“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 views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
What a masterful opening salvo! In a handful of beautifully crafted sentences, the Divine Miss A establishes the theme and the stakes of her story.
Fueled by pizza and wine, my reading group just met. Austen was on our agenda and I brought along my much dog-eared and annotated paperback of Pride and Prejudice. Among the six of us we must have had five or six different versions of the book — a testimony to its staying power. No wonder Jane’s so huge (http://www.jasna.org/)!
In rereading portions of this classic novel, I was struck anew by how much the artful Austen manages to pack into Chapter 1. In a mere 2-1/2 pages, she “sells” her story to the reader through a masterful blend of showing and telling. I know, I know: We’re constantly bombarded with caveats about “show, don’t tell.” Yet as Lee Child has pointed out (see Budding Writers) we’re called “storytellers” for a reason. And actually, “storysellers” (think I just coined a new word!) captures the two tools we have at our command — tools that many beloved authors wield with precision and panache.
Here’s what I mean: Chapter 1 of Pride and Prejudice opens with the very telling few sentences above, in which Austen very clearly and authoritatively tells her readers what her story is about. No mincing or pussyfooting. Then she segues into about two pages of showing: dialogue which quickly reveals the characters and motives of two key players: Mrs. Bennet, who’s desperate to marry off her five daughters and the long-suffering Mr. Bennet, who longs to hide in his library. The chapter ends with another paragraph of telling, in which Austen shares her view of the Bennets:
“Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.”
Austen creates a delicious verbal sandwich for the reader to munch and enjoy: two pieces of hardy telling stuffed with showing via dialogue. Masterful selling. Write on!