Monday, 14 March 2016

Jane Austen's Advice to Writers

Clearly, Jane Austen's letters are not the place to look for a treatise on the art of writing. However, she makes broad but perceptive criticisms from which her literary principles may be inferred. She liked books to be consistent, sensible, interesting, essentially moral, and plausible (though she was not averse to some escapism).

We learn much from letters to her nieces Anna and Caroline and nephew James-Edward, who attempted literary composition. She writes teasingly about Edward's early attempts. 'Edward is writing a Novel – we have all heard what he has written – it is extremely clever; written with great ease & spirit; – if he can carry it on in the same way, it will be a firstrate work, & in a style, I think, to be popular. – Pray tell Mary how much I admire it. – And tell Caroline that I think it is hardly fair upon her & myself, to have him take up the Novel Line' (Letter 144). 

There is a series of letters written to Anna between July and November 1814. The twenty-one-year-old Anna, writing a novel herself, lived nearby at Steventon parsonage where Jane had spent her youth. Anna submitted her manuscripts stage by stage for criticism by her aunt. Both Cassandra and Jane read them. Always kind and encouraging, Jane responded with succinct and wide-ranging advice. At pains to stress that the young writer should feel free to ignore her opinions ('If you think differently however, you need not mind me' - Letter 103), she is nevertheless forthright. 

The advice confirms Jane as a conscientious technician, looking for well-planned, logical plotting. 'We are not satisfied with Mrs F.'s settling herself as Tenant & near Neighbour to such a Man as Sir T.H. without having some other inducement to go there; she ought to have some friend living thereabouts to tempt her. A woman, going with two girls just growing up, into a Neighbourhood where she knows nobody but one Man, of not very good character, is an awkwardness which so prudent a woman as Mrs F would not be likely to fall into. Remember, she is very prudent; – you must not let her act inconsistently' (Letter 107). 

Jane expects characters to be not merely consistent but also plausible and interesting. 'Henry Mellish I am afraid will be too much in the common Novel style – a handsome, amiable, unexceptionable Young Man (such as do not much abound in real Life) desperately in Love, & all in vain. But I have no business to judge him so early' (Letter 108); 'I like your Susan very much indeed ... as she is now ... but I am not so well satisfied with her behaviour to George R. At first she seemed all over attachment & feeling, & afterwards to have none at all ... She seems to have changed her Character' (Letter 107); 'your Aunt C. & I both recommend your making a little alteration in the last scene between Devereux F. & Lady Clanmurray & her Daughter. We think they press him too much – more than sensible Women or well-bred Women would do' (Letter 104); 'What can you do with Egerton to increase the interest for him? I wish you cd contrive something, some family occurrence to draw out his good qualities more – some distress among Brothers or Sisters to releive by the sale of his Curacy – something to take him mysteriously away, & then heard of at York or Edinburgh – in an old great Coat. – I would not seriously recommend anything Improbable, but if you cd invent something spirited for him, it wd have a good effect' (Letter 108); 'I have scratched out Sir Tho: from walking with the other Men to the Stables &c the very day after breaking his arm – for though I find your Papa did walk out immediately after his arm was set, I think it can be so little usual as to appear unnatural in a book – & it does not seem to be material that Sir Tho: should go with them' (Letter 104). Characters and incidents should be adequately developed. 'I should like to have had more of Devereux. I do not feel enough acquainted with him' (Letter 104). 

The author must accurately record social niceties. 'As Lady H. is Cecilia's superior, it wd not be correct to talk of her being introduced; Cecilia must be the person introduced' (Letter 103); 'I have also scratched out the Introduction between Lord P. & his Brother, & Mr Griffin. A Country Surgeon (dont tell Mr C. Lyford) would not be introduced to Men of their rank' (Letter 104). 

Geographical accuracy was demanded. 'Lyme will not do. Lyme is towards 40 miles distance from Dawlish & would not be talked of there. – I have put Starcross indeed. – If you prefer Exeter, that must be always safe' (Letter 104); 'I am not sensible of any Blunders about Dawlish. The Library was particularly pitiful & wretched 12 years ago, & not likely to have anybody's publication' (Letter 104); 'They must be two days going from Dawlish to Bath; They are nearly 100 miles apart' (Letter 104). 

The author should write about what she knows and understands, rather than the manners of a different society: 'we think you had better not leave England. Let the Portmans go to Ireland, but as you know nothing of the Manners there, you had better not go with them. You will be in danger of giving false representations' (Letter 104). In this category, we also find (Letter 107) the celebrated comment that reveals Jane's awareness of her own strengths: 

You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life; – 3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on – & I hope you will write a great deal more, & make full use of them while they are so favourably arranged. 

Jane knew the importance of self-editing and conciseness. She wrote of Pride and Prejudice, 'I have lop't and crop't so successfully, however, that I imagine it must be rather shorter than Sense and Sensibility'. To Anna, she wrote: 'I hope when you have written a great deal more you will be equal to scratching out some of the past' (Letter 107). 

Language should be precise, appropriate to context and character. '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". I do not object to the Thing, but I cannot bear the expression; – it is such thorough novel slang – and so old, that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened' (Letter 108); 'You describe a sweet place, but your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked. You give too many particulars of right hand & left' (Letter 107). 

After her marriage to Ben Lefroy, Anna continued to send instalments to Aunt Jane. This led to a typical bit of fun when Jane wrote the following: 'St. Julian's History was quite a surprise to me ... his having been in love with the Aunt, gives Cecilia an additional Interest with him. I like the Idea; – a very proper compliment to an Aunt! – I rather imagine indeed that Neices are seldom chosen but in compliment to some Aunt or other. I dare say Ben was in love with me once, & wd never have thought of You if he had not supposed me dead of a Scarlet fever' (Letter 113). (Ben, by the way, became the Rector of Ashe, and died at the age of 38, leaving Anna with seven children.)

Jane's niece Caroline at the age of twelve also sent writings to her and was rewarded with encouragement and close attention: 'I have been very much entertained by your story of Carolina & her aged Father, it made me laugh heartily, & I am particularly glad to find you so much alive upon any topic of such absurdity, as the usual description of a Heroine's father. – You have done it full justice – or if anything be wanting, it is the information of the venerable old Man's having married when only Twenty one, & being a father at Twenty two' (Letter 143); 'I am glad to hear of your proceedings & improvements in the Gentleman Quack. There was a great deal of Spirit in the first part. Our objection to it you have heard, & I give your Authorship credit for bearing Criticism so well' (Letter 154); 'I like Frederick & Caroline better than I did, but must still prefer Edgar & Julia. – Julia is a warm-hearted, ingenuous, natural Girl, which I like her for; – but I know the word Natural is no recommendation to you' (Letter 156 - the last surviving letter to Caroline, written a few weeks before Jane's death). 

The writing of Caroline's elder brother James-Edward was more durable: in 1869 he wrote the valuable Memoir of Jane Austen. When he was preparing for Oxford, Jane told Caroline that she did not mind his academic future, provided he was not idle and that he went 'on with his Novel' (Letter 154). The most famous of all Jane Austen's letters - famous for its 'little bit ... of Ivory' - was the one sent to James-Edward in December 1816. Two and a half chapters of his novel had gone missing. Jane teases him (Letter 146): 

It is well that I have not been at Steventon lately, & therefore cannot be suspected of purloining them; – two strong twigs & a half towards a Nest of my own, would have been something. – I do not think however that any theft of that sort would be really useful to me. What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow? – How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?

Outside what is implicit in the novels, this comment proves she fully understood what she was about. Much labour on a miniature painting with a fine brush involves years of acquired skill, careful planning, attention to detail and perfect judgement. Jane Austen knew how much labour – albeit pleasurable – went into her novels. The 'little effect' and two-inch piece of ivory reflect her characteristic modesty and her preference, rather than writing tales on a grander scale, for limiting subject matter to two or three families in a village. She also feared running out of inspiration. After writing Emma, Jane reported herself able to 'believe that I have not yet – as almost every writer of fancy does soon or later – overwritten myself'. 

Even in the haste of letter-gossip, Jane liked to be interesting and unambiguous. She would occasionally criticize herself. 'We walked to Weston one evening last week, & liked it very much. – Liked what very much? Weston? – no – walking to Weston – I have not expressed myself properly ...' (Letter 21); 'Elizabeth played one Country dance, Lady Bridges the other, which She made Henry dance with her; and Miss Finch played the Boulangeries – On reading over the last three or four Lines, I am aware of my having expressed myself in so doubtful a manner that if I did not tell you to the contrary, You might imagine it was Lady Bridges who made Henry dance with her ...' (Letter 5). At the end of a scrappy letter (Letter 7), she writes, 'How ill I have written. I begin to hate myself'. When she found herself writing 'It gives me sincere pleasure to hear of Mrs Knight's having had a tolerable night at last', she adds, 'I wish she had another name, for the two Nights jingle very much' (Letter 72). 

Jane had fun with styles. After beginning Letter 21 with a few plain and humourless sentences, she says: 'So much for Mrs Piozzi. – I had some thoughts of writing the whole of my letter in her stile, but I beleive I shall not’. In the middle of Letter 29, after a particularly fragmented, gossipy section, she writes 'I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told, is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth; I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter'. Referring to her niece Fanny's appreciation of her letters, Jane writes with a pretence of concern: 'I wish the knowledge of my being exposed to her discerning Criticism, may not hurt my stile, by inducing too great a solicitude. I begin already to weigh my words & sentences more than I did, & am looking about for a sentiment, an illustration or a metaphor in every corner of the room' (Letter 66). In Letter 87, Jane deliberately plays a game with style. 'I am going to write nothing but short Sentences. There shall be two full stops in every Line.' (Letter 87). The game is not sustained for long. 

The reference above is to the letters of Hester Thrale to Dr. Johnson. Hester was Mrs. Hester Lynch Piozzi.

James-Edward, by the way, went to Oxford, became a clergyman and inherited the Leigh-Perrot estate. He is best known today for his writing in 1869 of A Memoir of Jane Austen