She didn’t do an MFA in Creative Writing, let alone a PhD. She didn’t even have a BA in it. Or in English. And yet Jane wrote the initial draft of Sense and Sensibility when she was 18, and had finished Pride and Prejudice by the time she was 20. Astonishing? Yes. So how did she do it? Did she follow the advice of the self-appointed writing gurus—who tell you that if you can’t do a degree in the subject, you need to attend expensive conferences, join writing groups, get professional editors? No, none of that. So how on earth did she learn her craft?
By reading and writing. I’m not an Austen scholar, but I know that in the late eighteenth century England’s public libraries had not yet been founded, so it’s fair to assume that most of her reading was done in her father’s library. The Revd. George Austen claimed he had 64 square feet of books. That’s about the same as my two roughly 6 feet by 6 feet bookcases—which is twice 36 sq. feet. I have about 500 books in those, perhaps even 600. That would have been a fairly impressive private library for the time. We know she read Shakespeare and Milton and other classics, but in terms of fiction she probably mainly read romantic and Gothic works like those of Ann Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho), Mathew Lewis’ The Monk, and other popular writer’s like Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth. Later she read Walter Scott, but not before she began writing herself.
Perhaps she borrowed books from friends too. The range of her reading must have been narrow: her father, a country parson, can’t have allowed her to read the scandalous novels of eighteenth century England. She may have read Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe but presumably didn’t read Moll Flanders. Would she even have been permitted to read Fielding’s Tom Jones, or Richardson’s novels, Pamela and Clarissa? To us they are inoffensive enough; but I doubt if a clergyman would have thought them suitable for a young lady.
And of course she wrote—without a computer, or earbuds and iTunes, or Starbucks. Without even her own study. She wrote at a table in the dining room, and hid her work when anyone came along. Virginia Woolf said one needed a room of one’s own, but apparently that’s not so if you want to write badly enough.
I’ve been thinking about this because I’m currently reading Mansfield Park, a complex, quite long novel, full of humour and psychological insight, and far superior to the work of most current novelists, whether they’ve been tutored at breathtakingly expensive writing programs or not. So the next time someone tells you that you need a degree in writing—or even a doctorate in one—think about that. Jane Austen didn’t have one. Neither did Dickens, the Brontës, Thomas Hardy, Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, Joseph Conrad or Franz Kafka. The great corporate world of creative writing is precisely that: something designed to relieve you of your money. And give a very comfortable living to the stars who want to teach you.
Like Jane, you don’t need them. If you’re willing to work, that is.