Say hello to Jane Austen

Say hello to Jane Austen

jane-quoteJust don’t be offended if she gives you a blank look in return because the Georgians didn’t say hello. It’s not that they were rude, it’s just that the custom of saying hello didn’t really exist yet. Jane might say to you, “Good to day to you, sir or madam,” but she wouldn’t say “hello.” *

That’s the sort of detail a hard-working Jane Austen fan fiction author discovers every day. It’s just part of the job, but sometimes researching these details tends to overwhelm while trying to write. I’ll be trying to do something simple like having my character write a letter and I type—“She reached for a pen”—and suddenly I doubt what I have written. Pen sounds awfully modern and I wonder if I should say quill or quill pen. I’ve also spent the better part of a day trying to find the Georgian equivalent of a modern-day expression familiar to any parent of a teenager—“Duh?!” I reasoned there must have been some expression a Georgian teenager would use when confronted with the stupidity of an adult.

What I usually do in such cases is a quick word search of the collected works of Jane Austen (I have it all in one big Word document), for if she wrote it, I think it safe for me to use it. Sure enough, there are many examples of the word pen, including the annoying Miss Bingley offering to sharpen Darcy’s pen (and like Mary Crawford, do not be suspecting me of a pun). Unfortunately, I could not find anything like “duh.” I experimented with “Tchah!?” but gave it up.

Of course this practice of checking the Canon, as it were, as a stamp of authenticity has its drawbacks. I will not spell ankle “ancle” nor will I use farther when I mean further nor will I end a sentence in a preposition. Austen was not often guilty of this last “sin” and usually when she did commit it, it was in dialog—but not always. Whenever I leave my prepositions at the end of a sentence, however, someone will usually comment: “Austen would never do that.”

Trying to copy Austen’s style is also something I can’t do. Her characters, for instance, always deliver perfect dialog. Consider the first bad proposal from Darcy and look at how well he speaks. You won’t find an um, er or uh in Austen and no dot, dot, dots (except for Miss Bates). Her characters deliver the most complex dialog without a stumble.

Stylistic decisions, however, are usually easily solved, especially as I steer clear of writing as Jane Austen would have during her lifetime. No, it is the niggling details that keep me from being productive. Could you get a massage when taking the waters in Bath? What word did the driver of a carriage call to start his horse? Was the word “scientist” used in the Georgian era? Can I call an electrical switch as such or do I need some convoluted description for it because surely my character would have never seen one before?

I can usually find the answer online, or at least enough of it to point me in the right direction. I actually contribute to Wikipedia for all the times it has helped and I also owe the Online Etymology Dictionary and The Phrase Finder my gratitude. I have on my desk for quick reference: Our Tempestuous Day: A History of Regency England by Carolly Erickson; Jane Austen’s England by Leslie and Roy Adkins; What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Poole; and If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley. I am indebted to Tony Robinson for his The Worst Jobs in History TV series and Amanda Vickery for At Home with the Georgians and David Starkey’s Monarchy and Lucy Worsley’s Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency. I am extremely indebted to my husband, who has either bought me most of these books or already had them in our library. I am reading his copy of Commander: The Life and Exploits of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain by Stephen Taylor about Sir Edward Pellew, made famous for his exploits in HMS Indefatigable (and known to Horatio Hornblower fans).

I keep a 16,800-by-6,332 pixel map of 1804 London and Westminster on my computer so I can see what bridges crossed the Thames at that time and I have downloaded every Rowlandson, Gillray and Cruikshank print there is and have blushed when I’ve made the mistake of Googling “Regency massage.” Unless you are an Austen author, you can have no idea how many times I’ve wanted to tell Google I did not mean the southern state of Georgia, home of Alton Brown, Paula Deen and Jimmy Carter, nor did I mean the country in the Caucuses bordered by Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Nor by typing “Regency” was I interested in any number of hotels, luxury condominiums or a surprising number of beauty salons and wig makers.

And I know that I am not unusual in this. I am certain every JAFF author has a similar reading list and is familiar with the experience of spending half a day trying to find the perfect floorplan of a Georgian townhome, only to realize the plan they’ve found is for a home in Augusta or Tblisi. Probably every JAFF author has delighted in telling a jaded spouse or friend that the term “square meal” came from the square plates sailors ate from in the Royal Navy (or not) or that it is only called a Union Jack when it flies from the bowsprit of a ship (or not). In other words, we’ve all made mistakes or at the very least written something someone has perceived as a mistake.

Sometimes mistakes are intentional, like when we want some historical figure, say Sir Arthur Wellesley, to be in London when he was actually fighting in the Peninsular campaign because it would be better for our plot, and sometimes they’re accidental, like calling him the Iron Duke before he became the 1st Duke of Wellington in 1814.

If this sounds like I’m complaining … well I am a little, but really what a wonderful job this is. I spend the day learning about the kind of history I wish I’d been taught in school. I know a lot about the cultivation of cinchona plants, mangles, the spinning jenny and the many and woundrous uses of pee. I can now bore anyone into a catatonic state who isn’t immune to this stuff—in other words, you. The point of this article is to thank you, readers of Jane Austen fan fiction. I will happyily say “good morrow” or “well met” to you, even if I have eschewed this newfangled fashion of hello—unless you plan to point out that Admiral Lord Nelson would have already been dead by the events of my latest book.

PS If you have any examples of Regency tit-bits you’ve uncovered, please add them here. I expect a hotch-potch of comments that will leave us laughing.

* “Hello,” is largely an invention necessitated by another invention, the telephoneActually you’ll be hard pressed to find any salutations in the novels, other than “good morning.” We have all a very strong sense, I’m sure, of the many stiff bows and curtseys and “May I introduce” from Austen adaptations, but Austen usually dispenses with such mundane business.

† The teenager is an even more recent invention

‡ This reminds me of Michael Sheen’s character in 30 Rock calling a bicycle a foot cycle velocipede—a bagatelle it took me thirty minutes of Googling to confirm.

13 Responses to Say hello to Jane Austen

  1. Thanks for this. Totally fascinating. I rarely enjoyed history when I was at school too many years ago but would have enjoyed it much more if it had been more on these lines. I love Jane Austen especially P&P and have a large number of books based on that novel. I know from comments that some authors spend hours researching as they are writing and am grateful for the dedication they have to get it right. Thanks to all.

  2. Oh, now I want a gigantic cork-backed print of that map to hang on a big wall by my desk! I’m a little jealous that you have a document of all of Jane Austen’s works to search – I have always used the Austen Thesaurus website at writelikeausten.com to see if Jane used a particular word. Although you get a count of how many times she used the word, there is no context, or even an indication of which works they were in. I’ve often tweaked something I wrote by exchanging my initial word with a synonym that was more “Jane-ish” that I found on the Austen Thesaurus.

    And you are right about getting caught up in an insane amount of research. I too have spent hours tracking down what was typical as well as what was possible. For example, Althorp, the ancestral country estate of the Spencer family, at one point had nine libraries – with a collection that by 1830 had grown to over 100,000 books. Some of those library rooms were general purpose, some were intended for one gender or the other. One library was typical, but a grand home could certainly have more than one.

    Fantastic post Jennifer!

    • Diana,

      Thanks for your note, and all I did to get Austen’s works was to go to gutenberg.org and download all the text files, then put it all into one massive text document. I use BBEdit on the Mac to handle it because Word bogs down on something that big. Then I can search everything all at once. I also keep html formatted files so I can open them up on my browser.

      And you know, that’s a good idea about printing out that map. I could probably print out that file on a large format printer and hang it over my desk.

      Jennifer

  3. I will be bringing out a new “P&P” story soon. The editors (not my customary ones) were freaking out about the use of “ly” words. It seems someone taught these 20-somethings that the overuse of “ly” words was a no-no in fiction. They admitted not to know much of Pride and Prejudice (had never read it). I insisted they read several excerpts and note how often Austen uses “ly” words. “In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot — I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. I am sorry to have occasioned pain to any one. It has been most unconsciously done, however, and I hope will be of short duration. The feelings which, you tell me, have long prevented the acknowledgment of your regard, can have little difficulty in overcoming it after this explanation.”
    As to research, my most recent search was on “guano.” Guano is bird droppings, and it was imported into England as a fertilizer in the early 19th Century. In one of my newest stories, Darcy invested in the “product.”

    • Whenever I see documentaries like Connections or Worst Jobs in History or Tales from the Green Valley, it always seems to lead to poo or pee or guano or woad (very stinky, I understand) or seaweed. Amazing how labor intensive it all was. I like the idea of Darcy investing in guano, by the way.

  4. It is so nice to hear that you do all of the research you can on the “details”. I can live with a “modern” phrase now and then, but what bothers me is when the wrong word is used — e.g. revelry vs revery, or then vs than, etc. And, thank you for the information and links.

    btw, I think the Regency version of a teenage “duh!” is the *snort* used by Lydia — at least it feels like is would be used by Lydia.

    And, I rarely heard my grandfather say “good-bye” on the phone. He usually said, “thank you for calling”. I even find myself saying it now and then depending on who called. Must be a generational thing.

  5. I love history and the little bitty teensy details that you guys dig up just fascinate me. I have been reading and come across a term that I didn’t know and it would send me smooth down the rabbit hole at which point I would spend 3 hours researching this which led to that and also this other thing that is related to something else…LOL I am not a writer (essays yes, stories no) so I don’t have the same need to ferret out precise details, but as a reader, those little details educate me to no end and I love it. I think that is one of the reasons I love the annotated editions of dear Jane’s books.

    P.S. Now you’ve given me links and books I need to look up just to continue my education! =D Consequently, I don’t know for sure if I WANT to know all the uses you’ve found for pee….LOL

  6. Hi Jennifer, thanks for all of the links, some of which I have used. I am with you about research over the smallest detail. Not having lived in “the day” and never having been to the UK there is so much I don’t know. I recently spent a week researching the weather in Kent for all of two sentences. Ended up sending PMs to a couple of folks who live in the UK and hope I got it right. Who knows, I may end up throwing out those sentences to be on the safe side. Thanks again, Jen Red

    • Thank you, Jen. And I agree it is a challenge being over here when you’re writing about over there. I’ve also spent a lot of time at the Met Office website. I desperately wanted the Thames to have frozen over for a story idea and couldn’t quite get it to work. Another thing I’ve done is ask people how to pronounce Southwark and Marylebone and I get so many different version from people in the UK. Then when you figure in what a 1800s Hampshire accent would have done with London place names, you eventually have to give it up.

  7. What a wonderful amount of information. I am a history buff and find the research fun. I have been directed to some of the books you have and read them for fun. I sometimes get frustrated when reading and there is all modern language in a book thatvrakesbplace in years past. As for historic figures being in the wrong place at the right time doesn’t bother me as long as it makes sense for the story and the person’s actions are not out of character. Thank you for sharing. It is fun and has given me an idea for some other resources.

    • Debbie, I can’t remember what two-word phrase it was, but at my last JASNA meeting where we were discussing The Watsons, several people were remarking how something Jane had written sounded awfully modern. It was something like “that’s rich” or “sounds good.” Sometimes I have to stop myself from writing “a plan that was agreeable to all” when I could have got by with “sounds good.”

Your thoughts are precious!