Jane Austen’s process: some hope for us mortals

A writer’s process – their method of writing and revising their work – is to some extent personal. But there are certain elements which have come to be seen as critical to the production of good work, amongst them: revising and redrafting the work (writing is revising – never trust a first draft), reading the work aloud to make sure it reads well, exposing it to fellow writers in workshops, and building a group of ‘first readers’ who can be trusted to give a sane and balanced evaluation of the work. New writers are advised to work these elements into their own process.
But if they’re anything like me they might be inclined to ask themselves, what did my literary heroes know of process? Did Jane Austen resort to a process, or did her works drop, fully-formed, on to scraps of paper she squirreled away whenever she was interrupted in the act of composition? We like to think that’s the way genius operates – an external force which possesses some lucky individual at times and gifts them high art. It’s a concept that’s as old as art itself, this notion of possession, or the gift of the muse. Only us mortals have to resort to process.
So it’s something of a surprise to discover that Jane Austen had a process, and it wasn’t so very different from the process modern authors adopt when fashioning their work. Take Pride & Prejudice for example, arguably her most successful novel (I prefer Emma, but that’s just me). This started life in 1796, as First Impressions. It wasn’t published until January 1813 – fully 16 years after she began it. We don’t know how many drafts she produced of the work during these years – biographical details on her life are sketchy at best – but we are given a glimpse of the way she liked to work by contemporary accounts from family members.
For example, how did a woman, who lived at home in small villages for most of her life, workshop her material? She used the only resources she had: her family. She read the work aloud as she was working on it, and it became a firm family favourite. She had a large family – six brothers and a sister – so she had a fairly large audience for these readings, and they were all interested in literature, and well read. Not the ideal workshop participants exactly, but better than nothing. The Austens also had a large and varied library (her father was a rector, gentleman farmer and private tutor) which gave Jane plenty of exposure to the best contemporary work, and a deep well of older writers to draw on.
Pride & Prejudice is by no means the only book which took her over a decade to hatch. Almost every one of her major works started life as something very different in the late 1790s. Sense & Sensibility was originally written as an epistolary novel called Elinor and Marianne. She revised it completely several times, but we don’t know how much of the original work survived because that first draft has been lost.
Frankly, I was surprised (and a little relieved) to discover that even my hero needed to revise her work, and refine and revise it many times, over many years, before it gelled. I think there’s hope for all us mortals.

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