Friday, August 25, 2006

Famous Last Words

At the beginning of the course we looked at first lines and paragraphs, but of equal importance is the way in which an author wraps the whole story up. The last line is the memory that you leave with the reader.

“And they all lived happily ever after” is the classic last line. It’s not just a formula – it’s a reassurance and it sums up the theme of the story. In fairy tales, folk tales and romances the story is about challenging that happiness, and the reassurance for the reader is that all is well and will continue to be so after the end of the book. Jane Austen uses this theme to end her books.

The ending has to have a rhythm that sounds right and I think that Jane Austen’s books do have that natural final cadence.

There are various different ways to end a book and I’ve quoted some of them here just for fun.

THE END ending. Vanity Fair ends with the words – “and this is the end of the story.” This could be seen as very old fashioned but you could probably get away with it in a sort of post-ironic sense these days and people would find it very funny.

The summing up ending : “I lingered round them under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.” (Emily Bronte Wuthering Heights)

The Plot-resolving ending “Cedric managed the whole thing quite beautifully. As soon as Polly had completely recovered her health and her looks he put Lady Montdore and Boy into the big Daimler and rolled away with them to France. The field was thus left to a Morris Cowley which, sure enough, could be seen day after day in the drive at Silkin. Before very long Polly got into it and was taken to Paddington Park, where she remained.” (Nancy Mitford Love in a Cold Climate)

The unresolved ending “He took off his cap and threw it, sent it skimming across the grass the way his father used to skim flat stones across the sea. Then he tugged the gun from his waistband, checked to make sure it was loaded, and moved towards the silent trees.” (Robert Harris Fatherland)

The tentative ending: “Tonight, for the first time ever, I can sort of see how it’s done.” (Nick Hornby High Fidelity)

The frankly bizarre ending “Yukiko’s diarrhoea persisted through the twenty-sixth and was a problem on the train to Tokyo” (Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka sisters)
Okay, so the last one probably wouldn’t do in a romance, but it does have the benefit of being original and different! Food for thought…

Happy writing!


Jane Austen Last Line Quiz

Today is the last day of our mini-course so I am finishing up with a quiz! Thank you all very much for participating. I hope you have enjoyed the course and found some of the ideas thought-provoking. I certainly have and am looking forward to rediscovering my Jane Austen collection.

Which books do the following last lines come from?

“The wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.”

“To begin perfect happiness at the respective ages of twenty-six and eighteen, is to do pretty well; and professing myself moreover convinced that the General’s unjust interference, so far from being really injurious to their felicity, was perhaps rather conducive to it by improving their knowledge of each other and adding strength to their attachment, I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny or reward filial disobedience.”

“Sir James may seem to have drawn a harder lot than mere folly merited. I leave him therefore to all the pity that anybody can give him. For myself, I confess that I can pity only Miss Mainwaring, who coming to town and putting herself to an expense in clothes, which impoverished her for two years, on purpose to secure him, was defrauded of her due by a woman ten years older than herself.”

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Emma - The Friends become Lovers Plot

The love story between Emma and Mr (George) Knightley in Emma is that of friends who fall in love with one another. This is another difficult plot to pull off and I think the key to it is change. Something has to change the status quo between the two friends in order for them to see one another differently. Something happens to change their feelings. Instead of loving each other in a platonic manner they see the possibilities of romance. The disparity in ages between Emma and Mr Knightley (she is 21 to his 37) is something that can cause disquiet in modern readers. In practical terms it sets up a potential lack of balance in the relationship where one of the partners is so much older and is in danger of appearing as a father figure rather than a lover. The added complication in Emma is that Mr Knightley’s younger brother is married to Emma’s older sister so they are practically related. And certainly at the beginning there is no awareness of potential romance on either side.

In Chapter 5, when Mrs Weston and Mr Knightley are talking about Emma he says: “She always declares she will not marry, which of course, means just nothing at all. But I have no idea that she has yet ever seen a man she cared for… I would like to see Emma in love and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good.” So it is not as though one half of the friendship is nursing undeclared feelings for the other. They have a closeness and intimacy that spring from having known one another for years, but it is platonic. In fact for a large part of the book Emma is thinking more about her feelings for Frank Churchill than for Mr Knightley. And it is her flirtation with Frank that makes Mr Knightley think about his feelings for her and realise they are not in the least brotherly.

Change is in fact a big theme in Emma. Mr Woodhouse the invalid hates anything that changes the status quo. Emma herself seems quite happy within her restricted social circle and sees no reason to change anything. Even Mr Knightley seems a confirmed bachelor and rather set in his ways. So how does Jane Austen effect change in the book and in Emma and Mr Knightley’s feelings? It is not in fact until the ball at the Crown, in Chapter 38, that Emma’s feelings for Mr Knightley start to undergo a change. At the ball both of them are forced into different roles. Mr Knightley, seeing Mr Elton’s snub to Harriet when he refuses to dance with her, comes forward to rescue her. In doing so he appears not only as the hero whose gallantry is in stark contrast to Mr Elton’s rudeness, but also as someone who can actually dance very well. He stops being a stick in the mud. The scene between Emma and Mr Knightley at the end of Chapter 38 is very significant because Mr Knightley wants to ask Emma to dance but seems reluctant to make such a profound change in their relationship. This seems to suggest that he is at this point more aware of his feelings for her than she is of her changing feelings for him. It is actually Emma who asks him to dance and when she says: “You have shown that you can dance, and you know we are not really so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper” his response is a heartfelt: “Brother and sister! No, indeed.”

It is interesting that the encounter between the two of them at the Box Hill picnic occurs after this incident. Emma is rude to Miss Bates and Mr Knightley reproves her in strong terms for her behaviour. Had this happened before the incident at the ball, this could be interpreted as Mr Knightley in paternal mode telling Emma off. As it is, it is much more like a lover’s quarrel. Emma cries in the carriage on the way back home. She has realised that Mr Knightley’s good opinion is of huge importance to her. It is this incident that brings her new self-awareness. When Harriet Smith declares that she has hopes of marrying Mr Knightley, Emma finally realises that she could be in danger of losing him and that “Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself!” This isn’t simply Emma’s possessiveness. She has taken for granted her importance in Mr Knightley’s life and has become accustomed to being first in his affections but now that position is threatened it has forced her to recognise her feelings for him. He in turn admits at the end of the book that the arrival of Frank Churchill and Emma’s interest in him made him jealous. “On his side there had been a long standing jealousy… He had been in love with Emma and jealous of Frank Churchill…” Both of them have changed and their characters have developed to get them from a platonic friendship to recognising that they are in love with one another.

I’ve only written once book in which childhood friends become lovers. I enjoyed it a lot and will probably attempt another one soon! But one of the things that I particularly liked about the writing of it was the fact that because the main protagonists already have a relationship, albeit not a romantic one, they can speak with each other on a much more informal basis than a couple would on first meeting. The dialogue can be completely different. In fact it’s often the dialogue, as in Emma, that gives the hero and heroine away to the reader before they realise their own feelings. The reader can see how well suited they are. “We always say what we like to one another,” Emma says to Mr Knightley. The reader knows what is going to happen. When will they realise? Pinpointing the changes in a friends to lovers relationship, their uncertainties about their feelings and the way they move towards love, is very challenging and great fun.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Mansfield Park: Henry Crawford - The Archetypal Rake?

I have to admit here that Mansfield Park is probably my least favourite of Jane Austen’s books. Maybe I took against it because we read it at school after we had enjoyed the accessibility and comedy of Pride and Prejudice and in comparison it is much more serious and grown up. As an adult I can appreciate that there are very interesting themes in Mansfield Park, such as education and the family. But I still find both Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram rather too “good” to be engaging, and Fanny too passive. Perhaps this is a reflection on modern readership. In Jane Austen’s day female behaviour was fairly circumscribed (think, for example, of Jane herself requiring a male relative to escort her if she wanted to travel anywhere) so Fanny’s behaviour is probably fairly true to life. Unfortunately that can grate with a modern readership who like their heroines to be active and spirited – the Elizabeth Bennet type!

Anyway, when I read Mansfield Park I always find myself wanting to write an alternative ending. But there is one character in the book whom I find absolutely fascinating, and that is Henry Crawford. Henry could be seen as an archetypal rake, and like many other Regency authors I have a soft spot for a rake. If you want to create a rake character – a real rake, ruthless, motivated by arrogance and vanity, not a “fake” rake who is actually quite nice - you could do a lot worse than studying Henry’s character.

Jane Austen never refers to Henry in those terms, or course. She gives him a slightly softer edge and the possibility of redemption, describing him as “ruined by early independence and bad domestic example, indulged in… a cold-blooded vanity a little too long.” But she makes no concessions to the fact that Henry set out to flirt with the Bertram sisters and to gain their approval and good opinion, and that he did it not through any virtuous motive but a desire for entertainment and to fulfil his vanity.

The true rake was a man of pleasure and leisure, whose life revolved around racing, gambling, drinking and/or womanising. Henry Crawford is subtle because he does not make his intentions obvious. He uses the drawing room for his campaigns, flattering women over a game of cards, or walking with them in the gardens, using the opportunity of general conversation to target a particular woman. These are all tactical manoeuvres, taking advantage of social groupings. Yet all the time he defuses suspicion by smoothing people over with skilful interpersonal skills. He has the charm and style to be both admired by women and liked by men.

There is no such thing as safe ground when Henry is present. He is a dangerous man and can be lethal, as he shows when he runs off with Maria Rushworth. Jane Austen suggests that Henry did not deliberately intend to ruin Mrs Rushworth by eloping with her but that he was too arrogant to accept that she no longer liked him and deliberately set out to turn her head. Then, when he had her affection, he was too weak to refuse her. Since Regency society condoned male sexual indiscretion and scandal a great deal more than female, it was Maria who was disgraced whilst Henry would no doubt recover to move on to other conquests.

The alternative ending that I always want to give Mansfield Park is, of course, for Henry to reform through the transforming power of the heroine Fanny’s love and become a better person. Tantalisingly this is always an option. Henry does genuinely love Fanny “rationally as well as passionately,” but he could not persuade her to love him in return. I always felt that this was Henry’s turning–point. He lost Fanny and went to the bad, his dark side, when he had had and lost the potential to become a better man. Poor Henry – Jane Austen was rather cruel to him, giving him a glimpse of the man he could have become under the influence of Fanny’s “sweetness of temper, purity of mind and excellence of principles” and then snatching it all away!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Persuasion - Old Flames

I thought we needed a few inspiring pictures, so here is the first!

I love writing and reading old flame stories. Perhaps that is why Persuasion is my favourite of Jane Austen’s books. There is something so seductive about the idea of unfinished business and what might have been, of characters learning to love and trust again. But old flame books are, in my experience, very difficult to write. Firstly you have to deal with the reason why your hero and heroine parted in the first place. If it was all down to a big misunderstanding and one blunt conversation will clear everything up, it’s hard to sustain the conflict convincingly for the whole of the book. Then there is the assumption that once everything is clear between the two of them they will fall in love again straight away. Wrong. They need to find each other again, rediscover all the things they loved the first time and start to trust each other again. Such things take time. And Persuasion is, in my opinion, a master class in how to do this.

In Persuasion there are no big misunderstandings keeping Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth apart. The cause of their estrangement was Anne’s refusal of Wentworth’s proposal of marriage when she was 19. It would be true to say that Anne has, in fact, brought most of her problems on herself. Even though she was in love with Wentworth, she allowed herself to be persuaded by her family and her close friend Lady Russell that the marriage was doomed. It was “indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success and not deserving any” because Frederick had no fortune and Lady Russell disapproved of his brilliance, confidence and headstrong nature. (He sounds like the perfect hero, doesn’t he!) So Anne turned Wentworth down and in the eight years that followed never met another man who could measure up to him.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Anne’s mistake, the reader is firmly on her side. She has paid a huge price for her choice in letting down her own standards by allowing worldly prudence to outweigh love. So now, of course, we are rooting for her to get back together with Wentworth and to live happily ever after.

When Anne and Wentworth meet again there is, naturally, some awkwardness between them. She observes that he admires Louisa Musgrove. He thinks she may be intending to marry her cousin (and her father’s heir) Walter Elliot. But the real emotional barrier between the two of them is the fact that Wentworth feels that Anne should have had the strength to resist the persuasion. He feels she gave him up to easily. In order to be reunited the couple have to get past this barrier.

Yet despite that, the two are very aware of one another. A gleeful Mary comments to Anne: “Captain Wentworth was not very gallant by you, Anne… He said you were so altered he should not have known you again.” But gradually through a series of events that Jane Austen builds up with masterful skill, Wentworth starts to recognise Anne’s true worth and to value her again. There is a very telling moment at Lyme Regis when he notices Walter Elliot looking at her with admiration, and when Louisa Musgrove is injured Wentworth turns automatically to Anne’s calmness and competence in the emergency.

From that point the tables are brilliantly turned on Wentworth as he experiences the re-awakening of all his feelings for Anne whilst having to watch Walter Elliot courting her. And in order to balance the story it is Anne who finally brings Wentworth back to her side with her public discussion about love with Captain Harville and her avowal of constancy. “All the privilege I claim for my own sex… is that of loving longest… when hope is gone.”

Persuasion beautifully illustrates the way in which old flames can rekindle their love for one another. At the beginning of the story Anne still has regrets about losing Wentworth whilst he thinks he has moved on. Through a series of events Jane Austen brings them closer together and shows them rediscovering all the things that they admired in one another in the first place. They don’t suddenly fall into each other’s arms – their relationship develops slowly but tenderly until the final declaration.

Letter-writing is almost a lost art these days but the letter that Wentworth writes to Anne in order to declare his feelings for her is as ardent and moving and romantic now as anything more modern could ever be:

”I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago…”


Monday, August 21, 2006

Beginnings - Part 2

Thank you all for your fabulous comments on the first lines/paragraphs!

We all know the importance of a great beginning to a book and it looks from your comments as though you think that JA is pretty good at this!

In the opening scene of a book you make a pact with the reader that says: “ This is what you can expect from this book. These are the people, the issues and the mood.” You create the readers’ expectations – which you then have to fulfil in the book. You have to capture the reader and convince him or her to spend their time with your characters. Who, reading the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice, wouldn’t be captivated and want to find out what happens next?

I’m sure that you recognised all the extracts but here are the books and my own thoughts on the way JA begins each story.

The first extract I quoted is my personal favourite and comes from Persuasion. It introduces us to Sir Walter Elliot and shows us his character in an understated way (vain, self-important, shallow, ruled by rank and consequence…) Jane Austen doesn’t do anything as clunky as tell us what Sir Walter is like – she allows his actions to speak for themselves. Not only is this a masterful way in which to introduce a character, it also introduces a situation because Sir Walter’s vanity and self-importance is central to the plot. It is as a result of his inability to economise (it simply isn’t appropriate for someone of his rank to be expected to cut back) that his family are obliged to leave Kellynch Hall and a whole series of events is set in motion.

In the second extract, from Sanditon, Jane Austen dispenses with setting the scene and moves straight into the action. It is quite unusual for her to do this at the start of a book. Most of her books begin with some information on character or background before the action starts. This is much more “modern” in flavour in the sense that these days a lot of writing advice suggests you should start a book at a point where something is about to happen. We’re told to cut the description and to get straight into the action. That’s exactly what JA does here, showing that she is equally at home with either mode.

The third extract is from Emma. It describes a young woman who has led what appears to be a charmed life. The effect that this beginning has on me is to make me think “uh-oh, something is going to happen to change all that.” This is a great bit of foreshadowing. At the start of the book everything is fine but in the mind of the reader the questions are immediately raised. What is going to happen? How will it all go wrong?

The fourth extract is one of the most famous quotations in literature, from Pride and Prejudice. It has a humorous feel to it that sets the tone of the book and it introduces one of the major themes in the story – that of matchmaking. And yet although Mrs Bennet does appear very funny in her attempts to marry off her daughters, there is an undertone of desperation in the whole venture. Mrs Bennet knows better than anyone that there are very few alternatives to marriage for the girls. The estate is entailed and there is no obligation on Mr Collins to give a home to the dispossessed daughters. If they don’t marry, what will become of them? And what will become of their mother if she ends up as the widowed mother of five unmarried girls? So the humour at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice covers a deeper poignancy.

In contrast to the comedy of the first line of Pride and Prejudice, there is an ironic humour to the comment about Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey. This is a more self-conscious, mocking humour that sets the tone for a book that makes fun of the conventions of the Gothic novel. But it’

The final extract, from Mansfield Park, is superb and sly social comment. Again, Jane Austen shows us so much about society, it’s gradations and preoccupation with rank simply by giving us one example. It also sets the scene for the unfolding of the story thirty years later. Miss Maria Ward married well – three thousand pounds above the position in society that her dowry might justifiably have bought her – and the fact that her two sisters were unable to match her success leads to the situation in which the next generation of the family find themselves at the beginning of the book. I love this opening for the way that the line about the three thousand pounds sums up so much about society’s preoccupation with money and status.

So - action, scene setting or character description at the start of a book? I think Jane Austen does all three equally well and I also think it throws down a challenge to us. Not every book has to start with something dramatic happening in the style of the Da Vinci Code, for example. Such an approach can be extremely effective but an intriguing character description or incisive social comment can work equally well. One of my favourite starts to a book is Frenchman's Creek by Daphne Du Maurier, which has 22 pages of description before the heroine appear. 22 pages! I don't think any of us would be able to get away with that now without the editors wielding their red ink, but it's a pity because when it's done well the descriptive passage can really build up the tension.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Great Beginnings!

A small exercise to get us all started!

We all know how important it is to write a first line that grabs the reader and draws them in to the story.

All these extracts are taken from the beginning of books written by Jane Austen. Which is your favourite first line or paragraph - and why?

“Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch-hall in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs, changed naturally into pity and contempt, as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century – and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.”

“A gentleman and a lady travelling from Tonbridge towards that part of the Sussex coast that lies between Hastings and Eastbourne, being induced by business to quit the high road, and attempt a very rough lane, were overturned in toiling up its long ascent, half rock, half sand.”

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine.”

“About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of baronet’s lady with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and a large income. All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match and her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of an equitable claim to it.”

In our first class we will take a look at the way in which Jane Austen starts her books and how she hooks the reader.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


Hello and welcome to the online course on Jane Austen and the influence her books have had on my own writing. I'm aware that there are very many readers and authors who have a very personal relationship with Jane Austen's books and very strong ideas about the interpretation of her novels. This course is not intended to be academic or prescriptive. It simply shares some of the things that I have learned from reading Jane Austen and asks course members to post their own views. The course begins officially on 21st August. If you would like to join, please email me at or via my website at

I look forward very much to sharing ideas on the life and work of Jane Austen.