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Austen's Advice to a Young Writer

In August and September of 1814, Jane Austen wrote several letters to her niece Anna Austen (LeFroy) in response to Anna’s request for commentary on the novel she was writing: Enthusiasm, or Which is the Heroine? Anna was 21, around the age at which Austen wrote Lady Susan.

Anna was very close to Jane and Cassandra. Anna's mother died when she was two years old, and her grieving father, James Austen, sent her to live with his parents and sisters for consolation he could not offer. When he remarried later, she disliked her stepmother, so continued to make frequent visits to Aunts Jane and Cassandra. She is often described as Austen's favorite niece.

When writing these letters in 1814, Austen could consider herself well-launched on her career as a novelist, having published Sense and Sensibility in 1811 and Pride and Prejudice in 1813. The more controversial Mansfield Park was her most recent publication. Austen's advice is couched in the bantering tone she used in writing to and about her beloved niece, but among the joking remarks about names ("the name of Rachel is as much as I can bear" or "Newton Priors really is a nonpareil. Milton would have given his eyes to have thought of it.") and plot points, she offers her niece solid advice. Beyond the temptation to gauge how well Austen followed her own advice, these recommendations give us a glimpse into how she thought about writing, and perhaps the kind of advice she had craved herself as a young author spooling out her spirited juvenilia.

All quotations below are taken from her letters to Anna between August and September of 1814 (Anna's marriage in November of this year seems to have cooled her authorial ardor).

I have a good many criticisms to make, more than you will like.


Keep Characters consistent:

"We are not satisfied with Mrs. Forester settling herself as tenant and near neighbor to such a man as Sir Thomas, without having some other inducement to go there. She ought to have some friend living thereabouts to tempt her. A woman going with two girls just growing up into a neighborhood where she knows nobody but one man of not very good character, is an awkwardness which so prudent a woman as Mrs. F. would not be likely to fall into. Remember she is very prudent. You must not let her act inconsistently."

"Mrs. Forester is not careful enough of Susan's health. Susan ought not to be walking out so soon after heavy rains, taking long walks in the dirt. An anxious mother would not suffer it."

"At first [Susan] seems all over attachment and feeling, and afterwards to have none at all; she is so extremely confused at the ball, and so well satisfied apparently with Mr. Morgan. She seems to have changed her character."

Avoid stereotypical heroes (especially when unrealistic)

"Henry Mellish will be, I am afraid, too much in the common novel style,—a handsome, amiable, unexceptionable young man (such as do not much abound in real life), desperately in love and all in vain."

Children do not make good heroines

"Until the heroine grows up the fun must be imperfect, but I expect a great deal of entertainment from the next three or four books"

"One does not care for girls until they are grown up"

Avoid “familiar and inelegant” language

"I have only taken the liberty of expunging one phrase of his which would not be allowable,—'Bless my heart!'"

Avoid clichés

"I wish you would not let him plunge into a 'vortex of dissipation.' I do not object to the thing, but I cannot bear the expression; it is such thorough novel slang, and so old that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened."

Avoid superfluous details

"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."

Revision requires cutting

"I hope when you have written a great deal more, you will be equal to scratching out some of the past."

But despite her candid criticism, Austen remained a stalwart supporter of her niece's efforts. In discussing recent novels, she declares:

Jane Austen's Writing Desk, British Library

I have made up my mind to like no novels really but Miss Edgeworth's, yours, and my own.


One more word of advice: register today to secure your place for JASP 2023, June 15-18 on UNC Chapel Hill's beautiful campus!


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