This little rumination on writing techniques was originally posted on From Pemberley to Milton as part of my blog tour. I’m posting it here as well for fans of Mistaken to enjoy.
As the title suggests, there is a fair amount of misunderstanding between all the major protagonists (and occasionally the reader, too) in my Austen inspired novel. Of course, the idea of these characters being mistaken is not unique to me; they were all pretty clueless in Austen’s wonderful original. Elizabeth, Darcy, Bingley and Jane all mistook one another’s personalities, motivations and feelings. In writing Mistaken, I wanted to delve a little deeper into the psyche of each character, to get up close and personal with their inner thoughts in a way Austen chose not to, and explore what those misconceptions really meant to each of them. To do that, I had to write in a style different from Austen.
Pride and Prejudice is written using omniscient narration, meaning Austen has the power to tell us everything that’s going on. Being such a wonderfully sly author, she uses her powers only occasionally. For the most part, the narration is limited to Elizabeth Bennet’s point of view. Only now and again does Austen dip into the thoughts of other characters to alert the reader to important events—such as when Darcy begins to find Elizabeth attractive. On a couple of occasions, Austen even speaks directly to the reader, reminding us that she is the one pulling the strings and will tell us only what she chooses us to know.
It is not the object of this work to give a description of Derbyshire, nor of any of the remarkable places through which their route thither lay; Oxford, Blenheim, Warwick, Kenilworth, Birmingham, &c. are sufficiently known. A small part of Derbyshire is all the present concern.
–Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 42
The result of this cleverly selective omniscient narration is that readers are all inadvertently placed on “Team Lizzy” from the outset, since it is predominantly her story. We might be clued in to what Darcy is thinking when he’s in the same scene as her, but there is no guarantee of that, and we are never told what he’s thinking or doing when he’s off stage. We’re left to guess, along with Lizzy, and we feel her anguish when she’s forced to wait for news.
The thing with omniscient narration is that, by and large (though by no means always), the narrator is reliable. Austen might not tell us everything, but when she says Darcy has begun to notice Elizabeth’s pleasing figure, we believe her. When she tells us we don’t need to know about the passing scenery, we trust she knows her business. In Mistaken, the opposite is true. One cannot be mistaken if one is in possession of all the facts, thus the narrators (and there are more than one) are very deliberately not omniscient. They are human: biased, fallible, unreliable.
Instead of one narrator stating that Darcy admires Elizabeth, Mistaken readers are told a plethora of different things. Bingley believes Darcy disdains Elizabeth’s inferiority. Jane asserts that Darcy disapproves of Elizabeth’s impertinence. Lady Catherine insists Elizabeth makes Darcy miserable, and Lady Ashby is convinced Darcy will lose patience with Elizabeth’s flirting. Armed with the knowledge of each character’s misconceptions, whose judgement ought the reader to trust? By using more than one narrator, each presenting his or her own opinions as the truth, the reader is required to more consciously choose whose team they want to be on—and if I’ve done a good job, they will hopefully change their minds more than once over the course of the story.
To achieve this multiple view of events I used a technique called “deep point of view.” With this method, instead of one overarching storyteller choosing which bits of the story to tell us, the characters become the narrators and the story is told through their eyes. The reader sees, hears, feels and knows only what the character “narrating” sees, hears, feels and knows. This type of narration takes the reader deep into the character’s mind, giving access to far more of their thoughts and motivations than they’d usually be privy to with omniscient narration, though it doesn’t guarantee the same certainty. Though the point of view switches between the four protagonists and a few peripheral characters, allowing the reader to build up a larger picture of the truth, the reader is nonetheless only as knowledgeable as the characters narrating—and therefore just as susceptible to being mistaken.
Dramatic irony (when the reader knows something the characters don’t) is rendered defunct when every perspective provided is liable to be biased, badly explained, or deliberately misleading. If a character has lied, the reader has no way of knowing it, unless the lie is admitted or discovered by another character (whose “discovery” might also be mistaken). If a character simply isn’t given the chance to narrate a particular event, the reader cannot easily judge the veracity of the viewpoint they’ve been given. Moreover, it is not only the characters’ prepossessions the reader must contend with but their own.
Being based on Austen’s original, it is to be expected that readers will come to the story with preconceived ideas of how the characters ought to behave. It is because of the pervading influence of Austen’s seminal narration that most readers are predisposed to take Elizabeth’s side. Despite almost every character in Mistaken—from Mrs. Gardiner to Lady Catherine, from Jane Bennet to her mother, from Lady Ashby to Elizabeth herself—telling the reader that Elizabeth is flawed, readers will more often than not choose to believe Darcy when he says Elizabeth “has no imperfections.”
This leaves readers with an unpleasant choice because, as those familiar with the story know, to exonerate Elizabeth of blame for events in the book requires that the fault be laid at the door of other, equally popular individuals. What might otherwise have been vaguely unpalatable behaviour becomes an egregious offence in characters readers are predisposed to hold in high regard.
Thus, abetted by some fun storytelling techniques, mistakenness pervades the story at every stage, drawing attention to (and taking advantage of) people’s tendency to misunderstand one another—because, as Austen tells us;
Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.
Emma, Chapter 49