aren’t, couldn’t, could’ve, didn’t, doesn’t, hadn’t, hasn’t, haven’t, he’d, he’ll, he’s, how’d, isn’t, it’d, it’ll, it’s, let’s, mightn’t, might’ve, mustn’t, must’ve, needn’t, oughtn’t, she’d, she’ll, she’s, shouldn’t, should’ve, that’d, that’ll, there’s, they’ll, they’re, wasn’t, we’ll, we’re, weren’t, we’ve, what’s, where’s, who’d, who’ll, who’s, wouldn’t, would’ve, you’d, you’ll, you’re, you’ve
Now let’s discuss what is far more interesting: those contractions Austen does utilize and why.
There are only three she uses fairly regularly: don’t, ’tis, and won’t (note that ’tis never occurs in Persuasion, while making a regular appearance in all five of the other novels).
There are three more that appear a handful of times in the novels: can’t, I’ll, and shan’t/sha’nt (note that the latter is only ever used by Mrs. Jennings, Mrs. Bennet, and Miss Bates).
Then there are those that appear very infrequently. Word geek that I am, I find this highly compelling. Usually, these contractions reflect a character’s lack of education or refinement. Let’s take a look at them in context.
|Amanda Bozer as Fanny Dashwood, 1981.|
Anne Steele (she uses it twice – also see notes below on “I’m”):
“Lord! my dear, you are very modest. I an’t the least astonished at it in the world, for I have often thought of late, there was nothing more likely to happen.”
“Mind me, now, if they an’t married by Mid-summer.”
“The Colonel is a ninny, my dear; because he has two thousand a-year himself, he thinks that nobody else can marry on less. Take my word for it, that, if I am alive, I shall be paying a visit at Delaford Parsonage before Michaelmas; and I am sure I sha’nt go if Lucy an’t there.”
And, curiously, Fanny Dashwood:
Perhaps Fanny thought for a moment that her mother had been quite rude enough,–for, colouring a little, she immediately said,
“They are very pretty, ma’am–an’t they?” But then again, the dread of having been too civil, too encouraging herself, probably came over her, for she presently added, “Do you not think they are something in Miss Morton’s style of painting, Ma’am?–She does paint most delightfully!–How beautifully her last landscape is done!”
Fanny is a far more socially elevated character than the other two, and I think Austen very deliberately puts this contraction into her speech in order to display Fanny’s internal coarseness, despite her fashionable trappings.
The only other time “an’t” occurs is in Emma, where it is used by Mrs. Elton when speaking to Jane Fairfax. She is a character rather like Fanny, when you stop to consider their personalities. Both are petty and self-absorbed. It is also possible that both ladies saying ‘an’t’ is some kind of affectation, perhaps a modish slang. If so, I think it is clear Austen does not approve of such verbal laziness.
“Now I say, my dear, in our case, for lady, read—-mum! a word to the wise.–I am in a fine flow of spirits, an’t I? But I want to set your heart at ease as to Mrs. S.–My representation, you see, has quite appeased her.”
"Well, mother, I have done something for you that you will like. I have been to the theatre, and secured a box for to-morrow night. A'n't I a good boy? I know you love a play; and there is room for us all. It holds nine. I have engaged Captain Wentworth. Anne will not be sorry to join us, I am sure. We all like a play. Have not I done well, mother?"
Beautiful! Many thanks to Valborg Anderson for catching this one.
|Toni Collette as Harriet Smith, 1996.|
“Good gracious! (giggling as she spoke) I’d lay my life I know what my cousins will say, when they hear of it. They will tell me I should write to the Doctor, to get Edward the curacy of his new living. I know they will; but I am sure I would not do such a thing for all the world.–‘La!’ I shall say directly, ‘I wonder how you could think of such a thing? I write to the Doctor, indeed!'”
It occurs twice in Mansfield Park, always spoken by the Portsmouth Prices. First by William:
“I should like to see you dance, and I’d dance with you if you would, for nobody would know who I was here, and I should like to be your partner once more.”
And then later in the story by his father, who uses courser language than any other character in Austen:
“But, by G–! if she belonged to me, I’d give her the rope’s end as long as I could stand over her. A little flogging for man and woman too would be the best way of preventing such things.”
It is also used once in Emma, by Harriet Smith:
“Will you read the letter?” cried Harriet. “Pray do. I’d rather you would.”
Austen only uses it three times, and just in her first two novels. Anne Steele says it in Sense and Sensibility, twice in the same sentence! Anne’s frequent use of contractions is definitely a reflection of her lack of education and low status, and this paragraph is loaded with them:
“Nay, my dear, I’m sure I don’t pretend to say that there an’t. I’m sure there’s a vast many smart beaux in Exeter; but you know, how could I tell what smart beaux there might be about Norland; and I was only afraid the Miss Dashwoods might find it dull at Barton, if they had not so many as they used to have. But perhaps you young ladies may not care about the beaux, and had as lief be without them as with them. For my part, I think they are vastly agreeable, provided they dress smart and behave civil. But I can’t bear to see them dirty and nasty. Now there’s Mr. Rose at Exeter, a prodigious smart young man, quite a beau, clerk to Mr. Simpson, you know, and yet if you do but meet him of a morning, he is not fit to be seen.–I suppose your brother was quite a beau, Miss Dashwood, before he married, as he was so rich?”
Lydia Bennet is the other character to utilize “I’m”:
“Oh!” said Lydia stoutly, “I am not afraid; for though I am the youngest, I’m the tallest.”
|Elizabeth Spriggs as Mrs. Jennings, 1995.|
“Oh, Lord! I am sure your mother can spare you very well, and I do beg you will favour me with your company, for I’ve quite set my heart upon it. Don’t fancy that you will be any inconvenience to me, for I shan’t put myself at all out of my way for you.
Bit of a weird one, and akin to our modern “how’d you.” I definitely think she is representing colloquial speech with this contraction. It is always used in greeting. John Thorpe says it in Northanger Abbey:
“Make haste! make haste!” as he threw open the door– “put on your hat this moment — there is no time to be lost — we are going to Bristol. –How d’ye do, Mrs. Allen?”
It is how John Knightley greets his brother in Emma (love this quote, by the way):
This had just taken place and with great cordiality, when John Knightley made his appearance, and “How d’ye do, George?” and “John, how are you?” succeeded in the true English style, burying under a calmness that seemed all but indifference, the real attachment which would have led either of them, if requisite, to do every thing for the good of the other.
Miss Bates also uses it:
“How d’ ye do?–how d’ye do?–Very well, I thank you. So obliged to you for the carriage last night. We were just in time; my mother just ready for us. Pray come in; do come in. You will find some friends here.”
And Admiral Croft says it in Persuasion, when he is walking with Anne:
“But here comes a friend, Captain Brigden; I shall only say, `How d’ye do?’ as we pass, however. I shall not stop. ‘How d’ye do?’ Brigden stares to see anybody with me but my wife.”
|Romola Garai & Johnny Lee Miller as Emma|
Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley, 2009.
“That’s true,” she cried—”very true. Little Emma, grow up a better woman than your aunt. Be infinitely cleverer and not half so conceited.
... and then later by Mr. Knightley, when he is trying to redirect the dinner conversation away from the subject of Mr. Perry’s medical opinions:
“True, true,” cried Mr. Knightley, with most ready interposition— “very true. That’s a consideration indeed.—But John, as to what I was telling you of my idea of moving the path to Langham, of turning it more to the right that it may not cut through the home meadows, I cannot conceive any difficulty.”
Only appears once in Austen, in Sense and Sensibility. Servants don’t usually have much of a voice in Austen, but the Dashwood’s Thomas has quite a speech at the end of the novel. It is there he drops the “they’d”:
“I happened to look up as I went by the chaise, and so I see directly it was the youngest Miss Steele; so I took off my hat, and she knew me and called to me, and inquired after you, ma’am, and the young ladies, especially Miss Marianne, and bid me I should give her compliments and Mr. Ferrars’s, their best compliments and service, and how sorry they was they had not time to come on and see you, but they was in a great hurry to go forwards, for they was going further down for a little while, but howsever, when they come back, they’d make sure to come and see you.”
|Daisy Haggard as Miss Steele, 2008.|
“Dr. Davies was coming to town, and so we thought we’d join him in a post-chaise; and he behaved very genteelly, and paid ten or twelve shillings more than we did.”
So what have we learned from all this? While some contractions are broadly used by all manner of characters in Austen, her use of them is highly selective, usually chosen to highlight lack of education, some other character fault, or informality. I hope this exercise is useful to my fellow writers, and that it provides a heightened awareness in readers of Austen’s careful choice of language.
Thanks for joining me on this exploration into some of the less obvious aspects of Austen’s writing style.