Jane Austen and Narrative Voice

Jane Austen and Narrative Voice

dear mr knightley cover“Voice” is a tricky subject for writers. It isn’t a teachable aspect of writing, but it is invaluable and strengthens with practice, perseverance and diligence. Usually a reader finds it within character in novels. You know, unique characters that simply are themselves. Readers may call them friend or enemy, but not fictional – for they have jumped off the page and into the real world.

I recently read Self Editing for Fiction Writers and authors Renni Browne and Dave King gave one of the best examples of a writer’s developing voice that I’d come across.

Take this first line:

It was the middle of a bright tropical afternoon that we made good our escape from the bay.images-1

Okay, not bad, I guess, but hardly compelling. Years later the same novelist opens another story:

Call me Ishmael.

Wow! Melville jumps to the page with authority and power and never drops a note within that voice. Today Moby Dick is still considered to contain some of the best writing and the best “voice” in literature.

I knew Jane Austen had it. Each of her novels reads with succinct perfection. She is consistent, witty and we never doubt her. A few lines from any of her books and you recognize the power within her voice.

It is a truth universally acknowledged…  As bold as Call me Ishmael. And beneath its layers, true too. It’s a truth universally acknowledged to all Mrs. Bennets that a young man must be in want of a wife, because all the Mrs. Bennets have the daughters who need to marry them.

But she’s subtle too; She lays her voice so completely within her characters that you forget it’s Austen speaking. Until you read Northanger Abbey. Here her narrative, and sharp voice, continually breaks through, telling us exactly what to think and making fun of all we take for granted. Here a few lines you can’t help but enjoy.

Her opening line:Jane Austen

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.

The description continues and Austen tells us she isn’t going to let us go. This is going to be a different kind of story and she will be our guide.

Here is a later line I particularly enjoyed:

Catherine, meanwhile, undisturbed by presentiments of such an evil, or of any evil at all, except that of having but a shore set to dance down, enjoyed her usual happiness with Henry Tilney, listening with sparkling eyes to everything he said; and, in finding him irresistible, becoming so herself.

UnknownIt struck me because it’s so true – in finding someone else irresistible, as Austen states over and over in this story, we appeal to their vanity and we become irresistible.

And finally, her fantastic defense of novels:

Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom, so common with novel-writers, of degrading, by their contemptuous censure, the very performances to the number of which they are themselves adding; joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronised by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another- we are an injured body.

Well said, Miss Austen. We readers and writers of the novel heartily agree!

This hasn’t been a terribly informative or serious post – my musings on narrative voice and the delight I’ve lately rediscovered in Northanger Abbey – but I hope it entices you to pick up this treasure again.

And… Are there novels you’ve read recently in which you’ve loved the narrative voice? Found it unique? Ones you would recommend highly in the comments section below?

Please do… I’m always looking for that Next Great Read.

Thanks for stopping by today…Katherine


12 Responses to Jane Austen and Narrative Voice

  1. Great post, Katherine! To me, Austen is unmatched for wit and irony in her voice. In near-contemporaries, I think Thackeray and Captain Marryat show a great deal of entertaining irony and satire, but they fail to match her elegant subtlety.

  2. Thank you Katherine for this delightful post. I wish this new wave of self-publishing authors would take your advise and read that self editing book. I think we would then be spared from some of the writing we have been seeing lately. Thanks for your observations.

  3. Lovely insightful post, Katherine, and another reason why Northanger Abbey is my favourite JA story. I read somewhere (not an Austenesque site) that the opening line of P&P is the most well-known opening line in all of literature. Voice. Yes, this is something I will now endeavour to be more aware of as I read novels.

    • It’s just such a delight when you come across a strong one. I adore Amor Towles Rules of Civility if you’re looking for “voice” right now. 🙂 His next comes out in a few months. And I am having such fun within Northanger Abbey right now. It has never been my favorite, but I have underestimated it. 🙂 … KBR

  4. I just reread Northanger Abbey myself. I lingered a long time over some of the same sections you excerpted, just marveling at Austen’s narrative genius. I usually dislike when a character or event is described as being “like something you’d see in a novel” (or something similar) because it rips me right out of the story and reminds me that it IS a novel. When Austen makes those comments about novels via Henry Tilney, it actually enhances the story. What a glorious author! Thank you for sharing your observations.

  5. This post feels serendipitous, as Joanna’s post for the real along today focuses on Austen’s superb use of the narrative voice in Emma. A happy coincidence.

    I love Northanger Abbey. I adore how close Jane feels to us when her voice breaks through the text and addresses us directly. I also feel close to her when I read her early works because that same, sharp voice you describe was much louder in her youth. Lovely musings, Katherine! Thanks for sharing them.

    • I haven’t checked into the read along this week… Thank you for the reminder. I’m delighted we both discussed this. Thank you so much for joining in the discussion.

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