There has been a flurry of recent news stories suggesting that Jane Austen's famous style was not all her own but owed a lot to her editor.
I'm not at all sure that there is anything substantial in these stories. So far, the radio pieces I've heard and the newspaper write-ups I've seen have been extremely light on actual examples.
The Chronicle of Higher Education's version gives no examples at all. Her editor William Gifford is described as "a punctilious grammarian" (he is also said to have "repunctuated Byron"), and is said to have changed some of her writing, but we are not told what, or in what ways.
The story is about the work of Professor Kathryn Sutherland, director of a project that has assembled all of Austen's surviving manuscripts online for comparison with the published texts; but she says directly that "This is essentially a story about Jane Austen's punctuation". In connection with "that high degree of polished grammatical style for which Jane Austen is known", Professor Sutherland uses the phrase "the exquisitely placed semicolon". As far as I can see, this may all be about a few commas, semicolons, and misspellings regularized by a copy editor, which is perhaps worth knowing about, but hardly supports the Chronicle's headline "Jane Austen's Well-Known Style Owed Much to Her Editor".
Other headlines are worse: we find Jane Austen's style might not be hers, academic claims, and Jane Austen's Style? Not Actually Jane Austen's, and Jane Austen would have flunked English?, and so on.
The Daily Mail article does at least give one or two examples, but they do not increase my confidence that the story has substance:
One of her [Austen's] grammatical errors was the inability to master the 'i before e' rule and her works were littered with distant ‘veiws’ and characters who 'recieve' guests.
On other occasions she wrote 'tomatoes' as 'tomatas' and 'arraroot' for 'arrowroot', which according to Professor Sutherland reflect her regional accent.
I cannot see how these spellings could be attributed to a regional (Hampshire, southern England) accent: nearly all English dialects sometimes reduce the last syllable of tomatoes and the second syllable of arrowroot to schwa. Anyway, this is all completely trivial stuff, nothing to do with grammar at all.
Yet the Mail quotes Professor Sutherland as saying:
The reputation of no other English novelist rests so firmly on the issue of style, on the poise and emphasis of sentence and phrase, captured in precisely weighed punctuation. But in reading the manuscripts it quickly becomes clear that this delicate precision is missing. This suggests somebody else was heavily involved in the editing process between manuscript and printed book.
She may have reams of solid evidence that Mr Gifford provided all of Austen's "poise and emphasis of sentence and phrase", or she may have just a bunch of sentences where Gifford put in semicolons that Austen hadn't bothered with. From what I have read so far, I just cannot tell.
The origin of the story seems to be an Oxford University press release about Professor Sutherland's project. There we read:
Austen’s unpublished manuscripts unpick her reputation for perfection in various ways: we see blots, crossings out, messiness; we see creation as it happens; and in Austen’s case, we discover a powerful counter-grammatical way of writing. She broke most of the rules for writing good English. In particular, the high degree of polished punctuation and epigrammatic style we see in Emma and Persuasion is simply not there.
No examples are provided of the alleged violations of "rules for writing good English": did Gifford really alter her prose syntactically? We are told nothing on this point. Sutherland is quoted thus:
The manuscripts are unparagraphed, letting the different voices crowd each other; underlinings and apparently random use of capital letters give lots of directions as to how words or phrases should be voiced.
So we are talking about messy, unparagraphed, hand-written scrawl, with the random capitalization that was common in everyone's writing before the 20th century (it is still often found today). But that's not the same as saying Austen's style was not her own, or that she didn't know English grammar.
About a thousand manuscripts of Austen's will be put online by the British Library tomorrow, and after that scholars will perhaps be able to find out whether there is really a linguistic story here at all.