Show Hide image

The Jane Austen Manifesto: How we can save the world by writing like Austen

The internet would be a much nicer place if everyone spoke like a Jane Austen character. Here’s how you go about it.

An 1873 engraving of a Jane Austen portrait. Image: WikiCommons

Wouldn’t the internet be a more desirable place if everyone were forced to express themselves in the manner of an Austen hero or heroine? Imagine if every internet troll showed their distaste for their fellow humans with a graceful turn of phrase rather than insults? Would our lives be calmer and less harried if we could turn bitterness into beauty, or replace invective with intelligence?

To quote Austen:

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.

We have entered an era of twenty-four hour news where “guilt and misery” are supplied directly to our mobile phones. Everyone now has an opinion and feels the need to share it, usually in the most dramatic words they can muster.

Is there anything we can do to escape into a more Austenesque world in our daily lives? After all, what are Austen’s novels if not a timeless and charming form of escapism? The years of Austen’s life (1775 – 1817) were not uneventful. She witnessed, from a safe distance, the French revolution during which the French husband of her cousin Eliza was guillotined. After this, she lived through twelve years of the Napoleonic wars until England and its allies finally triumphed at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Such extraordinary events are worthy themes for any novel, but she ignored major international upheavals and concentrated instead on the recurring themes of everyday life. Austen’s references to the military in her books are fleeting and mostly relate to the glamour and attraction of men in uniform:

The profession, either navy or army, is its own justification. It has everything in its favour: heroism, danger, bustle, fashion.

This rose-tinted view of the world is indeed part of her on going appeal. In some of the darker days of World War II, Winston Churchill found comfort in the words of Pride and Prejudice which were read to him while he was recovering in bed from pneumonia. As he later wrote:

What calm lives they had, those people! No worries about the French Revolution, or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars. Only manners controlling natural passion as far as they could, together with cultured explanations of any mischances.

What can Austen’s approach to calamitous world events teach us today? While we can re-read Austen’s novels to rediscover a quieter, calmer and possibly more attractive world, is there anything more we can do to escape into a more Austenesque world in our daily lives?

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Is it possible to live, as Emma Woodhouse managed without distress and vexation in this modern world? In Austen’s novels, such a peaceful life requires the two essential ingredients with which Emma Woodhouse was blessed, namely wealth and a comfortable, though preferably stately, home. Sadly, few of us are endowed “with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income”.

One could instead disconnect from all forms of technology and live a life of isolated denial. I am sure that there are many people who have attempted this Amish-like solution to information overload, though I fear most will have tried for a few hours, days or even weeks, before relapsing into their former habits of information addiction.

Another solution is to introduce the charm and control of Jane Austen’s language into our daily lives. Could bringing a little of the grace that suffuses her writing bring each of us closer to Emma’s ideal life? After all dressing like a Jane Austen heroine or Mr Darcy might work at the weekend, but not during the working week unless one is lucky enough to be an actor in period dramas. But copying Jane Austen’s turn of phrase is within the grasp of us all.

Imagine a world where emails arrive in the elegant prose of Austen, a world where abrasive radio and television presenters speak with a graceful and witty turn of phrase, a world where tweets are perfectly phrased, or even just grammatical. Sadly this is not going to happen any time soon, but each of us has the power to make a difference. You don’t need to write entire novels to make this kind statement. You can make your contribution to a better, more Austenesque world in every email, letter, tweet, update, blog post that you write. Of course, the lives of Austen’s heroes, heroines and villains didn’t always run smoothly. So it is with life. There are many times when one may need to express annoyance or, heaven forbid, even stronger emotions. As well as painting life in warm gentle tones, Austen was in no doubt about the uglier side of human nature:

There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.

The challenge is to be able to state such opinions with similar finesse.

Austen painted such a wonderful range of characters in her novels, from the charmingly innocent Emma to the dastardly Wickham, that the whole of humanity can take part if they wish. Of course, the idea that by controlling language one can manipulate society at large has a fine literary heritage. George Orwell introduced the concept of “Newspeak” his famous dystopian novel 1984. The theory behind Newspeak is that by controlling our language we control our thoughts. By promoting the language of Austen and the nineteenth-century novel, I am in effect aiming to achieve the direct opposite to Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare. Rather than “Newspeak”, let’s embrace the notion of “Oldspeak”.

Somewhere in the distance I hear the clarion call of the importance of free speech. This is indeed a concept that dates back to Austen’s time. The first amendment of the US constitution that protects free speech became law on December 15th in the year 1791, the eve of Jane Austen’s sixteenth birthday. She was spared the unforeseen consequences of this well-intentioned constitutional provision by the fact she resided in the English countryside rather than America, and her immense good fortune in being born two hundred years before the Internet spawned its first troll. In Mansfield Park, Austen does make one passing reference to events in America:

A strange business this in America, Dr. Grant! What is your opinion?

Curiously Austen leaves this question unanswered, but I am inclined to believe that, in making one of her characters ask such a question, she vaguely disapproved.

To help usher in this new utopian era of polite discourse, I propose that supporters endorse and disseminate the following manifesto that captures the essence and values of “Oldspeak”. In creating this document I have followed the spirit (and some of the words) of the founders of the American colony that Britain lost during Austen’s life:

The Jane Austen Manifesto for the promotion

of elegance, restraint, moderation and forbearance in the written and spoken word:

Precepts and Principles

I hold these truths to be self-evident, that not all words are created equal, that those that use them must bear certain unalienable responsibilities, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. It is the Right of the People to read and write such words as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. All experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms of language to which they are accustomed. But when exposed to a long train of abuses and usurpations, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such language, and to provide new words for their future security and happiness.

With that in mind the following eight principles have been prepared. These are drawn from the writings of Austen in order to make modern intercourse more elegant, moderate and restrained, a change that will have inestimable benefits for society at large.

  1. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that” anything worth saying is worth saying well.
     
  2. “How much more might have been said but for the restraints of propriety” and everything that falls outside the restraints of propriety should be left unsaid.
     
  3. If you wish to write, first read – “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid”.
     
  4. Aim for elegance in all that you write, so that others may say of your words “that sentence is very prettily turned”.
     
  5. Write well, and you shall be rewarded – “Consideration and esteem as surely follow command of language as admiration waits on beauty”.
     
  6. Let every word, enhance rather diminish the happiness of others – “She said little, but every sentence aimed at cheerfulness”.
     
  7. Do not write or say anything you are likely to regret. Avoid the sin of writing “sentences as I was ashamed to put my name to”. Or even worse – write a shameful sentence and hide behind anonymity.
     
  8. Never write in anger – “angry people are not always wise”. Take heed and, while you might on occasion speak in anger, reflect before committing words to the page. The written word lasts longer, often in perpetuity, and cuts deeper.

Followers of this manifesto must, at least once a day, utter or write a phrase that encapsulates one or more of these principles, be that in a letter, work of fiction, email or idle conversation. That phrase must ultimately pass one supreme test – can you imagine Jane Austen using those words? In doing so, you will be helping to make a more elegant and tolerant world. Who could wish for less? And once you have done that, you must convert at least one other person to the cause!

To help you find the perfect Austenesque world, you can use the free online Jane Austen thesaurus. On Twitter, @WritelikeAusten provides a daily word and quotation to help you weave Austen’s words and phrases into your own utterances.

Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition