Jane Austen's novels present both joys and challenges. Her beautifully crafted sentences bring pleasure to readers. She writes so masterfully that it is tempting to focus on her sentences alone, but that would be like gazing only at the brush strokes of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It would be better to commend the whole picture by pointing out that Austen’s novels are works of art that combine lovely sentences, compelling plots and captivating characters.
We are challenged by her eighteenth century British writing style, a virtual foreign language for many of us. Austen’s narratives invite us to linger over the wording for greater understanding and enjoyment.
At the risk of violating my advice in the first paragraph, I’ll linger over this beautiful sentence from Austen's novel, Emma: Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of (Volume II, Chapter IV , Paragraph 1).
That assertion, prompted by Rev. Philip Elton’s engagement to Miss Augusta Hawkins, brings to mind the chapter titled “Of Exercise” in Scott Newstock's book How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education. There the author suggests exercising one’s intellect by writing variations on a sentence. Erasmus’s book, De copia, is the source for Newstock’s suggestion. He points out that we derive the word “copy” from copia, and, thanks to Xerox, we think of a copy as an exact reproduction. But copia in Shakespeare’s time “was more akin to the copiousness that we associate with a horn of plenty, or ‘cornucopia.’”
So Erasmus, with an array of diverse nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and word order wrote over 150 variations on the sentence, Your letter has pleased me greatly.
Here are just a few of Erasmus’s variations:
Your letter mightily pleased me.
To a wonderful degree did your letter please me.
Your epistle exhilarated me intensely.
I was intensely exhilarated by your epistle.
Your brief note refreshed my spirits in no small measure.
From your affectionate letter I received unbelievable
Your pages engendered in me an unfamiliar delight.
That creative exercise prompted me to write the following variations on Austen’s sentence, Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of:
Human beings have such a positive outlook on those in intriguing circumstances such that a young adult who marries or dies is sure to receive compliments.
It’s just like us humans to think positively about young friends who marry or die. In either event, we speak well of them.
Men and women are so intrigued by the marriage or death of a young person that they naturally speak with kindness about such friends.
We are fascinated to such a degree by young people getting married or dying that our default setting is to eulogize them.
We are enamored of marriage and bewildered by death such that our normal reaction is to praise a young person who either gets married or dies.
We are fascinated by young people who get married or die, so when either event happens, we naturally praise them.
We are so mystified by marriage and death that when one of them happens to our young friends we automatically praise them.
Austen’s sentence also reminds me of Newstock’s chapter, “Of Imitation.” He illustrates the pervasiveness of imitation with James Baldwin’s observation that children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. They must, they have no other models. The photograph at the head of the chapter, of a young child walking behind two adults mimicking their mannerisms, makes the point humorously.
Imitation is a time-honored method of developing one’s voice as a writer, for, as Newstock points out, great writers have always imitated their predecessors. For example,
Gwendolyn Brooks imitated Eliot, who imitated Pope, who imitated Milton, who imitated Spencer, who imitated Chaucer, who imitated Dante, who imitated Virgil, who imitated Homer, who consolidated centuries of oral transmission. Your whole vocation should move beyond endless imitation—but you still begin with imitation.
Later in the book Newstock reiterates the observation, handed down from generation to generation, that we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants.
So Newstock commends a method of imitation used by Renaissance educators called double translation. “Take a Latin model; translate it into the vernacular; now translate your version back again into Latin; now compare the original Latin source (L1) with your ‘double-translation’ Latin (L2).”
I have not studied Latin, so I’ll use Austen’s eighteenth century British English as my virtual foreign language and label Austen’s original sentence A1. One of my variations, (It’s just like us humans to think positively about young friends who marry or die. In either event, we speak well of them) will serve as my translation into the vernacular—modern American English. My challenge is to translate that sentence back into Austenesque English, A2.
Here is my first attempt: A sense of approbation fills the hearts of all human beings when they witness the nuptials or behold the demise of any of their august youthful companions.
So I’ll urge us all, experienced writers and beginning alike, to “copy” and to imitate beautiful sentences. Here are four more beautiful observations from Emma to get us started:
Emma was not required, by any subsequent discovery, to retract her ill opinion of Mrs. Elton (Vol. II, Chapter XV , Paragraph 1).
They had a very fine day for Box Hill; and all the other outward circumstances of arrangement, accommodation, and punctuality, were in favour of a pleasant party (Vol. III, Chapter VII , Paragraph 1).
My Emma, does not every thing serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other? (Vol. III, Chapter XV , Paragraph 16).
Time passed on. A few more to-morrows, and the party from London would be arriving (Vol. III, Chapter XVIII , Paragraph 1).
© Stan Bohall
October 11, 2021