Between the Pages — Jane Austen’s Writing


Between the Pages is a new, weekly blog series which explores the life, times and creative works of well-known authors. I plan to run the blog series until the end of 2015, focusing on one author per month. New posts every Tuesday, plus occasional bonus posts.

The first post in the series is a brief biography of the author, the second looks at the historical period of the author, and the third post discusses their creative works. Finally, the last post includes selected quotations and short excerpts by the author.

During her lifetime, Jane Austen wrote six full-length novels: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. 

She started writing when she was in her early teens and her juvenilia consists of short stories, poems and comic plays. Her early writing is quite different to her novels; it is full of extravagant characters and slapstick events. Between 1793 – 1795, Jane wrote Lady Susan, a novel told in letters about a seductive widow who hunts for husbands for herself and her daughter.

After Lady Susan, she began to write an early version of Sense and Sensibility, which she called Elinor and Marianne. Originally, it was written as an epistolary novel (told in letters, like Lady Susan), and she revised it considerably before publication in 1811. The final draft of the novel is told in third-person narrative instead of epistolary form. However, as the first drafts of the manuscript didn’t survive, we don’t know if there were plot changes as well as format changes.

Edward admiring Elinor's drawing in Sense and Sensibility. Public domain image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

Edward admiring Elinor’s drawing in Sense and Sensibility.
Public domain image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

About a year after Austen wrote Elinor and Marianne, she started work on the first draft of Pride and Prejudice, titled First Impressions before publication. It is very likely that she took the final title from one of Fanny Burney’s novels, Cecilia, a popular novel which Austen almost certainly read.

“The whole of this unfortunate business, said Dr Lyster, has been the result of PRIDE and PREJUDICE. […] if to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you will also owe their termination” (Cecilia, capitalisation appears in the original text)

It took many years between the first draft stage, revision and final publication for Austen’s early novels — such as S&S and P&P — to be published. But once her publishers accepted the first novel, the rest were published in quick succession. Some of them even sold out and second editions had to be printed to keep up with demand! Since 1833, Austen’s novels have never been out of print.

Timeline of first edition publications

  • 1811 – The publication of Sense and Sensibility
  • 1813 – Pride and Prejudice published
  • 1814 – Mansfield Park
  • 1815 – Emma
  • 1817 – a joint edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion published after Jane’s death
Jane Austen's novels are enjoyed around the world in many different languages. Photo credit: Raquel Sallaberry Brião at Flickr

Jane Austen’s novels are enjoyed around the world in many different languages.
Photo credit: Raquel Sallaberry Brião at Flickr

A notable element of Austen’s writing is that she uses details sparingly; the phrase, “show, don’t tell”, perfectly describes her writing. There are few specifics about what the characters look like, what they wear, what they eat, etc. Equally, she doesn’t write explicitly about the personalities of her characters.

Consider the example of Marianne Dashwood. BTake the Jane Austen Character Quiz here!y reading her interactions with her sister and watching as she falls for the scoundrel, Willoughby, we learn far more about her character than if Austen had merely used adjectives to tell us about her personality.

A still of Kate Winslet as Marianne Dashwood in the 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. Image source: Yet Another Period Drama Blog

A still of Kate Winslet as Marianne Dashwood in the 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.
Image source: Yet Another Period Drama Blog

An extract from chapter 16 of Sense and Sensibility, which shows that Marianne loves the picturesque but is less fond of being practical.

“Dear, dear Norland,” said Elinor, “probably looks much as it always does at this time of year. The woods and walks thickly covered with dead leaves.”

   “Oh!” cried Marianne, “with what transporting sensations have I formerly seen them fall! How have I delighted, as I walked, to see them driven in showers about me by the wind! What feelings have they, the season, the air altogether inspired! Now there is no one to regard them. They are seen only as a nuisance, swept hastily off, and driven as much as possible from the sight.”

   “It is not every one,” said Elinor, “who has your passion for dead leaves.”

   “No; my feelings are not often shared, not often understood. But sometimes they are.” —As she said this, she sunk into a reverie for a few moments; but rousing herself again, “Now, Edward,” said she, calling his attention to the prospect, “here is Barton valley. Look up it, and be tranquil if you can. Look at those hills! Did you ever see their equals? To the left is Barton park, amongst those woods and plantations. You may see one end of the house. And there, beneath that farthest hill, which rises with such grandeur, is our cottage.”

   “It is a beautiful country,” he replied, “but these bottoms must be dirty in winter.”

   “How can you think of dirt, with such objects before you?”

   “Because,” replied he, smiling, “among the rest of the objects before me, I see a very dirty lane.”

   “How strange!” said Marianne to herself as she walked on. 

Austen wrote about what she knew. Her novels are full of social realism of the times in which she lived, but her themes are universal: self-discovery and personal development, love, marriage, human interactions and the desire for happiness. Although we live in a different social context than Georgian England, these themes are still relevant to readers today.

Which Jane Austen novel is your favourite? And which Austen heroine are you most like? Let me know in the comments section!

I am Elizabeth Bennet!

Take the Jane Austen Character Quiz here!

5 thoughts on “Between the Pages — Jane Austen’s Writing

  1. Well, that has to be Elizabeth Bennet. 🙂 I am not really much like her (although we both tend toward being acerbic) but I love how principled and loyal she is, even when she’s wrong. She’s a wonderful character, so realistic and finely drawn.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. P&P is my favourite, but Eleanor is the character I’m probably most like. Although it’s not as much fun as P&P, I think S&S is a better book in that I think it’s more insightful about the society of the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • P&P is “light and bright and sparkling”, as Austen said, but I agree with you that S&S has more contextual details. That makes it a more interesting read to me in terms of the social backdrop.

      Also, I’d say that I’m more like Elinor (generally sensible, thoughtful, practical and someone who feels deeply) than Lizzy… I was surprised at my quiz result!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Between the Pages: Quotes from Jane Austen | Cultural Life

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