Becoming Charlotte: AS Recreative Writing tips

As part of the English Literature AS Coursework, students will have to produce a piece of recreative writing in the voice of a character from their set text. Our students will be choosing a character from Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’. This is an ostensibly ‘simple’ task, in that it sounds a lot easier than a more traditional analytical task with a novel of this complexity. However, it is of course in the apparent simplicity of this task that students find themselves caught making the same mistakes over and over again. Creative Writing is deceptively difficult already, and it’s made no easier by having to accurately capture Charlotte Brontë’s writing style, but this blog will hopefully provide some handy tips to help you avoid falling into the traditional traps.

Loquacious Verbosity and Garrulous Mellifluence.

Writing like someone else can be a challenge at the best of times, and the first problem is the belief that the biggest difference between ‘the past’ (and this goes right back to Shakespeare) and the present is that writers (in the words of a former student of mine) ‘used a lot of long words back then’. Actually, they didn’t. The obstacles to understanding Shakespeare or Brontë’s writing come not in their lexical grandiose but rather in their syntax and sentence complexity. Consider the following extract from ‘Jane Eyre’:

His guest had been outraged, his own life on a former occasion had been hideously plotted against; and both attempts he smothered in secrecy and sank in oblivion!  Lastly, I saw Mr. Mason was submissive to Mr. Rochester; that the impetuous will of the latter held complete sway over the inertness of the former: the few words which had passed between them assured me of this.  It was evident that in their former intercourse, the passive disposition of the one had been habitually influenced by the active energy of the other: whence then had arisen Mr. Rochester’s dismay when he heard of Mr. Mason’s arrival?

Even a quick scan of this paragraph from Chapter 20 of the novel will reveal little in the way of complex or incomprehensible vocabulary. Perhaps people are less familiar with words like ‘impetuous’ and certainly ‘intercourse’ has taken on a considerably different meaning in today’s society, while ‘whence’ has fallen out of use almost entirely. That’s three words in 105 that could count as stumbling blocks; even then, we can only really point to one that has become obsolete. So why is it difficult to read? Don’t get me wrong – it is difficult to read to a modern audience, but not because of its difficult lexis. I’ll go into more detail about what does make it difficult in short order, but first of all, let’s make this point clear. In order to capture the voice of Charlotte Brontë, you do not need to devour a thesaurus in an attempt to sound as clever as possible…unless you want to end up sounding like this.

So what’s the trick?

Well, first of all, there is no one trick (more on that later) but the most prevalent technical way into the voice of Charlotte Brontë is the syntax of the Victorian era. The inherent problem with this is that you are not looking at monumental shifts in word order as you might be with earlier works, but rather subtle differences in the way the sentences are constructed. Take the earlier example from ‘Jane Eyre’:

His guest had been outraged, his own life on a former occasion had been hideously plotted against; and both attempts he smothered in secrecy and sank in oblivion!

The only real difference in syntax between Charlotte Brontë in 1847 and modern standard English is in clausal positioning on two occasions: ‘his own life on a former occasion had been’ (which we would write today as ‘his own life had been, on a former occasion’) and ‘both attempts he smothered’ (which today would read ‘he smothered both attempts’). These aren’t indecipherable but can cause a 21st century reader to pause for thought. So when you’re completing your work, this is a subtle but sophisticated way to make your writing sound more authentically Victorian. It will require you to stop and think carefully about how you construct your work, but then that’s the point of this task!

No need to rush

We live in an age of distraction, where information is disseminated at high speed and high intensity, and Charlotte Brontë simply didn’t have to fit into these restrictions. Like so many of the great Victorian writers, she has the time to develop her ideas in genuine detail, safe in the knowledge that her audience had the time to languidly digest them. This is what has given rise to the utterly inaccurate belief that writers like Dickens, Austen and Brontë are ‘boring’. They’re not boring, but they are, by any modern standard, slow.   

Lastly, I saw Mr. Mason was submissive to Mr. Rochester; that the impetuous will of the latter held complete sway over the inertness of the former: the few words which had passed between them assured me of this.  It was evident that in their former intercourse, the passive disposition of the one had been habitually influenced by the active energy of the other.

Here Brontë effectively tells us the same thing three times. Rochester is in charge. This is a long way from being the only time in the novel that she does this – but it’s important to realise that she isn’t simply repeating herself, she is layering levels of meaning on top of one another to give us more information about these characters. The descriptive ingenuity of contrasting Rochester’s “impetuous will”, and “active energy” with Mason’s “inertness” and “passive disposition” is an important structural trick that highlights Rochester’s confidence and self-assurance and helps to (along with many other such moments) formally position him as the hero of the piece. In your writing, you will be taking on the voice of a character, not the author herself, and so will have to transpose this skill somewhat, but it is worth noting the steady pace at which Brontë builds her points, and the effectiveness of employing such a trick.

Lengthy Sentences

“The consequence was, that when the moon, which was full and bright (for the night was fine), came in her course to that space in the sky opposite my casement, and looked in at me through the unveiled panes, her glorious gaze roused me.” 

This isn’t a difficult sentence, it’s just a long one. It’s multi-clausal, and almost tangential but fundamentally, it’s simple enough to understand. It’s not, however, simple to write. Again, as a character from the novel and not its omniscient narrator, you may find yourself without the need to write like this, but remember that Charlotte’s characters inevitably take on some aspect of her voice, and this is a particularly commonplace one. See Mrs Reed in Chapter Four of the novel:  

“Mr. Brocklehurst, I believe I intimated in the letter which I wrote to you three weeks ago, that this little girl has not quite the character and disposition I could wish: should you admit her into Lowood school, I should be glad if the superintendent and teachers were requested to keep a strict eye on her, and, above all, to guard against her worst fault, a tendency to deceit.”

Mrs Reed’s 69 word sentence here follows a similar pattern to Charlotte’s narrative voice – and there are countless other examples throughout the text. This is perhaps the most difficult skill of all to perfect, so completely contrary does it feel to a modern reader; however it is not, with practice and revision, beyond even the most basic of writers to construct a sentence which, while verbose and possibly even consciously overlong, makes grammatical sense while never resorting to deliberately bemusing its reader through the application of those irritating tactics so common in the writing of children, or even adults, who wish to sound more intelligent than they are, and whose desire to over exaggerate their own perceived intelligence outweighs their clarity of expression.

One’s Formal Diction

Charlotte Brontë writes in a formal manner, but people’s grasp on what is and isn’t formal has been warped in recent times. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve asked a class what ‘informal’ means, and they have simply answered with “slang”. It’s not that slang isn’t informal, but written formality is a long and complicated spectrum. Slang is one far end of that spectrum, and this occasionally forces people who have been asked to write a ‘formal’ piece to go to the other end, and overdo it horribly. The area I want to focus on here is the use of supposedly ‘casual’ pronoun use. With one class, a number of early attempts at ‘Brontë-esque’ writing featured the use of ‘one’ instead of ‘I’. In some cases, it featured the use of ‘one’ instead of ‘my’, which is even less accurate. Charlotte understood something of which many people seem ignorant these days. The word ‘myself’ isn’t always a ‘better’ way to say ‘me’, or ‘my’. Charlotte uses ‘my’ over two thousand times in Jane Eyre, and ‘me’ over six thousand times, so these can’t have been all that sloppy a way to express oneself. Not a single student in the class used contractions either. Every time a character couldn’t express their feelings, they ‘could not’ express them. Every time they didn’t say something, they ‘did not’ say it, and every time they weren’t in control of their emotions, they ‘were not’ in control of them. Charlotte Brontë has no such qualms about using contractions. For example, the word ‘don’t’ appears 155 times in ‘Jane Eyre’. However, it is worth noting that while Brontë employs contractions at will, she doesn’t do it as often as we might expect today. In your writing, don’t feel as though you cannot mix the two together in order to reflect her style. Predictably the pattern runs that the more formal the character, the more formal the language – which should be reflected in your eventual piece. Put simply, don’t overcomplicate things as you write. Saying ‘I’ doesn’t make you sound informal. Admittedly, if you find yourself writing, “OMG, Rochester is totes fit” then you may have gone too far. The distance between those two poles, however, is considerable!

Charlotte Brontë – Gourmet Chef

Although personally I can’t see anything wrong with this as the definitive way to be a chef, in actual fact the art of gastric wizardry is a delicate balancing act. Anyone can cook chicken, for example, but in order to really elevate that basic dish to something approaching art, you need to add the right extras at the right time. As you are probably aware, English teachers are not above the occasional strained analogy and this is a particular favourite of mine. Imagine your writing as a culinary delight just waiting to be taken from the oven. The basics are just that: basic. Anyone writing at this level should be able to find their way around a few lengthy sentences, spellings and occasional semi-colons. What you need to do in order to really capture the subtleties of Charlotte Brontë’s writing is to find the key ingredients that she sprinkles across her writing without ever overdoing any of them. If you put too much of one spice into a dish, you will ruin it. Likewise, if you (correctly) identify that Charlotte occasionally uses alliteration but proceed to pepper your prose with pointless prolixity, the effect will be lost. So what are some of Brontë’s most effective ingredients? The first is personification to aid description. All the Brontës, especially the sisters, were particularly keen on extended metaphor and personification in their poetry. Charlotte continued this into her prose, and it is extremely common in ‘Jane Eyre’. In the extract we looked at earlier, the moon is personified. It isn’t over done, it isn’t particularly unusual even (the femininity of the moon is hardly an unusual literary trope) but it is effectively deployed. There is also the use of exotic references to foreign climes. This one is unusual, in that Charlotte rarely travelled outside Haworth, and when she did she never once saw the ‘ruby red’ of an ‘Italian sky, where clouds of sunset lingering lie’, nor did she ever (as far as we know) see the ‘widest-winged condor on the Andes’. Yet still, she refers to these far-off (and remember that to someone in her position in the 1840s, she may as well have been talking about visiting Mars) locations to add yet more depth to her point. Finally (although this is far from the end of the list) we have the occasional ‘giveaway’ obsolete word that will contextualise your writing and set it firmly in the right century. These final two ideas are demonstrated well in this extract, again from chapter 20 of ‘Jane Eyre’:

My pulse stopped: my heart stood still; my stretched arm was paralysed.  The cry died, and was not renewed.  Indeed, whatever being uttered that fearful shriek could not soon repeat it: not the widest-winged condor on the Andes could, twice in succession, send out such a yell from the cloud shrouding his eyrie.  The thing delivering such utterance must rest ere it could repeat the effort.
We have here the mix of the exotic (the reference to the Condor) and occasional (sprinkled, remember, carefully into the dish) archaic words (‘ere’) and Charlotte’s usual complexity of sentence construction in practice. The effect? We are left with a wonderfully descriptive, artfully constructed mental image which creates tension and suspense while giving a clear and precise picture to the audience in less than 70 words.
Hopefully this little guide has helped as you seek the voice of Howarth’s finest…now go forth and write!
Mr Staveley

About PS

English teacher in Shanghai.
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