Jane Austen's most popular novels were written over a twenty-year period between the ages of 21, and 41 when she died. You could probably chop off nine of those years when the family was moving around a lot before settling down in Chawton—from her existing letters it doesn't appear she was actively writing much during those years.
Early on she kept her writing a secret. She wrote in the main room of the house and the door had a squeaky hinge, giving her time to cover her papers with a blotter and pretend to be doing something else.
The Family Who Reads Together...
I understand what family life was like back then, to a degree. My teenage years were spent with no TV in our home. We spent our evenings reading aloud Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. What I can't understand is what it must have been like to be a published author and hiding it from everyone.
“...sometimes the niece [Anna] would skim over new novels at the Alton Library, and reproduce them with wilful exaggeration. On one occasion she threw down a novel on the counter with contempt, saying she knew it must be rubbish from its name. The name was Sense and Sensibility—the secret of which had been strictly kept, even from her.”*
Sense and Sensibility was published anonymously with the attribution "by a Lady." The other books simply said "by the author of Sense and Sensibility," or one of the other books.
Learn to Write by Reading
Many times Jane mentions in letters the books the family was reading together, and we glimpse some helpful insights. One of those insights is to know and develop your characters so they become believable in their own right and are not a reflection of the author. Jane mentions one book they were reading together and comments,
“Never did any book carry more internal evidence of its author. Every sentiment is completely Egerton's. There is very little story, and what there is is told in a strange, unconnected way.”
Writers Are Always Writing
It may appear that writers are engaged in the same mundane daily activities as the rest of us, but don't be fooled. You might be standing there riding public transport, not paying attention, while the writer across from you is mentally taking notes about your awkward stance, bright lipstick and striped leggings, and your boyfriend who is too cool to hold on to anything.
After Jane's writing was no longer a secret, her niece, Marianne Knight, recalls an instance of her writing:
"[Jane] would sit very quietly at work beside the fire in the Godmersham library, then suddenly burst out laughing, jump up, cross the room to a distant table with papers lying upon it, write something down, returning presently and sitting down quietly to her work again.”
Criticism and Encouragement
Some of Jane's best advice we have on writing comes from letters with her niece Anna. Anna was 21 years old at the time—the same age Jane was when she began writing what became Pride and Prejudice.
Awareness of Locations and Travel Distances
“Lyme will not do. Lyme is towards forty miles' distance from Dawlish and would not be talked of there. I have put Starcross instead. If you prefer Exeter that must be always safe.”
“We are reading the last book. They must be two days going from Dawlish to Bath. They are nearly 100 miles apart.”
“...we think you had better not leave England. Let the Portmans go to Ireland; but as you know nothing of the manners there, you had better not go with them. You will be in danger of giving false representations. Stick to Bath and the Foresters. There you will be quite at home.”
Go Easy on the Minute Descriptions
“You describe a sweet place, but your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked. You give too many particulars of right hand and left. ”
Naming of Characters
Have you ever found yourself mulling over the name of a character in a novel you're reading? Sometimes the name is so perfect it launches a story all by itself. Stephen R. Donaldson tells of three names he liked "so much that [he] began consciously trying to pull together a story good enough for them," eventually leading to the best-selling four-volume Gap series.
Jane particularly liked a name in Anna's story.
“The name of Newton Priors is really invaluable; I never met with anything superior to it. It is delightful; one could live upon the name of Newton Priors for a twelvemonth.”
Humor in Developing Characters
In developing the character Emma, Jane created “a heroine 'whom no one would like but herself.” The authors of Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters have this to say on the characters in Emma:
“And the humour is always essential to the delineation of character—it is never an excrescence. It also depends more on what is said than on any tricks of speech; there are no catch-words, and every one speaks practically the same excellent English. Besides this, Emma also gives a very good instance of the author's habit of building up her characters almost entirely without formal description, and leaving analysis to her readers.”
Again, Write What You Know—Recognize Your Limitations
As Emma was nearing publication Jane learned that the Prince Regent was a huge fan of her novels, and would she consider dedicating a future novel to the Prince Regent? This news was delivered to her via the Prince Regent's personal librarian, Rev. Clarke.
Mr. Clarke also thought it would be wonderful if she would write about an English clergyman, since no one had captured one in the right way yet, and she could do it perfectly, he was sure.
“I am quite honoured by your thinking me capable of drawing such a clergyman as you gave the sketch of in your note of November 16th. But I assure you I am not. The comic part of the character I might be equal to, but not the good, the enthusiastic, the literary. Such a man's conversation must at times be on subjects of science and philosophy, of which I know nothing; or at least occasionally abundant in quotations and allusions which a woman who, like me, knows only her own mother tongue, and has read little in that, would be totally without the power of giving. A classical education, or at any rate a very extensive acquaintance with English literature, ancient and modern, appears to me quite indispensable for the person who would do any justice to your clergyman; and I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress.”
After further encouragement she responded:
“No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way, and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.”
Even though she declined Mr. Clarke's request, it must have tickled her sarcastic vein because she outlined a vastly sweeping novel about just such a clergyman.
We All Like Visible Proof of Our Efforts
Finally, in a letter to her niece, Fanny, explaining the purpose of a recent London trip to discuss printing a second edition of Mansfield Park, she expresses what must surely be the feeling of all writers:
“People are more ready to borrow and praise than to buy, which I cannot wonder at; but though I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls 'Pewter' too.”
Jane Austen Poster
Here is a poster of Jane Austen with a thought-provoking quote on writing.
*All quotes are taken from the book Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters by William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh