Tuesday, January 17, 2006

PH: What Jane Austen Knew and Virginia Woolf Stole

If you’ve ever taken any writing intensives, you’ve most likely dissected another writer’s story so that you could shake out its secrets. I’ve tried to make this dissection of my favorite authors’ writings a frequent practice. One in particular is the writings of Jane Austen. Austen lived during a period, as we do in our day, where people presented themselves to one another in a manner that made a good impression. That meant that the conversation evoked was seldom what the character was truly thinking. Thus, for Austen to honestly portray her characters through the modern façade of polite language yet revealing character through honest internals she employed a method called free indirect style or indirect discourse.

To invest in the character, the reader must gain access to his or her internal thoughts. This intimate right of entry is more freely accessed through first person POV. But for the third person, past tense POV, the narrative can distance the reader from the character. Free indirect style, says author David Lodge, “renders thought as reported speech, but keeps to the kind of vocabulary that is appropriate to the character, and deletes some of the tags, like ‘she thought,’ ‘she wondered,’ she asked herself,’ etc. that a more formal narrative style would require. This gives the illusion of intimate access to a character’s mind, but without totally surrendering authorial participation in the discourse.”

The practice (known as le style indirect libre) originated with an obscure French writer but writers like Austen and Henry James embedded the tradition firmly in the English novel. Virginia Woolf took free indirect style to new heights with her acclaimed novel Mrs. Dalloway, a novel that immerses the reader in the mind of the character thus making us sympathetic to her life.

Instead of being bound in formal third person writing, the narrative is freed into a fluid stream of consciousness style similar to the character’s spoken cadence in natural dialogue. You may use it to conceal the character’s never spoken thoughts from the peripheral characters, but to reveal unspoken thought to the reader. The character’s biases, their true motivation behind their actions, their deceit or perceived deceit of another, vanity, logical or illogical fears, and the truth about themselves that they are unwilling to admit can all be revealed through indirect discourse.

When Virginia Woolf moved away from formal writing into a more stream-of-consciousness style, it gave us a more sympathetic view into her character’s life. We are able to see Mrs. Dalloway’s flaws and yet still understand her because we are privy to her immediate thoughts.

The practice of free indirect style is not like sliding on a pair of gloves. I find as I practice it, that I am continually rewriting sentences as I try and connect what my eyes are falling upon directly into the conscious mind of the character. It’s a discipline for me that is forcing me into a new discipline, exactly what I felt I needed to breathe new life into my WIP. If you’d like to give it a try, here’s an exercise in transposing, one I borrowed from David Lodge:
Excerpt from Mrs. Dalloway using free indirect style:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut
out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumplemeyer’s men were
coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning—fresh as if issued
to children on the beach.

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always
seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear
now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open

Here’s the opening of the novel transposed into first person:

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it always seemed to me when, with a little
squeak of the hinges, which I can hear now, I burst open the French windows and
plunged at Bourton into the open air.

The original excerpt gives us direct access to her thoughts. The transposed piece sounds more like writing than her thoughts. For me it has the same affect as when I’m watching a film and the narrator breaks in as if they are reading from a diary.

You can try transposing your own WIP. It’s really tricky and takes a lot of patience. Every time I take another run at it, the story’s tone changes and I’m brought closer to my character. It is a lengthy process but interesting to try if you’re wanting to give your story a new voice.

Patricia Hickman is author of The Millwood Hollow series, Fallen Angels, Nazareth’s Song, Whisper Town and the next release, Earthly Vows, Summer 2006.


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