Anyone who has had the temerity to write about Jane Austen is aware of facts: first, that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.
We are avid novel-readers in the Lounge and usually have a stack awaiting our attention, but occasionally we enjoy the luxury of browsing the library shelves with the question "What next?" in mind. In such cases we usually make a beeline for the 19th century, and once a year or so we find ourselves picking up one of the novels of Jane Austen. No matter that they've been kicking around for nearly 200 years and we've been reading them for the last forty. It always surprises us how much is still to be discovered in them when we return after an interval of a few years; and we leave them, always wondering: how did she do it?
Viewed from the perspective of English literature generally, the "it" that she did is a huge one: her six novels occupy only a handbreadth on any bookshelf, but the writing about them — if you look in any university library — occupies two or three yard-long shelves at least. She was hardly past 40 when she died and in comparison with her peers she wasn't terribly popular or prolific in her lifetime, but she is the only English novelist of the decade in which she published who is still ready widely today. (Sir Walter Scott was a contemporary of Austen writing in English who is still read today, but he was not technically English, being a Scot.) How many novelists on current bestseller lists might expect such a legacy two centuries hence?
When we read Austen, the "how did she do it?" we puzzle about is smaller and more personal: how did she manage to write novels that, nearly two centuries after the fact, are (to us, anyway) more engrossing than anything that's splashed across this week's New York Times Book Review or Times Literary Supplement? It is even more remarkable that she pulled this off by breaking many of the rules about writing fiction, long before most of them were written.
We had a trawl through the OED for Austen citations, looking particularly at words for which Austen is the first cited author. Such a distinction usually doesn't indicate an author's coining of a word; it's more likely to indicate their having been the first person (so far discovered) in whose writings the word is recorded. Austen's "first author cited" words fall mainly into two categories: (1) a few words denoting domestic items, such as door-bell and sponge-cake; (2) a great many words that are regular derivatives of existing English words and therefore not necessarily new at the time of "first use" at all — they are simply word forms that are within the productive vocabulary of any accomplished native speaker and that rise to consciousness when there is a need for them: words like in-between, smarten up, spoilt (as an adjective), sympathizer, and unfastidious (all of which make their first appearance in Emma, which we're reading now). We think it is this class of words that is revealing about Austen as a writer: she didn't so much push the boundaries of English as fill in some of its empty corners in writing, confidently placing the right word in the place where it belonged, even if no one had done it before.
In the wake of our fairly recent musings about the language of modern fiction (from the Lounge in May of this year), we are also struck by something we've noticed about Austen before, which we might class under the heading of things she never writes about. It is a comfort and joy in reading Austen that we are not subjected to descriptions of her characters playing with hair — either their own or someone else's. We will not learn what they wear each day, or the time they spend deciding about it. However often or in whatever way they may touch each other, we are usually spared any details about it beyond the description of a handshake, and we never accompany them beyond the bedroom door. There is occasionally a death, but we are always spared depictions of mayhem, murder, and gore. In fact, aside from her expert use of dialogue — it makes up the greater part of many chapters of her books — Austen doesn't write about anything or in any way that a fiction writing class or workshop today would advise you to do.
Your fiction writing teacher or editor would probably suggest that you avoid sentences like:
Every feeling was offended; and the forbearance of her outward submission left a heavy arrear due of secret severity in her reflections on the unmanageable goodwill of Mr. Weston's temper.
Emma was gratified to observe such a proof in her of strengthened character, and refrained from any allusion that might endanger its maintenance.
These sentences, apart from their demanding syntax, would be no-nos today under the rubric of "Show your readers! Do not tell them!" or some such modern idea. Today's writers are also advised to introduce conflict or suspense early on in their plots, in order to engage the interest of the reader. In Emma, by contrast, nothing startling happens, no untoward event rends the delicate social fabric of a small handful of village families till quite late in the book. By our reckoning, the pivot of this 380-page novel doesn't appear until page 294, when Emma demeans herself by making a sarcastic remark to a social inferior. This act sets in motion a string of events that eventually resolve all of the book's small tensions.
On this reading of Emma, we noticed for the first time a short passage that occurs near the beginning of the book. In it, Mrs. Weston is speaking to Mr. Knightley (about Emma of course) and makes this observation about Emma's protégé Harriet Smith:
"She is not the superior young woman which Emma's friend ought to be. But on the other hand, as Emma wants to see her better informed, it will be an inducement to her to read more herself. They will read together."
What we like about this passage is its statement about the value of reading. Mrs. Weston — who is a fount of good judgment and common sense throughout the book — has the opportunity to make a statement about what might promote a young person's character, and what she comes up with is reading. What a fantastic idea! And without naming names, how much we would like to recommend this activity to several young people of our acquaintance today, as an alternative to downloading music from iTunes, participating in online communities, visiting the gym, or texting their friends! We suspect that Austen's enduring appeal lies partly in this, her ability to exemplify enduring truths in the interactions of her characters: after all these years, reading is still a very improving activity; reading Jane Austen is particularly so.
Happily, all of Jane Austen's books have long been in the public domain and are widely available in inexpensive editions, as well as being searchable and readable online (such as here):
We found the Woolf quote that we began with, along with many other interesting insights into Austen's writing by other canonical writers, in this book:
A recent scholarly book that we found particularly insightful about Austen's writing in the context of her time is here:
Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website.Click here to read other articles by Orin Hargraves