “How ill I have written. I begin to hate myself,” she shared with her sister, Cassandra, when she was 21. Even when Jane was unable to complete a novel during her peripatetic years in Bath, she wrote letters regularly. “I am not at all in a humor for writing; I must write on till I am,” she told Cassandra and confessed to her niece Anna in 1814 that she had “nothing very particular to say.” When Jane was not writing original work, she copied reams of her favorite music into large volumes and her youthful work into journals that were distributed among the family.
Jane’s most productive writing years were spent in Chawton Cottage, where she developed distinct writing habits. She wrote near a window on a small walnut table on a writing slope that her father had given to her. Whenever anyone entered the room, the door would creak, giving Jane ample time to secrete her work under a sheet of blotting paper. Her regular schedule allowed her to produce three of her six novels during the last eight years of her life, and to revise her earlier ones.
Write About Topics You Know Well
Jane Austen has been accused by critics of ignoring the larger world and historical events of the day in favor of every day occurrences in village life. Her reasons for these limitations were deliberate. To her way of thinking authors lost credibility if they wrote about topics that were out of their depth. “Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on,” Jane wrote to her niece, Anna, a budding young author. In another letter she advised Anna to keep her characters in England as she knew nothing of the manners in Ireland. “You will be in danger of giving false representations. Stick to Bath and the Foresters. There you will be quite at home.”
Jane followed her own counsel. When James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent’s librarian, suggested new avenues for Jane to explore, she wrote “No – I must keep to my own style & go on in my own Way; And though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.” (1816) She elaborated further in another letter to Mr. Clarke, “I could no more write a Romance than an Epic Poem.- could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter.”
Style and Punctuation
Jane Austen was not overly concerned about punctuation. After the release of Pride and Prejudice, she wrote to Cassandra, “There are a few Typical errors–& a ‘said he’ or a ‘said she’ would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear–but ‘I do not write for such dull Elves As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.'” In other words, a smart person would figure out what she meant to say. She was also prone to using exclamations, ampersands, and dashes, especially in her letters, but was unapologetic about the habit, saying “I am always wandering away into some exclamation or other.”
She wrote her thoughts in a hurry, not always dividing long passages into paragraphs. Two original and unedited chapters from Persuasion demonstrate that she wrote long sentences, ignored commas, and used dashes to connect her sub-clauses. *
Jane decried the use of slang and used it only to delineate a character, such as John Thorpe, a seedy character in Northanger Abbey. When her niece, Anna, began to write her own novel, Jane cautioned: “Devereux Forester’s being ruined by his Vanity is extremely good; but I wish you would not let him plunge into a ‘vortex of Dissipation’… it is such thorough novel slang–and so old, that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened.” (1814)
Characters and their Development
Jane Austen was quite critical of her own work, writing to Cassandra in 1799 about one of her characters, “Henry Mellish I am afraid will be too much in the common Novel style–a handsome, amiable, unexceptionable Young Man.” She was particular about love scenes and heroes. “I do not like a lover speaking in the 3rd person … I think it not natural,” she said to Anna, adding in a later letter that Anna’s hero must be given something interesting but realistic to do. “What can you do with Egerton to increase the interest for him? I wish you could contrive something, some family occurrence to bring out his good qualities more. Some distress among brothers and sisters to relieve by the sale of his curacy! … I would not seriously recommend anything improbable, but if you could invent something spirited for him it would have a good effect.” Actions also needed to make sense and the author should provide a character a compelling reason to do them. “We are not satisfied with Mrs. Forester settling herself as tenant and near neighbour to such a man as Sir Thomas, without having some other inducement to go there. She ought to have some friend living thereabouts to tempt her.”
Editing and Factual Accuracy
Jane Austen suggested that authors use words sparingly, write accurate descriptions, apply common sense, and consult the facts. “Here and there we have thought the sense could be expressed in fewer words, and I have scratched out Sir Thos. from walking with the others to the stables, &c. the very day after breaking his arm,” she wrote to Anna, adding, “Lyme will not do. Lyme is towards forty miles from Dawlish and would not be talked of there. I have put Starcross instead.”
Jane suggested revisions for a good purpose. As she wrote to Anna, “The scene with Mrs. Mellish I should condemn; it is prosy and nothing to the purpose” and “I have also scratched out the introduction between Lord Portman and his brother and Mr. Griffin. A country surgeon … would not be introduced to men of their rank.” One gets the sense from Jane’s critiques that she knew her geographic distances well, and that physical details mattered for the novel to be believable. “Russell Square is a very proper distance from Berkeley Square. … They must be two days going from Dawlish to Bath. They are nearly 100 miles apart.”
Today’s author would do well to follow Jane Austen’s advice in writing interesting characters who move about realistically in settings that the writer knows well.
Letters of Jane Austen – Brabourne Edition, Republic of Pemberley.
Jane Austen’s Writing Desk and Writing Table. Suite 101.