Monday, March 29, 2021

My First Book Baby's Birthday

Eleven years ago tomorrow, my first novel, First Impressions: A Tale of Less Pride and Prejudice, was published. It seems like forever ago and, simultaneously, yesterday. I have been struggling to rewrite the book, combining it with its two sequels (which were never part of the original plan) for three years. It's a way bigger project than I ever imagined. In fact, I had envisioned breezing through it in the chaotic days following the birth of my last child. That was both wildly optimistic and naive.

I really would have liked to celebrate the book's 10th birthday, but not only was the blog kind of dead in the water at this time last year (and the several proceeding years), but I was also struggling to cope with the early days of lockdown. Understandably, my thoughts were elsewhere. So to try to make the event a bit special this year, here is a first peek at some new, original material from the revision (confession: I did actually do a reading of this excerpt back in December, but as no one actually saw it, this is legitimately a first peek). I intended this to be an extension of the prologue to the third book, Holidays at Pemberley, but I am now working on yet another new scene, and it will proceed all the events previously chronicled in the trilogy. That, however, is nowhere near ready for eyes beyond my own, especially considering it still exists mostly in my head. Hopefully, I'll get it on paper soon. In the meantime, enjoy part of the beginning to the new (though still rough) and improved (I trust) Tales of Less Pride and Prejudice:

Mr. Lucas was a man in his ascendency. Though born of humble parents, his life’s journey elevated the
family from their mercantile roots to glorified heights unimagined when he was but a suckling babe in his mother’s arms. He utilized his mayoralty well, making much of the economic opportunities afforded by conflict and amassing a small fortune. In recognition of his contribution to the war effort, he was honored with a knighthood, a distinction so strongly felt that he was compelled to divest himself of his business interests and quit Meryton, removing his family no less than a full mile outside of town, denominating his new abode Lucas Lodge, and reinvented himself into a country squire, with no greater occupation than being civil to all the world. 

Unshackled by business, Sir William set about increasing the size of his family, which swelled with the years. The tidy fortune with which he had retired was sufficient to provide his sons with the educations and inheritance required to complete the family’s ascendency to the gentry, but his daughters were left rather portionless in the process, forced to rely on their charms and wit to secure husbands devoid of trade’s taint. With the latter commodity, Charlotte was well-endowed, more so than her sisters, who were richer in the former. 

Before the rapid family expansion began, Charlotte and her next brother, Will, were for many years the only children. One might assume they would, therefore, have a closer bond than the others, but it was not the case. The two never got along very well, Will perhaps feeling his father’s new consequence too much, and Charlotte too pragmatic to indulge his inflated self-importance. Her sisters, while very dear to her, were not her intellectual equals, and so she was forced to seek quality companionship beyond the walls of the Lodge. Fortunately, within a short walk lived the Bennets of Longbourn.

Mr. Bennet was of old family, long landed in the area. He had married a wife who was native to Meryton, the daughter of a local attorney possessed of a small fortune and good looks, and together they began a family. Thus far, it consisted of four girls. As the estate was entailed on descendants male, it was generally believed that many more children could be expected to follow, until the longed for boy was born. The two eldest daughters, Jane and Elizabeth, were old enough to be something like companions to Charlotte. Though not much older than her own sisters, they provided her with far more stimulating conversation than could be found at home. Consequently, she was a great deal at Longbourn, and Jane and Elizabeth, likewise, were often be found at Lucas Lodge.

On one such day, near the end of the old century, while snow gently fell outside and large fires made all snug within, the three girls barricaded themselves in Charlotte’s room and played with Josephine, the doll given to Miss Lucas by the Westover family nearly a decade before. While Charlotte was rapidly leaving girlhood behind, she was yet young enough to highly resent her sisters playing with what was most certainly hers, as they had been found doing, resulting in a vindictive expulsion of the younger girls from both Josephine’s noble presence and the room. Being well beyond having any interest in actually playing with the doll, Charlotte pulled out her sewing basket instead and looked for scraps that might be fashioned into clothes for her, a task in which the Bennet girls were happy to assist.

“That brocade is lovely, Charlotte! Let us make her a ball gown,” Jane exclaimed.

Charlotte smiled. “It is from a scrap of the remains from my mother’s presentation gown. She gave it to me to trim my new cloak, and this is the last remnant I have, but as it is too small to use for much else but a doll’s overskirt, a ball gown it shall become. I have some silk we can make into a bodice.”

Jane, a fine little seamstress, began to lay out the fabric and take measurements, all the while trying to keep her sister from cutting it to pieces before all her preparations were in order. To distract her, Charlotte called Elizabeth’s attention to a small box of spare beads, which they set about sorting for use in trimming the gown. Elizabeth excitedly proclaimed which were her favorites, carrying the transparent ones to the window in order to probe their depths. Charlotte laughed at her antics. It was impossible to not be charmed by the little girl.

“There,” Jane declared, when she had finished with the gown’s design. “Now you may cut out the pieces, Lizzy, but do be careful not the shred the brocade. We have little enough as it is.”

“Josephine only hires the finest modistes and milliners to construct her wardrobe,” Charlotte teased. “She could entrust no one less with such an important task.”

Elizabeth looked up from her work. “Why should a lady’s wardrobe be so important? Mama speaks of it endlessly. I do not see why I should always be scolded for getting dirty or tearing a hem. When she insists I wear such flimsy fabrics, what else can be expected to happen?”

“I think Mama expects you not to be climbing trees and running through fields.”

“That is all very well for you, Jane, but it is not in my nature to behave otherwise. The clothes should be made to suit me. Why should I be forced into alterations to fit them?”

“Eliza would rather go about in trousers, like one of the boys, that she might climb to the very highest branches of the oak tree in the church yard without causing a spectacle.”

The two elder girls laughed, but Elizabeth remained studiously thoughtful, eventually saying, “No, I should not like that. Why can I not dress like a girl and still be able to romp about, the way the Wilson girls do?”

“You are Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourn. The Wilsons are my father’s tenants. There is a deal of difference.”

“Yes. So I am told, but I do not see why it must be so. ”   

With complete attention did Elizabeth now focus on the task at hand, carefully working the scissors, her small face taut with concentration. As she liberated each section, Jane began stitching the tiny gown together, and Charlotte assisted each when needed. As she helped Elizabeth straighten the fabric, she revived the former subject. 

“You asked why you ought not conduct yourself at the Misses Wilson do. I am sorry to say it, but such questioning can do one little good. From what I have thus seen of the world, regardless of where and for what initial purpose its restrictions derived, one must abide by them or suffer the consequences. A lady has very few avenues by which to secure her position, marriage being by far the best. You may not behave as the Wilsons do, because it would hurt your future prospects.”

Elizabeth had stopped working to listen to this speech and now frowned intently at Charlotte, “But that is unfair.”

The older girl nodded. “I think so, too. Unfortunately, fairness is rather irrelevant.”

“I do not think it so awful,” said Jane. “Someday, like Josephine, I will put on my most beautiful gown, made just for the occasion, make my entrance into a beautiful ballroom, where I shall meet a most handsome and eligible gentleman, and we will fall in love, have ten children, and live happily ever after,” she concluded with stars in her eyes, causing both of the other girls great amusement. “I do not see what is so humorous,” she protested, her feelings bruised. “Is it not what all women wish?”

“Certainly most of them,” Charlotte replied with an encouraging smile. She did not mean to disrupt the serenity of Jane’s dreams for the future, they being far safer to indulge than Elizabeth’s revolutionary notions, but she could not help but think the younger Bennet possessed greater penetration than her sister.

“Do you not wish for a handsome husband?” the former now asked, her sparkling eyes studying Charlotte intently.

“I think I should value a kind husband more.”

“But you do want to be married and have a family?” Elizabeth pressed.

“Certainly. Having no personal fortune to see to my own future, my only other options are to either live with Will,” Elizabeth twisted her face at this notion, “take a position as a governess,” now the little girl laughed, “or marry whatever man is so gracious as to ask me. Which should you choose?”

“To be married, of course! But I do so hope I might meet a gentleman both kind and handsome.”

“Do not forget rich,” Charlotte added.

“So you shall, Lizzy,” Jane smiled. “So shall we all! It must be so.”

As the two younger girls chattered on about what the future might bring, Charlotte withdrew to the window to stare at the falling snow. All such talk was still the distant future to her companions, but she was getting close to the time when she would begin the search for a husband, and a real one, too, not some creature born of fairytale. The prospects in her own neighborhood were not good, and she had little opportunity to form new acquaintances from the broader world. Certainly, a handsome, kind, and rich husband would be delightful, but she was too practical to consider such a possibility. She set her sights on kind and respectable. For more, it was too daring to dream.

I think it fitting that these combined tales will be hitting their teen years at the same time as my eldest child. I'm in such a very different place than I was when I began this JAFF journey. It is rather overwhelming to dwell upon. I like to think my writing has greatly improved over the last decade. I hope it has. May the new volume, whenever it's complete, reflect that. Thank you, as always, for reading.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Jane Austen: Bibliophile

Watercolor Illustration by C.E. Brock,
courtesy of
I dedicate this post to Saint Wiborada of Saint Gall, Switzerland’s own patron saint of libraries and librarians. More on her below.

We all have times in life when our hobbies are put on hold. For many, the pandemic has been an opportunity to indulge in favorite pastimes and cultivate new ones, but for those of us with kids, whatever personal time we once possessed has vanished like smoke. Reading, which I had little time for in the first place, is a very special luxury right now, and this is a problem. Reading is more than just a leisurely indulgence for me. I am a true bibliophile. I breathe books, and, like most writers, I was and always will be first and foremost a reader. I really don’t know how to be one without the other.

That Jane Austen was also a bibliophile is a pretty universally acknowledged truth. Her letters reveal her tastes and habits, and her novels her passion for reading. Her first person defense of the novel in Northanger Abbey, advocating for women supporting women, or heroines supporting heroines (and aren’t we all our own heroines?), a few hundred years before it became a talking point, is ardent:
[Catherine and Isabella] called each other by their Christian name, were always arm in arm when they walked, pinned up each other’s train for the dance, and were not to be divided in the set; and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novels; — for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens, — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel-reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.” — Such is the common cant. — “And what are you reading, Miss ———-?” “Oh! it is only a novel!” replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. — “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;” or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.
And she doesn’t stop there. Austen returns to this theme nine chapters later, not breaking the third wall this time, but instead utilizing her hero, Henry Tilney, to express succinctly and witheringly the shock and dismay that all bibliophiles experience when confronted by those unaccountable people who don’t enjoy reading: “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

While Northanger provides us with Austen’s most memorable and impassioned expressions of bibliophilism, her fervor pervades all her works. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy utilizes books to convey some of his earliest compliments to Elizabeth: “All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.” Austen’s novels are peppered with references to contemporary fiction and poetry. The very titles Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice declare her engagement with contemporary literary discourse. Time obscures the degree to which her books critique the literature of her day, far beyond the obvious parodying of gothic and sentimental fiction in Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility. Austen’s novels are rather like a teacher’s red pen all over the works of her predecessors, showing by example how stilted and farfetched the writers of 18th century were, and giving birth to the 19th century novel in the process. Without their inspiration and mistakes to compel her, it’s hard to imagine Austen creating the masterpieces she did.

Saint Wiborada from the Cimelia
Sangallensia, c. 1430.
In summation, it is really quite vitaI that I make the time to read. This hiatus is unsustainable. I need books, like I need nourishment, and not just those I read to my children. Reading aloud is lovely, but it doesn’t give my mind the scope it needs to soar away on words to distant lands. I’m determined to reclaim that space. Wish me luck! More than poor Wiborada had, I do hope, who was the first woman ever canonized by the Vatican. Born in the late 9th century to a wealthy family in present day Aargau, Switzerland, she and her brother joined the Benedictine community at the Abby of St. Gall following the deaths of their parents. I have visited the location several times, and it is magnificent. The complex includes an 18th century Rococo cathedral, one of my favorite in Switzerland, and a gorgeous library, designed by the same architect, housing the oldest collection of books in the country, some of the manuscripts dating back to the 8th century.

At some point in her early adult life, Wiborada was accused of something for which she underwent an Ordeal by Fire to prove her innocence. She was exonerated, but the experience was understandably traumatizing, and following it she chose to become an ascetic (a career path, it must be noted, that affords ample reading opportunity). She later petitioned the Bishop of Konstance to become an anchoress, spending four years in a cell near the church of St. George. In 891, she relocated to a cell next to the church of St. Magnus, where she spent the rest of her life. Known for healing and prophecy, she is said to have warned the orders at St. Magnus and St. Gall of an impending invasion by the Hungarians in 925. The priests secured the precious texts in caves and and went into hiding, but Wiborada refused to heed her own prediction and remained in her cell. The Magyars arrived in 926 and, upon finding Wilborada kneeling in prayer, cracked her head in two with a hatchet, resulting in her martyrdom.

And to help erase that ghastly image from your mind, please enjoy the following short video about the library: 

Monday, March 15, 2021

The Rise and Fall of the Empire(waist)

Dancing dress featuring
 Grecian elements, 1809.
Though this post was composed a few years ago, I can't help but think it has more resonance today, when more and more people are thinking about the politicization of women's bodies. Fashion always has been an expression of a society's state, and monumental shifts in clothing styles inevitably occur in times of massive change. We have yet to see the lasting results of our current upheaval, but fashion already has reflected it, and future historians will analyze our clothing to better understand who we are as a people, what we value, and why we behave the way we do. Enjoy.

The Empire waist gown, the most defining element of women’s fashion during the Regency Era, has political implications far beyond what most Austen fans and period reenactors realize. In truth, it was revolutionary: a sartorial celebration of the times. “Empire” refers to the one built by Napoleon and is the name given in France to this period of history. High-waisted, loose gowns began to be worn in elite French fashion circles prior to the Revolution, largely in response to the philosophies put forth by Jean-Jaques Rousseau, an advocate for society’s return to more a natural state (often premised on idyllic notions of the peasantry), and whose ideas permeate Romantic thought. Yet this uncorseted look that shocked so many was not de rigueur until after the Revolution, when it became a reflection of the values of the new French state: simple fabrics and lines were far more egalitarian than complex court dress, their unrestrictive shapes were literally liberating, and the overall look was evocative of ancient Athens, where Democracy was born. Structured gowns became as passé as the wigs that went with them.

Full dress (Spring, 1799)
in the Grecian style. 

The earliest examples of this look from the late 18th century still feature trains, but with the beginning of the 19th century the silhouette straightens, emphasizing a woman’s true shape. Thin fabrics left little to the imagination. The English took their initial cues on this new look from the French, but as contact between the two countries diminished over decades of war, the Empire look began to take on a distinctly English flare. Tight fitted spencers and redingotes, while marvels of tailoring, acted to bring the liberated look a bit more in control, as well as providing some much-needed warmth. Many ladies also found that to achieve the desired silhouette, they still required a great deal of confining undergarments. Tudor and military embellishments further increased the structure of the gowns. Notions of simplicity in women’s clothing were soon abandoned, and ornamentation became just as ostentatious as ever. The death of Napoleon in 1821 coincides nicely with the beginning of the waistline’s gradual journey back to, well, the waist (it took less time in France). It wasn’t until the early 1830’s that women’s fashion began to take on truly Victorian dimensions in England, returning to the tight corsets and voluminous skirts of the previous century.

1807 gowns featuring Greek and Roman styling.
Left: Full dress and walking dress. Right: Full dress.

Evening dresses from 1816 (left) and 1819 (right) feature
helmet-like headdresses reminiscent of Athena’s,
the Greek goddess of war.

One need not be an historian to know that the Victorian Era was a period of rigid social conservatism. It is tempting to read the fall of the waistline as a rejection of revolution, but feminist historians are quick to point out that Rousseau’s philosophies and the fashions they inspired were far from liberating. Boys and girls of the era dressed in miniature versions of the gowns grown ladies wore. Boys were “breached” and allowed to grow into men, but girls were kept in a perpetual state of infancy. In Emile, Rousseau’s treatise on education, he describes a vision of womanhood rather chilling to the modern reader. The vast bulk of the book describes the education of Emile, his fictitious pupil, and only contemplates the education of girls in Book Five: Marriage. Here he describes the ideal mate for Emile, one Sophie, and the education she ought to receive to keep her as natural a woman as possible:

Morning and evening dress (1818)
showing military influences.

As I see it, the special functions of women, their inclinations and their duties, combine to suggest the kind of education they require. Men and women are made for each other but they differ in their measure of dependence on each other. We could get on better without women than women could get on without us. To play their part in life they must have our willing help, and for that they must earn our esteem. By the very law of nature women are at the mercy of men’s judgments both for themselves and for their children. It is not enough that they should be estimable: they must be esteemed. It is not enough that they should be wise: their wisdom must be recognized. Their honor does not rest on their conduct but on their reputation. Hence the kind of education they get should by the very opposite of men’s in this respect. Public opinion is the tomb of a man’s virtue but the throne of a woman’s. 

Walking dress demonstrating both Tudor &
military influence, 1821 (left) and 1822 (right).

His words, though rather infuriating, perfectly describe the reality in which Jane Austen lived and wrote. Recall what Mary Bennet has to say on the subject:

“Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable — that one false step involves her in endless ruin — that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful, — and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.”

Elizabeth might find such a statement annoying under the circumstances, but Mary correctly conveys the realities of their world. If Wickham did not marry Lydia, the entire Bennet family would have been tarnished by her actions, throwing their very survival into doubt. All this from a lack of active patriarchal protection. Women were entirely at the mercy of public opinion, yet at the same time fashion exposed their bodies in ways unheard of in Europe for centuries past. They were taught to court and relish masculine attention, just like Lydia Bennet, but then were punished for indulging in it. What a double edged sword!

The falling waistline. Left: Walking and dinner dress (1822).
Right: Evening dress (Winter, 1826).

Even if Rousseau was not an advocate for any real form of female liberation, his notions undoubtedly influenced philosophers who were, like Mary Wollstonecraft. The ideals of freedom and liberty that marked the period would gradually spread their wings and slowly encompass more and more of the globe, a process that remains hard-fought and ongoing. One truth that can be universally acknowledged is that after a few decades of Victorian austerity, corsets again fell out of fashion, hemlines raised, and a new era of women’s fashion was born. With it came suffrage, women in the work place, and birth control. Pretty revolutionary, wouldn’t you say?

Boy and girls fashions, 1834. The younger boys, like the
three on the far left, are still wearing skirts resembling those
of the girl the same age (second figure from the right).
The older boy standing behind her has been breached.

This post owes a great debt to Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen by Sarah Jane Downing, an excellent overview of the subject from Shire Library that I highly recommend.

The images featured are from the Claremont Colleges Digital Library:

Monday, March 8, 2021

More on Austen and Contractions

Wow! I'm actually composing new content. I had intended to keep recycling my removed material, but my last post on Austen's use of contractions provoked so much engagement, and, consequently, new questions and research, that I'm actually inspired to follow up. Perhaps blogging begets more blogging? Makes sense to me. I'm going to try my darnedest not to overanalyze the situation and just roll with it. What is transparent is that I geeked out hard.

Thanks to informed readers (much obliged, Suzan Lauder), I was made aware of some previous research on the subject of contractions published in 2013. If I've followed the trail correctly, it was first posted at Jane Austen's Tea Room, then maybe it was reposted at A Happy Assembly? I'm not perfectly certain. The author was "JanetR," or Janet Rutter, a vibrant member of the online Jane Austen community who unfortunately passed away in 2018. Her survey of contractions in Austen includes the letters and fragments, which is awesome! She also counts how many times each character uses which contractions. I wish I knew who to ask for permission to repost her work, as it is an excellent resource. Instead, I shall have to limit myself to commenting on the two areas which I found particularly compelling.

Lady Susan, Conclusion
First thing, I must address the contractions Austen uses to convey her own voice in her letters. This is really interesting, because she apparently only uses 16 contractions in all her letters, almost all of them "don't." Compare that to 38 contractions in Emma, 41 in Mansfield Park, and 77 in Sense and Sensibility! My initial take away was that while Austen might choose to convey informality, a level of comfort, or a coarseness of manners with the judicious use of contractions, she was very reluctant to allow them to creep into her personal writing. But as I dug deeper, I began to rethink a lot of assumptions. More on that to come.

Lady Susan, Letter Five
The second thing I must mention about JanetR's work is that,because I did not include fragments in my survey, I completely missed the fascinating use of "be n't" in The Watsons, which I've also seen transcribed as "be'nt" or "ben't" (the latter is how JanetR spelled it):

He was rewarded by a gracious answer, and a more liberal full view of her face than she had yet bestowed. Unused to exert himself, and happy in contemplating her, he then sat in silence for some minutes longer, while Tom Musgrave was chattering to Elizabeth ; till they were interrupted by Nanny's approach, who, half-opening the door and putting in her head, said, – "Please, ma'am, master wants to know why he be n't to have his dinner?"

Don't try to parse Nanny's sentence structure. It gave me such a headache. I'm honestly not even sure what words are being contracted, though her meaning remains clear. It is of no surprise that it is a servant who says it. Over the course of the past week, I have become increasingly fixated on the use of contractions in Austen not as an indicator of a casual or sloppy manner of speech, but also as a means to command dialect. Writers have been doing this since the introduction of the grammatical oddity we call the apostrophe during the Renaissance, when it was used to indicate the absence of letters, not as an indicator of possession. Adds a bit of historical clout to the use of contractions, doesn't it (you can read more about it here).

Love and Friendship, Letter Two
Now let me diverge from contractions, just for a moment, as a comment at Jane Austen Fan Club sent me down a different rabbit hole, one that kind of shook all the assumptions with which I had originally embarked on this research. I was asked if I knew why Austen seemed to separate some compound words, like everybody (every body) and anything (any thing). I knew in my heart as soon as this arose that it was probably something the printers did. It took me two minutes to pull up images of Austen's fine manuscript of Lady Susan from the Morgan Library in New York and confirm my hunch. I continue to be in awe by the ease with which I can access once terribly inaccessible documents. I quickly found "anything" twice in the conclusion. Based on spacing it looks like one word, though Austen did not connect her y and t. So I found "everybody" in Letter Five, which is more clearly one word, though the y and b also don't connect (by the way, this is kind of what my script looks like 😍, much to the frustration of my grade school teachers). But it made me think: how many of the contractions that I have been pouring over are really Austen's and not the printers?

History of England, Henry the 7th
An excuse to dig further! I celebrated the opportunity. Could I have used Lady Susan as my source document, the adventure would have concluded easily, but there isn't a single contraction in the entire document (hmmm), so I had to turn to her juvenila, some of which is available digitized from the British Library. Love and Friendship, by virtue of being searchable at, was my first choice. I had not surveyed it previously, and the contractions in it surprised me. I immediately noticed a frequent use of "tho'" and "altho'", but the British Library only has the first five pages of the manuscript available online, which was not enough for me to verify any of Austen's standard contractions, just these novel "tho's."  So I turned to A History of England instead, a bad choice, as there is no dialog in it at all (where Austen's contractions are most frequently found), but as all of it is available though the British Library's Turning the Pages project (so awesome), I gave it a go. However, as suspected, no contractions, but I did count four more tho's, and the mystery deepened. Next, I tried the original, "cancelled chapters" ending to Persuasion. Again, no proper contractions, but quite a few tho's, even as she also writes out "though," and also a lot of "wd" and "cd" as abbreviations for could and would. I also spotted a "learn't." I'm chalking that one up to this being a very rough draft. I don't think it would have made it into print.

Persuasion, alternative chapter 11
At this point, I was starting to despair ever finding primary source proof that Austen really ever used contractions at all. My last hope: the few digitized letters available. Alas! Not a single contraction in any of them! What can this mean? I am left in frustration to wonder if any of Austen's contractions are really her own, or if they all might be the work of others. Clearly, she used them as short hand, also to indicate dialect in lower class and familial company, but might many others be attributable to production's meddling hand? The fact that her clean copies of Lady Susan has removed any use of shorthand makes me doubt that she would have submitted a manuscript containing it. Technology, my usual ally, has failed me in this instance (though it did lead me on a mighty fun ride). If I really want to pursue this, I shall need to prostrate myself before a series of libraries and foundations and beg for access to the original letters. Probably not going to happen any time soon. 

What do you think? Is my previous post on contractions still reliable? Or have I just cast a whole mess of doubt over the entire subject?

Monday, March 1, 2021

Austen and Contractions

This post was originally written while I was finishing Darcy in Wonderland, an odd little volume that is part Pride and Prejudice sequel, set twenty some years after the Darcy’s marriage, and part pure mashup with Alice in Wonderland. It was a marvellous opportunity to work with my incredibly talented little sister, Katy Wiedemann, who created beautiful illustrations for the book. For the cover image she used David Rintoul as her model, who played Darcy in the 1980 BBC mini-series, with a little James Dean thrown in. Isn’t she incredible? Colin Firth's features weren't chiselled enough for her liking. The pigeon with which he is conversing is Mrs. Bennet.

One of the great challenges I encountered writing this story was trying to combining the styles of two very different writers. This proved a particular problem when it comes to the thorny issue of contractions. Over the years, I’ve been told by more than one person that Jane Austen never used contractions. This is not exactly true, though her use of contractions is very limited. Lewis Carroll, on the other hand, uses contractions nonstop. I compromised between the two by limiting the characters from Austen’s world to her contractions, letting Carroll’s characters pretty much run wild (it would have been impossible to fight this, as that is just what Carroll’s characters do), and I split the difference on Alice. As a result of this process, I produced a rather handy list of contractions Austen did use in her six major novels and those she did not (several do appear more frequently in her earlier works). Let’s start with those she definitely never uses:

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.
This archaic contraction occurs a bit more frequently than the others on this list, but really only in Sense and Sensibility, in which it is used five times.

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.”

Mrs. Jennings:

“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.”

Edit: A careful reader pointed out that it also appears in Persuasion. I missed it because it is spelled "a'n't." Wow Jane! We have Charles Musgrove to thank for this utterance, and he uses it when adopting a childish demeanour to interact with his mother:

"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.
Used four times, and in a rather broad set of circumstances. Anne Steele, who uses more contractions than any other character in Austen, says it once:

“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.
Only used once by Mrs. Jennings, another great peddler of contractions:

“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.

How d’ye

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.
This one is very interesting. It only occurs twice in Austen. Both times are in Emma, and both occur in the same chapter (12). I have to wonder if this wasn’t an editing oversight on Austen’s part, because instead of the “that’s” being dropped by side characters of questionable educational background, here it is used by our hero and heroine. The other theory I have is that both characters are flustered when they use the contraction. Perhaps it reflects their state of minds? Another thought is that it indicates ease with their companions, resulting in a relaxation of formality. It is used first by Emma ...

“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.
We wrap up where we began, with Anne Steele:

“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.