Last month, we examined Henry Austen’s comment about his sister Jane: “In composition she was equally rapid and correct.” We learned that Jane was probably neither. The somewhat limited evidence shows that she wrote at the average writerly pace of about 500 words a day. What she was, was a tireless reviser during all the years she was unable to publish. It was her unceasing revisions that taught her the art of fiction.
Though writing speed seems relatively constant across the field, the actual approach to writing varies. This month, we examine the approaches of different writers and see how Austen’s compositional strategy led to her writing breakthroughs.
Ernest Hemingway developed each chapter as fully as he could as he went. He revised extensively in later drafts. Kurt Vonnegut wrote paragraph by paragraph and would not move on until he thought the current paragraph was perfect. Vladimir Nabokov developed his novels on index cards, writing down key ideas, phrases, metaphors, etc. He would shuffle and add to the stack of cards until he had everything in perfect sequence. Only then would he begin to write each chapter in full.
The process varies, but the final output falls into the same range. There are some exceptions. Anthony Trollope is reputed to have written everything in full and from scratch, with little revision. This is how he produced a raft of novels that were good but not great. Charles Dickens wrote for serialization. The great discipline of deadlines generated a high output that also created the ragged quality that marks his work.
Judging from her unfinished novels, Austen seems to have sketched out the story first and returned for development. Virginia Woolf, in an essay in her book The Common Reader, identifies this technique by comparing the juvenilia and unfinished novels with her finished ones. In Austen’s younger or unfinished work, Woolf says, “her difficulties are more apparent, and the method she took to overcome them less artfully concealed.” Their lack of development, she says, shows that Austen lays out her facts “rather baldly” in the first draft and then goes “back and back and back” to cover them with “flesh and atmosphere.”
Austen has many skills within the writing arena: brilliant dialogue, brief but telling descriptions, psychological insight. Speed is not one of her abilities, nor is it a meaningful criterion. Good writing comes from good thinking. Good thinking requires—as Nabokov once said—not only second thoughts but third and fourth thoughts. It takes time to contemplate and reflect on human behavior to reach the depths that Austen explores.
A careful reader can find such ponderation at critical moments in Austen’s novels. One passage in Pride and Prejudice (Chapter 44 in modern editions) is particularly striking. The scene comes when, after several starts and stops, Elizabeth realizes that Darcy still must love her. Unlike other heroines of the day, she does not think, “Wow! He’s mine. Let’s get married!” Instead, she walks through what she’s feeling and tries to understand her own response. What is the nature of her turmoil—respect, gratitude, ego satisfaction, love? Notice how delicately Austen slides in: Elizabeth doesn’t allow herself to think immediately and directly of the man, nor even of his name.
“Her thoughts were at Pemberley this evening more than the last; and the evening, though as it passed it seemed long, was not long enough to determine her feelings towards one in that mansion; and she lay awake two whole hours endeavouring to make them out.”
Follow as Elizabeth processes multiple mental steps:
“She certainly did not hate him. No; hatred had vanished long ago.” She feels “respect created by the conviction of his valuable qualities”; he had “for some time ceased to be repugnant to her feeling.” She has moved into “somewhat of a friendlier nature” by the “amiable” disposition he had shown yesterday. But above all there was “gratitude, not merely for having once loved her, but for loving her still well enough to forgive all the petulance and acrimony of her … rejecting him, and all [her] unjust accusations.”
Instead, Darcy seemed “most eager to preserve the acquaintance” and to introduce her to his sister. Elizabeth attributes this to “love, ardent love,” and she thinks the “impression on her was of a sort to be encouraged. … She respected, she esteemed, she was grateful to him, she felt a real interest in his welfare; and she only wanted to know how far she wished that welfare to depend upon herself, and how far it would be for the happiness of both that she should employ the power, which her fancy told her she still possessed.”
Elizabeth’s recapitulation of her feelings builds through a series of reactions, each more positive: from her original hate to not hate; to a cessation of repugnance; to friendlier feelings; to respect and esteem; to gratitude; to concern for Darcy’s welfare; to wonder if she could make him happy—and he, her. What’s best, however, is this: Though she’s falling toward love, she hasn’t arrived—or is not able to admit she has. By not answering the question, the chapter tantalizes the reader to stay tuned.
It’s these kinds of psychological portraits that separate Austen from the pack. Perhaps this scene came out “rapid and correct” from the pen, without the need of a single blot. It is far more likely, however, that Austen went back repeatedly, adding more and more mental steps, more emotional responses. She revised, reordered, re-explained, as she put herself in Elizabeth’s head over and over again.
A serious writer could spend a week, or even a month, working and reworking these two or three pages to get the logic and emotion and phrasing just right. Austen likely revisited this important chapter multiple times over the years. However quickly she may have dashed off the first draft, such a scene comes only with effort and time.
Several authors have been credited with explaining how easy it is to write: All you do is sit down, open a vein, and bleed. To achieve this kind of exquisite result, Jane opened her veins and bled emotionally more than once along the way.
The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, which traces love from a charming courtship through the richness and complexity of marriage and concludes with a test of the heroine’s courage and moral convictions, is now complete and available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.