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