Jane Austen’s manuscripts: Is she the writer we think she is?

Jane Austen sketch by Cassandra

Cassandra's portrait of her sister, c. 1810

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 SensibilityPride and PrejudiceMansfield ParkEmmaNorthanger 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!

20 thoughts on “Jane Austen’s manuscripts: Is she the writer we think she is?

  1. As soon as I saw that news story, I remembered you’d mentioned a passion for Jane Austen and wondered if you’d seen it. The story reminds me of the revelations about Raymond Carver a year or two ago – only an almost overbearingly brutal editor called Gordon Lish actually made him Carveresque. As an editor myself, I think it shows how important editing is – at a time when it is increasingly undervalued. While both Carver and Austen provided the raw material, without which their editors could not have begun work, both writers do emerge from the new findings as something other than we had thought them. The work doesn’t change though.

    • Thanks zmkc – I’m rather chuffed that you remembered. I guess I’m not surprised you’re an editor by the quality of your writing not to mention your wide knowledge. I have a lot of respect for editors, and do see them as playing a big role in creating a work. (Loved Hilary McPhee’s Other people’s words). Of course, their role must vary with different authors … anyhow, I’d love to know whether these news reports are exactly as Sutherland meant. I’ve done some internet searching and can only find these reports, and some of her earlier writing on Austen which sounds very reasonable. Shall follow with interest!

      (BTW My mother is an editor – primarily of dictionaries including the Macquarie during her career.)

      • The Macquarie is the best, three cheers for your mother. And thank you for your kind words. I think one of the most important things an editor should do is not impose their style on a writer – but then again I think Gordon Lish made Carver the writer we know. It will be interesting to watch the Austen thing develop. The vital thing though is that the raw material springs from only one source – and without the raw material, editors can do nothing.

  2. So what if her manuscripts were not flawless and if she crossed out one or a one thousand words? To me, Austen IS the ultimate creator of some of the best and my most favorite novels and nothing – not a manuscript, not the voice of ghosts and goblins from the 1800s, can prove to me otherwise. Media is always sensationalizing stuff to get attention and there is no other motivation here but to get attention – that’s my belief where this Kathryn Sutherland is concerned. Long live Austen’s reputation, the one we know and believe to be true!

    • Thanks Farnoosh … love your passionate defence! As I suggested in my post, I believe Sutherland is reputable so it does seem to be the media yet again trying to make scholarship sensational rather than just interesting!

  3. Thanks for writing about this… certainly an important piece of scholarly news. From the blog ‘London Calling’, I found this link to the BBC Radio interview with Kathryn Sutherland, who concludes that JA’s handwritten manuscripts only show that she is an even greater writer than we first thought because of her radical style in creating conversations, something that didn’t come until much later in the works of Woolf and Joyce.

    The actual interview in this 2 hr. program is at 1:19:16

    If we listen to what Kathryn Sutherland has to say, though briefly, we’ll know it’s media headlines like “Austen Was Bad Speller: UK Scholar” that is sensationalizing this 3-year scholarly project. If I were Kathryn Sutherland, I would hold a news conference to clarify my findings and conclusion… or maybe she will on Oct. 25th?

    • Thanks Arti. My search of the internet last night did not bring this up. It did bring up scholarly articles by her which suggested a far more rational analysis of Austen than the news reports. It confirms my suggestion that the piece/s which have been reported all around the world were aimed at getting controversy going. Why news ha to always be bad/sensational I don’t know. Well, I suppose I do as it sells. I will listen to this interview…

    • I have listened to it now Arti – thanks. Funny how the reports don’t pick up her positive comments which she presumably has also said elsewhere. Honestly – and sorry here kimbofo – but it’s no wonder we sometimes question journalists! (Not journalists like kimbofo though).

      Anyhow, I note that when she refers to P&P and MP in the interview she mentions the publisher’s/editor’s letters about the ms and not the ms themselves. This is because they don’t exist (I believe). There are a lot of crossings out in the two surviving cancelled chapters of Persuasion – but, these were the ones she cancelled and replaced, so it’s quite understandable that they would have a lot of crossings out as she tried to rework them before giving up? So … perhaps she wasn’t a perfect speller and punctuator but she wouldn’t be the only author to have her ms tidied up by editors… would she?

  4. LOL Lisa … that’s pretty well what I thought – given what seemed to be Sutherland’s reputation – but thought it was worth putting out there for discussion in a more rational way, because there are a few issues to unpack here, including the role of editors. (From her letters, we know Austen did check her ms – though not Persuasion as it was published posthumously – but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t some editing from publishers too. In one of the scholarly works, Sutherland – if I remember correctly – talks about the division of the novels into volumes and how it isn’t clear what if any role Austen had in that…)

    I’m really thinking that these words of Sutherland’s, again as I suggest in the post, relate only to Persuasion (and the unfinished Sanditon) and how that ms was developed…

  5. Pingback: Austenacious » Another academic slapfight over Jane Austen

  6. Well as anyone who reads Austen knows…the title Love and Freindship boldly indicates that Austen misspelled upon occasion.

    I would agree with Kimbofo–except for the fact that when it comes to Austen scholars, we are talking about a different breed of human being: Intense–albeit possessed in their scrutiny of all-things-Austen.

    There are get-togethers, you know, when Austenites zone in dressed as their favourite Austen characters. I always wanted to go as Lady Bertram’s pug, but I’m not housetrained. Let alone licensed.

    • Oh good one, Guy… and thanks for making that “freindship” point though we should point out that she was young when she wrote it (hmm…I suppose I knew how to spell “friendship” when I was 14).

      Would love to see you as Lady B’s pug!

  7. So those are the only Austen manuscripts we actually have? If so it doesn’t seem like it is enough to make any sort of broad statement of judgment about her creative process. I must say though I do like her handwriting and the way she makes capital “I” and capital “E”

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