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What Jane Austen Can Teach Writers Today

Last night I finished the last of the six novels Jane Austen wrote fully; I don’t count Sanditon, because someone else finished it, or the very short epistolary novels Love and Friendship and Lady Susan, which I have read.

The last one I read was Sense and Sensibility, the first one she published, in 1811 under the semi pseudonym of “A Lady.” Although this publication date means she was 36 at the time, she finished its first iteration at the age of 21. According to Halperin, whose biography of Austen I am reading slowly (more on that later), Sense and Sensibility was her first full novel. It was not without inspiration from previous works of the time where characters of different temperamental bents are portrayed, perhaps as a cautionary tales or subtext of how one approaches life; in this case, sense or rationality, is better than an emotion-based worldview.

There is a lot to be said about Austen, and I will get to that, either here or in another post, but some observations:

1. Having watched two movie versions of the novel, I was surprised by the differences. First, Edward is a dud. Austen has her characters say what an admirable person he is, yet she doesn’t show it in his actions. True, he stands by his woman, Lucy Steele, even when he should just end the relationship, but this seems to be because he can’t make a decision, take a stand, have agency. He does whatever his mother says, in fear of not having his inheritance. Second, Margaret is barely mentioned in the novel, whereas in the films she is seen as pretty, precocious, tomboyish, independent, and accompanying her sisters on adventures. Third, Brandon is creepy; Marianne is 17 and he’s twice her age. Fourth, the mother is portrayed in the book as an older version of Marianne. Fifth, Willoughby visits Elinor and explains himself, and she is able to accept his version of events, since he is sorry and remorseful, although not in a position to do anything about it. Sixth . . . well, there is a lot more, but they are minor differences in the long run. The main one is that the tone is totally different, and perhaps a little uneven.

2. I say that about tone because there is some biting, caustic sarcasm in the novel, none of which comes through, or really could, in a movie. The movies are rom-coms in long dresses and bonnets. Austen intrudes, either directly or through the thoughts of Elinor (she keeps the point of view, that is, Elinor’s, pretty consistent) a great deal to make some pretty snide remarks. The social commentary on the indolence of the landed class, the cruelty of parents who control their children’s lives with money, the lack of opportunity, and the opportunism of women who at the same time have no options but marriage to a rich man, are all very prominent. I laughed at times, winced others.

3. In the end though, Austen is moralistic, and not sarcastic here—the moralism seems very sincere. Living like Marianne is likely to bring wasting disease and heartbreak. Marianne has a weighty change of heart after her illness, which was brought on by succumbing to the emotion of losing Willoughby, even when she knows he’s a cad. (We never learn what happens to Eliza or her baby, by the way).

4. I can’t help but feeling sometimes that this world she creates is ridiculous. Women openly talking about how much money everyone has (either a year or as an inheritance). The rudeness of that by today’s standards boggles my mind. “Hello, nice to meet you. How much money do you make?” Either she is parodying the values of time, exaggerating it for effect, having the characters talk about incomes because that was really what they were all thinking about even if unsaid, OR it’s real. Additionally, what did these people do all day? Visit, talk, eat, play cards. However, over a hundred years later Agatha Christie (by no means at Austen’s level as a writer, but still a lot of fun) made a career writing about English people whose only purpose in life was to sit around and find a way to get an elderly relative’s money, by murder if needed. Neither of these writers sends a very positive message about their countrymen!

As it is her first attempt at a novel, I don’t think this is Austen’s best novel, but it is still far better than 95% of what has been written in this history of noveldom. So what does Austen’s body of work have to say to us as writers, particularly novelist, particularly female novelists?

Last September I was asked to be on a panel at a writers’ conference on the subject of whether Austen’s stories could be written today. My position was no; the societal differences were too great. I was in the minority, as the others on the panel thought that even in high school the conditions were the same. I think they were influenced by movies more than understanding Austen’s body of work, but that is my superiority as an academic speaking. Obviously, we can take the overall plot structures and put them in modern settings, just like Shakespeare, but the sociological and historical conditions that generated the stories do not exist today and wouldn’t create the iconic characters and situations.

At the same time, Austen sometimes writes in a form of realistic allegory. Elinor is a type; Marianne is a type. Yet they are real enough for us to enter into the story and not get stopped by the generalizing. Perhaps Lizzy Bennett escapes this prison the best, and maybe Anne Elliot. Only Lizzy I think is a balance of dark and light; Elinor, Marianne, Emma, Anne, and Fanny Price are just too much of what they are or represent. Austen was a member of her time, when novels were just coming into their own, so we cannot expect her to have achieved that break from moralism or allegory completely, especially at her age. This is no way is a criticism; the books changed literature.

What we cannot get away from though, is the sarcasm, the irony, the digs, the attacks. Apparently this was Austen’s personality, not just a pose as a writer. Halperin notes her family destroyed so many of her letters after her death because …. Well, he argues because they wanted to protect her image as a saintly person, which she wasn’t when it came to self-expression; her surviving letters prove that. Austen seems angry. That’s the only way I know to describe it, and I am reminded of Virginia Woolf’s advice not to be angry as a writer, or, as I interpret, to be honest about where anger lurks in your writing.

As far as Austen’s writing having any ready-made advice to popular novelists today, I can only say that she was of her time; a brilliant stylist, possessed of a vocabulary that puts us to shame, but not a model for today. Her sentences can run to 100 words; she rarely says things straight out, but employs the double negative approach. “Character Z was not a little impatient.” Today, that would need to be deleted immediately, and recast, for use of existence verb versus action verb or description of action, and use of an indirect structure. “Character Z fumed and drummed her fingers as she waited…” (not good, but you get the point).

I’m not saying sarcasm or irony is to be discarded; just know they are like a strong flavoring. A little goes a long way; it doesn’t have to be sprinkled on every page, at which point the irony becomes the point and not the story and characters. I sometimes don’t think Austen much likes her characters, or many of them; she is too focused on their flaws. Good characters have to have a balance of good and bad, with perhaps the scale tipped one way or the other.

So don’t read Austen as someone to mimic, and don’t read her to steal her plots (it’s been done to death, as they say). Read them because they ushered in a new phase of the novel, and if you are going to be a serious novel writer, you need to know the broad outlines of the genre’s history and the main artists of its form. Read them because they are funny and just plain good. Read them to expand your vocabulary and your understanding of history and the world. Read them (and other great novels) so you know you aren’t stealing an idea and to know that your idea might not be all that original.

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