A masterclass from Jane Austen

January 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

1. Titles should tantalise: “I like the name ‘Which is the Heroine?’ very well, & I dare say shall grow to like it very much in time—but ‘Enthusiasm’ was something so very superior that every common Title must appear to disadvantage.”

2. Be accurate: “there is no such Title as Desborough—either among the Dukes, Marquisses, Earls, Viscounts or Barons.”

3. Write economically: “here & there, we have thought the sense might be expressed in fewer words . . .”

4. People’s behaviour should be of an expected sort: “and I have scratched out Sir Tho: from walking with the other Men to the Stables &c the very day after his breaking his arm—for thou 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 . . .”

5. Be realistic: “Lyme will not do. Lyme is towards 40 miles from Dawlish and would not be talked of there. I have put Starcross instead.”

6. Observe the social norms: “I have also scratched out the Introduction between Lord P. & his Brother, & Mr Griffin. A Country Surgeon  . . . would not be introduced to Men of their rank.”

7. Don’t copy the work of other writers: “I do think that you had better omit Lady Helena’s postscript; to those who are acquainted with P[ride]. & P[rejudice]. it will be seen as an imitation.”

8. Don’t write about places you are ignorant of: “Let the Portmans go to Ireland, but as you know nothing of the Manners there you had better not go with them.”

9. Write of people and things within the range of your own experience: “Stick to Bath & the Foresters. There you will be quite at home.”

10. Make sure that there is a purpose to what you write: “circumstances will be sometimes introduced of apparent consequence, which will lead to nothing.”

11. Characters should act consistently: “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.”

12. Are a character’s often repeated phrases necessary? “I have only taken the liberty of expunging one phrase of his [Sir Thomas’s] which will not be allowable. ‘Bless my Heart’—It is too familiar & inelegant.”

11. Don’t bore your readers with too much description: “your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked.”

13. The optimum number of characters: “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on. . .”

14. Be subtle: “Her Economy and Ambition must not be staring.”

15. Omit the extraneous: “the scene with Mrs Mellish, I should condemn; it is prosy & nothing to the purpose . . .”

16. Chose your characters’ names with care: “the name of Rachael is as much as I can bear.”

Jane Austen’s advice to her niece Anna in letters (10th August & 9th September 1814 ). See Jane Austen Selected Letters 1796-1817, edited by R W Chapman.


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