“Let Other Pens Dwell on Guilt and Misery”

A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

—Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1817)

A couple years ago it was big news: “Manuscripts Suggest Jane Austen Had a Great Editor” was the headline at NPR’s online archive of the story.

“Everything came finished from her pen,” Austen’s brother, Henry, said in 1818, a year after his sister’s death. But now—though it may pain die-hard Austen fans—it turns out that Austen may have simply had a very good editor. Kathryn Sutherland, a professor at Oxford University, has been studying more than 1,000 original handwritten pages of Austen’s prose. She’s found some telling differences between the handwritten pages and Austen’s finished works—including terrible spelling, grammatical errors and poor (often nonexistent) punctuation.

You may remember these headlines. But there’s a part of this story you might not know, so even though it’s old news, let’s round it out, shall we? It’s a great story, really. Other headlines tell us where it’s headed:

Jane Austen’s Well-Known Style Owed Much to her Editor, Scholar Argues

Jane Austen’s Style Might Not Be Hers, Academic Claims

Jane Austen’s Novels Were Edited by a Man

… and so on.

But the media, for good or ill, is in the business of attracting eyeballs (one used to say “in the business of selling papers,” but that’s not an accurate statement anymore) and to do that, one creates an eye-catching headline. Heck, I do it on Twitter, to entice people to read my blog posts. (I should add: I’m not very good at it.) This was a sensational story, it seemed, until one read further.

“The research formed part of an initiative to create an online archive of all of Austen’s handwritten fiction manuscripts,” the BBC tells us. (This three-year project—in which King’s College London, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and the British Library in London were involved—launched in late 2010.) As these particular pages were studied, it became apparent there were significant differences between Austen’s handwritten original manuscripts and what was eventually published. Mention was made of poor spelling and punctuation, and of messiness. That’s the story. (It didn’t help that the Oxford scholar/researcher went on to say, “We should just stop polishing her halo.”)

The public’s reaction to the story fell into three camps, I’ve found: the breathless press (they of the snarky headlines), the passionate defenders (“No way! It’s all Jane!”), and the actual Austen scholars, whose reactions were more along the lines of, “And this is news … how?”

It’s well known—from her many letters—Austen worked closely with her publisher, which probably included editorial influence. Of course this would have been a man: this was the early-nineteenth century, for heaven’s sake. Also, scholars who have studied the original manuscripts have long noted Austen’s unruly notes; just the fact that they are so dense and often cross-hatched (to save paper, which wasn’t cheap) makes them look messy … but who among us would want to show off a first draft, especially if it were in longhand? I’m just sayin’.

Regarding the spelling and punctuation, Austen lived during “a time of flux for the English language,” according to one Austen expert. This was the era when dictionaries were just coming into being; no one spelled “correctly” because there was no such thing. The same can be said for grammar. Take a look, say, at the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, which were being transcribed and published some fifty years later; if you’re familiar with the Chicago Manual of Style, it’s a bit unsettling, all those commas and other punctuation oddities. But that was then, kids.

It’s a tempest in a teapot, in my opinion (and in this one):

Austen’s defenders made some telling points. For one thing, there’s no evidence that any editor ever took a blue pencil to Austen’s prose, and we don’t have so much as a page of the manuscripts of the novels that she submitted to her publishers. All that Sutherland or anybody else has to go on is the manuscripts for some teenage juvenilia and the rough drafts of some unfinished or discarded works.

And looking at those manuscripts, I had a hard time figuring out what the problem was. There are some careless errors, but these are rough drafts, and you can’t take off points for something that hasn’t been handed in yet. And by the standards of the time, she wasn’t a bad speller. She was inconsistent about possessives, and she sometimes put e before i in words like believe and friendship, but you can find the same thing in the manuscripts of Byron and Scott and Thomas Jefferson—the rules just weren’t settled yet.

In fact, it’s pure anachronism to describe any of those things as “wrong” or “incorrect”; it’s like calling Elizabeth Bennet a bachelorette. The modern notion of correctness was a recent invention in Austen’s time, and to people of Austen’s sort it smacked of the schoolmaster and the social climber.

So that’s the whole story. We know Jane traveled to London to work with her publisher on the printing of her books, because her own letters reveal it. What that work consisted of, we don’t know. It’s different nowadays; the importance of a good editor is recognized and all publishers utilize them. But no one need get any ideas about coming and hanging out here in the swanky second-floor office with me while we work on your book. Not gonna happen. :)

Wednesday the 18th marks the anniversary of Austen’s death, in Winchester, Hampshire, England, in 1817. You can read more about her final days here.


Tweet: Here’s the whole story about Jane Austen’s editor.
Tweet: Jane Austen was edited (by a man). And your point is …?

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