Friday, January 24, 2014

Jane Austen: A Writer's Inspiration

 For the last few weeks, I’ve been immersed in Jane Austen—a happy occurrence while I’m teaching my favorite class for Marymount University: an upper level literature course on 19th century British women authors. (I especially enjoyed being snowed in this past week so that I could watch a marathon of the BBC Pride & Prejudice mini-series with Colin Firth :). Re-reading Jane Austen’s novels and various biographies has given me some insights to Jane Austen’s writing life, which have inspired me, and I hope will inspire you as well.

Lesson One: Importance of observation

Jane Austen is known as a keen observer of her society and social sphere.  Her wit and ability to catch the nuances in voice of different characters has stood her above most writers for the last two centuries. By modern standards, her life appears rather uneventful, touching only a narrow sphere of society; and yet, she captures so vividly commonplace details, social conventions, settings, conversations, and characters that we are transported easily to her world. Social historians still utilize her writings to learn more about daily life among the gentry class in her era.  As writers, we need to observe and listen—even ordinary life has great wealth for the imagination.

Lesson Two: Keep writing (and revising)!

Jane Austen wrote stories, poems, letters, satires, novels, and even prayers for most of her life. She was only published in the last five years of her short life, the final two of her six novels not appearing until after her early death at 41. Despite rejection of Pride and Prejudice in its first version as First Impressions, she continued writing. Sixteen years later, after Sense and Sensibility finally met with success, Miss Austen revised Pride and Prejudice, which was immediately bought for publication. Her novels have held international acclaim and have never been out of print. Few of us will ever enjoy that kind of success, but we can at least be encouraged not to give up writing--even when faced with rejection. 

Lesson Three: Don’t stress about the “fallow” times.

I’m in a fallow time myself now when I’m not producing anything new other than these occasional  blogs, and this unproductive time can be quite frustrating. Besides just the normal busy-ness of a pastor’s wife and mother of a large clan, I’ve taken on a care-taking role for my elderly parents who have moved in with us.  I’m also an English adjunct professor with piles of student papers to grade, and I’m barely getting the edits done for putting my existing books into e-book format. So, for this season in my life, I’m often frustrated (and embarrassed) by my lack of productivity in the writing department. I’ve been encouraged to realize that Jane Austen also had a fallow period. Her first versions of Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey were all written in her early twenties. Then on her father’s retirement, the Austen parents and (unmarried) daughters moved to Bath. Jane Austen attempted little writing during this period of her life. Some critics speculate that she was unhappy in Bath. I think the evidence weighs more on her being extremely busy with an active social life and the care of her parents. In any case, after the death of her father and several moves, Jane and her mother and sister Cassandra were able to settle down at last in a lovely home in Chawton on the estate of her older brother Edward. In Chawton, Jane was finally able to get back to writing and revising and from there her six published novels were produced. I don’t believe that Jane’s fallow time was ill-spent. I think her observation skills had been sharpened and she had much more life experience to enrich her stories. This consideration makes me hopeful that my fallow season will not last forever and that perhaps my best writing will come in the not too distant future. 

 Lesson Four: Faith can be subtle

Some scholars have actually argued that Jane Austen was devoid of faith as her books bear scant reference to it. Many biographers ignore her religion altogether. In graduate school, I wrote a paper on Jane’s faith and my research revealed that not only was she a devout Christian from a devout family, but that her faith permeates her thinking and writing. Jane Austen is quick to satirize the religion of hypocritical clergymen like Mr. Collins, while her finest characters reflect a strong morality grounded in true religion. Although Jane Austen deliberately kept her religious beliefs from being overt so as not to “preach” to her readers, her Christian world-view informs the strong moral message which under-girds all of her novels.  C.S. Lewis aptly describes the author’s skill of keeping Christianity “latent” in a story. In an August 1939 letter in response to Sister Penelope’s praise of his science fiction novel Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis writes: “Any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it.” (Collected Letter of C.S. Lewis, Vol. II 264).

Like Jane Austen or C.S. Lewis, we Christian fiction writers have the opportunity to tell compelling stories which illustrate spiritual truths--- but hopefully, like them, we will do so with subtlety and grace.