Jane Austin and Deep POV

Monday, September 21, 2015

As I take my regular walks, I listen to lectures from the Great Courses. Right now I am doing a series called “The English Novel,” and Friday’s lectures were on Jane Austin.

During the second lecture, Professor Timothy Spurgin talked about how Austin improved on the novelists of her day by finding a way to combine emotional immediacy with narrative control. By having her narrator use a central character’s speech patterns and vocabulary, the narrator remains on the scene without crowding the character out.

Professor Spurgin called the technique “free indirect discourse” or “free indirect speech,” but it sounds a lot like what many writers call “deep POV.”

Austin did not use deep POV all the time. She moved between distances frequently within a scene and sometimes within the same paragraph. They weren’t large leaps, but they were there. And if she did it, that gives me permission to do it as well.

I won’t use the same passage that Professor Spurgin used to demonstrate the technique, because that might be a spoiler for someone who hasn’t read Emma but intends to. So instead I’ll use two passages from around the middle of Northanger Abbey

The protagonist, Catherine Morland, is an avid reader of gothic novels. When she is invited to the Tilney’s country home, her imagination turns it into a mysterious mansion with a dangerous secret. Alone in her room, she spots a chest that seems out-of-place. Notice how this passage starts inside her thoughts but attributes them to her by the use of quotation marks, moves outside while still acknowledging her presence by the use of “Catherine” and “she,” and then ends with a totally unattributed sentence that comes from within.

“This is strange indeed! I did not expect such a sight as this!—An immense heavy chest!—What can it hold?—Why should it be placed here?—Pushed back too, as if meant to be out of sight! I will look into it—cost me what it may. I will look into it—and directly too—by day-light.—If I stay till evening my candle may go out.” She advanced and examined it closely: it was of cedar, curiously inlaid with some darker wood, and raised, about a foot from the ground, on a carved stand of the same. The lock was silver, though tarnished from age; at each end were the imperfect remains of handles also of silver, broken perhaps prematurely by some strange violence; and, on the centre of the lid, was a mysterious cypher, in the same metal. Catherine bent over it intently, but without being able to distinguish any thing with certainty. She could not, in whatever direction she took it, believe the last letter to be a T; and yet that it should be any thing else in that house was a circumstance to raise no common degree of astonishment. If not originally theirs, by what strange events could it have fallen into the Tilney family?

When Catherine finally has a chance to look inside, the chest contains nothing but ordinary bedding. So then she turns her attention to an old-fashioned black cabinet that fights her attempts to open it. When she finally does get it open, drawer after drawer is empty. Except one. Back in a corner, as if shoved out of sight, is a roll of paper. Events intervene and keep her from reading it until the following morning. But when she does . . . well, here’s what happens.

Her greedy eye glanced rapidly over a page. She started at its import. Could it be possible, or did not her senses play her false?—An inventory of linen, in coarse and modern characters, seemed all that was before her! . . . She felt humbled to the dust. Could not the adventure of the chest have taught her wisdom?

Again, we go seamlessly from outside to inside within a single paragraph.

To some people, Jane Austin was just another romance writer. To me, she was an innovator whose novels are timeless, whose techniques are still in use today, and whose writing teaches me how to improve my own.

Thank you, Jane.      


The picture is a watercolor and pencil drawing of Jane Austin by her sister, Cassandra Austin, around 1810. The picture and the quoted passages are in the public domain because of their age.

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