(In)Formality of Language

(In)Formality of Language

I think we are all quite aware that Austen’s writing is of a rather formal sort. Based on her writing style and on how people of the upper classes spoke, that means that sometimes, the conversation seems quite stilted to our modern eyes. In Pride and Prejudice, the following conversation between Jane and Elizabeth particularly struck me as being a bit rigid:

“Not yet,” replied Jane. “But now that my dear uncle is come, I hope everything will be well.”

“Is my father in town?”

“Yes, he went on Tuesday, as I wrote you word.”

“And have you heard from him often?”

“We have heard only twice. He wrote me a few lines on Wednesday to say that he had arrived in safety, and to give me his directions, which I particularly begged him to do. He merely added that he should not write again till he had something of importance to mention.”

“And my mother—how is she? How are you all?”

Note the distant “my dear uncle,” “my father,” and “my mother” – all of this despite the fact that these people bear the same relation to Elizabeth and Jane. Furthermore, they do not use Papa/Mamma here with each other. In keeping with formality, these terms are only used when speaking directly to the person at issue (Mr. Bennet or Mrs. Bennet).

The exception, interestingly enough, is Lydia, as you can see with the below pieces of dialogue:

  1. “They are going to be encamped near Brighton; and I do so want papa to take us all there for the summer! It would be such a delicious scheme; and I dare say would hardly cost anything at all. Mamma would like to go too of all things! Only think what a miserable summer else we shall have!”
  2. “Oh, yes!—if one could but go to Brighton! But papa is so disagreeable.”
  3. “Oh, lord! yes;—there is nothing in that. I shall like it of all things. You and papa, and my sisters, must come down and see us. We shall be at Newcastle all the winter, and I dare say there will be some balls, and I will take care to get good partners for them all.”
  4. “Lizzy, I never gave you an account of my wedding, I believe. You were not by, when I told mamma and the others all about it. Are not you curious to hear how it was managed?”

We see Lydia’s immaturity quite frequently in the way she speaks, such as with her use of the exclamations “la!” (also used by Kitty and Maria) and “lord” or “Good Lord” (expressions that Mrs. Bennet also uses), but the above-noted references to her parents seems to be a more subtle way of crafting her character’s speech patterns. This immaturity is also seen in how Austen frequently uses exclamation marks with Lydia’s speech to show how excitable she is. Of note is the fact that Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Bingley, and Miss Bingley also frequently have exclamation marks in their speech.

I was quite surprised to realize Miss Bingley makes frequent exclamations in her attempts to gather Mr. Darcy’s attention. Other characters certainly have their fair share of sentences with an exclamation mark, but those feel more appropriate to the situation and less character-specific. Examining Miss Bingley’s exclamations reveals that they are indeed appropriate for her character (to express how much she despises Hertfordshire society in particular). The below is a prime example:

“You are considering how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings in this manner—in such society; and indeed I am quite of your opinion. I was never more annoyed! The insipidity, and yet the noise—the nothingness, and yet the self-importance of all those people! What would I give to hear your strictures on them!”

It’s easy enough to focus on what is said, but I think focusing on how things are said can be interesting as well! Are there any formal/informal occurrences in Austen’s writing that strike you as interesting or character-affirming?

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Rebecca L McBrayer
Rebecca L McBrayer
September 29, 2021 8:51 AM

Fascinating! As I read “Emma” for the British Lit class I am teaching, I will be on the lookout. Will Harriet reveal immaturity with exclamation marks?! 😉

September 26, 2021 7:33 AM

I’m not the most observant person in the world! (Huge understatement here!) so of course I noticed none of this. It’s probably because I’m not of the upper class in society 🙂
From this post I would definitely say Lydia should never have left the schoolroom, or the nursery!

Kirstin Odegaard
Kirstin Odegaard
September 24, 2021 1:03 PM

I loved this close reading of the dialogue! Great insights.
It looks like Lydia either uses short sentences or long sentences connected with conjunctions, so they feel like rambling. Elizabeth and Jane’s longer sentences have a more complex style that makes them seem more mature.
Really interesting post!

Gianna Thomas
September 23, 2021 11:57 PM

Lelia, I had never taken note of Austen’s punctuation in speech. Thank you for bringing it out. It does make a difference in how we view Miss Bingley and Lydia even if it is subconsciously. When I go back to read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ again, I’ll pay a lot more attention to her use of exclamation points. She used very subtle means in her writings, and that’s probably why her books are so popular.

Linda A.
Linda A.
September 23, 2021 12:57 PM

It might be noted that Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Bingley, and Miss Bingley were also not born into the gentry. Maybe JA was also noting that difference too.

Bronwen Chisholm
September 23, 2021 10:00 AM

What marvelous insights! I definitely need to reread, keeping an eye out for these instances. Thank you for a wonderful post.

Regina Jeffers
September 23, 2021 7:57 AM

I have seen reviews of books where people today say the current author of JAFF did not use Austen-style writing because the current author uses the word “that” too many times. A quick search of P&P shows Austen used “that” 323 times. For example, from Chapter 25, we find, “”I do not blame Jane,” she continued, “for Jane would have got Mr. Bingley if she could. But Lizzy! oh, sister! it is very hard to think that she might have …” Naturally, the word “that” in the sentence is a place holder of sorts. It could be eliminated, and the sentence would still make sense. It is the Jane Austen “pause” to collect one’s idea of what to say next, much better than the modern “you know.”
Chapter 34, She could not think of Darcy’s leaving Kent without remembering that his cousin was to go with him; but Colonel Fitzwilliam had made it clear that he had no …
Chapter 19, Mrs. Bennet and Kitty walked off, and as soon as they were gone Mr. Collins began. “Believe me, my dear Miss Elizabeth, that your modesty, so far from doing you …
Chapter 1, It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or …
Chapter 47, “But can you think that Lydia is so lost to everything but love of him as to consent to live with him on any other terms than marriage?”
Chapter 58, “I am sorry, exceedingly sorry,” replied Darcy, in a tone of surprise and emotion, “that you have ever been informed of what may, in a mistaken light, …
Chapter 37, Elizabeth could not see Lady Catherine without recollecting that, had she chosen it, she might by this time have been presented to her as her future niece; …
Chapter 60, “You may as well call it impertinence at once. It was very little less. The fact is, that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You …
As it is with most writers, occasionally, Austen could have changed a “that” for a “which”:
Chapter 54, As soon as they were gone Elizabeth walked out to recover her spirits; or, in other words, to dwell without interruption on those subjects that must deaden …
Or drop both the word “that” and the word “is” from
Chapter 49, All that is required of you is, to assure to your daughter, by settlement, her equal share of the five thousand pounds secured among your children after the …

I am stopping now. Obviously, I, too, often search Austen’s writing style.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
September 23, 2021 7:29 AM

I agree time for rereads! Which won’t be hard at all.?

September 23, 2021 7:12 AM

Definitely time for a re-read so I can pay better attention to this.

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