Jane Austen's words, in numbers | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 28, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:38 AM, August 01, 2017


Jane Austen's words, in numbers

Jane Austen is seeing something of a revival, if that can be said of an eternally popular writer, this year. On the bicentenary of her death, she is set to appear on the new £10 note in England, replacing Charles Darwin. However, ardent fans worldwide have expressed outrage that her image appears to be airbrushed to look 'prettier'. The quote used along with her portrait on the note, “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” is also controversial as it was actually spoken, in the context of the book, by Caroline Bingley who is not an avid reader but is desperately trying to impress the uninterested Mr. Darcy.

The first female writer to be featured on British money, Austen's words and characters have gained immortality in readers' imagination and are relevant even 200 years later. Austen wrote her first and most famous novels Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility in her early twenties. Early manuscripts were rejected, however, and it was not until around six years later, that Northanger Abbey (then titled Susan) was accepted by a publisher for the price of £10. Today, Austen is the face of the £10 note. 

Austen has been translated into approximately 40 languages. In the '90s, a wave of Austen screen adaptations including the famous 1995 BBC miniseries adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” and the Ang Lee-directed film “Sense and Sensibility” in the same year further cemented the status of Austen as a British literary icon. A total of 31 TV and film adaptations have been based on and inspired by Austen's works.

Enduring word choices

Virginia Woolf famously observed about Austen: “Of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.” With just six novels to her name, published over the span of seven years, what is it that makes Jane Austen endure?

The Upshot, a data-driven venture of The New York Times, undertook a statistical analysis of word choices in 127 English novels published between 1710 and 1920. Austen's vocabulary, particularly in the earliest novels, was found to be more abstract, with words such as affection, obliged, suffered and virtue. Such words describe the characters' state of mind and their relationships with one another as opposed to words which focus more on the physical world and connect to the senses–such as close, dark and empty.

Austen's word choices are also more every day–awkward, sorry and suppose–than melodramatic–beheld and thee. Another study comparing Austen's novels to other works of British fiction at the time and contemporary works, found that Austen used intensifying words like very, much, and so more often than other writers. This, according to the study, is what Austen utilised to set a tone of irony–a prominent trait of her writing.

Austen's naturalism meant that she captured daily life in 18th-century England and human nature in the middle and upper classes both accurately and strikingly. Dramatic events are few and far between, limited to an elopement or two. Austen had none of the supernatural of Charlotte Brontë. But she did have the ability to relate to readers with wit and humour, with her word choices for one, her keenly intelligent perceptions on human nature. 

Status and class in Austen

Writing in the Georgian era, Austen detailed the lives of the aspiring middle class and the wealthy. Austen's characters are initially defined by their monetary worth. Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice for example has an annual income of £10,000. However, his reserve and pride soon make him unlikable among the Bennets and their social circle whereas Mr Bingley, worth only £4,500 in comparison, shines with his good looks and ability to please.

The wealthy in Austen's time are those who are independently wealthy or have no profession. Females, of course, rarely had the opportunity to earn. Jane Austen, together with her sister, had only £450 a year to live on following her father's death. The daughter of a vicar, Austen was from a middle class background like the Bennet and Dashwood sisters. Sense and Sensibility, the first novel to be published, made her £150. Posthumously, Austen's family attempted to portray her as an amateur writer with no interest in making money from her talents but purely for artistic fulfillment. The novel was published anonymously, as with most female authors at the time, identifying the author solely as “a lady”.

In Austen's novels, servants were mainly seen and not heard. Excepting Mr. Darcy's housekeeper Mrs. Reynolds, in a part of the book in which she extols her employer's virtues to a surprised Elizabeth Bennet, servants account for only 17 lines of dialogue. In total, servants speak 877 words across Austen's six novels. To put this in perspective, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, another minor character in Pride and Prejudice who is an arrogant example of the upper classes of the time, speaks 2383 words. As part of the same social hierarchy satirised in her books, Austen could not intimately know them and so, her novels did not have fleshed out servant 'characters'.

Similarly, Austen's writing is often criticised because it does not reflect the grim realities of England at the time–the empire's wars, slavery, or even closer evils such as the low average life expectancy or high infant mortality rate. Austen, however, preferred to write about the people and social relationships around her, which she so intimately relates to readers across cultures even two centuries on. Attempts to quantify Austen's words can go some way in explaining the enduring appeal of her words–such as this by Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”

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