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kottke.org posts about Jane Austen

The geniuses of the adaptable character

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 09, 2016

I really enjoyed this piece by Catherine Nichols about a literary technique invented by 19th century female novelists that she calls adaptation.

Adaptation is a kaleidoscopic way of understanding human nature, and a novelistic technique for showing that character isn’t fixed. In real life, people change constantly, depending on who’s in the room, or what they’ve each understood of the others’ nature and mood.

Here’s an example from Pride and Prejudice:

The first time Mr. Darcy tries to express his interest in Elizabeth, he asks her to dance, and she refuses. Later, he sees her reading, and he comments to other people in the room that reading is important and his library is huge. Really great library at Darcy’s house. Elizabeth, however, doesn’t take the hint. Any shy person might recognize the arrows in his flirting quiver-standing around near her and saying to his friends that he likes the things that he thinks she likes. It’s as effective for him as it usually is for the rest of us; she doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to, that flirting is taking place.

Then, the next time Mr. Darcy is alone with Elizabeth and his friends, he adapts. He makes an unflattering observation about Mr. Bingley’s personality, offered to Elizabeth as a gift. He’s changing his approach based on a comment she made in the previous scene. He can only change within the range of his own character, which is shy (he’d never say this in another context), clever (no one fully gets the insult except for Elizabeth), and sort of mean. It’s an incredibly efficient scene, and it’s how Darcy, a man with few lines and no third person narration spilling his secrets, can be as well-developed a character as Elizabeth herself.

For my money, P&P is one of best novels of all time. The adaptation technique goes a long way toward explaining why it’s such an effective lens into human nature.

We Work Remotely

Jane Austen’s manuscripts online

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 15, 2010

The Austen Fiction Manuscripts Project is scanning Jane Austen’s original manuscripts and putting them online for scholars to study and for us norms to gawk at.

Jane Austen, emailer

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2009

In London during Jane Austen’s lifetime, mail didn’t move at such a snail’s pace.

Austen wrote more than 3,000 letters, many to her sister Cassandra. They corresponded constantly, starting new letters to each other the minute they finished the last one and sharing the minutia of their lives. From reading Austen’s novels, I’d always assumed that people in her era spent a long time waiting for the mail. But the show mentions that during Austen’s life, mail in London and environs was delivered six times a day. Sometimes, a letter sent in the morning was delivered the same evening. Which makes snail mail sound a lot more like email or twitttering.

Update: Two related links: The Twitter-like postcard culture of Edwardian Britain and from 1912, A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England by Edwin A. Pratt. (thx, liz & martin)