I have a piece on "Fresh Air" today on the Was-Jane-Austen-Edited-and-Why-Would-It-Matter-Anyway kerfuffle that Geoff Pullum discussed in a post a couple of weeks ago. After looking over the Austen manuscripts online, I concluded that the whole business was meretricious nonsense. What's most interesting is the extraordinary attention given the claims. It testifies to Austen's Gagaesque (Gagantuan?) celebrity (whose history is recounted in the recent, very readable Jane's Fame by Claire Harman — see below). But it also says something about the common wisdom about punctuation that sends items like Eats Shoots and Leaves to the top of the bestseller list.
In fact the two points are connected.
As the Austen scholar Rachel Brownstein puts it in a soon-to-appear essay: "After over twenty years of pop-cultural Jane-o-mania, a backlash was in order… We want to find this long-dead novelist flawed, and seize gleefully now on her grammar, right now, because we confuse morality (especially sexual morality) with correctness — as Jane Austen’s novels do not."
I took it as my brief to talk about the purely linguistic questions, all the more since in a recent book Kathryn Sutherland drew on a book of mine for her analysis of Austen's punctuation. But over and above the constraints of time and listener attention, radio isn't an ideal medium for exploring the subtleties of the semicolon. So here's the piece, annotated, and with a few cuts restored.
"A storm in a teacup" is the British version of the idiom, and it's hard to imagine a more apt example than the squall that blew up recently over the claim by the Oxford professor Kathryn Sutherland that Jane Austen was actually a sloppy writer. Sutherland was publicizing a new website that has put 1000 pages of Austen's manuscripts online. According to her, the manuscripts are full of faulty spelling, break every rule of English grammar, and give no sign of the polished punctuation we see in the novels. She concluded that Austen's prose must have been heavily edited for publication, quite possibly by the querulous critic William Gifford.
It's a measure of Austen's rock-star status that those claims got international coverage as a major celebrity scandal. The BBC headed its report "Jane Austen's Elegant Style may not be Hers." The French media website Actualité led with "Jane Austen massacred the English language," and the Italian daily Il Giornale used the headline "Austen Revised and Corrected by a Man!" Or as one blogger put it, "Austen, we have a problem!"
Not surprisingly, those stories provoked a swell of indignation from the blogs and websites of the Janeroots. The Janeites are the only literary cultists who take their title from their idol's given name — the writer that that Henry James described with a touch of irritation as "Everybody's dear Jane" — and they're apt to take criticisms of her personally. And Austen's defenders made some telling points. For one thing, there's no evidence that Gifford or any editor ever took a blue pencil to Austen's prose, and we don't have so much as a page of the manuscripts of the novels that she submitted to her publishers. All that Sutherland or anybody else has to go on is the manuscripts for some teenage juvenilia and the rough drafts of some unfinished or discarded works.
And looking at those manuscripts, I had a hard time figuring out what the problem was. There are some careless errors, but these are rough drafts, and you can't take off points for something that hasn't been handed in yet. And by the standards of the time, she wasn't a bad speller. She was inconsistent about possessives, and she sometimes put e before i in words like believe and friendship, but you can find the same thing in the manuscripts of Byron and Scott and Thomas Jefferson — the rules just weren't settled yet.
In fact it's pure anachronism to describe any of those things as "wrong" or "incorrect"; it's like calling Elizabeth Bennet a bachelorette. The modern notion of correctness was a recent invention in Austen's time, and to people of Austen's sort it smacked of the schoolmaster and the social climber. My guess is that she would have little use for people who went around clucking their tongues over misplaced apostrophes in grocers' signs — the sort of pedantry she might put in the mouth of Mr. Collins.
Punctuation was in flux, too. Modern readers will be disconcerted to see Austen sticking a comma between a subject and verb or strewing dashes apparently at random. But as Sutherland herself noted in an earlier book, Austen often used punctuation to signal the rhythms of speech rather than the grammatical structure. (As it happens, Sutherland based that analysis on a book called The Linguistics of Punctuation that I wrote some years ago.)
By the time Austen was writing, though, that rhythmic use of punctuation was yielding to the modern system based on syntax, which took the written language further from the intonations of speech. That's the system that shows up in most of the early editions of her novels. 
But who supplied the punctuation in the novels? Was it Austen herself, or her publisher John Murray, or some nameless editor or compositor? Nobody knows. And if we were talking about almost any other writer, nobody would care, either. Fitzgerald or Hemingway's literary luster wouldn't be tarnished if it transpired that their punctuation had been revised by an editor (though maybe Kerouac's would). But when people talk about Austen's style, they're thinking of those shapely clauses making their measured way from one semicolon to the next. And if it turns out the semicolons were actually put there by someone else, is it right to say that the style is hers?
Truth to tell, it's an embarrassing question. It reveals a certain obtuseness — about writers and style, and not least, about the semicolon. People have the idea that mastering the semicolon is the acme of prose artistry, as if the mark itself could call a logical structure into being. As one grammarian put it, the semicolon is the mortar that joins two ideas into a greater one. But semicolons don't create a structure; they just point to one. It's nice to know where a semicolon is supposed to go, but it's nothing to swell your chest over. The artistry is in being able to write sentences that require one.
What's remarkable about Austen is the way that artistry shows up even in those ragged manuscripts. The punctuation may look slapdash or peculiar to modern eyes, but those complex sentence structures are always already there. You can repunctuate them according to the modern system without changing a word of the text, rearranging the commas and dashes and dropping in a semicolon whenever you come to an appropriate seam in the writing. You think of those masons of old who could cut stone blocks so cleanly and precisely that they fit together perfectly. Once the blocks were placed, it didn't really matter who came by afterwards to finish them off with a trowel.
1. Claire Harman elaborated some of these points in her comment on Geoff's post. She notes for example that "there is no evidence whatever that William Gifford went ahead and made any changes to Austen's texts; all that is known is that he was sent the manuscript of Emma in September 1815 to comment on for the publisher, John Murray, and had 'nothing but good to say' of the novel."
2. I looked at parts of the working drafts of some unfinished works, like Sanditon and The Watsons, as well as for a discarded chapter of Persuasion. They're pretty messy, with numerous cross-outs and insertions — not surprising, unless you take at face value her brother's assertion that "Everything came finished from her pen." Sutherland says that "commentators continue to share this view today," but it's hard to see why anybody would believe that for a moment or what difference it would make. You can't achieve a "polished" style, after all, without the application of some elbow grease.
3. It isn't always easy to distinguish carelessness from the absence of fixed rules — or perhaps, from people's disregard for certain rules in composing their letters and manuscripts (analogously, not many people today trouble to check the rules of word-hyphenation in Hart's Rules or the Chicago Manual of Style before sending out an email). Austen was inconsistent in placing the apostrophe in singular and plural possessives, for example — but in that pre-Trussic age, did anybody really care about getting this right?
4. Since the 1930's, linguists have offered a doggedly presentist reading of eighteenth-century prescriptivism, which makes heroes of the grammarians who championed the primacy of usage rather than of logic (or "logic") in determining standards — as if the "usage" in question were that of the ordinary folk rather than the gentry. (Why would we imagine that the people who defended "usage" back then were thinking of the language of of laborers or mechanics?) Prescriptivism was a weapon wielded by the "new men" — often self-made, provincial, and commercial rather than landed — against the cultural authority of traditional institutions and classes, among them not just the high clergy and the aristocratic grandees, but the county squirarchy from which Austen drew her dramatis personae and her world view.
5. I should say that Sutherland's 2008 book Jane Austen's Textual Lives: From Aeschylus to Bollywood is a work of meticulous textual scholarship, which makes some insightful points about the way the failure of later editors like R. W. Chapman to understand what Austen was doing with punctuation led them to misread some of her sentences. Sutherland may exaggerate the degree to which Austen's punctuation reflected the actual rhythms of speech — the dialogue was a highly literary artefact, after all. But nothing in the book has the tone of the claims quoted in the Oxford press release — that Austen "broke most of the rules for writing good English" or that "the high degree of polished punctuation and epigrammatic style we see in Emma and Persuasion is simply not there." And one would like to think she had nothing to do with the heading of the release: "Austen's famous style may not be hers after all."
6. In calling it the "modern" system I don't mean to suggest that it was identical to the one we use today, of course. Take the use of semicolons. In modern English, semicolons cannot be scoped by other semicolons. Most editors would be comfortable with the (a) or (b) versions below but not the (c) versions:
1a. Every student studied a language; Mary took French.
b. Every student studied a language. Mary took French; Bill took Spanish.
c. *Every student studied a language; Mary took French; Bill took Spanish.
2a. You'll have to pick the kids up at the airport; Betty can't do it.
b. You'll have to pick the kids up at the airport. Betty can't do it; she has an appointment.
But Austen's semicolons are frequently scoped by other semicolons, as in these passages from from the 1818 edition of Persuasion — note in particular the last semicolon in the first example, in which Sir Walter Elliot explains his objections to the navy:
Yes; it is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly, as it cuts up a man's youth and vigour most horribly; a sailor grows old sooner than any other man; I have observed it all my life.
She had a cultivated mind, and was, generally speaking, rational and consistent; but she had prejudices on the side of ancestry; she had a value for rank and consequence, which blinded her a little to the faults of those who possessed them.
Some twentieth-century editions replace the last semicolon in the first passage by a period, though that doesn't render the resulting sentence wholly grammatical according to modern rules. Note however, that these passages can be easily repunctuated according to contemporary rules without changing the logical or rhetorical relations among the clauses (though most editors understandably prefer to retain some features of the original). That is, the points don't create the structure; it was there first.
By the same token, the nineteenth-century system permitted a sentence-final adjunct to be left-delimited by a semicolon rather than a comma:
His good looks and his rank had one fair claim on his attachment; since to them he must have owed a wife of very superior character to any thing deserved by his own.
In fact both of these constructions were common in published works until the late nineteenth century and even beyond:
But some say, history moves in circles; and that may be very well argued; I have argued it myself. George Eliot, Middlemarch
The two ladies had been in the church when he arrived; women liked to sit in churches; they had been there more than half an hour, and the mother had not enough of it even yet. Henry James, Confidence
The essential is to get upon the stage this precise statement of life which is at the same time a point of view, a world; a world which the author's mind has subjected to a process of simplification. T. S. Eliot, "The Possibility of a Poetic Drama"
I have this theory that the modern ungrammaticality of both types follows from the dropping of a single rule from the grammar of the written language, but I'll leave that for another broadcast. For much more on the way these rules fit into the larger system of punctuation, you can look at the chapter on punctuation that Ted Briscoe, Rodney Huddleston and I contributed to the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.