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Difficult to catch in the act of genius

A day or two ago, I came across this quote from Virginia Woolf talking about Jane Austen: “of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.”

And that’s true, isn’t it?

Her plots were reasonably standard for her time. No innovations there. Her themes were comfortable and safe. There aren’t many quotable quotes. Her social situations are strictly limited. Her descriptive writing is almost completely absent.

She is, in many ways, one of the least adventurous writers you can find. Even her comedy is of the wry smile sort. No one has ever guffawed with laughter or found themselves snorting cornflakes out through their nose.

And yet –

She’s Jane Austen. She sits in the very top rank of British writers. Her reputation has just grown steadily since her death.

The heart of that invisible greatness?

Her precision.

Each character talks precisely like themselves, reacts precisely like themselves. Here’s a tiny moment from Mansfield Park. Fanny (the poor niece transplanted to the big house and prosperous family) has a ball thrown in her honour. Here is Fanny’s reflection:

She could hardly believe it. To be placed above so many elegant young women! The distinction was too great. It was treating her like her cousins! … The ball began. It was rather honour than happiness to Fanny, for the first dance at least: her partner was in excellent spirits, and tried to impart them to her; but she was a great deal too much frightened to have any enjoyment till she could suppose herself no longer looked at.

Here is her uncle’s attitude to the same moment:

Thomas himself was watching her progress down the dance with much complacency; he was proud of his niece; and without attributing all her personal beauty, as Mrs. Norris seemed to do, to her transplantation to Mansfield, he was pleased with himself for having supplied everything else: education and manners she owed to him.

And here is her aunt’s view:

“Yes, she does look very well,” was Lady Bertram's placid reply. “Chapman helped her to dress. I sent Chapman to her.” Not but that she was really pleased to have Fanny admired; but she was so much more struck with her own kindness in sending Chapman to her, that she could not get it out of her head.

There’s nothing so remarkable in the prose there. Yes, there’s a big of comedy in the last snippet, but nothing beyond what you could write yourself. And the characters aren’t so exotic either. You’ll find no huge act of the imagination at play here.

Yet there’s not a word awry. Jane Austen isn’t about huge. She’s all about tiny.

Take that last bit about Lady Bertram. Her reply is ‘placid’ – of course it is, because Lady Bertram has never been known to stir herself for anything. Her being ‘struck with her own kindness’ perfectly exposes the limits of her thoughts and imagination. And even that bit of dialogue is precisely right:

  1. “She does look very well” – a positive comment about her niece.
  2. “Chapman helped her to dress” – a thought about how come she looks so nice
  3. “I sent Chapman to her.” – ah! In three short sentences, Lady Bertram has reverted to her own favourite subject: herself.

The childish simplicity of that 1-2-3 movement, and the sentences that carry the thoughts, give you an almost holographic insight into the good Lady B. It’s as though you could unfold that tiny bit of text to give you a complete insight into Lady Bertram’s every thought and feeling.

The moral for us, as workaday non-genius writers?

That genius doesn’t always look like genius. That paying careful, repetitive attention to the tiny details may not build some big fat obvious mountain of greatness – but it builds greatness all the same.

And of course, you don’t have to jump back to Georgian England to find writers like that. Anne Tyler has the same gift. So does Elizabeth Strout. So does Elena Ferrante.

And yes: I notice that I’ve just name-checked four writers in this email, all of them female. I do think, as it happens, that this virtue of precision is most often exhibited by women, but there are male writers (eg: Colm Toibin) who show you that the possession of a Y-chromosome doesn’t have to be crippling.

That’s it from me, so it’s back to that locked-down grindstone, folks. Test every sentence, every word, for its ring-true-ishness, because those tiny disciplines can unlock vast pools of emotional power. And once you get into the precision game, you’ll find it absorbing, compelling and deeply rewarding – just how writing ought to be.

Keep writing. Keep editing. Keep smiling. And stay safe.

Hate Jane Austen? Adore her? Writing galaxy-destroying military sci-fi in the spirit of Jane Austen? Let me know what you're thinking and let's all have a Heated Debate.

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Comments (3)
  • Dear Harry, thanks you for this. Every time I read your commentaries I learn something.

    I agree completely with your main point. I have been wrestling with this ever since I started writing (well, ever since someone pointed out my failings to me). But there is this tendency to get over-excited with plot and try to bend one's characters to it. I suppose we do that with each other, in life and in relationship and this can lead to discord.

    One thing I would like to ask with regard the three paragraphs. In quick succession we are presented with 3 POV's. I have been told not to change the point of view within a scene. Is this simply a modern idea or does it very much depend on the style one writes in? I do understand that one has to somehow announce the change, make it clear, which Austin does very well. But would you agree that there has been an over-proscription in terms of POV? Are we all dumbing down, or are we wisening up?


    Ps. Haven't destroyed any galaxies recently . . . but this one really seems to suck sometimes.

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    • Modern fiction does tend to get close to a particular character and stay there and, with less experienced writers, shifting POVs too quickly is normally a mistake, not a strategy. but yes: you're still allowed to shift POVs in a scene/chapter if you do it deftly

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    • Absolutely, absolutely love Jane Austen. Her characters are so accurate and true. But, oddly, they don't feel dated even in the 21st century. Perhaps that's me, but I think their character types are still relevant today.  

      Back to my fantasy grindstone and surviving lockdown. Not destroying any galaxies far far away... yet... maybe. Perhaps another day. When the evil emperor mood strikes me.

      Stay safe from the virus.

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