Observation Journal: A good sentence

This page of the observation journal is a return to sentence analysis — and specifically, to one of my favourite lines from Pride and Prejudice. (See previously: Staring at Sentences and First Sentences.)

Two page handwritten observation journal spread. On the left page, 5 things seen, heard, and done. On the right, notes on a sentence.
Dogs with dancing feet and girls with rabbit ears, gum trees glittering silver in the afternoon light. 

This is not a first line, but it is one of my favourite sentences in a book. It comes from Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen), when Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle return from a visit to Pemberley:

“They talked of his sister, his friends, his house, his fruit — of everything but himself; yet Elizabeth was longing to know what Mrs Gardiner thought of him, and Mrs Gardiner would have been highly gratified by her niece’s beginning the subject.”

This is such a fun line: low-key but central to so much of what is happening in the book, and linking several very important relationships (the Gardiners, after all, get the last line of the novel).

Here are some of the elements that came to light as I worked through it this time (starting by selecting word types — pronouns, nouns, verb strings, etc):

  • Possession and reference — Mr Darcy is never mentioned but everything in the sentence is circling that topic.
  • Domesticity and affection — the nouns (sister, friends, house, fruit, niece) focus on relationships and responsibilities, but also very kindly relationships. The tone is aloof but the undertones are deeply personal and affectionate.
  • Desire, pleasure, intensity — there’s complexity and strength here, and a sense of big emotions being held in suspension, conditionally.
  • Staccato, then flowing rhythm — awkwardness of speech (which is very sympathetic) vs the impulsive flow of emotion
  • Two views of the same thing leads to sympathy — there’s no doubt about people’s thoughts here, because we know what both Lizzy and her aunt are thinking. That puts the focus on why/what is not being discussed. But also because I’m not wondering what the characters are thinking, it makes it safe for me to feel for them, as they think it. There’s a sort of benevolent dramatic irony here, and a sense of little people moving on a board that I like very much in (for example) both Georgette Heyer and Stephen King (see Sympathy for Characters). [Also a lesson for me, as I tend to leave descriptions of emotions out of early drafts.]
  • [A more recent observation] The role of the em-dash and semi-colon — each half of this sentence is composed of two ideas (house vs man; Elizabeth vs Mrs Gardiner), but all these features are finely balanced and inextricably linked. The em-dash brings the breathless recitation to a sharp halt by focussing on what is missing. A full-stop instead of semi-colon would break the very clear point that the conversation aunt and niece are extremely conscious they are not having threads its tension through the words they do speak.

I’m particularly interested in that idea of it being safe to care for characters. Not because nothing bad will happen to them, but because of a sort of benevolent dramatic irony. It’s the opposite of a twist — the sense of things that will remain constant even if the unexpected happens. It’s also something I’d like to explore further in images, as well as writing.

But whatever practical and theoretical benefits this activity has for telling stories, it’s a wonderfully indulgent exercise to do as a reader.

For a writing/art exercise see Staring at Sentences.

For more Pride and Prejudice see (among many other posts) Mix and Match.

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).

1 thought on “Observation Journal: A good sentence

  1. Pingback: August 2021 — round-up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

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