Jennifer Gilby Roberts

Women's Fiction/Chick Lit Author

How Does Jane Austen Get Away With It?

on July 14, 2014

PridePrejudice423x630I was re-reading Pride & Prejudice on holiday and there was one thing that really struck me.  Austen wrote very differently to how writers are advised to write today.

We hear a lot of ‘show, don’t tell.’  Basically, this means you don’t say someone was angry, you have them banging things or swearing or whatever to show that they are angry.  You also write out dialogue and scenes rather than summarising them, unless you need to cover repetitive actions or a big period of time like ‘He appeared every Tuesday for the next month.’  Also, we’re told not to use ‘cried,’ ‘shouted,’ ‘agreed’ etc. but just to use ‘said.’  The theory is that readers just gloss over it and so it doesn’t interrupt conversations for them.  One article I read compared it to a punctuation mark.  I take the point, although I don’t think it should be a strict rule.

Austen breaks all of these rules and probably quite a few more.  If she sent her book to an agent today, they’d class it as a first draft and reject it.  Yet her books remain popular with readers.

So, what does that mean?  Is the writing just not as important as the characters and plot?  I know I’ve read fanfiction stories where the writing quality has been poor, but the story has kept me reading.  Can great writers break the rules?  Shakespeare certainly got away with it – the man used to make up his own words all the time.  Or has she built up such a reputation over the previous decades that people just automatically think Austen=good?  And hey, what writer wouldn’t like one of those?

I have to say, I’m not sure I will read it a third time.  I will continue to watch the BBC adaptation (the Colin Firth one), which is excellent.  [The Keira Knightley one, however, is not.  You just can’t cram the book into a film.  Plus, they Americanized a thoroughly English book and it really didn’t work.  And the Bennetts’ situation was represented all wrong.  Can you tell I didn’t like it?]  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s better than the book.  It’s not often that happens.  The only other time it’s happened to me was with The Jane Austen Book Club, although frankly I didn’t think the film was that good either.  Perhaps I will try re-reading Emma, on which I basedThe Dr Pepper Prophecies and see if I have the same feelings towards that.

Are you an Austen fan?  What do you think makes her books so popular?  Do you find her style a problem?

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4 responses to “How Does Jane Austen Get Away With It?

  1. T A Munroe says:

    It took me several tries to make it past the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice. The language is what I call dense–many words to say something we are used to saying with just a few–or even an emoticon. She’s from a time when entertainment came from books and storytelling and live music, when people took their time, or so it seems to us. Today, we can carry stories on little devices we keep in our pockets and use to call home and send messages to our friends. We touch a few buttons on it and can watch a movie or a TV show we missed.

    I think film and television and other forms of modern media have shortened our attention spans. Austen wrote in the style of her time. It takes us extra effort to figure it out, extra imagination to develop the pictures she and her contemporaries paint with many words. But those of us who stick with it are richly rewarded with deeply emotional stories in rich settings that show us what life was like at another time. Then we chose another book that reads faster and takes advantage of what we already know from having seen things on movies and TV, where people speak like we do, and where they act in ways we’re familiar with.

    There must have been something extraordinary about her writing at the time that made it popular then and makes it a classic today. Her use of English as it was spoken then, her descriptions, her grasp of social norms and their ironies, to name a few. It’s wonderful that today we have can enjoy her world and our world and all the worlds inbetween.

  2. Maybe that’s the key thing – that her books take you fully into a different time because even the writing style reflects it. And they are great stories. We get spoiled now, really. Everything comes so easy, except the really important things.

  3. paulinewiles says:

    Yes, I’ve read all her books and love P&P the best. But I admit, the Firth BBC version is a treat I repeat regularly. I don’t have any problem with Austen’s writing style, but I also read Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James and thought it was awful. It’s quite possible I was reacting to her imitation of Austen’s style: I remember there was a lot of exposition and the main characters felt too passive as the mystery unfolded.

    • I haven’t read that one. I read Emma Tennant’s sequels a while back and I think I liked them.

      It does strike me that Austen had it easy in a way. Writers now have to work much harder to ‘show’ everything. On the other hand, publishing is a lot easier now, so I suppose it evens out.

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