Jane Austen's Well-Known Style Owed Much to Her Editor, Scholar Argues

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New research drawing on digitized manuscripts of Jane Austen (1775-1817) suggest that a "punctilious" editor played a key role in shaping the published versions of some of her novels.
October 22, 2010

Was Jane Austen at heart an experimental writer rather than a polished stylist? Were some of her novels, including Emma and Persuasion, reshaped by an editor who cared more about proper punctuation and grammar than the author did?

Such notions would make some devotees of Austen's much-praised style gasp. But the editor of a new digital edition of Austen's fiction manuscripts says the drafts reveal the unedited novelist to be a more creatively unruly, grammar-bending writer than many people think.

Kathryn Sutherland, a professor of English at the University of Oxford, has spent the past three years working on Jane Austen's Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition, which makes its official debut on Monday. The project brings together 1,100 Austen manuscript pages for the first time since 1845, when the author's sister, Cassandra, died and the manuscripts were scattered.

"This is essentially a story about Jane Austen's punctuation," Ms. Sutherland half-jokingly told a reporter on Friday. "What I'm particularly interested in is that the manuscripts do not bear out that high degree of polished grammatical style for which Jane Austen is known"—what Ms. Sutherland calls "the exquisitely placed semicolon."

The scholar thinks she detects the work of William Gifford, a "punctilious grammarian" who scouted literary properties and did some editing for John Murray, Austen's publisher for the last two years of a seven-year publishing career that ended with her death, in 1817. Ms. Sutherland says that in letters, now at the National Library of Scotland, Gifford told Murray that Austen had talent but that her prose needed some buffing. (He also repunctuated Byron.) Comparing the manuscripts to the editions Murray published, "one has to reach the conclusion that Gifford is doing what he says he'll do," Ms. Sutherland concluded.

Still more interesting to her, however, is the authorial voice one hears in the manuscripts. She calls it "a more innovative, more experimental voice" than Austen gets credit for. "By not working with the grammatical form, she's actually coming much closer to writing real conversation" than in the printed versions where "she's pulled back into a more conventional form," the scholar said. "It's a voice you're perhaps not hearing again until the early 20th century."

Ms. Sutherland thinks the digital edition will give a push to "beginning a new kind of work on Jane Austen, which is how she actually wrote."

A Feat of Humanities Computing

Oxford's Bodleian Library, King's College London, and the British Library all had a hand in creating the digital edition. Other collections with Austen manuscripts, including the Morgan Library in New York, got involved as well.

Elena Pierazzo, a paleographer, and a team of other researchers at the Center for Computing in the Humanities at King's College London were instrumental in working out how to digitize the manuscripts, Ms. Sutherland said. "Working manuscripts, draft manuscripts, are dynamic. They're full of corrections, linear insertions," she said. "One thing we had to do was essentially rewrite a whole XML language."

Britain's Arts and Humanities Research Council provided money for the project, which cost about £165,000 (about $260,000), according to Ms. Sutherland. "They paid for all the manuscript digitization as well as the research support," she said.

Asked if future such projects might be affected by the drastic budget cuts just announced in Britain, Mr. Sutherland said they could be at risk.

"It seems to me that it's vital this kind of project goes on being funded," Ms. Sutherland said. "I don't think you can say the arts are not relevant when it produced a project like this." No only does the public now have a digital edition of Austen's manuscripts, she said, but other scholars will be able to use the computational model the Austen-manuscript team developed.

"We haven't just opened up Austen studies, we've pushed digital encoding further," Ms. Sutherland said. "I think we are giving good value because we're giving a resource that's [now] freely available online back to the public."

Austen, 'Smoothed Out' and Prettified

Emily Auerbach, a profesor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is the author of Searching for Jane Austen (Wisconsin, 2004), which examines how the novelist's family, friends, and fans created an Austen persona that distorted her personality and style.

"For too long, Austen's relatives and editors have 'smoothed out' and prettified Austen, removing the bite from her words and softening her image," Ms. Auerbach said by e-mail.

She said that the new digital edition of the manuscripts ought to give readers and scholars a chance to take a closer, unfiltered look at the writer's artistic approach.

"Austen cared deeply about her craft, saying 'I must go on in my own style and in my own way,'" she said. "Much as Emily Dickinson's poems were left behind in small booklets, with multiple words indicated at times, unusual punctuation, crossings out, etc., so Austen's manuscripts apparently reveal idiosyncratic uses of language that may be more deliberate on her part than editors have assumed."

For another Austen scholar, the biggest news is the existence of the database itself rather than the conclusions drawn by Ms. Sutherland. Janet Todd, a professor of English at the University of Cambridge and president of Lucy Cavendish College there, is the general editor of the Cambridge edition of the Works of Jane Austen.

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."