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.”