‘Understanding Austen’ Author Maggie Lane on the Words of Jane Austen

Understanding Austen by Maggie LaneMaggie Lane is the author of Jane Austen’s Family, Jane Austen’s England and Literary Daughters, among other books. She has also published articles in The Annual Report of the Jane Austen Society and Persuasions and the journal of The Jane Austen Society of North America. She has lectured on Jane Austen in the UK, the US, Canada and Australia. Having served for many years on the committee of The Jane Austen Society UK, she is now Chair of its South West branch; she lives in Exeter.

Maggie Lane is an enormous Jane Austen fan, citing Persuasion as her favourite of Austen’s novels. Here she tells us just what makes Austen such an incredible author and why ‘it all starts with words’.

Once discovered, the novels of Jane Austen tend to be a ‘fix’ for life. Like many people, I’ve certainly enjoyed a lifelong love affair with everything Austen: her life, times, family, letters – and above all, of course, her novels. I don’t know how many times I’ve re-read them, always finding something new in their pages to admire or to laugh at. Austen’s humour, her dry way of looking at the world, and her piercing intelligence about people are what draw me and many like me to her novels time and again.

But however much we delight in her characters, both the comic ones and those she invests with all her own capacity for rational thought and tender feeling, in the end our delight comes back to words on the page. Much of the charm of reading Jane Austen must derive from her beautifully measured sentences and her ironic turn of phrase. Unlike most eighteenth and nineteenth century novelists, she never wastes a word. Never wearies us with long description, drawn-out dialogue, or padding of any kind. Her prose seems as sparkling and fresh on an umpteenth rereading as it does on a first but with the added joy of familiarity – the same kind of joy that we get from much-loved poetry.

In my latest book, Understanding Jane Austen, I wanted to analyse the magic of these words on the page – and specifically her heavy reliance on a clutch of abstract nouns – such as propriety, gentility, exertion and fortitude – words that can hold a plethora of meaning. Austen uses them repeatedly in each one of her novels, nuancing them differently according to context. These are words that may seem bland – but which carry an immense moral weight. They are at once precise and elusive.

Some words have subtly shifted in meaning since Austen set them down, and perhaps need elucidating for the modern reader; others, like ‘air’ and ‘address’ are easy to skim over but are worth thinking more deeply about as we, just like the heroines, encounter new characters. Investigating these key concepts has confirmed my belief that the novels of Jane Austen are inexhaustible in their layers of interest, but that it all starts with words.

– Maggie Lane

Understanding Jane Austen is available to pre-order now