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A flutter among the Janeites

A quantity of careless writing has greeted the announcement by Professor Kathryn Sutherland of Oxford University that an examination of Jane Austen’s manuscripts reveals that she was far from a polished writer, along with speculation that her books had to be cleaned up and perhaps revised by her editor, William Gifford. The article in the Guardian is a specimen.

Well, we know that some authors, notably Thomas Wolfe and Raymond Carver, were aggressively edited. We know that Ezra Pound tore into Eliot’s Waste Land. (We also know, for a contrary example, that Emily Dickinson’s originality was marred by her editors, Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, until a reliable edition was brought out half a century ago.)

We know that all kinds of writers are edited, sometimes heavily. The announcement of the award of Pulitzer Prizes is greeted by applause and the popping of champagne corks in newsrooms, but also, I suspect, by winks and nods among the copy editors.

But before we dismiss Jane Austen as a pathetic spinster who needed a man to make her scribbings publishable, these accounts will bear some further examination, as Geoffrey K. Pullum suggests at Language Log. What we have been offered so far is skimpy with details about Austen’s supposed limitations.

It appears that Professor Sutherland has been examining draft manuscripts, and virtually no author looks good in the rough drafts or should be held accountable for them. And as the estimable Marie Sprayberry, a doughty Janeite and my friend since graduate school, points out in an exchange of messages, the fair copies of the six published novels have not survived. If we could see the manuscripts that Austen prepared for the publisher, we could form a clearer impression of how much editing the texts underwent.

Until we look at the digital version of the manuscripts being made available and see an academic rather than a journalistic account of Professor Sutherland’s findings, we’re left to understand that William Gifford did something to regularize Austen’s spelling, punctuation, paragraphing. Big whoop.

I’m afraid that the press does not come out too well in these accounts, though The Chronicle of Higher Education offers, as one would expect, a more nuanced and sophisticated set of particulars. The Daily Mail, for one, says, “One of her grammatical errors was the inability to master the ‘i before e’ rule and her works were littered with distant ‘veiws’ and characters who ‘recieve’ guests.”

Ms. Sprayberry remarks, with a tartness Austen herself would appreciate, “If I couldn't tell grammar from spelling, I believe I'd take up another line of work.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:49 PM | | Comments (4)


Hi, John! We were grad students together at Syracuse. My God, you haven't changed a bit. Thanks for the letter of reference signed by Samuel Johnson. I still have it.
Mary Barrett Taggart

It's not the Janeites who are fluttered. Anyone I've read in the last day or two who exhibits the least familiarity with Jane Austen's writing has rightly recognized that this is nothing more than a suggestion that Austen may have had a helpful editor.

As for fluttering? That seems to be concentrated in the popular media. There are headlines and news articles sounding almost as if Professor Sutherland (who knows better, of course) is crediting Gifford with having edited Austen's drafts to such an extent that he should be considered the true author. Which leads me to another literary mystery.

Maybe Gifford's real name is Edward de Vere.

This story was NO news to anyone who's ever read "Love and Freindship," Miss Austen's earliest, shortest, and hands-down funniest novel, written when she was 15 or perhaps younger.

Maybe it's a good thing Jane came along when she did and not 100+ years later, when misspelled mss almost never escape the slush pile. Whose loss would that have been?

Dear John,
In the future, you'd do well to note that hardly anyone on this side of the pond would be surprised to see that writers on the Daily Mail "couldn't tell grammar spelling". Despite its cut-glass accent, it truly isn't a serious newspaper in the sense you and I would understand.

I love your blog, by the way. You remind me so much of the first chief sub I ever worked with; irritating as hell a lot of the time but nearly always right.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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