Austen: Language - Pride and Prejudice #
It is through the development of her characters, her experimental narrative techniques, dramatic interplay, nuances of tone, revelatory dialogue and the compelling design of her novels that we can discover her main concerns.
It is her style of language that impressed many of her audience. The fact that her favorite words were civility, fancying and imprudence, may give us a clue on what she was on about.
Jane Austen’s choice of diction is important in maintaining a consistent understated tone. Austen uses a variety of vocabulary and sentence structure. The structure allows the paragraph to flow. The length of sentences varies and creates a rhythm. Austen’s vocabulary seems to be archaic which demonstrates the time period in which it was written.
They were noticed only by a curtsy; and on their being seated, a pause, awkward as such pauses must always be, succeeded for a few moments. It was first broken by Mrs. Annesley, a genteel, agreeable looking woman, whose endeavor to introduce some kind of discourse, proved to be more well-bred than either of the others; and between her and Mrs. Gardiner, with occasional help from Elizabeth, the conversation was carried on. (Pg. 226)
The vocabulary choice seems archaic because in modern English words like “genteel” and “agreeable” aren’t often used. The vocabulary, archaic or not describes aspects that Austen tries to make us see. The choice of diction becomes of crucial importance because it gives personality to the story which influences the reader’s mind. Also, as seen from the excerpt: the two sentences are of different lengths the first is short the other is quite wordy. This sentence variation gives structure, if short sentences are used excessively then the writing becomes choppy. An excess of wordy sentences becomes distracting. The sentence length allows the reader to flow. Austen’s diction was chosen to create patterns and meaning from the sentence structure and use of vocabulary.
There are many other examples of archaic spellings and word usages:
At the Netherfield Ball, after dancing with him twice,
‘the moment of her release from him was exstacy’,
Vingt-un (Card game – French for 21 or Blackjack)
Morning is the interval between breakfast, 10.00 am and Dinner 4 – 5.00 pm.
Austen is renown for her balanced sentences used to illustrate the contrast between people or the duality of situations:
Bingley ladies on the Bennets –
and though the mother was found to be intolerable, and the younger sisters noted worth speaking to, a wish of being better acquainted with them was expressed towards the two eldest.
Elizabeth on Wickham and Miss King:
“He shall be mercenary, and she shall be foolish”
Some of the most memorable passages in Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Author
“She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” Darcy
“I am all astonishment. How long has she has she been such a favorite? – and pray, when am I to wish you joy?” Caroline Bingham
“No, my dear, you had better go on horseback, because it seems likely to rain; and then you must stay all night.” Mrs Bennett
“It is my cousin, Mr. Collins, who when I am dead, may turn you all out of the house.” Mrs Bennett
“I had not thought Mr. Darcy so bad as this – though I have never liked him.” Jane
“Engaged to Mr. Collins! My dear Charlotte–impossible!” Elizabeth
“Why should they try to influence him? [Mr. Bingley] They can only wish his happiness; and if he is attached to me, no other woman can secure it.” Jane
what think you of books? Darcy
“I must tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” Darcy
“This will not do,” said Elizabeth “you will never be able to make both of them good.” “For my part, I am inclined to believe it all Mr. Darcy.”
“Oh yes! – If one could but go to Brighton!” Lydia
“I am grieved indeed,” cried Darcy; “grieved – shocked.”
“It is possible?” cried Elizabeth “Can it be possible that he will marry her?” (Lydia)
“But gracious me! I quite forgot! I ought not to have said a word about it. I promised them so faithfully. What will Wickham say?” Lydia
“’Tis too much,” she added, “by far too much. I do not deserve it. Oh! Why is not everybody as happy?” Jane
• “Not so hasty if you please.”
• “You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me at once.” Darcy
• “Oh Lizzy! It cannot be. I know how much you dislike him.” Jane
• “But in such cases as these a good memory is unpardonable.” Darcy
• “If any young men come for Kitty or Mary, send them in, for I am quite at leisure.” Mr Bennett
Note also much of archaic word order:
- “*what think you of books? * Darcy Pride, prejudice and poor punctuation
Jane Austen is renowned as a pristine literary stylist; but her semicolons were not her own – instead she scattered dashes through her prose, reveals new research by an Oxford professor.
The truth universally acknowledged, that Jane Austen was one of the most pristine literary stylists of all time, has been exploded: her punctuation was erratic, her use of capital letters eclectic and her paragraph breaks often nonexistent.
The Austen myth was fuelled by her brother Henry in 1818, a year after her death:
“Everything came finished from her pen,” he wrote.
She compared her own technique to a miniaturist,
“the little bit of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush”.
In fact much of the credit for her elegant prose must go to publisher’s reader and editor William Gifford, according to an academic who has compared the manuscripts and the published versions line by line.
Gifford, a much more obscure figure who was said to be shy and awkward, polished up Austen’s manuscripts, smoothing out the style, regularising the punctuation, introducing the famous exquisitely placed semicolons and eliminating her blizzards of dashes.
“Does it make her less of a genius?” pondered Professor Kathryn Sutherland of the English language and literature faculty at Oxford University.
“I don’t think so,” she said, answering her own question. “Indeed I think it makes her more interesting, and a much more modern and innovative writer than had been thought. “Her style is much more intimate and relaxed, more conversational,” said Sutherland.
“Her punctuation is much more sloppy, more like the kind of thing our students do and we tell them not to.
“She uses capital letters and underlining to emphasise the words she thinks important, in a manner that takes us closer to the speaking voice than the printed page.