Much Left to the Imagination

Progress Report: Yay! I’m happy to say that I have officially broken out of my “analysis paralysis (see previous post).” I’ve made momentous decisions this past week about my audio books, the result of which is that I now have two amazing narrators under contract and three of my books in production. So, sometime this summer, you will be able to read Mr. Collins’s Last Supper, The Darcys of Pemberley, and Return to Longbourn in audio format! How cool is that?


Edward and ElinorSpeaking of audio books, I’m currently rereading Sense and Sensibility in that format, and I’m nearly to the end. I have to admit that I’d forgotten how much Jane Austen left to the imagination in what should be the climactic scene – Edward’s proposal to Elinor. Here’s what she writes about it:

His errand at Barton, in fact, was a simple one. It was only to ask Elinor to marry him… How soon he had walked himself into the proper resolution, however, how soon an opportunity of exercising it occurred, in what manner he expressed himself, and how he was received, need not be particularly told. This only need be said; that when they all sat down to table at four o’clock, about three hours after his arrival, he had secured his lady, engaged her mother’s consent, and was not only in the rapturous profession of the lover, but in the reality of reason and truth, one of the happiest of men. 

So, she tells us exactly nothing, leaving everything to our imaginations! As I said, I’d forgotten this, although I’ve read the book at least half a dozen times. The proposal scene I remember, exists only in my mind (and in the movies). In Northanger Abbey, when Henry Tilney bears his soul to Catherine, it’s the same – strictly narrative generalities. And we aren’t given much more to go on with Darcy’s proposal (the second, successful one) and Elizabeth’s acceptance. He simply says, “My affections and wishes are unchanged.” Then, we are told, Elizabeth…

D&E proposal…forced herself to speak, and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances.

In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth isn’t even in the room when he makes his profession of love to Anne, since it’s done by letter (although, what a letter!). The most completely portrayed proposal scene in all Austendom come courtesy of Mr. Knightley in Emma.

“My dearest Emma,” said he, “for dearest you will always be… I cannot make speeches… If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more…But… you understand my feelings and will return them if you can…”

Even though Mr. Knightley expresses himself pretty completely, Emma  – What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.

Emma proposalI don’t know if Jane Austen truly believed these intimate moments were often better left to the reader’s imagination, that the rest “need not be particularly told.” Or was it that she had so little experience in this area that she felt she could not write it convincingly. She was famous for never attempting any kind of scene of which she could have no personal knowledge. And, although she was proposed to once – by unappealing family friend Harris Bigg Wither – perhaps he botched the job and left her with no suitably inspirational source material!

Somehow we don’t mind these omissions in Jane Austen, but I don’t think a contemporary author could get away with leaving so much only to the imagination. Today’s readers generally expect to be privy to all the details, to be eyewitnesses to the big moment when the hero and heroine finally get together, to revel in every glorious word and expression. We can probably all agree that being invited to the wedding is nice too. The more difficult question is how much to show beyond that, how much of what goes on behind closed doors. On that topic, opinions range far and wide.

But that is a subject for another day.

What’s your opinion? Have you ever wished Jane Austen had given us a little more to go on? Would you be satisfied (or feel cheated) if a modern author showed you no more of the romantic climax than we see in Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility? How much do you think should be left to the imagination?

PS – Since I originally wrote this, I’ve discovered I copied Jane Austen’s technique more than I realized. For an update, read Much Left to the Imagination – part 2.

About Shannon Winslow

author of historical fiction in the tradition of Jane Austen
This entry was posted in Jane Austen, Jane Austen Quotes, Shannon Winslow, writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Much Left to the Imagination

  1. Vicki says:

    How about this thought…..Jane Austen “knew” that sometime in the distant future there would be some “living books” made that one could view….and this way it was left to each, in their time, to interpret as they believed it ought.

  2. Sharon Schmitt says:

    I got a good chuckle this past week when a poll said that reader’s all-time favorite propsoal scene was Darcy and Elizabeth from P&P. My thought was “which one – the insutling proposal at Kent/Hunsford or the non-existant one at the end of the book?

  3. Andrea says:

    I have previously read all Jane Austen’s novels, but just recently listened to Emma and now Sense and Sensibility on audio via my iphone. It’s very relaxing, especially at night.
    Last month I came home our monthly patchwork group full of news and wanting to buy your novels to read. Now I receive my delivery and am about to start, sooo exciting!! I have ‘For Myself Alone’, ‘The Darcy of Pemberley’ rated extremely high by the gals! And ‘Return to Longbourn’! So there will be very little patchwork and quilting done this month!
    Very pleased that down the track I can purchase audio!
    Well done.

  4. Jane says:

    Interesting observations. I think that everyone who wants to write Austen fiction should get a copy of Mary Lascelles’ “Jane Austen and Her Art”. In the chapter on narrative art, Lascelles notes that the first draft of “Persuasion” did have a direct proposal, then was redrafted to Wentworth’s letter. She also notes that it is the proposal between lovers that is at issue; after all, we do get treated to that bullet-pointed “My reasons for marrying” proposal from Mr. Collins. When we wrote our novel, I found Lascelles very helpful, which did not keep us from breaking two of her rules, and the direct proposal was one of them.

    • Thanks for the tip about the book, Jane.

      Funny that I didn’t even think abour Mr. Collins’s proposal! Haha. I wonder if that one has it’s basis in Harris Bigg Wither’s proposal to JA. In which case, no wonder she was underwhelmed by it!

  5. says:

    Curious to know which audio version of “Sense and Sensibility” you listened to. I’ve listened to several of Austen’s books during the past few months – some are amazingly good, others not so much.

    I haven’t felt cheated by any of Jane Austen’s writing: Her genius was painting a picture and drawing the reader in to imagine and to dream. It works for me.

  6. Pingback: Much Left to the Imagination – part 2 | Shannon Winslow's "Jane Austen Says…"

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