Maybe you’re an aspiring romance novelist, or maybe you like writing Jane Austen fan fiction. Or perhaps you want to add a little Regency-era refinement to your writing. Whatever your reason for wanting to write like Jane Austen, you’re going to love the polish her witty style will bring to your next story. Austen is one of the most widely admired writers of all time, and her enduring work is just as popular today as it was when she penned her ironically observant and highly humorous novels more than two centuries ago.
Who is Jane Austen?
Jane Austen was born on Dec. 16, 1775, in the county of Hampshire in England. She was one of eight children and grew up in the genteel but impoverished middle-class social circle she would later make famous in her fiction. As a child, her education consisted of a combination of boarding school and home-based learning under the tutelage of her older brothers and her father, an Oxford-educated rector.
She began writing stories, poems, and plays, many of which were humorous parodies, before she was a teenager. As an avid participant in amateur stage productions, her writing was heavily influenced by the tropes of the theater. She continued to write as an adult, between attending dances and neighborhood social engagements. After her father retired in 1801, he moved the family to the fashionable resort town of Bath, England, then died soon after in 1805. Austen spent nearly five years shuttling between the homes of various family members, left destitute due to her lack of an inheritance or income.
With the assistance of her older brother, she published four novels anonymously between 1811 and 1816, with two additional novels coming out the year after her death. Following a year and a half of gradually declining health, she died on July 18, 1817, in Hampshire, England, at the age of 41.
How to write like Jane Austen
At first glance, it seems easy to write like Jane Austen. But it’s actually a lot trickier than it looks. But not to worry; these six tips will give your writing the perfect Austenian (Austenized? Austenerific? Austentastic?) finesse.
1. Don’t start your story with the phrase, “It is a truth universally acknowledged”
You’ll be tempted, but you must resist! Every Jane Austen homage starts this way, in imitation of the opening of Pride and Prejudice (“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”). There’s usually a clumsy “surprise” play on the original ending (“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of a tremendous shoe collection must be in want of just one more pair of strappy sandals.”)
Don’t to it. It’s been done so many times, it’s no longer clever.
And while you’re at it, don’t call your story Pride and Prejudice and Another Thing, or Sense and Sensibility and Some Other Stuff. This parody of Austen’s titling convention has been seriously overused.
2. Give your characters sturdy English names
Take a look at a list of the members of the 18th-century British peerage if you’re stumped. You’ll find monikers like Henry Clinton, Catherine Jones, Charles Townshend, Anne Ingram, Robert Worsley, and Elizabeth Capell — any of which would be right at home in an Austen novel.
3. Set your story in Regency-era England
In 1811, King George III, a.k.a. “the mad king who lost America,” was forced to relinquish the throne to his son, George, known as the Prince Regent. Thus began Great Britain’s Regency era, which lasted through 1820.
It was a colorful period dominated by famous dandies like Beau Brummell, heavy gamblers and ladies of fashion like the Duchess of Devonshire Georgiana Cavendish, and scandalous writers like Lord Byron.
Though many of Austen’s novels were initially written in the late 18th century, her stories are generally assumed by readers to take place during the Regency Era, which is when they were first published. In fact, the public debut of her first published work, Sense and Sensibility, coincided exactly with the advent of the Regency. She also dedicated her 1815 novel Emma to the Prince Regent.
This free-wheeling time fizzled under the reign of William IV, then came to an abrupt halt when Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837. Let your characters enjoy this lively, romantic age while they can.
4. Talk is not cheap
Austen is all about dialogue. You won’t find lavish descriptions of the weight and texture of the airy open-work lace that bedecks the sleeve of the hero, or effusive vignettes that capture the majestic verdure of the tall oaks that surround the sprawling estate visited by the protagonist. But you will hear everything the characters say to each other.
There’s a notable caveat to keep in mind, however. “Austen never wrote conservations that happened solely among men,” notes Jennifer Petkus. “But we can take that further and say that even though Austen wrote in the third person, she rarely wrote of things outside the immediate experience of her protagonist, once that protagonist has been introduced.”
Include lots of dialogue, but make sure you only record what’s said within your heroine’s hearing.
5. Write the longest sentences you can
Take a look at this randomly selected sentence from Emma:
Miss Churchill, however, being of age, and with the full command of her fortune—though her fortune bore no proportion to the family-estate—was not to be dissuaded from the marriage, and it took place, to the infinite mortification of Mr. and Mrs. Churchill, who threw her off with due decorum.
Written with 21st-century conventions in mind, it would be four complete sentences:
Miss Churchill was not to be dissuaded from the marriage, however. She was of age and in full command of her fortune, though it bore no proportion to the family-estate. The marriage took place, to the infinite mortification of Mr. and Mrs. Churchill. Mrs. Churchill threw Miss Churchill off with due decorum.
Austen was a huge fan of compound sentences. A compound sentence is made up of two or more simple sentences, each of which has just one subject and one predicate, which are jammed together to create a complex sentence that continues indefinitely; indeed, just as this sentence seems to have no end, so, too, can a compound sentence in a Jane Austen novel, the untangling of which is often no easy task for a modern reader, whose patience for such an old-fashioned convention is limited.
Take a handful of sentences, glue them together with plenty of commas, and hope your readers can make sense of them.
6. Set your stakes extremely low and incredibly high at the same time
Though often classified as romance novels today, Austen’s oeuvre is actually made up of comedies of manners, which satirize the social mores, requisite behavior, and cultural affectations of her contemporary society. However, as Mikaella Clements observed, “Deep in the heart of Austen’s optimistic social critiques there lies a chilling centre of fear.”
That center of fear is concerned with the inextricable entanglement of marriage with money. An Austen protagonist is typically a plucky young woman of the respectably impoverished middle-class who must answer a simple question: Should I marry for money or for love?
The anxiety triggered by this question is a result of the extremely limited options available to women of the Regency era.
“At the time, marriage was a complex economic decision, because women’s wealth was tied up in the marriage market. Women’s fortunes passed from their fathers to their husbands, who controlled their wealth until their death,” writes Erin Blakemore. “As a result, it was common for engagements to be contracted not for love, but for economic reasons.”
In order to survive, a “good” marriage was a must for the majority of women in Austen’s time. Even so, her take on the issue is by and large lighthearted. And though death, and the inheritance it may bring, is often a subtext of her work, she addresses the morbid topic playfully.
“Bad things happen in Austen’s novels, and threats are very real … but they are not, on the surface, dark. Austen’s deft humor, her incisive dialogue allows us to laugh at everyone,” Clements notes.
A happy ending is a must.
But no kissing. Sorry.
Are you gung-ho to write your own Jane Austen inspired story? Take a look at this blog post, “Jane Austen reviews Japanese candy,” then give it a try!
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.