I love the way Charlotte Brontë saw Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice like this: “a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but … no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck.” It says so much about both of them. I’m reading Pride and Prejudice again for the umpteenth time and noticing the absolute cruelty of Jane at times, but of course also the absolute genius.
As a seventeen year old girl I wrote some sort of fiction piece and gave it to my friend who was also an aspiring writer. I remember clearly his reaction to what I had wrote. It is one of those painful sort of things – on the one hand so seemingly mild and on the other hand as destructive as a forest fire. His reply to what I had wrote was ever so slightly derisive, ever so slightly mocking. He told me that it sounded just like Jane Austen, like I was writing in the 18th century or something.
At the time I felt completely destroyed and embarrassed and ashamed and a whole plethora of overblown reactions – as though the fact that I sounded like someone else was somehow disgraceful and the fact that there we were in 1997 sat in the depths of Blackburn, Lancashire and here I was sounding like a posh Englishwoman from another century – it was too much to bear and actually halted me in my writing efforts for quite some time, or at least kept me hiding from open view.
However now I look back in hindsight I can see that although it was said to unsettle, I can see exactly how I had sounded like someone else – of course I did. I read Jane Austen voraciously, because I enjoyed her but what that also meant, without me even knowing, it is that I was learning from the best.
I think it was Neil Gaiman who said that at the beginning as a writer it is inevitable – and actually preferable – for imitation to take place. Of course it does, and it’s not a bad thing. Here I am all those years later, still reading Jane Austen and probably still imitating her to some slighter degree. But that’s alright, thankfully I can do that now without all those old fears.