Five Things we can Learn from…Jane Austen

I’m starting a new line in my “Five Things” series – what we can learn from creative individuals of note from history. I’ve started with Jane Austen, because like millions of other fans, she is one of my favorite authors.

Here are Five Things:

1. Don’t wait to start your creative practice.

Jane Austen died young, only 41. It has been theorized that she died from Addison’s Disease, a severe hormonal imbalance that would certainly have been untreatable and misunderstood in 1817, or a kind of tuberculosis. She had already published, anonymously as “A Lady”, most of her great books: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma. She had recently completed Persuasion, (her tribute to the Royal Navy where many of the men in her family, including two of her brothers, made successful careers) and had started Sanditon. Persuasion was published posthumously with her identity finally revealed, along with an early completed novel, Northanger Abbey. Then, a lifetime later and despite being incomplete, Sanditon was published along with another couple of her early short stories, Lady Susan and The Watsons, also incomplete. Many writers have tried with varied success to complete Sanditon, basing their best guesses on what might have been her intentions for the characters on her notes and the conventions she established in her other works.

It is futile to conjecture what more remarkable works she might have gifted to the world. The development of her work from her designated Juvenilia (written from age 11-18), to the masterpieces that still grip our imaginations across nations and languages, took time.

She wrote early drafts 10-15 years prior to publication and seemed to work on more than one thing concurrently. She was first published in her mid-thirties. Had she waited to start writing, or not taken her work seriously, she may have run out of time sooner. Note also that once she was published, she finished the books so that they came out within 6 years! We can thank her for establishing many of the genre conventions that still define the Rom-Com.

But my point is that we can never know when some disaster may befall us and sideline our ability to follow our dreams and contribute our own special gifts to the world – even if the world is our own family and friends.

2. Write what you know

Jane Austen’s most successful books were certainly informed by her own daily life and social interactions, as well as the loss of her best prospect of a congenial marriage partner, a man who succumbed to family pressures to marry a wealthier woman. Her surviving letters to Cassandra and some other relatives, prove her attention to daily minutiae and social doings, with an attention to haberdashery purchases that rivals Lydia Bennet’s. The letters are filled with social encounters, card games and balls, and the various marriages, lying-ins and health problems of people she knew. She often made biting comments about some of her neighbors, reminding us of the ironic eye of Eliza Bennet or Emma’s arch dislike of some. Her letters also reveal where she found the names of pretty much all her characters.

Indeed, Jane Austen encouraged her niece Anna Austen Lefroy to stay with this stricture in her writing, such as in an 1814 letter referencing the characters in Anna’s work-in-progress novel:

“Let the Portmans go to Ireland; but as you know nothing of the manners there, you had better not go with them. You will be in danger of giving false representations. Stick to Bath and the Foresters. There you will be quite at home.”

Her advice regarding suitors to her other niece, Fanny Knight, revealed ideas that also appear in her books, such as, “Nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without love – bound to one, and preferring another.” Since she herself had not experienced such misery, she must have seen it among her acquaintance.

So even though Jane Austen had access to people who had traveled, including to the wars and Revolutions abroad, she stuck primarily to the kinds of interactions that she saw around her and familiar locales. For example, while she had characters who had been presented at Court, she had not had that experience herself, so that never featured in her narratives. She once wrote, “I will not torment myself with conjectures and suppositions; facts shall satisfy me.”

3. Writers Read.

Jane Austen read voraciously, in numerous genres – novels, biographies, histories. In her letters she sometimes noted different titles that she had picked up, sometimes critiquing them for being implausible or using unsuitable language for the characters. This was at a time when some commentators complained about the moral implications of reading novels, especially for women. Meanwhile, Austen’s novels avoided the bemoaned pitfalls of gothic romantic fantasies that contemporary commentators feared were creating delusional aspirations in women and stuck to illuminating the proper and correct (See point 2).

Her own book Northanger Abbey contains a pointed justification for the enjoyment of novels, for both young women and young men, in the words of the hero, Henry Tilney:  

“Only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”

By extension, we can assert that as writers read, so too anyone with a creative practice should explore and engage with the creative work of others in their field, as inspiration, to increase one’s knowledge of methods and practices, and to enable self-reflection and self-critique.

4. Posterity will love you for writing letters that illuminate your thought processes.

Perhaps in this era, a blog will work just as well. While we can never know the contents of the many letters that sister Cassandra destroyed after Jane Austen’s death, the letters we do have contain periodic references to her writing process. Since her authorial anonymity was important to their family, we can speculate that the lost ones might have contained more about the work and publishing – but then this is a “torment”. We will have to be satisfied with such remarks as have survived like these unserious words about Pride and Prejudice, arguably the most beloved book in English literature:

“The work is rather too light and bright and sparkling: It wants shade. It wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense if it could be had.”

Her letters also show Jane Austen’s desire that people like her books. She sometimes fished for compliments, and constantly made a note of those given to her about her works.

5. Details matter.

Jane Austen’s manuscripts reveal many revisions and a high level of care for the tiniest of details. She was concerned with verisimilitude, including writing to Anna about some errors of propriety and fact in her novel, “As Lady H. is Cecilia’s superior, it would not be correct to talk of her being introduced. It is Cecilia who must be introduced” and “They must be two days going from Dawlish to Bath. They are nearly one hundred miles apart.”

She engaged in careful plotting and maintained high affection for her characters and understanding of them beyond what appeared in the novels (not unlike JK Rowling). About Elizabeth Bennet she wrote, “I must confess I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.”

Front Page of Sense and Sensibility.