Sunday, February 17, 2008


Welcome to the dead writers' edition of quoteskimming. Usually I mix things up a bit, but as I found so many quotes from 18th century writers this week, including quite a long one from Miss Austen, I decided to go with a theme.

On writing

First up, the author of Gulliver's Travels and A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745):

"Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style."

Next, Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), one of whose quotes is in today's icon. Among other things, Johnson created the first great Dictionary of the English Language, which can be downloaded for free from the folks at Google Books. Johnson was also a writer who regularly contributed to periodicals at the time, including The Rambler and The Idler, as well as writing a well-known novella referred to as Rasselas (actually, "The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia"). Here's one of the many things he had to say about writing:

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

On research

Keeping with Dr. Johnson for a moment:

"A man will turn over half a library to make one book."

So true, or so it seems to me with the amount of research I've done for the Jane Project thus far (with more to go). Including, as it turns out, research on Dr. Johnson, to whom Jane Austen referred as "my dear Dr. Johnson."

On revision

From Jane herself, who corresponded with her niece, Anna Lefroy, herself writing a novel. Anna never completed her novel, and destroyed it after her aunt's death, but she did retain the letters her Aunt Jane sent her with advice on writing and revision. Anna had sent some of her pages to Jane, who was offering advice. Part of Anna's story didn't meet with Jane's insistence on realism. Thus, although her brother (Anna's father) had actually done something in real life, it didn't stand to reason that Anna could include it in her book, and Jane was a stickler for things such as distances when discussing travel, etc.:

My Corrections have not been more important than before;— here & there, we have thought the sense might be expressed in fewer words— and I have scratched out Sir Tho: from walking with the other Men to the Stables &c the very day after his breaking his arm— for though I find your Papa did walk out immediately after his arm was set, I think it can be so little usual as to appear unnatural in a book —& it does not seem to be material that Sir Tho: shoud go with them. —Lyme will not do. Lyme is towards 40 miles distance from Dawlish & would not be talked of there.—I have put Starcross indeed.—If you prefer Exeter, that must be always safe.—I have also scratched out the Introduction between Lord P. & his Brother, & Mr Griffin. A Country Surgeon (dont tell Mr C. Lyford) would not be introduced to Men of their rank. . . .

Yes—Russel Square is a very proper distance from Berkeley St—We are reading the last book.—They must be
two days going from Dawlish to Bath; They are nearly 100 miles apart.

We finished it last night . . . And we think you had better not leave England. Let the Portmans (characters in Anna's novel) 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 & the Foresters. There you will be quite at home.— Your Aunt C. does not like desultory novels, & is rather fearful your will be too much so, that there will be too frequent a change from one set of people to antoher, & that circumstances will be sometimes introduced of apparent consequence, which will lead to nothing. —It will not be so great an objection to
me, if it does. I allow much more Latitude than She does—& think Nature & Spirit cover many sins of a wandering story—and People in general do not care so much about it —for your comfort. . . .I do not see that the language sinks. Pray go on.

For those of you in the process of revising, I hope you've enjoyed this bit of advice from Jane, but the most important part is those last three words: "Pray go on."

To catch more advice from Jane (and to be excessively diverted), do remember to watch the second installment of Pride & Prejudice on Masterpiece tonight at 9 p.m. on your local PBS stations (not sure if that's 8 CT, so do check listings!)

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