Sunday, May 13, 2012

Jane Austen Wrote Pride and Prejudice

A watercolour and pencil sketch of Austen, believed to have been drawn from life by her sister Cassandra (c. 1810)
from Wikipedia

Yes, duh, right?

But think about the simplicity of that sentence: Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice; focus on that verb, wrote.  How long do you think she spent on it?  When you think of Jane Austen in the act of writing, do you imagine her just sitting, steadily composing from "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife" to "And they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them" as though she were reading it off the back of her skull into the pen hand?

Photo from The Heroine's Bookshelf
That kind of seamless composition is sort of what's implied in a short little verb like write.  After all, we write grocery lists, emails, notes, and messages all the time, right?  What is Twitter?  Writing (sort of).  And a work like Pride and Prejudice is so normal, 200 years after publication, that it's impossible to imagine it any other way.  (Short plug for one of my favorite authors, Jasper Fforde, who in The Eyre Affair imagines Jane Eyre radically differently, and then, in an insane and creative course of events, returns it to its familiar composition).  So of course she just sat down and wrote it.

Except that she didn't.

According to Wikipedia, Austen began the novel that eventually became Pride and Prejudice in October 1796, at the age of 20.  She completed the inital draft, called First Impressions, in August 1797, having read it to her family along the way.  The Austens were a very literate family, and although I don't have documentation to hand, I know from having read several biographies of Jane Austen that they did not refrain from sharing their opinions about what worked and what didn't as she wrote.  

In November 1797, Austen's father attempted to have First Impressions published, without success.  Jane Austen then set the work aside and continued on other projects, including the epistolary novel Elinor and Marianne into the third-person work that became Sense and Sensibility.  She is not documented as having returned to Pride and Prejudice until about 1811 (although quite a lot about her life is very poorly documented owing to family censorship), and it was published in the form in which we read it today in 1813.  

So what does this have to do with Simply Richer Living?

It has to do with expectations.  

Six words: Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice.  Represents approximately three years of effort.  We don't have any documentation for how long Austen expected to take to write her story.  We don't know if she expected to rank among the great English novelists, or if she wanted to, or what she would have thought of such an achievement -- although we do have enough general indication of her character, and of her attitude towards the Prince Regent, the future George IV, to be able to guess at what she would have thought of that specific ambition.  We don't even really know if she was satisfied with her work, and if not, what she found wanting.  

But I can tell you, I feel very strongly about Pride and Prejudice and especially about my favorite of Austen's novels, Persuasion, which almost moves me to tears at the thought of what we missed at having such a sharp, observant woman die at 41, just when her vision would have been liberated from so many of the trivia things that obsess us in our youth.  

So... not that writing a great (or seven) works of literature is comparable to reducing one's personal footprint in the world and creating a more efficient life, but is it not true that we should expect that any worthwhile work should take some effort, a lot of time, a fair amount of self-doubt and uncertainty, and a lot of iterations before we get all the way to where we want to be.  Or as far as we can reasonably get under the circumstances?  The sentence I need to clean out my house is only seven words.  It includes a phrase, clean out, that implies a one-time endeavor requiring no particular thought (aren't we all engaged in cleaning activities on a daily basis?), and, if we decide on some arbitrary deadline based on a move or a party or houseguests, should be readily achievable in the time allotted.

Think deeper.  Imagine Jane Austen fretting over just how to get Elizabeth to change her mind about Darcy, how miserable she should permit Jane to be, how to balance Bingley between being sweet and easy-going and a complete imbecile.  Imagine her trying to figure out how to make the time between balls pass.  Imagine the uproar in her family when she married Charlotte Lucas to Mr. Collins.  And then, just as Jane Austen did, reach out your hand, and start the process.  Move one step further, and then one more step, acknowledging that it might take multiple iterations to make it what you want, until you have completed the product that is the best you can do with the resources available.  And present it to the world, and be at peace.

Biographies of Jane Austen*:
Jane Austen Her Life and Letters a Family Record by William Austen Leigh (a relative)
Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin (my personal favorite)
Jane Austen's Letters by Deirdre LeFaye
Memoir of Jane Austen by James Edward Austen Leigh (by her eldest great nephew within the lifetime of nieces and nephews who knew Austen personally)
Jane Austen: Her Life: The Definitive Portrait of Jane Austen: Her Life, Her Art, Her Family, Her World by Park Honan (not one of my favorites, but if you click this Amazon link one of the Amazon reviewers mentions a number of author Austen biographies with which I am not familiar)
Jane Austen: A Life by David Nokes
The Life of Jane Austen by John Halperin

Other Informative Non-Fiction Works:**
The World of Jane Austen by Nigel Nicolson

And if you think you don't like Jane Austen:
Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon (a personal favorite)

*Note that I am not monetized or reimbursed by Amazon in any way; links are provided solely for the convenience of the reader.  These are, for the most part, either biographies with which I am personally familiar or those (Honan, Nokes, and Halperin; I can't remember which of the three I've read already) which are widely acknowledged as having some quality.  As Virginia Woolf observed, "We have lives enough of Jane Austen...", so there are many, many more to choose from, of varying degrees of quality, but this is a good starting list.  For a much shorter, more subjective but very loving memoir of Jane Austen, read the preface to the combined edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, which was written by her favorite brother, Henry Austen, shortly after her death.  

**Although these works are not meant to be strictly biographical, they do generally follow many of the events of Austen's life and therefore have biographical qualities.  

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