How would Jane Austen have fared in a creative writing class?

February 8, 2013 § 2 Comments

I wrote my first novel and more without reading any creative writing manuals. That first novel has long been thrown away. I don’t think, in fact, that any publisher would have viewed it as a novel. And today that ‘novel’ would only be an embarrassment to me. But I can console myself: however bad my writing is now, it was very much worse then.

In the last few years, I have looked into a great many writing manuals. I read some with more attention than others. Many of them seemed to say much the same thing, and some of the advice was too irksome to be applied, even more irksome than the actual writing of a novel.

One idea that never appeals to me is drawing up a checklist for the hero. What is his favourite colour? What is his favourite sport? And so on. Do you even know the colour of your friends’ eyes, never mind their favourite sport?

Creative writing teachers are fond of giving two examples of writing, a good and a bad. It is just as well they are labelled because sometimes you simply aren’t sure which is which. The bad one does not seem so bad, and the good one does not seem such an improvement on the bad.

We, would–be writers, are often told to engage the readers’ senses in descriptions. You must not restrict your descriptions to visual ones. Readers are to see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Of course, you mustn’t over do it. Don’t have all the senses working in one short passage.

What might Jane Austen have thought of that? How many senses does she engage? How many descriptions are there in her books? She barely describes a character’s appearance. We know Henry Tilney has a brown complexion; Marianne Dashwood’s figure is more striking than Elinor’s; Elizabeth Bennett’s—face or figure, I can’t remember which—shows a want of symmetry; Emma has a true hazel eye; Jane Fairfax’s hair is dark, and Anne Elliot has lost her bloom but will regain it. (Jane Austen, I believe, preferred dark eyes and hair to light-coloured, and she preferred the slim figure to the buxom one.)

On the whole, there is very little description in Jane Austen’s work of place or person. I don’t miss such descriptions for a moment. So long as I know if a person is handsome or plain and roughly their age, I have enough to be getting on with.

The characters don’t intermingle their dialogue with action. They don’t smoke, they don’t pause much, they don’t look out windows or pace rooms. What are they wearing? Bingley has a blue coat. How are the rooms furnished? We could tell you something about Pemberley or Captain Harville’s house but not much about Kellynch Hall, apart from the fact that there are too many mirrors.

We don’t doubt Jane Austen’s ability to describe: she will if forced to. We learn quite a bit of the Prices’ slovenly house (Mansfield Park). And Jane Austen can manage an action scene too:

Miss Smith and Miss Bickerton, another parlour boarder at Mrs. Goddard’s, who had been also at the ball, had walked out together, and taken a road, the Richmond road, which though apparently public enough for safety, had led them into alarm. About half a mile beyond Highbury, making a sudden turn, and deeply shaded by elms on each side, it became for a considerable stretch very retired; and when the young ladies had advanced some way into it, they had suddenly perceived at a small distance before them, on a broader patch of greensward by the side, a party of gipsies. A child on the watch, came towards them to beg; and Miss Bickerton, excessively frightened, gave a great scream, and calling on Harriet to follow her, ran up a steep bank, cleared a slight hedge at the top, and made the best of her way by a short cut back to Highbury. But poor Harriet could not follow. She had suffered very much from cramp after dancing, and her first attempt to mount the bank brought on such a return of it as made her absolutely powerless.’  Emma but taken from Robert Liddell’s,  A Treatise on the Novel.

So how does Jane Austen fill her pages, if she doesn’t pad them out with description? They are filled with the actions, emotions and thoughts of the characters.

Jane Austen hadn’t the advantage of reading writing manuals. So why are we still reading the work of someone who does not abide by creative writing formulae? Think of the pointers her writing group mentors would have given her, after she read out a few of her descriptionless passages. A writing teacher might have taught her to include those passages that Elmore Leonard excludes: the bits that readers skip. And imagine starting a novel with a sentence in the passive voice: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.



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§ 2 Responses to How would Jane Austen have fared in a creative writing class?

  • Traci says:

    Creative writing “manuals” are often frustrating because they attempt to denigrate the creative process into formula. Austen shows that a writer who can place brilliant dialogue into the mouths of her characters has no need for height measurements and dress sizes.

    • Peripheria says:

      I agree. When I think of good exchanges between characters in fiction, Mr and Mrs John Dashwood’s discussion about what provision they should make for the Dashwood sisters comes to mind, as does Emma’s argument with Mr Knightley about Frank Churchill’s duty to see his father. The dialogue of many writers seems meaningful in its context but of very little interest once removed from it. Perhaps the impatient reader of today is at the forefront of writing instructors’ minds. Therefore, three lines of dialogue per person at a time. Jane Austen’s exceeds her quota many times.

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