Posts Tagged ‘Kathryn Sutherland’

It is not often that a much-hyped book or film lives up to its reputation, as with The King’s Speech and Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen conquered the world , the book by Claire Harman and the subject of this review. I’ll admit to being a wee bit partial to any book that mentions my blogs – Jane Austen’s World and Jane Austen Today – but this is not the sole reasons for my gushing over Ms. Harman’s lucid and accessible account of the slow rise of Jane’s Austen’s literary fame in the 19th century to her near rock-star status as a popular cultural icon today.

Jane’s Fame was published in 2009 amidst much controversy. Accusations of heavy borrowing and plagiarism flew from the mouth and pen of Ms. Harman’s former friend,  Kathryn Sutherland, who had published Jane Austen’s Textual Lives, from Aeschylus to Bollywood in 2005. Ms. Harman countered the accusations with equally strong words, saying she had followed the standard practice of sourcing all quotes and citing the earliest sources for her information. With this controversy in mind, I read Jane’s Fame with the same morbid curiosity that Two and a Half Men fans are reading articles about Charlie Sheen’s downward spiraling career today. I am delighted to announce that I think Jane’s Fame stands on its own, paying due homage to Jane Austen’s Textual Lives, but making what could have been a dry tale into an exciting read  for the modern audience.

Laurie Kaplan, who reviewed Sutherland’s book for the Jane Austen Society of Northern America, wrote:

Through an examination of biographies, portraits, manuscripts, films, and editions of the novels, Sutherland tracks the creation of Jane Austen as “a special cultural commodity.” From James Edward Austen- Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen (1870), which presents a “family-managed” biography of his relation, to the films, which sometimes bear only a passing relation to the novels, biographers, editors, and directors have “marketed” their own versions of “Jane Austen” to the public.”

I agree with this assessment of Sutherland’s book. Several years back I had read portions of Jane Austen’s Textual Lives and from it learned much about Jane’s slow rise in literary reputation and in the estimation of her peers. However, in my opinion Dr. Kathryn Sutherland’s revelations were not entirely new. Any Janeite who has read a number of Jane Austen biographies would have known that Jane’s literary reputation stagnated in the years after her death. The facts were scattered in a number of sources and Dr. Sutherland was astute enough to pull them together. She chronicled Jane’s rise in academic order, and had her efforts rewarded with the publication of her book by Oxford University Press. While her richly footnoted tome is perfectly suited for the shelves of a university library, her professorial writing style would in no way appeal to Mr & Mrs John Q Public.

Enter Ms. Harman.

One cardinal rule of copyright laws is that facts and historical events belong to the public domain. One cannot patent the dates of a person’s life or historic events. Ms. Harman, with her easy and accessible writing style and her academic knowledge, pounced on the Jane Austen bandwagon and came up with a runaway hit. In fact, Ms. Harman makes the rise of Jane’s fame seem exciting. Here is an excerpt of her description of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s attempt to take a look at Fanny Knatchbull’s letters from her Aunt Jane:

In 1869 Fanny’s sister Elizabeth Rice warned him not to wait for a sight of the letters, as there was virtually no chance of it. Lady Knatchbull, she said, was prone to giddiness and confusion, an impression of advancing senility confirmed by fanny’s daughter Louisa, who protested that her mother would have been only too delighted to assist James Edward ten years earlier, but it was too late now.”

Chris Riddell's cover from the April 2009 issue of The Literary Review

It is universally acknowledged that Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoirs of his aunt in 1869 (and quickly again in 1871) piqued the Victorian public’s curiosity, and that his biography prompted the buying public to purchase Jane’s novels in droves. In the first half of the 20th century, academics and the public alike discovered the rich literary minefield that Jane’s novels represented. Film adaptations only served to boost her reputation, and by 1995, when A&E presented a 6-part series of Pride and Prejudice and the Internet began to be embraced by non-geek users, the stage had been set for world-wide Austen adoration.

My major complaint about Jane’s Fame is that I suspect this book was written to meet a publisher’s deadline. The first 2/3 of its pages are rich with facts and anecdotes, with fully developed topics that satisfied my curiosity about Jane’s rise in popularity. But then the book’s pace speeds up and the last few chapters seemed rushed and thin. The most recent years of Jane’s popularity are barely covered, as if the author (and publisher) lost focus. Be that as it may, I read Jane’s Fame in two or three sittings and recommended it to my Janeite book club. They LOVED it. I am confident that you will too.

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Olivia Williams as Jane Austen

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!”

Use a translation device to read the next two worthy articles:

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