Thursday, 10 July 2014

How not to write like Austen: enduring what is hard

Telling people how to write like Jane Austen is like telling people how to sing like Joni Mitchell, or paint like Rembrandt. Genius cannot be taught. However, we can learn a few things about how words and phrases were used in her time, or applied in her writing, so that we can be sure we use them in their historical sense, and avoid accidental modernisms in our lovely Regency recreations.

One word that Jane Austen and her contemporaries use in a sense that has sort of become lost, or at least less common, is the word "hard." In Jane Austen's time, this word was often used in the sense of "difficult to bear," as in "it is very hard to think that she might have been Mr. Collins's wife by this time." "Hard" was not used as much in Jane Austen's time in the strict sense of "difficult" as in "it was really hard to do that." If a task is hard, it does not mean it is difficult; it means it is unpleasant. 

It is not entirely anachronistic to say "it is hard to say" or "hard to decide" and in fact Jane Austen does occasionally use the word in this way, but it will give your writing a more authentic sound if you mostly use "difficult" where appropriate and keep your usage of "hard" for the "unpleasant" meaning. 

"Hard" can also mean "severe" or "unjust" as in "you are very hard upon your sex." Jane Austen doesn't seem to really use it to mean physically hard, like a hard rock, though she does use it as an adjective in the phrase "hard-hearted."   

You can also use the phrase "hard upon" someone, or "he took it very hard." Of course, you can also say someone works hardm or raps hard upon the door, or fell hard. Only use the latter of those in the literal sense though, not the figurative. I don't think anyone "fell" for anyone in the 19th century.

In French, the word "dur" has the same sort of meaning, both physically hard in the Brunelian sense, and in the sense of working hard and of difficult to suffer through. From this French word, we get the related English word "endure" which, as you know, means to live through something that is hard. 

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Read Chapter 1      Watch the Trailers      Buy the Book

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