Today, July 18, 2017, is the 200-year anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. Would she have been astonished by the popularity of her novels and the events honoring her passing? Would she utter a pithy comment to a Tennessee blogger writing about her use of adverbs and conjunctions? I like to think she wouldn’t be at all surprised on any score, for she must have known her writing was fresh and original and timeless. Previously I have written about her famous first sentence 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.” The opening phrase — “it is a truth universally acknowledged” or something like it — was common during Jane Austen’s lifetime. I had not realized that until I began reading magazines and medical books published in the 1790s and early 1800s.
In a previous post I included a screen shot of the notice of her death, which was published in The Gentleman’s Magazine in August, 1817. Sigh. So few lines for so revolutionary an author.
With this post, I share a few things I’ve learned about Jane Austen’s English. These tidbits were discovered while writing my first two novels, Rosings Park and Cousin Anne. I have now completed my third novel—which I think of as the opposite of Jane Austen’s Regency—and have put it aside for a few weeks to let it stew before a final round of editing and tweaking. It’s quite likely that I am the only person in the world who is interested in such things as contractions and adverbs, but I thought some JAFF (Jane Austen Fan Fiction) writers might find my discoveries worth noting.
Jane Austen Used Few Contractions
When I was writing Rosings Park, I had an occasion to wonder whether Jane Austen would have used the contraction “I’ve.” As often happens, one thing led to another and I wound up searching all six of her major novels for various contractions. Using Kindle and ePUB versions of Austen’s books I discovered few contractions in any of her novels. The most commonly used contraction is “don’t,” which appears in all six novels, the lowest count being 3 times in Northanger Abbey and the highest being 24 times in Sense and Sensibility. The second most commonly used contraction is “won’t,” which appears in three novels: Pride and Prejudice (one time), Mansfield Park (twice), and Sense and Sensibility (14 times).Other contractions are rare. “He’ll” and “I’ve” are each used one time in Sense and Sensibility but not at all in her other major novels. “I’m” is used twice in Sense and Sensibility and once in Pride and Prejudice. “I’d” is used once in Sense and Sensibility, twice in Mansfield Park, and once in Emma. “You’ll” is found once in Pride and Prejudice and once in Mansfield Park.
I tried to find a pattern by publisher. The London publisher Thomas Egerton released Sense and Sensibility in October 1811, Pride and Prejudice in January 1813, and Mansfield Park in May 1814. In the summer of 1815 Austen found a new publisher—John Murray. Murray published a second edition of Mansfield Park and a first edition of Emma in February 1816. (After Austen’s death, Murray published Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.) The only pattern I discerned was that fewer contractions appear in those novels published by Murray. Does that mean Austen’s style changed over the years? I am not certain of it.
A few contractions used widely today weren’t found in any of Austen’s novels: he’d, she’d, he’s, she’s, you’re. The interesting thing is why there are any contractions at all. Why only one or two instances of “I’m” or “I’d”? One would think if it was okay to use a contraction once, why not use it in every instance? Consider this: the contraction “I’d” can stand in place of “I had” or “I would.” In Mansfield Park the contraction “I’d” is used twice, but the full verb form is used 76 times in the case of “I had” and 38 times in the case of “I would.” I cannot discern a reason for using “I’d” in those two particular places, when “no contraction” appears to be the default setting. In cases where a contraction appears once or twice in a novel, does it mean the editor failed to change it to the full verb form, or did he let it stand because Jane Austen’s manuscript included the contraction? (The latter seems more likely.)
Out of curiosity I looked up the one pronoun contraction in Pride and Prejudice. In both the ePUB and paperback versions, the contraction “I’m” appears in Chapter 2: “Oh!” said Lydia stoutly, “I am not afraid; for though I am the youngest, I’m the tallest.”1 The editor of this edition, Vivien Jones, indicates that the 1996 Penguin edition of Pride and Prejudice (the version I own) is “based on the text of the first edition.” Typographical errors were corrected but no changes were made to modernize or standardize the text. So, it appears that in Pride and Prejudice Austen used “I’m” one time, while using the full verb form “I am” 303 times. In the case of this particular sentence, however, the use of a contraction makes sense, otherwise, there would be three “I am’s” in the sentence.
Jane Austen Loved AdverbsWhile writing my third novel I had a moment where I worried that I was using the adverb “quite” too often. (I quite like the word, but I shouldn’t overdo it.) So I added a tab to my spreadsheet—named, no surprise, “Jane Austen’s English”—and did searches of her use of the adverb “quite.” The result: Austen used “quite” on average about 102 times per novel. (The range in the ePUB version was 87 to 125 times, with Emma on the top end.) “Quite” is not overly abundant in my new novel. Whew.
Austen was also fond of the adverb/adjective “very.” In Sense and Sensibility the word “very” is used 49 times. In Persuasion it appears 461 times. This figure looks like an error, but it isn’t. I scrolled through all 639 matches resulting from my Kindle search for the word “very.” I subtracted all instances of words that included v-e-r-y but were not the word “very”—for example, words such as every, everybody, everything, livery, discovery, and recovery. Conclusion: all of Austen’s novels use “very” dozens of times.The adverb/interjection “really” was also popular with Austen. The word appears dozens of times in all of her novels. Emma, though, takes the cake: “really” appears 177 times. “We really are so shocked!” (cries Miss Bates to Mr. Knightley on learning that he has given her all of his store apples and kept none for himself.) Well said! I had no idea how much Jane Austen really liked this word.
The JAFF Writer’s Challenge
For writers of JAFF, it can be difficult to strike a balance between writing to sound like Jane Austen and writing for the modern ear. With these statistics, however, JAFF writers can sprinkle “very” and “quite” and “really” throughout their manuscripts and have the data to fight off an editor who thinks the modern author is very fanciful and really quite beyond the pale in terms of style. But … consider holding those contractions to a minimum. And now for my favorite image of Jane Austen—my finger puppet, which sits on my desk and makes me smile every day.2 It would provoke a laugh from Jane Austen, I’m sure.
1Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. (London: Murray), 1813, p. 10 of the Penguin Classics edition (published in 1996) and location 17 of the ePUB edition.
2The Jane Austen finger puppet can be bought online at the Unemployed Philosophers Guild. Author note: I own no stock in or have any financial, familial, or other link with the UPG, although I love their puppets.