Jane Austen will never go out of style. Her most famous six novels, written over 250 years ago, are timeless illustrations of life and love. Most people who read Austen read her books as love stories; nothing wrong with that, although not all of them are romances, as I discuss in my series, The Six: An Analysis of Jane Austen’s Novels.
There’s Something About Jane Austen
Nowadays when I read Austen, and I reread her books regularly, it’s less for the courtship of our main characters and more for the glimpse into their lives. I love the depiction of family and child-raising in Persuasion. I love the depiction of village life in Emma. I love the harsh realities of what it means to be a woman and poor in a highly stratified society in Sense & Sensibility and also in Emma. I love the keen wit that delineates the consequences of a very bad marriage in Pride & Prejudice. And no, I don’t just mean Lydia – I mean Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. I adore the modern YA storytelling in Northanger Abbey. And when it comes to humor, Mansfield Park, considered to be Austen’s stodgiest novel, has unexpected glimmers of comedy along with a very serious topic – the corrupting influence of slavery on slaveholders.
All of this – gestures at above paragraph – is why there are hundreds of Jane Austen sequels, prequels, retellings, spin offs, knockoffs, pastiches, and homages. Shoot – this is a time-honored tradition. Read Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl and you’ll see why I think Alcott rewrote Mansfield Park for an American audience.
My novel The Unexpected Miss Bennet (the most excellent audio edition here) was born from the same impulse. What about Mary? What was her life like? And there are so many Mary stories now, because we all love Mary Bennet.
This is why, also, I really liked the Persuasion adaptation with Dakota Jackson. Yeah, it’s been ridiculously modernized, but they get at the crux of the story, which is not just love and loss and second chances, but also how our families drive us nuts, and you come away with the impression that Jane Austen knew as much about that as she does about love and loss and second chances.
Writing a Jane Austen Novel
Maybe because Jane Austen left behind such a small body of work (The Six, plus a few fragments and novellas), authors have room to explore the world she left behind.
Want to write a Jane Austen novel? Here are some tips.
Be Modern Like Jane Austen
Part of the reason Austen has such lasting influence is because she writes about universal emotions and recognizable characters. When I say Catherine Morland could be transported into a modern YA novel, I mean it. Catherine is a teenage girl, and she acts like one.
Be modern also means using modern language. Here are some lines from Jane Austen:
Mansfield Park, when Mrs. Norris comes away from a visit with extras she’s cadged from the housekeeper:“What else have you been spunging?” said Maria.
Persuasion, when the young ladies are gossiping in Bath:
“She is pretty, I think; Anne Elliot; very pretty, when one comes to look at her. It is not the fashion to say so, but I confess I admire her more than her sister.”
“Oh! so do I.”
“And so do I. No comparison. But the men are all wild after Miss Elliot. Anne is too delicate for them.”
These are just a few examples of dialog. They could have been written now, especially the no comparison line.
Austen is also so modern when she’s writing about her characters, their concerns and motivations, and the delicious little plot moments that make me cackle with glee.
- John Thorpe’s very bad driving in Northanger Abbey. We’ve been there. Stuck in a car with a bad date, whose driving is, shall we say, nowhere near as good as he thinks it is.
- The conversations that Anne Eliot has with her sister and her sister’s in-laws about who exactly is spoiling the children.
(I could pretty much quote Persuasion for this entire post. Austen knocks this one out of the park. And if you think the baseball metaphor is anachronistic, well, read the beginning of Northanger Abbey.)
Write Character Like Austen
Jane Austen never wrote a one-dimensional character, even the ones we don’t have many clues to. Mary Crawford, the “bad girl” of Mansfield Park, has an intriguing backstory. “Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough.” Or so she tells us. Mary immediately tells us this isn’t a pun, but we all know it’s a pun, and it tells us a few things about Mary.
She’s got sexual experience and awareness, which is social death in her time and place – and quite frankly, in ours too. It sure would be nice maybe to have a nice guy like Edmund to marry. Respectability of course, security, which is always necessary for women, and a chance to put her past behind her. A girl who has been subjected to the worst of men might just like a nice guy. Mary is set up to be a villain, because she and Fanny are romantic rivals, but that little pun – that pun is what makes me feel a bit for Mary. Also, she’s smart, and funny, and a little bit mean, and she needs to have her own story. You’re welcome.
By the way, there are a ton of fabulous characters in Mansfield Park. The entire Bertram family is a dysfunctional trainwreck, and then there’s Fanny’s first family in Portsmouth. I mean the whole thing is ready made for a sequel because Fanny’s little sister Susan takes on the companion role.
I wish more people read Mansfield Park. It’s tough, I grant you, but I think when it comes to Austen’s masterpieces, it’s a very close second to Emma.
Jane Austen’s World – the Little Details Matter
Remember John Thorpe’s terrible driving? Opportunities shine in those little details. When writing a Jane Austen novel, whether it’s a modernization or a sequel, find your own little details. This is good advice when writing your own stories too, actually.
These telling details are what makes stories come alive. They are how characters interact with their world.
Sometimes this requires the dreaded R word – research. And yeah, research can be complicated. But other times, it just means stopping and thinking about how something might translate into the story you’re creating. This is why I advise people to look past the marriage plot and really explore the details that Austen puts in all of her novels.
Speaking of the marriage plot…
Jane Austen and the Marriage Plot
Austen may not have invented the marriage plot (although I might place good money that she did), but she sure perfected it. There really can’t be an Austenesque novel without romance.
So how to write a great Austenesque romance? It all starts with characters.
- Lizzy is flawed.
- Catherine is innocent.
- Emma is proud.
- Marianne is dutiful.
- Fanny is a crier (frankly, she’s exasperating).
- Anne is wounded.
A flawed heroine requires a hero who loves her in spite of or because of her flaws. And the hero also needs a few chinks in his armor.
- Darcy is shy. (Yep. Sure, he’s proud and full of himself, but he doesn’t dance with strange girls. He’s shy.)
- Henry Tilney is sad and frightened. (He and his sister only have each other. His father and brother are dreadful. And he misses his mother a lot. Maybe that’s why he loves Catherine — she’s so normal.)
- Mr. Knightley is stern. (Look, it’s an icky dynamic, but it works for them, okay? Don’t judge.)
- Edward Ferrars wants to be liked.
- Edmund Betram. Hypocrite.
- Captain Wentworth. Passionate. Okay, also carries a grudge, but he’s human about it, so he forgives Anne. (I might be biased, but damn, that letter…)
When writing a romance, the characters’ chemistry is the most important quality. Romances also require best friends (Charlotte Lucas anyone?), misunderstandings, villains and rivals, twists and turns, disapproving aunts, obstacles that keep our lovers apart, until it’s time for them to get together.
Write Your Own Adventure – er, Jane Austen Novel
There! All of the elements of a Jane Austen novel, in one place. Whether you are writing a retelling or a sequel, a prequel or a spinoff, remember these things – flawed characters, relatable stories, dialog, and plots, and romance and chemistry. Have fun and happy writing!