Omit Heedless Words: The Elements of Style According to Emma Woodhouse

Pride and Prejudice has been a favorite novel since college. I found it a difficult, rewarding book. I found the prose difficult initially, but I kept reading because I enjoyed the Bennetts so much. I read Pride and Prejudice at least four times before it dawned on me that I should read Austen’s other novels.

I’ve been reading Austen in order (sometimes with months between novels) and am currently reading Emma.

Austen is doing something different with the narrative voice. She seems to move from third to first person or some combination of the two, which seems more of a contemporary mode of storytelling. I’ve never spent a lot of time learning the machinery and history of fiction the way I have with poetry, so I may be way off. I don’t remember this style in the other novels, but I could be wrong about that as well.

In Volume I, Chapter VII, Emma’s friend Harriet receives a letter containing a marriage proposal (I mean–it is a Jane Austen novel). I love that we don’t get to read the letter in the passage, but we do get Emma’s critique, which one could read as a style guide. In fact, it reminded me a little of the ol’ Strunk and White:

She read, and was surprized. The style of the letter was much above her expectation. There were not merely no grammatical errors, but as a composition it would not have disgraced a gentleman; the language, though plain, was strong and unaffected, and the sentiments it conveyed very much to the credit of the writer. It was short, but expressed good sense, warm attachment, liberality, propriety, even delicacy of feeling. She paused over it, while Harriet stood anxiously watching for her opinion, with a “Well, well,” and was at last forced to add, “Is it a good letter? or is it too short?”

“Yes, indeed, a very good letter,” replied Emma rather slowly—“so good a letter, Harriet, that every thing considered, I think one of his sisters must have helped him. I can hardly imagine the young man whom I saw talking with you the other day could express himself so well, if left quite to his own powers, and yet it is not the style of a woman; no, certainly, it is too strong and concise; not diffuse enough for a woman. No doubt he is a sensible man, and I suppose may have a natural talent for—thinks strongly and clearly—and when he takes a pen in hand, his thoughts naturally find proper words. It is so with some men. Yes, I understand the sort of mind. Vigorous, decided, with sentiments to a certain point, not coarse. A better written letter, Harriet (returning it,) than I had expected.”

In short, Ms. Woodhouse approves of:

  1. Correct usage (no grammatical errors)
  2. Compositional coherence (non-disgraceful and gentlemanly form suits a marriage proposal–a bonus that marries purpose to form)
  3. Plain, strong and unaffected language
  4. A sense of the rhetoric and rhetorical devices and appeals (sensible, unaffected, credit to the writer, warm attachment, delicacy)
  5. Purpose (proposal)
  6. Voice (sensible, unaffected, warm, feeling, emotion)
  7. Concision
  8. Clarity (thinks clearly, properly, sensibly)

That’s a cursory start anyway. This might be fun to flesh out in the future.

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