Category Archives: Jane Austen

On using a not uncommon turn of phrase.

A police officer was recently reported as saying, “The community [must be able to] go police officerabout its daily business not unduly impacted by demonstrations taking place.” She was referring to demonstrations against President Trump whilst he was in Britain. Cue the grammar police attack of the vapours for her use of ‘not un…’

George Orwell was a leading literary figure who riled against this way of phrasing things – in fact he felt it should be banned; would you, he asked, write about a ‘not un-black dog?’ Obviously not! But he had got his own grammar a bit wrong, as who would refer to ‘an un-black dog’ in the first place, let alone a ‘not un-black’ one?

Jane Austen, by contrast, used the format without any qualms in Mansfield Park where Fanny was ‘not unamused’ by the activities of her associates. I think readers can appreciate the difference between being laugh-out-loud amused at their antics and being wryly and privately entertained.

It is true that in English there is a general rule against using a double negative – I do not like that, compared with the French je ne l’aime pas (literally – I not it like not). We have been taught to tease people who use them that a double negative is a positive. However a double negative has always had a place in a nuanced use of the language. What the police officer said, whilst admittedly rather inelegant (why say impacted when you mean disrupted?), is very different from her saying the community should be ‘duly impacted/ disrupted.’ What she meant, and what we all understand, is that some disruption was inevitable, but should be kept to a minimum. (What the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English calls a ‘weak affirmative.’)

This is a perfectly reasonable position to take. Or at least, in my opinion, a not unreasonable one.

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It’s only a novel!

On my last blog I quoted from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey on the (over) use of theghost word ‘nice.’ Having re-read that section in order to write the blog, I decided to re-read the whole book. It is a spoof on the ‘Gothic’ novels that were fashionable at the time (often written by ‘lady novelists’) and there’s plenty of gentle humour in it. So, being easily scared, it’s my ideal reading material for Halloween.

Jane Austen, may not have been keen on what she saw as the overblown writing of some of her contemporaries, but she was proud to be a writer of novels herself and, in Northanger Abbey, she offers up a robust defence of novels and novelists, that is still relevant today, (How many people do you know who proudly tell you that they “never read novels”?)

Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions haveNorthanger abbey afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost so many as our readers. …

“And what are you reading Miss – ?” “Oh, it is only a novel,” replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. …

Or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.

Some of us are more successful than others at getting all this across, but, her words paint an inspirational picture of what we’d like to achieve!

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A very nice blog today?


Writers sometimes strain to use different words when plain and simple is just fine. A common error is to seek desperately for different ways of indicating speech:

I shouted / he screamed / she bellowed / they wailed / we whispered …

None of these is wrong, but too many (especially the more elaborate), can distract from the dialogue. Indeed, there is nothing wrong, and plenty right about the humble – ‘she said’. The reader can concentrate on the dialogue, but is clear about which character is speaking. Alternatively, the speech can stand alone, and the follow-up phrase can indicate who is speaking, and the tone in which it was spoken.

‘“I see you have thrown out my mother’s photo.” Only the slight reddening of her neck indicated her anger.’

Instead of struggling to find alternatives to ‘said’, maybe we should expend our energy on words that can regularly slip into our work without us noticing.

Like ‘nice.’ Jane Austen

Jane Austen had plenty to say on the over-use of this word. When Catherine, in Northanger Abbey, is talking to Henry Tilney:

“… but it is a nice book, and why should I not call it so?”

“Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk and you two are very nice ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy or refinement: people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now, every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”


Another word that crops up a bit too often, even with the likes of Henry Tilney (though I suspect in the above speech he was just being sarcastic) is ‘very’. Again, the constant repetition of the word shows a lack of imagination and can get boring. There are plenty of alternatives to using ‘very’ before a word. Here are a few examples:

  • Very rich – wealthy / loaded
  • Very poor – destitute / impoverished
  • Very loud – noisy / deafening
  • Very quiet – hushed
  • Very often – frequently
  • Very rarely – seldom
  • Very short – brief
  • Very long – lengthy

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Jane Austen and the new ten pound note.

jane-austen-ten-pound-noteLast week the Bank of England brought in a new £10.00 note. It is smaller, more durable, and harder to counterfeit than the old version. But for literary types its main significance is that it features two women: the Queen (as usual) on the front, and the novelist Jane Austen on the back. In fact the note was officially launched from her old home in Chawton, Hampshire, on July 18th, exactly 200 years after her death in nearby Winchester.

The note includes a quote from her most famous book, Pride and Prejudice, “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading.” (Let’s not spoil it by pointing out that this was said by a vain and snobbish young lady purely interested in capturing the attention of a more erudite and wealthy young man).

Jane Austen AltonWhat a casual reader may not know is that Jane Austen was not just a provincial spinster, scribbling away between the social calls and household duties expected of a woman of her social class and limited finances. Her portrait on the new note is particularly appropriate as she also had close links to banking. One of her brothers (Henry) owned a number of small banks, run from his headquarters in London and Jane often stayed with him at his London house. A £10.00 note issued by one of his banks is on display in the Chawton cottage where she lived, which is open to the public.

But, although the announcement of this new note’s design was made in her old home, no mention was made of her banker brother. He was not a good businessman, suffered losses in the financial crash of 1816, and his banking empire was subsequently taken over by others and forgotten.Jane Austen

Jane Austen is celebrated for her novels about the eager pursuit of suitable husbands for her heroines. Less romantically, they also illustrate her keen interest in the pursuit of a suitable income. In her own life she was acutely conscious of her lack of means, and took an active interest in the sale of her manuscripts, often with Henry’s well meaning, but not always helpful advice. (You can read more about this aspect of Jane’s life in Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister, by EJ Clery)

Which brings me, rather clumsily, to my own books. I write because I feel the need to write. I do not expect to live off my royalties, but, like Jane I take an interest in my ‘bottom line’, and every sale is a welcome acknowledgement of my efforts. (Reviews are also welcome, even low starred ones). All my books are available on Amazon, as e-books and / or paperbacks, and you can purchase them via one of the links below: