Weighing in on Jane

For those who haven’t been following the Jane Austen kerfluffle the last few weeks, the controversy centers around manuscript pages that have just been scanned and put on line, revealing that the original text is full of odd spellings and heavily punctuated, while the published works Austen is known for are much more streamlined (I am trying to explain the situation without using words that have bad connotations on either side, for reasons that will become obvious).

The response has been explosive: people are saying this means Austen was edited by A MAN and question what this means for feminism; they worry that the great author’s reputation has been tainted by the revelation that her words (or at least her semicolons) are not entirely her own; etc.

I found this to be a very measured response (It’s just a page or two, but for those who don’t want to click though, it points out that punctuation and spelling had been fluid concepts for a long time and were only starting to be codified in Austen’s time, and how important are commas, really), but I felt like it went a bit too far in the other direction, explaining away and diminishing the importance of the shift.

So here’s my take as an author and editor:

1. No one is arguing that the fatuousness of Mr. Collins or the wit of Elizabeth Bennet can be credited to anyone but Jane Austen. The woman was a genius for creating characters and employing them with a wonderful dry humor.

2. Editing is almost always an essential part of the process of getting a word out of the author’s head and into the hands of the public. For every Lovecraft that rails against it and every Richardson who goes through 40 versions trying to get the exact reaction he wants, there’s a billion authors in between who wrote something that was pretty good and showed it to someone in hopes of either polishing it to make it awesome or smoothing it out to make it more accessible to an audience. Whoever did the editing, this doesn’t put Jane’s work in a special category.

3. HOWEVER, part of the craft of writing is not just the substance but the presentation, the music of the line. The “A Fifth of Beethoven” disco remix is not the same as “Beethoven’s Fifth,” and what holds for music holds for literature as well. The truth is that the pacing and tone of Austen’s work shifts when the spelling and grammar changes. The question is whether (A) Austen was happy for changes that allowed her to clean up her rough drafts, (B) Austen wasn’t crazy about/didn’t care about the changes, but understood this was part of the publishing process, or (C) Austen strongly objected to the changes and felt they violated the heart of what she was trying to say in her work. The problem is we don’t KNOW, because much of Jane Austen’s correspondence was destroyed by her sister Cassandra when Jane died. We know from the manuscripts that she often scribbled out her own writing, trying to find the exact right word, trying to make her writing stronger. We know she was greatly surprised at the look of one of her books in print, which seems like a possible negative response, but we also have correspondence that shows her successfully resisting attempts by a potential patron to dictate what she wrote. So it’s hard to judge where she stood on these edits to her books, whether she was a victim or a willing participant. It’s a mystery that isn’t likely to be solved, and even if we could ask her or find one note that commented on this process, it’s entirely possible she had mixed feelings on the issue.

In the long run, historians and literature critics are going to spin a lot of theories about what this all means and never conclusively prove any of them. But for casual and even passionate readers of Austen, this isn’t likely to change much. Our modern eyes are more accustomed to the published versions, and we’re probably going to keep reading the books in the familiar style and enjoying the hell out of a brilliant writer.

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