Yesterday I went to Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge for the annual Jane Austen Society meeting. And no, disappointingly, there were no bonnets. There were, however, four excellent papers on Austen. I’ve had to put my PhD on pause for the moment, as I focus on Fred, but I love being able to delve into the academic world. There is always serendipitous inspiration.
One of the papers was about doors in Austen. Before you scoff and roll your eyes, let me tell you that it was incredibly useful. When I’m writing, I can really struggle getting my characters through doorways. Often in an early draft, they hesitate on the wrong side of the door, apparently uncertain of how to enter the scene. Then, once I know how they are going to stride/ slip/ march inside banging/ closing/ sealing the door – there is always the problem that ‘door’ has very few synonyms. In a novel, everything has to work hard. If we see the character enter the room, then there ought be something about the way they enter that tells the reader something about the story. But, of course, this must be done economically – the last thing your reader wants is a paragraph telling them about how Lady S walks through the doorway. Austen complains to her niece Anna that she is overly descriptive with ‘too much of the left and right’.
Austen is a virtuoso at getting her characters through doorways with brevity and brilliance. Take this scene from Mansfield Park, where poor Fanny, the cuckoo-in-the-nest and cousin, is once again, left on fretting on the wrong side of the door:
“Too soon did she find herself at the drawing–room door; and after pausing a moment for what she knew would not come, for a courage which the outside of no door had ever supplied to her, she turned the lock in desperation, and the lights of the drawing–room, and all the collected family, were before her. As she entered, her own name caught her ear.”
In a sentence, Austen shows us that this is a scene which Fanny has experienced many times at Mansfield; she has stared at closed doors wanting confidence, again and again. The family always forget her, and never send for her. Then, once she enters, ‘the lights’ and ‘the collected family’ overwhelm her.
The answer to my difficulty with doorways, would seem to lie in Jane Austen. Now, all I have to do is place my hand on the door-handle and run/ skip/ creep inside.