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Jane Austen: did she need an editor?

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A fairly recent story reports that Kathryn Sutherland of Oxford University has compared over a thousand apges of Jane Austen's manuscripts with the published text and has concluded that Austen's work was significantly altered by her editor William Gibson.

Sutherland is a serious academic with a specialty in Jane Austen. She seems to be giving her discovery a positive spin:

Professor Sutherland, an Austen authority, said studying her unpublished manuscripts gave her "a more intimate appreciation" of the author's talents.

The manuscripts, she went on, "reveal Austen to be an experimental and innovative writer, constantly trying new things."

They also show her "to be even better at writing dialogue and conversation than the edited style of her published novels suggest."

I know that there are many Austen admirers on Ballet Talk, of whom I am one. (on the other hand, I have not followed the way Austen-the-writer has been depicted in literary criticism, biographies, other writers' fiction, or film.

Is this news surprising? Is it significant? Will it have any effect on the way readers approach Austen's works or on the way we understand her creative processes?


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To answer the title, many, if not most, great authors needed an editor.

I think how the revelation will affect her reputation among those who are aware of it will depend on what they find most valuable about her. Those who love the style will be disappointed that it was her editor's to a large degree. I'm not, because it's the characterizations and the description of social mores and restrictions that are important to me. I'd love to read the originals, because I'm intrigued by the idea that she was experimental, especially the original of "Persuasion".

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I agree with Helene. As someone who is edited for some work, and not for others, I can see an incredible difference in the final product. A good editor makes you sound just like you, but will pull out the materials that trip you up or get in the way. It can be a twisty process, but often the result more than justifies the trip.

I've only read a bit of Austen "in the original" and would be curious to see more, especially the first version of Persuasion, which is a particular favorite.

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Thanks for posting this, bart. As others have noted already, most writers, even the very greatest, need an editor. We have only Sutherland's opinion, and Sutherland's opinion could be wrong. (Austen's personal letters sound like Austen, as I remember.) Sutherland seems to be hinting that we may have a LIsh-Carver situation on our hands, which would go beyond mere editing. I would reserve judgment, given the paucity of information in the article.

In the very greatest novels, style, form, and observation are close to indissoluble, so if Austen had nothing to do with Austen's style - well, yes, that's a big deal.

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Speaking of editing Austen, our rector today cited the Book-A-Minute website's version:

The Collected Work of Jane Austen

By Jane Austen

Ultra-Condensed by Christina Carlson and Peter da Silva

Female Lead:

I secretly love Male Lead. He must never know.

Male Lead:

I secretly love Female Lead. She must never know.

(They find out.)


Now that's a little too severe for me!

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Not wildly accurate, either......

Here's an article with more details.

Jane Austen, one of the greatest novelists in English literature, had her work heavily edited to fix original manuscripts littered with spelling and grammatical mistakes, an expert said.

Professor Kathryn Sutherland studied 1100 original handwritten pages of Austen's unpublished writings and concluded that her efforts had been polished to correct the errors.

There may be less here than meets the eye. We'll see. The article mentions that the archive of Austen's original manuscripts is now online and provides a link. Other thoughts?

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There may be less here than meets the eye. We'll see. The article mentions that the archive of Austen's original manuscripts is now online and provides a link. Other thoughts?

Here's a link to the archive: Jane Austen's Fictional Manuscripts

Note that although the archive may contain all extant Austen manuscripts, it doesn't contain the manuscripts of her published novels -- these have apparently been lost. From the introduction to the digital edition:

Jane Austen’s fiction manuscripts are the first substantial collection of creative writings in the author’s own hand to survive for a British novelist. They represent every stage of her writing life, roughly 1787 to 1817; that is from childhood (aged 11 or 12) to the year of her death (aged 41). They display a wide variety of physical states: working drafts, fair copies, and crafted ‘publications’ for private circulation among family and friends. Laid out in conscious imitation or parody of the formal features of book design, and labelled by Austen Volume the First, Volume the Second, and Volume the Third, the teenage, handwritten notebooks (with the possible exception of Volume the Third) have long appeared to scholars to be finished artefacts. By contrast, most of the other manuscript writings consist of pre-print or rough drafts in various stages of development: the experimental novel later entitled The Watsons, a short, discarded section of Persuasion, and Sanditon, the final novel, unfinished when she died. 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.

Some Austen scholars seem underwhelmed (although this could of course be a bit of academic gamesmanship):

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."

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Thanks, Kathleen, for your link to the Chronicle of Higher Education article.

Dirac's comment -- "Less here than meets the eye" -- does seem a propos. At least compared with the original headlines, which made me think of something on the order of the extensive redaction of Emily Dickenson by Mabel Todd Loomis. (I confess that the sensationalist part of me was hoping to see angry Janeites demonstrating in Trafalgar Square.:devil:)

Doesn't Sutherland pretty much concede the limitations of her discovery?

"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.

Wasn't Loomis something of a "punctilious grammarian, too? Among other things.

Still more interesting to [sutherland], 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."

A few examples of original mss. passages, side by side with the same passages as published, might be helpful, even if these must be taken from second-tier work.

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