Friday, December 21, 2012

May I Have a Word?

Miss Jane Austen
(Wikipedia Commons)

What thought processes are set in motion by a simple polite question? “May I have a word?” or “May I speak with you?” "We need to talk." Can you tell the difference? 

I’m a big fan of Austen. But her prose is a little like Shakespeare’s. It takes time to get comfortable with it. Consider this passage, taken from Pride and Prejudice, Chapter Thirty-Six:

The extravagance and general profligacy which he scrupled not to lay to Mr. Wickham’s charge exceedingly shocked her; the more so as she could bring no proof of its injustice.

At first reading, it may be a difficult passage to understand. How polite a statement it sounds. Translate it into modern American English. While profligate used as an adjective means: recklessly extravagant or wasteful in the use of resources, the noun form means: licentious, dissolute. 

Synonyms for the noun profligacy: extravagance, excess, squandering, waste, recklessness, wastefulness, lavishness, prodigality, improvidence, immorality, depravity, debauchery, abandon, corruption, promiscuity, laxity, dissipation, degeneracy, licentiousness, wantonness, libertinism, dissoluteness, unrestraint. 

About halfway through this list of synonyms, you start to get the picture. And since I now know the book, I understand Wickham’s character very well. Austen’s “...he scrupled not to lay to Mr. Wickham’s charge,” tells us Mr. Darcy withheld some information and Elizabeth reads between the lines and sees far more. In this instant, the truth dawns on her, and she is embarrassed over her misunderstanding.

The word scrupled means he hesitated because of the impropriety of the truth. He held back because he was a gentleman, and she was a lady. In more modern times, he probably would not hesitate to tell her everything. She would see it on the news or read it on Facebook or Twitter. He may as well be the one to tell her of it.

So do you begin to get an understanding of what Elizabeth thought of Mr. Darcy in this passage? He was much too polite to bring the true charge against Mr. Wickham, because of its extremely immoral nature. The man Wickham was a depraved drunk who chased after skirts. But in proper society, a true gentleman (Darcy) never laid such a charge on another man in the presence of a lady. 

What a great burden is placed on us as writers to convey to our reader exactly what we want to say in a way that is clear to the modern reader, yet maintains the purity of the era we’re writing about. How do we start? By reading books written in the era and translating them to modern. Then you can begin to piece together a work that sounds like the past, but can be easily understood. Never “dumb down” your writing, but make it clear and concise, with your reader in mind. 

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Thanks for reading––


  1. Maybe you could "translate" the entire book for us. It would be great to read "Pride and Prejudice" in modern English. It's sad to realize that it's hard to understand so much of her wonderful writing. We just don't read that type of writing enough today.

    1. Connie, you're right, which is probably why many young ladies will watch the movie rather than read the book. It's so much easier to understand when it's spoken by Keira Knightley! Her wonderful writing is well worth the effort if one has the time.

  2. I love my copy of Pilgrims Progress. At the bottom of each page, you can glance and see what words mean that are not used in today's language :)

    1. Jennifer, wouldn't it be great if all of the classics were published that way? Of course, if you read them on Kindle or another reader, you can check the meanings of words in progress. Thanks for reading.

  3. I'm glad I came back and read this post. I have yet to read any of Austen's works. *blush* She is on my Nook and Kindle though. They weren't required in High School. Instead we read things like Alice in Wonderland. I didn't renew my love for reading until my mid-twenties and by then I was reading other things, like Don Quixote.