Jane Austen Meets Emily Dickinson

Great Novel, Great Novelist

Imagine, if you will, such a meeting of two incredible women whose writing have touched the hearts of the world.

Consider this.  Jane’s works have NEVER been out of print since they were published 200 years ago.  Since movies were invented, her stories are repeated at least every ten years.

Emily’s poetry has also NEVER been out of print.  She’s now credited with being the INVENTOR of modern poetry.  Not only do her words touch hearts of so many, but the very way she wrote continues to DEFINE the way we speak.

So what else do they have in common, for me?

If it wasn’t for Jane, I wouldn’t appreciate Emily.

In order to properly write a romantic comedy, I wanted to learn from the best.  So I took the approach familiar to most men.  I analysed her.  I took P&P apart, quantified it, organized it, and put almost every part under a microscope.

I didn’t make much progress.

Suddenly, one day, (truly!) it hit me.

Understanding P&P using logic, using numbers, using traditional masculine components was awesomely wrong.

Jane Austen was writing in a language I barely understood, but was willing to learn.

She wrote in EMOTIONS.

Once I understood that Jane used words to paint scenes in emotional terms, the book opened up in ways I never realized.  I finished my own pale imitation of P&P recently, so trust me, I’ve gotten to know Jane’s style pretty darn well.  And I have nothing but admiration for her.

Something funny happened to me along the way.

I have a new, deep appreciation for emotions in art.  And I have a new, deep appreciation for women who think in terms of emotions instead of masculine concepts.

I understand why men complain about women wanting to talk about emotions, because the men don’t comprehend the language of emotions.  Women do, largely by nature.

Emotions are HARD.  Getting them right is TRICKY.  No one did it better than Jane.  Learning how to read, and possibly even write using emotional language is what I learned.

But here’s the really funny part.

Now that I appreciate those emotions, now that I better understand the language, suddenly it’s like entering a whole new world that existed in parallel to my old one.

I picked up a poem by Emily Dickinson, and suddenly the emotions poured forth, entering my heart in ways they never would have before.  I looked at another, and another, and it was as if light was coming from her lines.

Two years ago, before I truly read P&P, this never would have happened.  Now it does.

So, my new girlfriend is Emily.  But I never would have appreciated her if it wasn’t for Jane.

Eventually they will have to meet.  After all, I love them both, along with my wife.

And we’re all going to get along famously.

I can feel it.

 

Pride and Prejudice: Decompressed

Great Novel, Great Novelist

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.

(end expansion)

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.

Decompress that!

 

Pride and Prejudice: Austen for Nerds

Great Novel, Great Novelist

Are you a romantic?  Know any nerds?

I’m both.  Today my romantic side lectured the nerdy side on why Jane Austen is so great.  Maybe your nerd might be interested.

 

Nerds know about computers and the software and hardware.  What follows is simplified, but generally speaking is how all computers work.

Closest to the user is a program, like chrome.  That program sits on top of the operating system, and that sits on top of the “shell” which sits on another operating system that runs directly on the processor.

Readers = computers.  We accept a file (book), getting information.

Now, lets talk about files.

Files means several things.  There are raw data or text files, there are files that are proprietary to a program, there are files that are themselves programs.  Files can also be “compiled,” and then there are a whole class of files that are compressed.  A compressed file can be any or all of the above files.

In general, a text file has little information for a given size, while a compressed file has the most.

Fellow nerds, here’s where the fun begins.

Ordinary books by ordinary authors are equivalent to text files being read by the browser.  Very low information content for a given size, almost no interaction capability.

Good books by great authors are like getting a compiled program complete with data files.  There’s a lot more going on between the pages than you see at first glance.  The book itself tells you how to run the program and read the data, so that you get an enhanced experience.  You can usually tell that you’re reading such a book because the author will tell you.

Then there’s Jane Austen.  At first glance her book looks like a simple text file.  Then you realize that there’s a program buried inside.  It’s not just any program, because she doesn’t tell you it’s there.  It sits in your brain and begins running, and it starts running on the data supplied by the book.  It’s a text file that speaks directly to the processor.

But it doesn’t end there either.  Because you can also feed it data from your life, your world, the real world.  And the program keeps running, giving you insights that weren’t there before.

Then you go back and read the book again, and again.  The book is a text file.  The book is a compiled program.  And more.

It’s compressed.  It’s compressed in such a way that it LOOKS like an ordinary text file.  But when you read it and it sits in your brain, it unspools, slowly, surely.

I figure that if P&P were written in uncompressed form, it would be somewhere around a half million words.  The book currently clocks in at 120,000.  That’s a 75% compression ratio.

So, the next time your non-nerdy friend tells you they are reading P&P, treat them with respect.  That’s no ordinary text file they are handling.

It’s goodstuff.txt.cpp.zip

 

Pride and Prejudice: Surprise Visit

Great Novel, Great Novelist

Near the beginning of Volume 3, Elizabeth and her relatives had a surprisingly nice time visiting Lambton and Pemberly.  It’s been a few days, and Aunt and Uncle have gone out for a walk.

Elizabeth gets some letters from home.  She reads them.  She gets upset.  And, surprise, Darcy shows up, finding her in distress.

We don’t think too much about this fast-moving scene, because he’s the knight in shining armor, the cavalry, the savior, the life boat, all of those things.  That’s why he’s there, right?

Mmmm, I don’t think so.

This Austen lady, the writer of P&P, she was way too good to make things happen for their own sake.  No, when it comes to the main characters, their motivations run deep.  So deep that even the narrator doesn’t know.

Did I mention I’m writing a book similar to P&P?  In the course of writing my book, I’m analyzing every sentence, every word that Jane Austen left on the page.  Even more extreme, I’m also analyzing the words she DIDN’T put on the page.

Let’s return to that pivotal scene where Elizabeth’s world is crashing down around her, ruin hastened by her wild sister, Lydia, catalyzed by the good-looking scoundrel Wickham.  The Gardiners and she have been there several days.  They have been introduced to Georgiana.  They have proven themselves worthy of the best society.

In Darcy’s eyes, there is nothing left to prove.

So as he walked in the door, expecting to see a happy, relaxed Elizabeth, what do you think was on his mind?

Marriage.

As in that fateful first proposal, he was there to try again.  He wants to walk in and sweep her off her feet.  And we know she’s ready.  She’s dying to die in his arms.  Everything is perfect.

Except it’s not.  Only the deftness of Austen can make this train wreck happen with perfect timing and perfect pitch.  Each of our lovers is ready to jump into each other’s arms, and each is suddenly cast down by wild outcast characters that live their lives regardless of the sensibilities of others.

Now read that scene.  Darcy comes in, love in his breast, and he’s devastated.  Elizabeth is ready to receive him, love in full flower, and suddenly she’s lost her reputation, her family is in disarray, and she may end up with a family member who will forever keep her soulmate at bay.

I don’t know of anything where someone is raised so high, only to be cast so low.  Not only that, but for it to be done without having to be explicit, that’s sheer genius.

Of course, that’s also sheer Austen.

 

Pride and Prejudice: Smarty Darcy

Great Novel, Great Novelist

There’s a scene where an incredible amount of plot is covered in a few pages.  For a writer to get away with something like this is awesome.

For Jane Austen, it’s all in a day’s work.

For a hack writer like me, what she did can be done.  It’s tough work, but possible.

The problem is that Jane also wrote it so that the chapter is so exciting that you don’t notice what she did there.  It flows like poetry.  It’s an easy read.  And the characters are so twisted around each other that the words illuminate both of them, yet specifically to that character.

Where does this magic happen?

Remember that chapter where Darcy barges into the house at Hunsford?  Elizabeth has a headache, begged off tea at Rosings, and he’s worried.  He almost bangs down her door.

Then he proposes.

What?

She’s floored.  He’s totally into himself.

Only moments earlier she learned that he’s responsible for hurting her sister, all because of Bingley.  In addition, Elizabeth hasn’t liked him since she met him.  And he’s been all icky goofy the entire time she’s been visiting Charlotte.

By the way, in the process of proposing, he also insults her, her family, and admits that he doesn’t really want to, but can’t overcome those powerful feelings.  What a romantic.

Spoiler alert for those who don’t know the story (and why don’t you?)… she says no.

In the process of saying no, she gives great reasons.  One of which is the revelation about Darcy breaking up her sister and Bingley.

An average writer would stop and explain how she could know his “secret” he hadn’t revealed to anyone.

A better writer would put the explanation somewhere else, like in the makeup scene at the end of the book.

An incredible writer would be able to show how Darcy figured out how Elizabeth figured out his secret through small signs littered among the pages.

However, if you are of Jane Austen’s caliber (don’t delude yourself) …

You don’t say a thing.  You know your character is smart enough so that he figured it out on his own.  He may even allude to his knowledge in the letter he writes her, allowing that Colonel FitzWilliam can substantiate his claims regarding the care of Georgiana.

But he doesn’t say anything.  He doesn’t ask anything.  Elizabeth doesn’t offer up the information.  And better yet, Jane Austen doesn’t touch it after that.  She doesn’t have to.  Her characters know their stuff.  And Jane Austen knows hers.

How’s that for being a smarty?