GN: We asked Professor Rachel Brownstein of the CUNY Graduate Center to comment on some of the points Kathryn Sutherland raises ("'Austen's points: Kathryn Sutherland responds") and the larger questions they implicate. Professor Brownstein is the author of the forthcoming Why Jane Austen? (Columbia University Press).
I'm glad Professor Sutherland has had a chance to expand her views on the Austen manuscripts and to clarify her remarks, which in the context of a brief interview or press release came off as more tendentious and provocative than she apparently intended them to be. The big tsimmis that ensued when the online archive went live is no surprise, really, and it may in the end prove illuminating and useful. After years of Austen-related arguments about adaptations of the novels and paperback sequels and prequels, send-ups and mash-ups and more or less earnest acts of homage, the focus finally is on the texts, on Austen the writer and the real truth about the books we know as hers. The implications are unsettling.
Heads have been wagging knowingly as they did when public opinion, led by Oprah Winfrey, turned on James Frey because his alleged autobiography was not in fact the true story of his life. But the charge about Austen is different: it is that although she wrote her stories herself she had help. For weeks the internet has throbbed with charges that Jane Austen was no better than she should have been at English 101 — that she was weak at spelling and punctuation, needed an editor and had one, as Thomas Wolfe had Maxwell Perkins and Raymond Carver had Gordon Lish. The exchanges have been "very intense" (as someone involved anachronistically described Austen’s handwriting); it’s clear that more than semi-colons is at stake.
In fact, what Kathryn Sutherland has cast in technical textual terms is a battle in the familiar long war around Jane Austen. Sutherland fought an earlier round in her excellent book, Jane Austen’s Textual Lives, from Aeschylus to Bollywood, which indicted first the Austen family and then the twentieth-century editor R.W. Chapman for setting up Jane Austen as a picture of perfection. ("Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked," the novelist herself wrote, about heroines.) With the narrowing of the focus to texts, the villain of the piece is another literary man, Austen’s contemporary William Gifford: Sutherland says he edited her manuscripts for the publisher John Murray.
Sutherland's arguments seem to me more conjectural than decisive, and to show this I'll have to go into some textual detail myself; if you have little patience with that sort of thing, please jump to the end, where I’ll get back to the larger issues of Jane Austen’s reputation and the nature of literary style.
The conjecture that Jane Austen relied on an editor is intriguing, though it's misleading to read this claim, as many have, in terms of our modern understanding of the author-editor relation. ("Are editors the writer’s friend or foe?' the Missouri Review asks in a post headed "Jane Austen gets the Raymond Carver treatment?") "Editor" in the sense of "copy editor" was not then a job description: the functions we now associate with that role were distributed among printers, publishers, compositors, authors, and on occasion third-party advisors. Gifford was (in another sense of the word) the editor — that is, director — of the Quarterly Review. But if he did play a part in revising Austen's manuscripts, it would have been solely in an outside capacity — not as Murray's hireling, but as a friend of the house — and the extent of his "improvements" is unclear.
We do know that Gifford read Pride and Prejudice, but only in print, as Sutherland acknowledges. But she suggests, on the basis of his letters to Murray, that he read Emma as well as Persuasion in manuscript, and improved Austen’s grammar and punctuation. According to Sutherland:
[Gifford's] comments focus on punctuation and features of presentation that clearly vex him in both print and manuscript forms. Of Pride and Prejudice he writes "‘tis very good – wretchedly printed in some places, & so pointed [punctuated] as to be unintelligible"; of the manuscript of Emma: "It is very carelessly copied, though the hand-writing is excellently plain, & there are many short omissions which must be inserted. I will readily correct the proof for you, & may do it a little good here & there."
But what exactly was the manuscript that Gifford was referring to? A fair copy of her manuscript that Austen had submitted to Murray? In that case, how would he know that it was "carelessly copied," and what would it have been copied from? (Certainly Gifford could not have seen Austen's earlier draft.) If on the other hand, Gifford was referring to a printer's copy (i.e., one designed for the printer’s use), or indeed to a sheet of proof, then the passage makes sense — and the continuation with "though the handwriting is excellently plain" would presumably be a reference to the clarity of Austen's submitted manuscript, which would make the printer’s carelessness all the more inexcusable.
As for the changes made in Persuasion, the differences Sutherland shows between draft manuscript and printed version hardly rule out the conclusion that Austen made the changes herself. They seem to me perfectly consonant with the kinds of variations you can find in her letters and other manuscripts—evidence that the rules of grammar we now think of as absolute which were in flux, as Sutherland notes, in Austen’s time, were sometimes operative but sometimes not in her practice as well. In the quoted conversation in Persuasion, there is an obvious difference in paragraphing but not really in punctuation: correctly placed quotation marks clearly indicate the speakers. That new speakers are not marked by indentations in the working manuscript, as they are on the printed page, is evidence only that paper was expensive at the time Jane Austen wrote (which explains why Austen routinely abbreviated the names of characters and used ampersands and abbreviations like "wd" and "cd" for would and could — as well as the common practice, which she indulged in, of "cross-writing" (or "crossing") letters in private correspondence).
That Jane Austen, in the course of composition, used contractions and dashes and capitalized and underscored certain important words does convey the flavor of her thoughts, I agree — and I am grateful to Sutherland’s work on the online archive for making that so clear. But the author herself might have regularized capitalization, etc., in the manuscript she sent to the printer, if she did not simply rely on the printer to adapt her manuscript to the conventional style. (Recall that "printer," like "editor," was a different and more multifaceted job description then than now: printers were often quite literate and literary themselves — think of Samuel Richardson and Benjamin Franklin.)
But to mention "style” is to raise a complicated concept. It means one thing when we talk of the MLA Style Sheet and another in conversations about literature. For most literary people, style — including D.A. Miller's concept of “absolute style," which Sutherland mentions — is not a matter of adherence to universally acknowledged rules and conventions: on the contrary. Miller’s queered Austen is a Wildean aesthete — hardly a model of propriety, or of correctness for correctness’s sake.
And style notoriously changes, even in punctuation. The dashes in the Austen manuscripts that strike us today as flaws once looked, well, dashing. That Austen did not adhere punctiliously to the terrific rule of “I before E except after C” or that in the course of composition she set down a “storm” of dashes (as Kathryn Sutherland perhaps overdramatically puts it), or that she capitalized important nouns that point up the themes of her novel such as Duty, Man, Risk, Character, and Year, does not prove that she needed an editor to prepare a manuscript for publication. Neither does it seem to me that an editor or printer or indeed even an author who herself made the manuscript more regular by taking out the dashes and erratic capital letters in her rough draft was, as Sutherland argues, "ton[ing] down something fresh in a remarkable fictional conversational voice." What now look like expressive oddities or errors turn up often in texts of the time, and while no one would suggest that Austen is stale, freshness in this case is surely in the eye of the beholder. What would look fresh and original and experimental in 2010 (and for that matter in 1910, the year when, according to Virginia Woolf, human nature changed) was actually on its way out of style around 1810, when Jane Austen was writing.
Sutherland’s change of tune in shifting the emphasis from hapless ungrammatical Jane to fearless modernist Jane is telling. Like so many of the intense conversations around Jane Austen, this one reveals more about us than about her. We want to find Austen flawed, and seize gleefully on her grammar, right now, because we confuse morality (especially sexual morality) with correctness–as Jane Austen’s novels do not. (This makes for some of the difference between Austen and her belated imitators: in one of the many contemporary romantic "sequels" to Pride and Prejudice, one of Mr. Darcy’s daughters tells her rowdier sister to put on her "party manners": this conversation could not take place in an Austen novel, where character cannot be pried loose from manners, good and bad.) What seems fascinating to us about Jane Austen is whether she was as good as she seems, or is said to be — as brilliant a writer, as sexually virtuous a woman, and now, in a much less literate age, as grammatically correct as people say. But maybe it’s a function of nostalgia: correct grammar is as remote from us today as those empire waistlines.
Behind the current controversy is the perennially big question of whether Jane Austen, that incomparable, admired, and revered woman writer, needed a man. Also, in a culture that both values polish and suspects it, we are riveted by hints of secret truths and rough doings behind the scenes or between the lines.
Who can you trust these days? The words of political and entertainment celebrities are so often the work of other, professional writers (and even the ghostwriters are known to plagiarize, as we've learned from the Bush memoirs). Celebrity writers like Frey spin their confessions out of whole cloth; celebrity chefs are accused of plagiarizing recipes. Why should Jane Austen be above suspicion? After all, she has been a celebrity at least since she made it in the movies around 1995.
[Above is a guest post by Rachel Brownstein.]