Jane Austen compressed a lot of action into her prose. The incredible part isn’t just the compression, after all, other great writers have done that.
What makes Jane the MASTER is that her compression is hidden among ordinary text. The compressed information gets into your head, and slowly unspools into a much larger story.
That’s beyond great.
By way of illustration, I’m going to grab a semi-random paragraph and unspool it for you before your eyes.
Chapter 21. Fairly innocuous, not much happens, even by P&P standards.
First Paragraph. Why not? Here it is.
The discussion of Mr. Collins’s offer was now nearly at an end, and Elizabeth had only to suffer from the uncomfortable feelings necessarily attending it, and occasionally from some peevish allusions of her mother. As for the gentleman himself, his feelings were chiefly expressed, not by embarrassment or dejection, or by trying to avoid her, but by stiffness of manner and resentful silence. He scarcely ever spoke to her, and the assiduous attentions which he had been so sensible of himself were transferred for the rest of the day to Miss Lucas, whose civility in listening to him was a seasonable relief to them all, and especially to her friend.
Here comes the decompressed story. (begin expansion)
To the extent any discussion was possible in the household, they had nearly exhausted the subject as well as the energy of those most passionate about its subject. All that was left from Elizabeth’s emotional point of view was to bear the uncomfortable feelings that can be assumed to accompany such a spirited offer and its refusal, particularly in the face of such strong opposition to her own wishes. It didn’t help that her mother would continue, on occasion, reintroduce her feelings by alluding to the situation Elizabeth had created.
This, of course, reintroduces the concept of how Elizabeth’s mother was cast by the narrator of the story to be something of a simpleton. However, we have here yet another example of a frustrated mother, but one who is disciplined enough to know that a frontal assault upon Elizabeth’s sensibilities would be ineffectual. Instead she pushed through allusion, and not incessantly at that. This shows that Mom was both intelligent and restrained, despite the narrator’s attempts to have us believe otherwise.
Strangely enough, as if he wasn’t strange already, Mr. Collins does not appear to feel the need to express himself as being embarrassed, rejected in any form, or for that matter, any possible appearance of avoiding the former object of his alleged affections. In a manner that is most familiar to today’s armchair psychologists, Mr. Collins is showing his aggression passively. He is decidedly silent towards Elizabeth, and he is extra “stiff” in expressing his manners. Something like a resentful robot, allowing those angry thoughts to remain suppressed and easily interpreted through childish actions. Everything he does only reinforces Elizabeth’s original impressions of him.
The fact that he hardly speaks to her is greatly appreciated, particularly as he originally had such assiduous attentions in mind. That they have been transferred to her best friend, Charlotte Lucas, is also appreciated. Elizabeth feel particularly close to Charlotte, and feels to a large extent that her friend is “taking one for the team.” The last phrase, however, is an incredible sleight of hand as far as foreshadowing the story is concerned.
For not only is this a relief to Elizabeth, but “especially” to her friend.
There. Of course, I haven’t tried my best to polish this expansion. However, the text above is not unheard of in this day and age. I’ve seen what passes for “modern” writing.
Jane’s excerpt comes to 110 words.
My explanation comes to 363. Easily tripled.
Is this conclusive proof? Of course not.
But I hope it intrigues you enough such that the next time you dig into the rich story that is P&P, you’ll ponder the incredible talent that puts so much information into such a small space.
When you do, perhaps you will react much the same way as when Elizabeth read Darcy’s letter for the upteenth time.
Till this moment I never knew myself.