Friday, September 21, 2007

Why Should I Read...?

Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen, 1813

There are few books I write about with trepidation, but Pride and Prejudice is one of them. It is surely the most widely read book on my list, and one on which most people already have an opinion. In this case, I can dispense with a plot summary: there can be few readers who are not aware of the switchback romance of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy.

In any event, the plot is the least interesting aspect of the book: girl meets boy, girl hates boy, girl hates boy even more, girl reconsiders, girl gets boy. Austen does the mechanics with unobtrusive excellence, but it’s not for this reason we’re still reading the book two hundred years later.

When we think of Pride and Prejudice¸ what comes to mind most of all are the characters. A detailed analysis of how Austen delineates her characters is (fortunately) outside the scope of this piece. For now it’s enough to note the variety of techniques employed: interior monologue (Elizabeth); naturalistic speech (Darcy, who is never a viewpoint character); comically exaggerated speech (Mr Collins, Mrs Bennet); direct authorial statement.

The conventional view of Austen as a purveyor of superior drawing-room romances does her a considerable disservice, since Pride and Prejudice is more than a crisp love-story with rounded characters. There is real steel under the surface. Charlotte Lucas’ marriage to Mr Collins has no place in a fluffy comedy, and the astringency of Austen’s authorial voice is no less mordant for coolness with which it is deployed. When Caroline Bingley goads Darcy into praising Elizabeth, Austen soundlessly slides in the killer thrust: Miss Bingley was left to all the satisfaction of having forced him to say what gave no one any pain but herself. It’s unfortunate that the currents of modern fiction make such authorial observations unfashionable these days.

How has it influenced me?
Jane Austen is not perhaps an obvious influence for a fantasy writer (unless you’re writing Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell)¸ but her impact on me as writer is second only to Jack Vance. It’s interesting to speculate whether my cool narrative tone comes from reading Vance and Austen, or whether I like those writers so much because of my predisposition to that style.

The Dog of the North would be a pitiful novel if I had never realised the tensile strength and flexibility of formal dialogue, and the immense power to be gained from restraint. And while it would be crass to compare any aspect of my dialogue with Jane Austen, the battles between hero and heroine in all my stories always have Elizabeth and Mr Darcy not too far from my mind.

Austen’s characters are frequently unable to speak and act directly because of the constraints of the societies in which they exist, hence the marvellous verbal subtleties and indirections they employ: as a writer who specialises in stratified societies, political intrigues and injudicious romances, I would be cloddish not to try for the same effects. Others are better placed to judge the effectiveness of my technique.

Lessons for the aspiring writer
The modern creative writing advice “show, don’t tell” is valuable when not taken to excess, but when you can do the telling as well as Jane Austen, it’s criminal not to.
Don’t be afraid to give the reader information directly. Sometimes it’s more efficient and more pleasing than a contrived dialogue drop.
If you are going to use the “classic romance plot”, your characters need extraordinary freshness and vividness to pull it off.
The tension between formal dialogue and the emotions concealed beneath is a powerful dramatic tool.
Conflict can be not just protagonist against antagonist, but protagonist against society. Best of all, use both together.
Understatement trumps overstatement. Always.


David Isaak said...

Patrick O'Brian thought the language of the novel reached its peak with Jane Austen, and his own novels show how her techniques can be applied to very different subject matter.

I've also caught quite a few sly references to Austen or her characters in the O'Brian books; at one point Maturin refers to 'a lady whose acquaintance he greatly esteemed' and then attributes words from P&P to this nameless woman.

I'm quite enjoying this series, by the way!

Tim Stretton said...

The first part of "Post Captain", the second Aubrey-Maturin novel, reads to me like an Austen homage - when Aubrey has set up his country household and throws himself into the local social scene.

I think O'Brian is magnificent, and will feature in a later "Why Should I Read...?" He is among my three favourite stylists, quite aside from his other virtues.