Friday, November 6, 2015

Copying the Masters: Jane Austen

Ah, Jane Austen. Some of you may have seen that hilarious Buzzfeed post where Jane Austen got a modern editor's take on her work (I swear I snarfed my milk at the whole thing about Mr. Wickham being the main character). I promise we aren't going to have any of that in this post, but the truth is, while Austen has stood the test of time, largely thanks to her undying fandom following, she's probably not the greatest author role model.

Jane Austen

Some facts about Jane Austen:

1. She never married, and thanks to her sister destroying many of her letters, we will never really know if she ever had an understanding with anyone. Considering how intuitive her novels are, though, one likes to imagine.

2. Austen was terribly self-conscious about her work. She'd write alone, and insisted on keeping the door squeaky so she knew when people were coming in and she could hide her work.

3. Her debut Sense and Sensibility was originally a series of fictional letters titled Elinor and Marianne, similar to Lady Susan. It only sold about 500 copies.

Some areas where it's not a good idea to emulate Austen:

1. No critique partners?

 As aforementioned above, Austen was secretive about her writing. She would read it to her family, but before publishing Sense and Sensibility kept it otherwise private. While we can't deny that Austen's work is in many ways brilliant, this is not a wise course to follow. Find critique partners and beta readers. A second pair of non-familial eyes (and a third and fourth and fifth, even) are crucial to your story's development.

2. Set the scene

Austen does a poor job at setting her scenes. Many portions of her books are merely conversation, and we're not even told where these conversations take place, including the famous opening exchange between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet over Mr. Bingley in Pride and Prejudice. Make sure you show us and ground us in your setting.

3. Allow the plot some drive

To quote a fellow writer, "I'm about to speak author blasphemy." Constantly we are told to have character-driven novels, but when we focus only on the characters and what they do, as opposed to giving them some plot to work with, you can end up with a story full of empty conversation, first-world problems, and a lack of conflict. There's plenty of conflict in Jane Austen's work, but putting that aside, when one takes away her satire and her goal of laying out the social traps middle-class women often found themselves in those times, we end up with a story about (yay) privileged people's social squabbles. For Austen's purpose, it works fine, but don't let your story be driven by characters alone.

Some areas where it's a good idea to emulate Austen:

1. Character development

Austen's characters are iconic for their humanity. While some might argue that Austen's characters
have petty desires compared to figures from other classic novels like Dickens, Austen's characters are so compelling with pursuing their goals that we can't help but root for them. In Austen's world, the true heroes and heroines are those that recognize their faults and, unlike most modern literature, set out to right them and improve themselves as individuals.

2. Balance your humor with genuine story

Comedy these days often gets so focused on cheap humor that it loses sight of story. Part of what makes PIXAR so great is that their animated films, unlike most in the same genre, are not purely comedic stories. They're also fully-developed stories. The same goes for romance. Romance can't just be about Hot Guy and Hot Girl falling in love. You need an actual story. Austen was brilliant at balancing humor, heartbreak, and plot.

3. Give your characters smaller goals

Most characters in today's market want to save the world from catastrophe. Austen's characters are focused on finding simple happiness for themselves and their loved ones. While the latter may seem more petty, giving your character a more personal goal makes it easier for your readers to relate to them.

To sum up, Austen, though undyingly popular, is also eccentric and unusual in her prose style. She was in her day, and she is in our day. Description of setting is entirely absent from her work, but where she fails there, she rewards patient readers with her brilliant character development and witty insight with social comedy. Creating iconic characters creates an iconic story. No one will care about your plot if you do not have relatable, three-dimensional characters. No one will appreciate your characters, three-dimensional or not, if you do not let them be honestly faulty. And Austen gently but firmly shows us her characters' faults, both men and women alike.

In the next Copying the Masters post, we'll be looking at the great Leo Tolstoy. 

Thoughts or comments? Feel free to share!


  1. Hi Rachel!
    Great post!!! Can't wait for Tolstoy! 😊

  2. I have actually never read any Jane Austen but now I want to!!! I whole-heartedly agree with the points that you made on ways to learn from Austen. In my opinion having a good balance of humor with serious plot and story telling is very important. I really enjoy these posts, can't wait to see what you say about Tolstoy!!!

    1. You should! It's not easy and can be dry to some people. I recommend starting with Northanger Abbey or Persuasion, as they are both shorter than P&P or S&S.Thanks for reading :D

    2. Is Emma any good?

    3. It is! It's a little longer, but definitely enjoyable!

    4. Ok! Thanks!

    5. I am reading Pride and Prejudice. I have to say I'm obsessed!!

    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    7. Sorry, wrong account...I finished it!!!

  3. Enjoyed your Austen critique. You did a fine job of it.