May I Have a Word?

Portrait of Jane Austen, via 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?” or “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. You must translate it into modern, American English. But how polite a statement it sounds. 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 the list of synonyms, you start to get the picture. The guy’s a reprobate. And since I now know the book so well, 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. 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.

 

Betty