Reading and Writing with Jane Austen

by Anne Waldron Neuman

Summary of book

Introduction Reading and Writing with Jane Austen, my book-in-progress, combines an appreciation of Jane Austen’s novels for general readers with a fiction-writing handbook. Why? Because studying the secrets of Austen’s greatness will make us better readers and better writers! In the following chapters, I explore not only the specific kinds of sentences Austen uses in her novels but also her views on fiction’s major genres and their benefits for readers. Though no writer today would wish to imitate Austen exactly, writing manuals should contain examples. How convenient if those examples all come from a single writer, especially one as well known today and still as influential and innovative as Austen. How valuable, moreover, to study the novels of someone so conscious of fiction’s social uses.For Austen’s many admirers, I offer insight into her meanings as well as her methods. And my book also includes an accessible introduction to narrative theory.

Chapter 1 This brief initial chapter provides examples, all from Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s best-known novel, of the kinds of sentences Austen uses and what they imply. In this chapter, I introduce readers to direct and indirect speech, “free” indirect speech (free of the “she said” or “he said” that identifies what follows as speech and assigns it to a particular character), reported thought in several forms, and commentary by both the narrator and the “author” (that is, in terms Austen uses, comment by either the heroine’s “biographer” or her “contriver”). At the end of this chapter, readers should know what to expect from my book’s six remaining chapters, each of which examines a particular kind of sentence in a different Austen novel. Though I explain the context of each passage I examine, Chapter 1 does suggest that Reading and Writing with Jane Austen will be especially useful to those who have read Austen’s novels either recently or often.

Chapter 2 Studying the many ways Austen uses direct and indirect speech to report characters’ conversations in Sense and Sensibility helps writers consider more varieties of reported speech than they may currently use. This chapter also helps readers understand that, though Marianne Dashwood expects only “commonplace and mistaken notions” from social exchange, her sister Elinor believes that conversations can offer “common sense and observation.” No wonder Austen’s novels contain so many scenes of conversation! Elinor’s beliefs about conversation, in contrast to Marianne’s elitist view of both conversation and literature, suggest the “common sense and observation” Austen hoped her novels could offer readers.

Chapter 3 For writers, Chapter 3 returns to Pride and Prejudice to explore “free” indirect speech. Free indirect speech is an exceptionally flexible option for controlling point of view, and Austen sometimes uses it to confuse what characters say with the narrator’s more objective opinions. This confusion is particularly appropriate in a novel like Pride and Prejudice about rumor and gossip, a novel in which our prejudices may mislead us just as Elizabeth Bennet’s prejudices mislead her. For readers, Pride and Prejudice also demonstrates especially clearly the fictional genres Austen’s novels combine: the comic novel, the romantic novel, and the moral novel. How might each kind of novel help us correct deadly errors of perception caused by faults like pride and prejudice combined?

Chapter 4 This chapter examines not only reported thought in Mansfield Park but also passages in which the novel’s characters speak or think about thinking. For example, Henry Crawford is so unaccustomed to “serious reflection,” in Fanny Price’s view, that he doesn’t “know good principles by their proper names.” In passages reporting Fanny’s thought, we actually see Fanny engaged in serious reflection about moral principles. But will Fanny benefit others by turning her principles into words and deeds? Mansfield Park is an excellent introduction to how Austen reports thought, especially a serious heroine’s serious thoughts. But it also explores how our thoughts arise; it suggests why thought is so central to Austen’s novels; and it reminds us that good thoughts must lead to good actions.

Chapter 5 Chapter 5 also examines reported thought, including free indirect thought, this time in Emma, a comic novel in contrast to Mansfield Park. Emma Woodhouse calls herself an “imaginist,” and indeed her fertile thoughts read almost like stream of consciousness. Do we fault Emma for imagining marriages for her single friends, however? Emma is also a novel about agricultural, societal, and marital fertility. In this world, match-making can beboth appropriate and desirable. And imagining marriages is, after all, exactly what Austen’s novels do!

Chapter 6 How does an Austen heroine’s “biographer” turn the heroine’s “actual” history into a polished story, first by selecting characters and events from that history to exemplify particular themes and, second, by commenting so as to foreground those themes? Chapter 6 uses Persuasion to study the narrator’s role in Austen’s novels and therefore in fiction generally. What kinds of narrators are there? How might narrators best describe a novel’s settings, characters, and actions? When do narrators not only foreshadow a novel’s events but also “after-shadow” them? And how do narrators establish the kinds of repeated patterns that we associate with “literariness”? For example, Persuasion repeatedly invokes the balanced, judicious style Austen is known for, a style particularly appropriate toPersuasion‘s idealistic and romantic heroine. But what happens when that heroine—andPersuasion itself—departs from what one of its characters calls this “elevated style”?

Chapter 7 In Northanger Abbey, commentary by the “author” (or, in Austen’s words, the heroine’s “contriver” rather than her “biographer”) reminds us that we are in fact reading a contrivance—a made-up story. This unwilling suspension of belief, to paraphrase Coleridge, prompts us to wonder why we—like Northanger Abbey‘s heroine—are so engaged by fiction’s events and characters. In fact, how do novels benefit as well as engage us? Some contemporary novelists still use author’s commentary to raise these crucial questions.