It is a fact universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is a genius in a bonnet. If you disagree or would like to start a fight (Austen-related only, if you’d be so kind), please indicate your intentions in the comments. Otherwise, let me take up my pen and a sheet of hot-pressed paper and commence.
When I was fourteen and studying for English Literature O-level, our teacher handed out a stack of novels. “We’ll be doing Jane Austen this term, girls,” she informed us. I’d heard of her, obviously, but only through reading “What Katy Did Next” when the heroine went to Europe and there was a funny scene in Winchester Cathedral which seemed to imply that Miss Austen wasn’t properly appreciated in her home country.
Anyway. We read it and I didn’t get it. I wrote a couple of essays on it and thought no more of it. Looking back, it was a bit strange as I was reading every minute of the day and ploughing through some books which were much harder and more abstruse than Pride and Prejudice. The next year, aged fifteen and with the O-level done, I picked it up again and started reading. I can still feel the sensation of the penny dropping as I realised that I was engaged in living the story of the Bennet sisters for the first time and loving it. Since then, I’ve read it hundreds of times. Literally. Hundreds.
At this point, you might be asking yourself, “Has Ruth perhaps lost her mind? Does she not know that this is Day 11 of her blog tour? Why is she banging on about Jane Austen?” Bear with.
As you know, my very own novel, the Diary of Isabella M Smugge comes out tomorrow and I’ve been clogging up your feeds about it for the last few weeks. One of my favourite things has been reading other people’s takes on my words. Imagine my joy when lovely Fran Hill (a brilliant writer, check her out if you haven’t already) kindly gave me an endorsement for the book which included the memorable words, “Reminds me of Austen.” Readers have also been leaving reviews on Waterstones and Goodreads, for which I am enormously grateful.
One reviewer kicked off thus: “Imagine Emma Woodhouse as a lifestyle blogger.” Of course! A 21st century Emma would be very like my own self-obsessed heroine, aspirational lifestyle blogger and influencer Isabella M Smugge. Lots of money, comfortable house, staff, and a burning desire to focus on other people and what they were up to rather than concentrating on what was going on closer to home. The reviewer put it like this: “Jane Austen said of her heroine Emma Woodhouse that 'I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like'. There is more than a touch of Emma about Isabella – had Emma lived in the early 21st century, she would no doubt have been a lifestyle blogger and expert on ‘relationship enrichment' – but, just like Emma, Isabella grows in self-awareness and maturity.”
The really scary bit about writing a novel is when you hand it over and it’s no longer yours. I was concerned that no-one would like Isabella, who is snobbish, pretentious and can’t see past the end of her own elegant nose. And yet people seem to love her. Like Austen’s flawed heroines (Elizabeth Bennet with her prejudices, Catherine Morland and her obsession with trashy novels, Anne Elliot with her disastrous over-dependence on the advice of her friend), Isabella has faults, but is capable of redemption.
There’s a reason why certain books are described as “classic novels.” We come back to them again and again because they satisfy a need in us to see the protagonist develop and evolve, often through difficulties and struggles, just like us. I’ve read so many of them over the years, and studied them, at school then at university, that I suppose the narrative structure and flow has soaked into my writer’s brain.
Isabella has it all at the beginning of the novel. Rich, pretty, fit, successful with an apparently perfect home life. But who wants to read about someone like that? For a story to work, we must have an arc, a five-act structure, ups and downs. Without realising it, that’s what I wrote, which is why if anyone ever asked me to give them advice on being a writer, I’d say, “Read. A lot. All the time. Let the housework pile up – doing it only encourages it anyway.”
So, thank you Jane. You’re a corker and I love your novels more than life itself. Thanks for influencing me, even though I didn’t realise you had until I started writing this blog.
It seems appropriate to end with a quote. Writing to her beloved sister Cassandra in late January 1813, she shares the news that her copy of Pride and Prejudice has just arrived. “I have got my own darling Child from London.” Yes. That’s exactly it. Receiving my own box of copies from Bungay, on the other side of the county, it felt a bit like holding a long-awaited baby in my arms.
No-one could ever be as great a fiction writer as Jane Austen, in my opinion. She is peerless and can be read again and again with joy. To have my own darling Child compared, even a little, to hers, is the greatest compliment I could ever receive.
Images from Unsplash
Ruth is a novelist and freelance writer. She is married with three children, one husband, three budgies, six quail, eight chickens and a kitten. Her first novel, “The Diary of Isabella M Smugge”, published by Instant Apostle, comes out on the 19th of this month. She writes for a number of small businesses and charities and blogs at Big Words and Made Up Stories. She has abnormally narrow sinuses and a morbid fear of raw tomatoes, but has decided not to let this get in the way of a meaningful life. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at ruthleighwrites.