Even the most sheltered person will have been bombarded by these recent headlines:
Jane Austen had a helping hand!
Jane Austen had an editor!
Jane Austen had a spell checker!
Jane Austen couldn’t spell!
Jane Austen would have flunked English!
Jane Austen’s notes messy!
Each headline that rolled off my RSS reader became increasingly more ridiculous. What can we expect next?
Jane Austen did not write her own novels!
Jane Austen is really a male.
Jane Austen is a fraud!
So Jane Austen’s Emma and Persuasion were heavily proofed and edited. SO WHAT!? The source for all this brouhaha is Professor Kathryn Sutherland, who, after studying 1,100 of Jane’s handwritten manuscripts up close came to the conclusion that Jane had HELP.
Professor Sutherland of the Faculty of English Language and Literature claims her findings refute the notion of Austen as “a perfect stylist”. It suggests, she continues, that someone else was “heavily involved” in the editing process. She believes that person to be William Gifford, an editor who worked for Austen’s publisher John Murray II. – BBC news
Now any fan of Jane Austen knows that while John Murray might have published Emma and Persuasion, William Edgerton oversaw the publication of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park. Since her first published novel, she was actively involved in reworking her novels and perfecting them.
Professor Sutherland clarified her statements and also came to the conclusion that Jane was experimental in her writing and that she was innovative and willing to try new things, and that she placed a great emphasis on dialog. Eh, yeah. And, duh, wasn’t that obvious to begin with? It’s one of the reasons why Jane’s novels translate so well to film – her characters are defined by their speech.
As for using an editor, as far as I know any writer worth their salt turns their work over to an editor and proofer before their work is published. During the writing process, Jane was known to bounce ideas off her sister Cassandra. Her family expressed their opinions about her characters and stories, and she would certainly be influenced by those she trusted.
Many writers I know belong to writing groups in which their first drafts are scrutinized, dissected, and discussed. After such a discussion, the writer is free to take their advice or ignore it. This, for many, is part of the creative writing process. Would such a group claim authorship of a book published under an individual writer’s name? Of course not. While they were instrumental in making that book happen, one would never claim after the fact that the writer’s role in crafting that novel was in any way diminished. I’m not saying that Professor Sutherland made these claims, but certain reporters have certainly taken up that way of thinking.
The headline that declared that Jane Austen’s notes were messy made me guffaw out loud. If any of you saw my first draft of anything, you would declare that I am illiterate. In addition, if you saw my first draft in my own handwriting, you would KNOW I am illiterate. Some writers in a creative frenzy, wanting to capture their thoughts quickly on paper before losing the thought, will actually write in a hurry, crossing out words, spilling ink, and forgetting their spelling and grammar.
As for preparing a work for publication, during her lifetime, Jane was heavily involved in rewriting her novels. She visited London and stayed with her brother Henry to prepare her Emma manuscript, and one imagines that she worked closely with William Gifford, the editor. The fact that she changed publishers and that John Murray, whose association with Byron made the poet a star, was significant for Jane. She had high hopes for her salability when making this move. Sadly, she would live long enough to see only one of her works published by this man, for Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously.
Now, for the reporters’ sakes (for they really were showing their ignorance with those ridiculous headlines,) let’s go over a turbo review of the history of spelling and grammar for the English language.*
1) Spelling was a free for all and writers wrote names and words according to how they sounded. The same name might be spelled a hundred different ways, such as Smith, Smyth, Smythe, Smithe, and so forth.
2) In 1712 Jonathan Swift wanted to create an Academy of the English Language that would provide people with grammatical and spelling rules. He was turned down by Parliament. Nevertheless, grammar books and spelling books began to appear in increasing numbers.
3) In 1755 Samuel Johnson published A Dictionary of the English Language.
4) In 1762, Robert Lowth wrote an Introduction to English Grammar.
5) The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was first proposed in 1859. This seminal work would lay to rest any confusion about the meaning of English words and their origin by systematically studying every word since the year 1000AD, and including meanings, spelling variations, parts of speech, pronunciation, etc. for each one of them. James Murray began the project in 1879, but it was not until 1928 that the first edition was published.
So, gentle reporters: There was a reason for Jane Austen’s creative spelling. She lived in a time of flux for the English language and it took a while for the dust to settle and for linguists and grammarians to see eye to eye on how the English language should be systematized, regulated, and presented in dictionaries and grammar books. To those who profess that Jane’s spelling would have flunked her out of English, I say “Phoey!”
- For an exciting history about the OED, read The Professor and the Mad Man by Simon Winchester
- Jane Austen Original writing, London Calling
- *History of English
- Jane Austen and her Editor, Jane Austen in Vermont
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