If If you’re like me, you might feel predisposed to hate Jane Austen. Being an Austen fan is not unlike being a fan of Disneyland or “live, laugh, love” wall decals: It’s just about as basic as you can get. Virginia Woolf, patron saint of the indier-than-thou, said of Austen, “Of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.”
I am in absolutely no position to contest Woolf on anything, but I do think we unfairly dismiss Austen (including you, Virginia Woolf, sorry). Even if you’re inclined to throw away your television every time a new screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice comes out, or burn down a Barnes and Noble when they shelve a new Jane-Austen-plus-zombies mashup, you have to acknowledge one thing: In terms of narrative voice, Austen was way, way ahead of her time.
Austen, who lived from 1775 to 1817, is often cited as the first writer to use free indirect discourse in her narration. Gustave Flaubert is the other writer typically credited with pioneering that style, and he was born four years after Austen’s death. Free indirect discourse, or free indirect speech, is a type of third-person narration in which the narrator can indiscriminately take on the thoughts and feelings of any character in the story. Before Austen, third-person narrators were mostly either limited (inhabiting the thoughts and feelings of only one character, typically the protagonist) or omniscient (floating above the world and describing characters’ thoughts and feelings without actually embodying them).
It’s like going through life with a deliciously bitchy and eloquent best friend whispering in your ear.
It’s hard to explain without using examples, so here’s one from Pride and Prejudice:
Lydia was exceedingly fond of him. He was her dear Wickham on every occasion; no one was to be put in competition with him. He did every thing best in the world; and she was sure he would kill more birds on the first of September, than any body else in the country.
In the third sentence, the narrator briefly embodies Lydia’s feelings toward Mr. Wickham. An omniscient narrator would have described Lydia’s feelings with something like “Lydia thought he did every thing best in the world.” But Austen’s free indirect narrator states Lydia’s thoughts like fact by going from a traditional omniscient description that “Lydia was exceedingly fond of him” right into Lydia’s actual misguided thoughts that “He did every thing best in the world.” This subtle shifting is the crux of the humor and irony in Austen’s work.
Austen plays with free indirect stylings to create her signature narrative voice in numerous ways. Her narration, more than her plots (spoiler: They’re gonna get married) is why I love Austen. It’s like going through life with a deliciously bitchy and eloquent best friend whispering in your ear. And, like it or not, no one was really doing this before Austen was. Let’s unpack a couple of Austen’s narrative techniques so you can notice them in your favorite novels and co-opt them in your own writing.
1. The narrator who magically transforms the world
Austen knew that free indirect discourse has a magical ability to transform the world of the story before your very eyes. As the narrator of Emma shifts into Emma Woodhouse’s perspective, watch as the real world falls away and Emma’s internal world materializes:
Emma’s spirits were mounted quite up to happiness; every thing wore a different air; James and his horses seemed not half so sluggish as before.
The world literally gets lighter and happier because Emma is feeling happy and light. This is an early example of how the narrative world adjusts to reflect the subjective experience of the character, similar to magical realism or modernist expressionism (neither of which were named until after 1900).
Austen loves to pretend like her narrator is reliable.
2. The narrator who pretends to be objective
Typical omniscient narrators are supposed to provide an unbiased description of characters and the world around them. This is what your English teacher probably called a “reliable narrator.” Austen loves to pretend like her narrators are reliable, only to yank the rug out mid-sentence. Check out how Austen does a run-of-the-mill dialogue tag in Persuasion:
‘Bless their good fortune,’ said Mrs. Clay, for Mrs. Clay was present.
It may seem like a neutral recounting of information, but the kick comes from the order in which information is revealed. We didn’t even know Mrs. Clay was part of this scene, and then all of a sudden, there she is. Given Mrs. Clay’s lower social status, the narrator is adopting the other characters’ disregard for her by “forgetting” to mention her presence earlier in the scene, and mentioning it as an afterthought here.
3. The narrator who gets off on being withholding
Playing with sequencing information through disclosure and nondisclosure is how Austen shows her reader that even in “objective” moments, her narrator has an agenda. Sometimes it’s to poke fun at the characters; sometimes it’s to make the reader the butt of the joke. In Emma’s most climactic scene, after 340 pages of building sexual tension, when foxy Mr. Knightley finally proposes, Austen’s narrator sadistically withholds Emma’s response (which a real reliable narrator would have readily disclosed):
What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.
4. The narrator who gives highlight reels
Just as Austen’s narrator refuses to dutifully recount crucial lines of dialogue, they will occasionally skip over boring dialogue and only reveal the most interesting bits. The same narrator of Emma who burned us earlier spares us Emma’s misery while she is perpetually “obliged to overhear” the incessant prattle of her friends and family. Instead, the dialogue between Mr. Woodhouse and Mrs. Elton is abbreviated:
‘Morning decidedly the best time — never tired — every sort good — hautboy infinitely superior — no comparison — the others hardly eatable — hautboys very scarce — Chili preferred — white wood finest flavour of all’
The narrator again is helping us understand Emma’s subjective experience by mimicking how she tunes in and out of conversation. Austen makes a choice to do this instead of writing pages of boring dialogue and following it up with some boring line like “Emma listened on, bored.”
5. The narrator who goes rogue
Usually, free indirect discourse allows narrators to embody the thoughts and feelings of characters in a story. But sometimes, Austen’s narrator has an opinion that we can’t place on any character at all. Consider how Austen’s narrator describes Dick Musgrove’s death in Persuasion:
The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year.
Who thinks that the Musgroves had a stroke of “good fortune” when their “troublesome, hopeless son” died? Certainly not the Musgroves themselves. There’s no indication that any other character harbors ill will towards “Poor Richard” either. Whose thoughts and feelings are these? It’s unlikely that the narrator is another unnamed character in the story since a character-narrator couldn’t know so much about the other characters’ thoughts. We can think of these indirect comments as Austen slipping in her own authorial commentary and opinions about the characters she’s created.
6. The narrator who is suddenly self-aware
Even more jarring than rogue third-person commentary is when Austen decides to really mix things up and suddenly switch to first-person narration. Here she goes in Mansfield Park:
Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can.
Is it just sloppy or sophomoric to write an entire novel with a third-person narrator and then randomly stick in a couple first-person pronouns? Maybe, but it seems Austen is trying to do something more intentional. Here, she is almost being self-deprecating, commenting on the sentimentality of the genre in which she chooses to write. It’s, like, “so meta” in the way we think of modernist and postmodernist writing — but just a casual few centuries earlier.
Jane Austen’s novels changed narrative voice as we know it.
7. The narrator who bestows “universal truths”
You’ll probably recognize this one: Austen loves to use the “Well, everyone who isn’t a total idiot obviously knows this” construction — but only when the thing that everyone obviously knows is conspicuously ironic. The first line of Pride and Prejudice famously tells us:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Sure, the story revolves around the marriage arrangements of a couple of wealthy men. But this “universal truth” is ironic because, in this story, it’s the women and not the men who desperately seek advantageous pairings. Austen plays this up through her depiction of the Bennets (particularly Mrs. Bennet) throughout the novel.
Another example is from Persuasion, passed off as an innocuous little maxim and just perfectly evil in its concision:
A lady, without a family, was the very best preserver of furniture in the world.