Something very shocking indeed has come out in London


Several Alert Janeites let us know–some in frantic terms–about a current spate of articles featuring Austen scholar Kathryn Sutherland, who is going around telling everyone that that Jane was barely literate and an editor rewrote all her books. Or, that’s what one might gather from some august news organs, with their sensational headlines and ledes.

The Daily Mail: How Jane Austen failed at spelling: Study shows author wrote in a ‘regional accent’ and used poor punctuation

The Telegraph: Jane Austen’s famous prose may not be hers after all

Reuters: Austen’s “polished prose” not so polished: academic

Even Auntie Beeb, who has made such hay from Herself over the years, sticks a shiv in her back, Brutus-like: Jane Austen’s style might not be hers, academic claims

All of the articles are quoting Prof. Sutherland, who is, not coincidentally, preparing to launch the Austen manuscripts online project and, one presumes, looking for some publicity. She opines that in her study of Austen’s manuscripts, it appears that Jane sometimes misspells words! And uses the wrong punctuation! And crosses things out and rewrites them! And that John Murray employed an editor to fix her errors!!!!

This is news? Seriously?

We immediately noted a problem in Prof. Sutherland’s comments as published: The “manuscripts” she is studying are mostly first drafts. There is a big difference between a first draft and the fair copy that Jane Austen no doubt provided to her publishers. She was writing these first drafts solely for herself; they were not meant to be shown to anyone. She used abbreviations and lots of dashes. She might not have properly formatted conversations in an attempt to save paper. She was probably writing very quickly and didn’t bother correcting spelling or punctuation as she went (or more likely didn’t think about it much). She was just getting ideas down on paper, and unlike writers today, did not have recourse to touch-typing to do so. Imagine the words tumbling out of her in a stream, and she desperate to get them down before they were lost forever. That they are in a big mess is not that important–they can be fixed later.

From the first draft, we do not know how many times she wrote and re-wrote her stories before making a fair copy (and no doubt another for herself–imagine writing out Emma two times!!!) and sending it to the publisher. The fair copies that exist of Lady Susan show the difference–neatly written, carefully spaced, the paper itself perfectly cut to the exact size to make a neat stack. Who knows that it wasn’t a crossed-out, ill-spelt mess before it got to that stage?

And speaking of spelling–while Jane had a lifelong problem with the whole “i before e except after c” thing, spelling wasn’t exactly standardized in Austen’s day. In some cases, it’s not standardized now. And sometimes one just gets a brain-block (ours is the word conscientious, which SHOULD NOT HAVE A T IN IT, we’re very sorry) and spells something wrong. It happens. And Jane Austen didn’t have red squiggly lines appear under her words so that she could go back and squint at it and say, “Oops, missed that one.”

Several family members who knew Jane noted that she worked neatly with her hands. The letters we saw at the Morgan Library exhibition earlier this year bear this out: at the time we called them examples of epistolary engineering, and they were. She crammed as much information as she could into the space available, carefully leaving a space for the wafer to seal it. She knew where the paper would be folded, and what would show and what would be hidden from prying eyes not meant to see it. While she still took some shortcuts that she knew would be understood by the letter recipient, they were still neat and understandable, and, yes, contained some spelling or grammatical errors. But there is a big difference between her first-draft manuscripts and the letters, and between the letters and the novels. If Austen could make one leap, why not the other? It stands to reason that Jane Austen’s fair copy manuscripts were closer to the printed versions. It is important to note that no fair copy manuscripts survive for any of Jane Austen’s six major novels.

That is so important that we are going to repeat it and make it bold as well as italicized: no fair copy manuscripts survive for any of Jane Austen’s six major novels.

Therefore, any claim of “style” or changes inserted can never be proven but must always be speculation. We are unable to tell what Jane fixed or added or subtracted in the fair copy. It should also be noted that there are some places in Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, as published, that we think Jane might have changed, but remember she never got to proof the galleys on those two, since they were published posthumously. Why didn’t Mr. Wonderful at John Murray fix those, hmm?

As to the novels having undergone some editing–what’s wrong with that? A good editor is worth his or her weight in gold. She tightens the occasional out-of-control phrase and fixes your boo-boos. This is a good thing, and we think Jane Austen would have been grateful for this help; but we still are doubtful that William Gifford did heavy rewriting. If he copy-edited the books, that’s fine and not really a big deal.

This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is rather more measured and less sensational than most of the pieces, and, again not coincidentally, reports rather less sensational comments from Prof. Sutherland. The author also commits actual journalism by finding other Austen scholars to comment. Janet Todd’s comments are enlightening:

Ms. Todd said she was most enthusiastic about having the manuscripts available online, and described Ms. Sutherland’s scholarship as “interesting and always provocative.”

But she also said that other scholars, including those who worked on the Cambridge edition, have already used manuscript evidence to demonstrate that Austen was a reviser and an experimenter. The Cambridge editors “studied at first hand all the manuscripts of Jane Austen,” Ms. Todd said, also by e-mail. “We concluded, as many have done before us (Virginia Woolf noted after reading a manuscript work that Austen went through ‘pages of preliminary drudgery’ and was no ‘prolific genius’), that Austen was a writer who achieved her perfection through much labor and revision.”

Whether or not Gifford had a hand in the revisions, “I would query the notion that Persuasion, however wonderful in many respects, is a high spot of Jane Austen’s style,” she said. “In many respects it lacks the finish of Pride and Prejudice.”

According to Ms. Todd, most critics no longer agree with the assessment of Jane Austen’s brother Henry that “Everything came finished from her pen.”

“Our edition, along with previous ones, has made it quite clear how far from the truth this was,” she said, “and I don’t know any recent critic who holds that view.”

We’ve always found it rather hilarious when academics stress over the placement of a comma or something similarly technical in Austen’s manuscripts. We find speculation at the other end of the spectrum equally hilarious. In Jane Austen’s work, one must avoid the extremes and always look for balance. Why has no one written Jane Austen and Zen?

Thanks to the Alert Janeites who sent in reports: Laurel Ann, Lisa, Cheree, Trai, Steve, and LeSpinster.

42 thoughts on “Something very shocking indeed has come out in London

  1. Julia

    Interestingly, the comments by Sutherland cited in The Guardian show a much more positive interpretation:

    Gifford, a much more obscure figure who was said to be shy and awkward, polished up Austen’s manuscripts, smoothing out the style, regularising the punctuation, introducing the famous exquisitely placed semicolons and eliminating her blizzards of dashes.
    “Does it make her less of a genius?” said Professor Kathryn Sutherland of the English language and literature faculty at Oxford University.
    “I don’t think so,” she said, answering her own question. “Indeed I think it makes her more interesting, and a much more modern and innovative writer than had been thought.
    “In particular, her use of dashes to heighten the emotional impact of what she is writing is striking: you have to wait for Virginia Woolf to see anything comparable.”


  2. I also wrote on this topic earlier today and agree in particular with Janet Todd. I teach tutors to help struggling adult readers with their writing. The important thing about the writing process are the author’s thoughts and ideas. We teach that the mechanics of writing – spelling, punctuation, grammar – can be worked on later. Editing and proofing are part of the writing process.

    The press’s reaction is all bunk. I have been truly mystified that those who make their living from writing would forget such important facts. – Vic


  3. Oops!! Well, now we can see why editing and proofing are important to the final writing product but not to the thought itself.

    So sorry for the grammatical mistake!


  4. A. Marie

    Great Minds Run in the Same Direction Dept.: My friend John McIntyre at The Baltimore Sun did a blog post on the same topic today, with a bit of assistance from yours truly, and came to much the same conclusions ( Here’s a fuller version of the comments I sent him earlier today:


    First, there’s no question that Austen’s existing rough drafts (The Watsons, Sanditon, the canceled chapter of Persuasion) and letters are, by comparison with the published novels, rough. But as Janet Todd says [in the Chronicle of Higher Education article you cite, Mags], this is not new news. Certainly I was struck by it when I saw the JA exhibition at the Morgan Library last fall. And I was also struck by the differences between the rough drafts and the fair copy of Lady Susan–which certainly has its share of idiosyncratic spellings and heavy reliance on the dash, but which I think also demonstrates that JA was at least acquainted with the concept of the paragraph and did not demonstrate “a total inattention to stops [or] a very frequent ignorance of grammar” (Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey).

    Second, no article I’ve read so far has made it clear that we have no fair copies of any of the published novels. A few of them talk about the ms. of Persuasion as if we had the whole thing, but all that remains is the canceled chapter, which JA herself discarded in favor of the present eclaircissement. I don’t know whether Sutherland’s complete remarks to the press ever made it clear that this is so, but the implication is that they didn’t.

    Finally, the mainstream British press has certainly produced several sillinesses in covering this story. In addition to the problem with the caption, the Guardian’s story says that Sutherland “compared the manuscripts and the published versions line by line.” In the case of the novels, what manuscripts? And the Telegraph’s reporter says that “Amongst Austen’s grammatical misdemeanours was an inability to master the ‘i before e’ rule.” [The Daily Mail article that McIntyre cites seems to have repeated this inanity verbatim.] If I couldn’t tell grammar from spelling, I believe I’d take up another line of work.


    And now, having demonstrated to our own satisfaction that all this is much ado about not very much, we and other JASNA AGM attendees can look forward to meeting in Portland!


    • Hey Marie, thanks for the link. I’m glad to read that someone else had the same reaction as I did–WAIT THESE ARE NOT FAIR COPY MANUSCRIPTS THEY ARE FIRST DRAFTS. It seems to me that a big failing in some Austen scholars and critics is that they’ve never written fiction and don’t know how it works–that the first draft is rarely what the public sees. These manuscripts are still extremely interesting, to me at least, because they give a glimpse into Austen’s process. You can almost see how her mind works as she’s composing. But I would never take these to be what she meant to publish. None of the extant manuscripts were meant for publication, so I don’t think we can take them as any kind of proof of what Austen would have provided to a publisher, even if they are fair copies meant for friends and family to read.


      • Sandra

        Academic writing gets edited all the time too. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to help much, ’tis true. ; ) We’re just lucky we don’t have to persuade the public to part with their pocket money.


  5. Kira

    The people who write the headlines of the newpapers above should take a look at this blog – I loved the headline here. It was familiar – and worked great in the context, but it took me a few moments to place it. That’s one of the reasons why I love reading this blog.


  6. Mags,

    as I’ve commented at Vic’s blog, in my opinnion, we cannot blame only the silly newspaper headlines. The tone of suspicion, even if slight, that the errors would be this level and corrections so deep that would modify the Jane’s text style, that leads to final texts are the teacher’s own statements with expressions such “heavily involved”, “Gifford as the culprit”, plus the title of the article (at Oxford page) “The famous style of Jane Austen can not be hers after all,”.

    I like the article by Jonathan Jones (The Guardian), caled “Attack on Jane Austen’s genius shows neither sense nor sensibility


    • I agree with you, Raquel. The press is to blame but only from one part. It seems professor Sutherland’s expression is to blame too, and apparently Oxford University’s press release is what set all the other ‘journalists’ used to distort even more the whole. It is not the first time, she has been involved in something like this (remember her claims that Claire Harman stole from her for Jane’s Fame).

      I think it is useful to repeat, as Mags has done, that there are NO manuscripts of the six novels, no first drafts nor fair copies of them, NOTHING save the handful leafs with the cancelled chapters of Persuasion, which BTW show that Jane Austen’s writing, phrasing, style, etc. was hers and hers only. An information that apparently Sutherland and the University did not care to clarify to the press either, so her side-by-side, line-by-line comparison was not of the novels, but of the Juvenilia, etc.

      The press got it that it was meant for all the six novels. However, Murray and therefore Gifford were only in charge of the first editions of only half of those novels, Emma and the postumous Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. So it is rather questionable that Gifford could have been that “heavily involved”.


      • Cinthia,

        we must repeat all the times things like “there are no more manuscripst”, “Jane Austen was not Victorian writer”, “Jane AUSTEN not AUSTIN, please” and so on!

        I din’t know about Claire Harman affair…

        I’ve tried to contact you via your blog but I can’t, so I ask you, here, permission to reproduce part of your comment at my blog (Jane Austen em Português) with all due credit, of course.

        May I? thank you


      • Of course you can quote me, Raquel. I’m sorry about the ‘blog’, it is not operational really, since it is only the info page for the Spanish group at Yahoo and since Geocities closed I’ve not had any time to upload all the other information we had at WordPress.


  7. smhorowitz

    While I’m glad that the Austen mss will now be available online, I think it’s also important to point out, not only that (as Mags reminds us), there are no fair copies of Austen’s major novels, but that most of the surviving manuscripts are juvenalia. Is it so shocking an idea that maybe Austen improved as a writer? After all, most great writers need to practice, and don’t write perfect novels at 15.

    (This also isn’t the first time Sutherland has taken on Austen’s editors — her Jane Austen’s Textual Lives, a very interesting book, has a section on how R.W. Chapman, who edited the Oxford editions of Austen, did something quite similar.)


    • I think I’ve mentioned on the blog before that I find the current mania for Chapman-bashing among Austen scholars distasteful. I understand that he made some executive decisions in his editing that might have gone a little too far, but honestly, sometimes it’s like he spit on Jane’s grave or something.


      • smhorowitz

        I agree, Mags. I give Chapman a lot of credit for tracking down what he did and putting together really scholarly editions of Austen. Yes, he may have made some decisions that we now see as flawed, but the man was an incredible textual scholar, and he deserves credit for that.


  8. On purely selfish grounds, I for one am not looking forward to my non-Austen-loving friends/relatives/colleagues gleefully asking if I’ve heard that my beloved Austen was a hack who could barely put two sentences together.

    It seems like everytime a new theory, no matter how preposterous, on who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, said friends/relatives/colleagues feel compelled to share the news with me.


    • A non-Janeite friend already emailed this accusation to me, as if mispellings and incorrectly placed dashes somehow take away the brilliance of Jane’s work. I think it’s funny that people somehow believe that “real writers” just make a book happen by magic. I had someone once tell me that if I had talent I wouldn’t need to study writing because it would just come naturally to me. Sigh.


  9. LeSpinster

    “She opines that in her study of Austen’s manuscripts, it appears that Jane sometimes misspells words! And uses the wrong punctuation! And crosses things out and rewrites them! And that John Murray employed an editor to fix her errors!!!!”

    Someone fetch the smelling salts! Meanwhile I’ll be over in the corner running mad.

    Loved your take-down and the title you chose, Mags. I too have NA on the brain. I always revisit it around Halloween.


  10. Reeba

    I’m curious.
    Were here letters (mainly to Cassandra) also edited, corrected etc etc?

    I don’t know what to make of K Sutherland. Is she making a mountain out of a molehill for her own benefit?


  11. Reeba

    This news is doing the rounds of Europe and has appeared in a lot of other languaGES.

    Today several aquaintances who know my love for JA and her novels brought newspapers with these articles to show me.
    What has this KS done?
    The world is suddenly a different place 😦


  12. Maria L.

    When I saw the first stirrings of “scandal” in the British press, I thought it must have been a slow news day. I really hadn’t been paying much attention to all the fuss until my beloved NPR got on the bandwagon this morning and irritated me. Prof. Sutherland’s PR machine has certainly been working overtime on this so-what affair, but really, aren’t her 15 minutes up yet?

    I still don’t get what the fuss is; haven’t we known about it all along? I pulled out a crumbling 30+-year-old paperback Signet edition of Pride & Prejudice that I have on my shelf, and even that one included the note: “Typographical and other obvious errors have been corrected, and punctuation and archaic spellings have been brought into conformity with modern English usage.” Jane has always gotten some editing of one kind of another; who cares? There is not one single published author who does not come in for some copy-editing.


  13. Nancy

    On Monday at precisely 12:01 AM, I will begin work on my next novel. This is my eighth year to participate in National Novel Writing Month, a global challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. When I finish on or around November 30, I will not have a pristine work of art to show for my effort. I will have a jumbled mess of hackneyed story lines, trite characters, cliched dialogue, and even misspellings and poor grammar. Those are the things a rough draft is made of! I spend every October explaining to the newbies that they will not be creating a book store ready work in 30 days. If I understand this, how come scholars don’t?


  14. Julia Riley

    And today’s comment by Alison Pearson in the Telegraph: who cares if she couldn’t spell? She was ahead of her time, after all – we all know that! I personally don’t speak ‘txt’ but I loved this:

    By Allison Pearson
    Published: 7:30AM BST 28 Oct 2010


    Jane Austen – the first draft
    Today, a first edition of Pride and Prejudice goes under the hammer at Sotheby’s. Estimated price, £100,000. You could buy a decent husband for that, in Jane Austen’s day.
    Lately, however, her reputation has taken a knock, with scholars revealing our most decorous lady novelist couldn’t spell, couldn’t punctuate, and spoke like a Wurzel. Personally, my adoration of the great Jane has soared with this heartening news.

    If even she couldn’t handle a semi-colon, doesn’t that give hope to the rest of us? And, if her style is now known to be free-flowing and uninterrupted, doesn’t it bring her closer to modern ways of speech? If I were the lucky buyer of that first edition, I would shake the pages carefully, to see if any early drafts fall out: “Be not !alarmed! mdm @ the inteligence i bare, nor @ the feelings that i hav entatained 4u since i got 2 cu at those balls lol. i am gr8ly vexed @ yr dissmissal of my caracter as 2 proud yeah but no but my in10tions r pure i hav gsoh + am in possession of a gd 4tune and am there4 in want of a wifi. i remain yr obedeint ect Da C.”

    Loved it!


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