Jane Austen’s “five-times-great-niece” draws inspiration and instruction from her ancestor’s novels and letters in this valuable compendium of advice.
In a letter to her niece Caroline, an aspiring writer, Austen, a longtime member of the Chawton Book Society, stressed, “if she wanted to be a writer, she had to be a reader.” It’s common enough advice for writers, but it’s worth reiterating in an era when reading material is becoming increasingly truncated. Smith (Creative Writing/Univ. of Southampton; Jane Austen’s Guide to Modern Life’s Dilemmas, 2012, etc.), who had the “immense good fortune to be the writer-in-residence at Jane Austen’s House Museum,” knows the value of this directive firsthand. After reading and rereading Austen’s works, she led writing workshops based on what she learned. She structures this guide, which grew out of that effort, around the essential components of good storytelling: plot, character, sense of place, point of view, dialogue, and a number of devices—suspense, irony, and pacing, for example—writers can employ. Much of this material is standard fare for a book on writing, but Smith’s research, literary perspicacity, and the use of excerpts make the book a unique tutorial and delicious read. She uses passages to demonstrate elements of writing, such as the “sparkling” dialogue in the conversation when Lady Catherine demands that Elizabeth promise she will never marry Mr. Darcy. A scene from Emma, when the protagonist tries “to engineer an opportunity for Mr. Elton to declare his love for Harriet Smith,” is a prime example of a subjective point of view. Those struggling with the writing life will find a sympathetic voice reaching out from more than two centuries ago. Among the gems is this basic advice written in inimitable Austen style: “It may be your head is full of joints of mutton (ugh!) and doses of rhubarb, but if you do have time to sit down and work, you can often still get things done.”
A worthy companion for writers and readers that entertains and enlightens.