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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.

Credit: The Bureau/Film4 Productions/British Film Council
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Lean on Pete builds on the proud history of horses in film

Cinema’s equine love affair is in no danger of dimming.

The mane attraction in cinemas next week is Andrew Haigh’s film adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel Lean On Pete, the story of a teenage boy and the horse he rescues.

If there’s any justice, audiences will gallop rather than trot to see it. Anyone who hasn’t read the book could be forgiven for expecting an inspirational, uplifting tale. Maybe, like the kid in Carroll Ballard’s beautiful, dialogue-light 1979 film The Black Stallion, the hero of Lean On Pete will train his four-legged companion to be a champion racehorse. But that isn’t how things turn out. Not even close. Haigh’s picture has more in common with Au hasard Balthazar, Bresson’s plaintive 1966 study of the sad life of a donkey, or Ken Loach’s Kes. Boy and horse help alleviate the other’s loneliness and suffering, at least in the short term, but they reflect it too.

That’s also the role of the horse that 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) finds tied up in Fish Tank, and attempts to liberate. As its title suggests, Andrea Arnold’s 2009 drama is not short on nature metaphors; there’s also a dog called Tennents, and a carp that meets a sticky end. To be honest, the horse is probably pushing things a bit. Don’t you see? It’s really Mia and she wants to set it free because she herself yearns to be emancipated! Yeah, yeah, we get it. But such objections count for little next to the sheer physical might of a horse on screen. There’s no getting around it. Did you ever see a horse that didn’t exude awesomeness, magnificence and film-star charisma? They’ve got what it takes.

Trigger was first out the gate. Though when Olivia de Havilland rode him in The Adventures of Robin Hood, he was still going by the name Golden Cloud, which sounds uncomfortably like an obscure sexual practice. Roy Rogers coughed up $2,500 to buy him, then changed the animal’s name when his co-star Smiley Burnette remarked that the beast was “quick on the trigger.” It stuck. Trigger and Rogers first appeared together in 1938 in Under Western Stars. Down the years, other horses sometimes stood in for him, so estimates vary as to how many appearances the horse-formerly-known-as-Golden-Cloud actually made. You’d need a photo finish, though, to tell the difference.

A horse plays a vital part in Valeska Grisebach’s recent Western, a tense and mysterious study of German labourers working in Bulgaria. The title demands at least one horse, I suppose, as well as the various macho stand-offs that occur in the course of the film, but its presence introduces an air of nobility and calm amidst the general lawlessness. “Horses make everything alright,” says a character in Willy Vlautin’s most recent novel, Don’t Skip Out On Me, and you’d have to agree. When the horse in Western is imperilled, you know trouble is a-coming. Look what happened in The Godfather.

Horse sense tells you these creatures have got to be respected. In the sort-of Bond movie Never Say Never Again (essentially a second adaptation of Thunderball, made possible due to complicated copyright reasons pertaining to the original novel), there’s a nasty stunt in which a horse leaps from a great height into the ocean, hitting the water upside down. There was a furore about it at the time of release in 1983 and it tends to be excised on those rare occasions when the film is screened today. Quite right, too. The filmmakers’ cavalier attitude toward animal safety really takes the Seabiscuit.

Equine enthusiasts aren’t short of cinematic opportunities to indulge their passion—everything from National Velvet and International Velvet to War Horse, Phar Lap and The Horse Whisperer. Among the various incarnations of Black Beauty, allow me to flag up the 1994 version, adapted and directed by Caroline Thompson, the pen behind Edward Scissorhands. Sadly it has no trace of the stirring theme music from the 1970s television series (surely a contender for greatest TV theme ever) but there is ample compensation in Alan Cummings’s gentle Scottish lilt, which gives Beauty’s internal monologue the ebbing rhythm of a bedtime story. Human roles are shaved bare but David Thewlis gets the sweetest moment, when Beauty steals his doorstep sandwich, gambols about with it victoriously, then showers him in a confetti of crumbs.

Jockeying for position with all these movie horses, though, are some that don’t exist anywhere except in the imagination. I’m referring, of course, to the invisible ones on which King Arthur rides through medieval England in Monty Python and the Holy Grail while his servant follows nearby, clapping together two halves of a coconut shell. This was the ultimate case of necessity being the mother of comic invention, since the budget wouldn’t stretch to actual horses. It’s just a shame that when Arthur later encounters three fabled knights, their catchphrase turns out to be “Nii!” rather than “neigh.”

Lean On Pete opens 4 May. Western is on release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.