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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: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”