I’m delighted to welcome author and professor Jane Nardin to the blog who has brilliant advice for us from Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice. Follow the directions below the tip to enter to win a copy of Jane Nardin’s new young adult novel, Little Women in India.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is the only nineteenth-century English novel that is still being read for fun by large numbers of teenage girls. And it has plenty of adult fans as well. The novel seems as fresh today as when it was published in January 1813. What might the contemporary fiction writer learn from Austen’s classic romance? Can we figure out what makes Pride and Prejudice so wonderful and translate that something into useful advice? Yes, I believe we can. Here are five tips from Pride and Prejudice that helped me write my own young adult novel, Little Women in India.
1. Create a relatable heroine. The main character of Pride and Prejudice,Elizabeth Bennet, is a pretty, witty, independent girl, who always tries to do the right thing. She thinks for herself. Her mistaken opinions do sometimes get her into trouble, but the sufferings that result are very mild. She learns from her mistakes and she learns fast. Readers invariably like Elizabeth a lot. And most female readers also wish that they were like Elizabeth—what girl wouldn’t want to possess that dynamite combination of authenticity and attractiveness? Yet Elizabeth doesn’t irritate anyone by being too good to be true. Readers need to admire the heroine, but they also need to relate to her failings and problems.
2. Draw the reader in. Pride and Prejudice’s narrator reports most of its events as they appear toElizabeth. But Elizabeth’s perceptions aren’t always accurate. She makes a huge mistake in judging her suitors, Darcy and Wickham, stubbornly reading everything they say or do in the light of her democratic prejudices. She thinks the aristocratic Mr. Darcy a conceited snob and the middle-class Wickham a deserving young man. But ultimately, irrefutable evidence proves that Darcy, despite his snooty manner, is a much better person than Wickham. Since we see these men through Elizabeth’s eyes, we are likely to accept her initial view of them and to be shocked when that view proves mistaken. The novel’s narrative strategy shows readers the dangers of prejudice by persuading them to accept Elizabeth’s prejudiced judgments. That’s a very involving way to tell a story.
3. Include some funny characters. Darcy and Elizabeth are complex, believable, and capable of growth. But they are almost the only such characters in Pride and Prejudice. They are surrounded by a number of people who never open their mouths without making fools of themselves. Pompous Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth, certain that she wants to marry him because he is fairly well off and she is not. When she refuses him flatly, he replies “that [he knows] it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept,” and adds that he is “therefore by no means discouraged by what [she has] just said, and shall hope to lead [her] to the alter ere long.” As the novel progresses, readers begin to look forward to Collins’ next appearance, certain that his complacent stupidity will be good for another laugh. In this way, comic characters help keep the reader reading.
4. Don’t be afraid of romance. Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship pioneered a version of the romance plot that has proved perennially popular. A poor girl meets a wealthy man and takes a dislike to him. He thinks he’s too good for her–indeed he’s a bit of a woman-hater. But gradually her “special” qualities win his admiration. He proposes, and she proves that she’s not after his money by rejecting his proposal. After that, he loves her even more, so he tries hard to win her over. And guess what? He succeeds. If you think about this plot at all, you’ll realize that it’s pretty ridiculous. The girl is rewarded with the guy’s money for proving that she doesn’t care about his money. Of course, Austen told this essentially silly story brilliantly, with wonderful characters and sparkling dialogue. But Pride and Prejudice wouldn’t have so many fans today if girls had stopped feeling the kind of romantic longing that this plot satisfies. So by all means write your own version of Elizabeth’s story.
5. Remember, less is more. Okay, it was Robert Browning who said that, not Jane Austen. But she knew it all the same. Instead of offering high drama, Austen creates situations where muted expressions of feeling have a powerful effect. After discovering that he married a beautiful idiot, Elizabeth’s father, Mr. Bennet, took revenge by making his wife the victim of an endless series of jokes. Comedy became an instinctive defense mechanism for this disappointed man. When he learns that Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are engaged, Mr. Bennet thinks his favorite daughter is marrying for money. “My child,” he tells her, “let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.” This is the first time in the entire novel that Mr. Bennet has spoken seriously. That fact, plus the italicized you, tell us what he means: “You are the child that I love—don’t ruin your life by making the same mistake that ruined mine.” One honest speech, breaking through habitual restraint, moves us more than an agonized scream or a flood of hysterical tears possibly could. Understatement demands more of the reader than a sledgehammer approach. Try it, and you’ll find that your readers enjoy being challenged just as Austen’s have for two whole centuries.
Your turn: How has Jane Austen inspired your writing?
About the Author: Jane Nardin is a visiting senior fellow in the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore. In Little Women in India, Nardin draws on literary giants Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott to explore British colonialism, Victorian morals, and the complex world of young adulthood. Little Women in India (New Dawn Publishers, 2012) is available at Amazon.com.