For more than a hundred fifty years after her death, the canon of Jane Austen inspired a memoir, a few works of literary criticism and a a quarter shelf-full of sequels and adaptations of her work, but in the past fifteen years or so, Jane Austen has become a literary star, generating everything from critiques and biographies to annotated editions, sequels, adaptations, character spinoffs, modern takes, graphic novels, and mashups. Jane Austen has outlasted popular contemporaries like Mary Brunton, Sydney Owenson and Eaton Stannard Barrett, and touched off a market for derivative work comparable only to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and with a considerably smaller canon – talk about the six that keep on giving!
If you are thinking about writing a sequel, adaptation, or new novel featuring a minor Austen character as Austen might have done, it helps to decipher how Austen writes. It is more than a matter of knowing the period – in fact, knowing the period may be least important component. After all, Jane Austen did not write historical novels, she wrote contemporary novels, so it really is not important for an adaptive writer to explain how an entail works or the color of someone’s barouche. Writing like someone else can be tricky; if you have ever seen an impressionist, the good ones do more than getting the voice right – they get the inflection, the cadence, the body language. There is a book called What Jane Austen Ate, and What Charles Dickens Knew; to write like Austen, you have to grasp, not merely what Austen ate or knew, but what Austen did, not only regarding setting and social order, but what techniques she employed as a narrator and wordsmith.
It helps (that is, it helped us in writing Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, and with our current project), to have a few key volumes on the Austen shelf (or shelves) in your home library. A few may be taken for granted – Deirdre LeFaye’s Jane Austen’s Letters, and perhaps something like LeFaye’s Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. You may pick up an annotated book, or James Edward Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen or something fun like So You Think You Know Jane Austen?, and of course you have all of Austen’s fiction. Here are a few more that I think would be excellent additions to the Austen writer’s library.
I would consider Mary Lascelles’ Jane Austen and Her Art (Clarendon Press, 1939) to be an essential. Lascelles begins with a brief bio of Austen and the evolution of her literary taste, and then goes into a very clear study of Austen’s narrative style, with wonderful kernels of observation, such as Austen’s suggesting of her characters’ social variants in syntax and phrasing rather than vocabulary when they speak, or the pithy observation that a literary strategy – “What a young woman needs if she is to become a heroine of fiction is a little neglect and ill usage” – may have been extracted from experience. Of course some rules are meant to be broken and in Lady Vernon we did depart from two of Lascelles’ observations: that the marriage proposal of a lover is never verbally expressed (Mr. Collins doesn’t count; he cannot be considered an authentic lover); and a conversation exclusively between gentlemen (with a lady participating or at least being in the room), does not occur.
I had once remarked to an editor that Austen’s novels come down to two interconnected issues: marriage and money. Except for Emma Woodhouse, none of Austen’s heroines are so well off or well connected that they can anticipate “marrying up”; a number of siblings, a neglectful or imprudent father, a reversal of fortune threaten to keep many of Austen’s heroines from that “… pleasantest preservative from want” and “…the only honorable provision” for a gentlewoman of modest means, which marriage certainly was. How a marriage was contracted, how a wife, a widow and children were provided for was as inextricably linked to material assets as to personal ones. It’s helpful to understand what Mrs. Bennet means when she exclaims “What pin money…” Lizzy will have, or how Mrs. Jennings comes by her jointure. Amy Louise Erickson’s Woman and Property in Early Modern England (Routledge, 1993) takes the reader only to the early 18th century, but otherwise is a very clear, and clearly documented, study of women’s rights to ownership of money and property as unmarried women, as wives and as widows, and the precise meaning of terms like “dower” and “settlement”, with some interesting case studies. As a counterpart, Susan Staves’ Married Women’s Separate Property in England, 1660-1833, studies four categories of women’s property: dower; jointure; separate property and pin money; allowance for maintenance.
A profession common to Austen’s novels was one with which she was personally familiar: the country clergyman. The church may be the profession of choice for the hero – Edmund Bertram, Henry Tilney – or it may be the comfortable resort of the self-important and the ambitious – Mr. Elton or Mr. Collins – or it may be the prospect of securing nothing better than the lowly curacy, which limits the aspirations of a young man like Charles Hayter or Edward Ferrars. If you are writing Austen, it does help to be somewhat familiar with what livings were (and when they provided enough to live on) as well as what a clergyman’s obligations were to his patron and his parish. Irene Collins’ Jane Austen and the Clergy (Hambledon and London, 2002) takes the reader through the education, obligations and living situations of the country clergyman and links what Austen must have observed: that the English clergy represented a variety of individuals, from those who were genuinely called to the vocation to those who did not have the talent or ambition to distinguish themselves in the military or the law. There is even the suggestion that those clergymen who are particularly animated – Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton – may have been so well-drawn because Austen saw them as a more accurate representation of the clergyman’s covetousness for a good living; even in Persuasion, there are schemes to oust poor Dr. Shirley, who has “zealously” discharged his duties for more than forty years, from his post in order to free up the Uppercross parish.
Among my favorite books about Austen’s work is Peter J. Leithart’s Miniatures and Morals; The Christian Novels of Jane Austen (Canon Press, 2004). (Chapter One is titled: Real Men Read Austen. What’s not to love?) Leithart describes the “miniaturist” nature of Austen’s writing, proclaiming that “…she does more with less than any other writer in English.” Like Lascelles, Leithart observes the relationship between syntax and character in Austen’s dialogue. Unlike Lascelles, Leithart defends the theory that Austen’s Christian morality is the underpinning of her narrative style; he even concludes that Austen is “a humorist because she is a moralist”, noting that, like Elizabeth Bennet, Austen “never mocks what is genuinely good.” After the initial introduction to Leithart’s analysis of Austen’s style, a chapter is devoted to each of her major novels in relation to the moral principles that determine not only the content, but literary style: morals and manners in Pride and Prejudice, charity in Emma, restraint in Sense and Sensibility and so on. Beyond Leithart’s cogent, and good-humored, analysis of Austen’s novels, is a well-organized format with each chapter beginning with a synopsis and ending with both “review questions” and “thought questions”. Not only should this be an essential on every Austen writer’s shelf, it would be an excellent text for an upper high school study of Austen’s work.
So, if you’re writing an Austenesque work, what books do you keep on the Austen section of your shelves?