Jane Austen’s manuscripts: Is she the writer we think she is?
Well, it’s all over the web, Jane Austen‘s manuscripts are full, FULL they say, of errors. They’re being formally launched tomorrow, Monday 25 October, so we can all see them then, though as far as I can tell they are already up: Jane Austen’s Fictional Manuscripts. Is something more going up tomorrow? Or is this just a case of a soft launch versus a formal launch? Anyhow, what does the claim really mean?
Kathryn Sutherland, the Oxford University academic who has been looking at the manuscripts, says that
It’s widely assumed that Austen was a perfect stylist – her brother Henry famously said in 1818 that ‘everything came finished from her pen’ and commentators continue to share this view today.
Except that it is pretty well acknowledged that Austen’s family was protective of her reputation, so … we do need to look a bit further.
Kathryn Sutherland continues to say, according to what I presume is the advance press release:
The reputation of no other English novelist rests so firmly on this issue of style, on the poise and emphasis of sentence and phrase, captured in precisely weighed punctuation.
That is partly so – and I am certainly one to laud her style – though I’d say her reputation rests on three things: style, story and insight.
Anyhow, Sutherland then says that what we know as the precision of Jane Austen’s writing is not evident here –
We see blots, crossings out, messiness – we see creation as it happens, and in Austen’s case, we discover a powerful counter-grammatical way of writing. She broke most of the rules for writing good English…
– and suggests there was a strong editorial hand involved in getting the works to the state in which we see them. Hmm… isn’t this the case for other authors? And anyhow, on how many novels is she basing this opinion? If it’s just Persuasion and the unfinished Sanditon – besides some of the earlier juvenilia and minor works – then these two were written when her health was failing. In fact, a quick look at the website as it exists now shows very little crossing out, for example, in Lady Susan. In her letters, Austen wrote of a few small typographical errors in Pride and prejudice and the odd missing “said he” and “said she”, which presumably means that what was published was close to what she wrote? Added to this is the fact that I understood that very little survives in manuscript form of Jane Austen’s novels. In fact, the introduction to the site says that:
There is no evidence to indicate that Jane Austen saw the bulk of these drafts as anything other than provisional. Hence the stark situation that no manuscripts appear to remain for works published or planned for publication in her lifetime (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey or Persuasion, the famous six novels). The assumption must be that their working and finished drafts were routinely discarded once replaced by print forms. There is only one exception: the two cancelled chapters of Persuasion, which represent an alternative ending to the one that made it into print.
Has this “press release” (or syndicated article) been written to get some controversy going … or is Sutherland, a reputable scholar I believe, basing her statements on other information? Will there be more on the site tomorrow? I look forward to following the continuing discussion …
Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? Did Austen write Austen? In the end what matters really is the work … isn’t it? Or is this just a little too naive?
POSTSCRIPT: I wrote the above last night as a bit of a “feeler”. While the statements in the news pieces did not accord with the knowledge I had about Austen’s manuscripts and her own practices, and while my research indicated that Sutherland is a reputable scholar, I wanted to raise the following issues:
- had more knowledge/manuscripts come to hand (though I suspected not) to alter our understanding?
- what difference does editing make to our assessment and appreciation of the works?
Let’s not even bother to raise the third one about the ethics of such skewed reporting if that’s what I – and clearly others – believe is behind it all!