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Monday, October 25, 2010

How much does it matter that Jane Austen's bits of ivory had a touch of an editor's brush?

An intriguing literary discovery for Jane Austen fans was made public over this past weekend,as renowned Oxford University scholar Kathryn Sutherland revealed that our Miss Austen clearly had some editorial assistance in bringing many of her later works such as Persuasion and Emma to life.

As part of a three year project to have all of Austen's manuscripts available for online viewing,Sutherland read over 1,100 pages of her writings,which include spelling errors,incorrect grammar and scratch-outs. Most of the polishing of Austen's later material is attributed to William Gifford,contradicting statements by Jane's brother Henry such as "everything came finished from her pen."

It's no secret that the Austen family tended to encourage the notion of Dear Jane as a sweet little literary saint over the years,not to mention a few Austen devotees. Some may even feel upon first hearing this news a sense of outrage-"Oh,naturally-such a brilliant female author had to be taken in hand by a man! No mere woman could have the talent or wit to create such well crafted prose on her own, she had to have had help-how dare they suggest that!"

As many characters have to had to say to Mrs. Bennett,do calm yourself and take a moment to reflect on what influence that an editor would have on any writer's work. Especially a writer with exceptional talent that may not have been as much exposed to the wider world of letters and formal education as Miss Austen was:

She would not be the first writer to possess messy handwriting or prone to crossing out mistakes or lines that she changed her mind about,after all. If you look at the first drafts of many authors from her time to the present(and even further back),it's easier to appreciate the blessings of spellcheck and deletion that many of us enjoy in this electronic age.

It is the part of the duty of an editor to not only clean up the text but to steer their writers in the right direction when it comes to keeping an eye on the main point of the work. Yes,there is a vast difference between dropping some useful hints and taking over the material but no one,not even Miss Sutherland,is suggesting that.

By persisting in the idea that Miss Austen was able to produce perfect writing without any guidance(particularly male guidance)is another attempt at denying the lady her humanity,in my opinion.

The best thing about learning more about an artist's life and times is seeing him or her as a real person,who struggled with both personal and professional regrets yet managed to showcase their creative visions,some of which brought them true immortality. The price to pay for that is often high:

If anything,this new revelation should inspire more people to learn about Austen's creative process,something that has been taken for granted due to the strong commercialization of her work. Many are quick to write Jane off as a sentimental scribbler of love stories,despite the sharp jabs at the social morays of her day that are glaringly present in her books.

Others are fast to assume that Jane's stories don't require the in-depth analysis one would give to a more "sophisticated" literary work,seeing as it's easy to adapt her characters and plots into sitcom ready fare. Such conceited folly would make Miss Austen herself snicker with sarcastic amusement at the modern day likes of Mr. Collins or Lady Catherine thinking they know all there is know about anything,including her work:

Rather than damage the reputation of Miss Austen's work,Kathryn Sutherland's goal is to open up more discussion about her experimental style and promote the concept that Jane Austen was"even better at writing dialogue and conversation than the edited style of her published novels suggest." I hope that dialogue takes place,as it would benefit both old and new readers of Austen's body of work.

As we approach the anniversary of the publication of Sense and Sensibility,the first of Jane Austen's novels to be released upon the world,this new tidbit of knowledge about her writing is a gift that should not be shoved aside or packed up for disposal. Instead,it ought to be looked over as carefully as Miss Austen did with her prose and ultimately appreciated for the whole as well as the sum of it's parts:

1 comment:

Nora said...

You're right about people not perceiving Ms. Sutherland's revelations with outrage. If anything, it gives hope to people with writing ambitions... now we know Jane Austen wasn't superhuman and with persistence and effort we could achieve what she did.