"Austen's points": Kathryn Sutherland responds

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GN: In a Nov. 17 post "Jane Austen: missing the points," I took on the controversy that had arisen over the claim by the Oxford textual scholar Kathryn Sutherland that Austen's punctuation and grammar had been heavily edited by William Gifford, so that — as some people put it — her style was not her own (see also Geoff Pullum's post of Oct. 24). Last Thursday, Professor Sutherland posted a response in the form of a comment to my post. Since the comment appeared well after the post had scrolled out of sight (and on Thanksgiving Day, no less), Mark and I decided to turn it into a guest post, with Professor Sutherland's permission. We also invited the Austen scholar Rachel Brownstein to add her thoughts; they follow in a later post.) Professor Sutherland writes:

The brief interview NPR granted me allowed little time to expand the views that have, as Professor Nunberg says, provoked 'a storm in a teacup'. It is a storm out of all proportion to the suggestion that details of the appearance of the working draft manuscripts may offer views into Jane Austen's habits of composition which in turn bear on how we read the six finished novels. No direct manuscript evidence remains for the latter, of course. But Professor Nunberg is wrong to suggest that we cannot distinguish between the various draft states of the extant fiction manuscripts, which display considerable variety in some things and constancy in others. Nor can I, as a textual critic, agree with him that changes between manuscript and print, however small, are not a matter of interest. In Jane Austen's case and because of the intense reverence we all feel for her, they are of particular interest, suggesting a hand other than her own at work on the text.

The two chapters of Persuasion were extracted at a late stage in composition from a virtually complete manuscript. Contained within their sixteen leaves is a final chapter much of which found its way, more or less exactly, into print in 1818. 'More or less' is crucial here, because what are preserved in most cases are the words. Between manuscript and print the text has been readied for publication, and the nature of the changes makes it highly improbable that they are the work of any but an external hand, whether a publisher's reader or a printer.

I identify William Gifford with the changes for the following reasons. In September 1815, he was reading several of Jane Austen's novels for the publisher John Murray who was at that time considering adding her to his author list. He read Pride and Prejudice in print and Emma in manuscript; he may have read Mansfield Park in print as early as summer 1814. A selection of Gifford's letters is preserved in the Murray Archive in the National Library of Scotland. His 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.'

What might the careless copying and short omissions consist of? In the case of Emma we cannot know. But changes between manuscript and print in the overlapping sections of Persuasion and between lifetime editions of Mansfield Park (Murray issued a revised edition in 1816) offer what may be evidence of Gifford's practices as proof-corrector alongside other routine printing-house interventions.

The Persuasion text has been paragraphed; speakers are teased apart into separate zones; and rhetorical clues to the writing's emotional charge – the contractions, capitalizations, underlinings and storm of dashes that contribute a vital visual and aural intensity – have been stripped out, to be replaced by a more discreet syntactic emphasis carried by subtle shifts in punctuation. Individually, changes are small but cumulatively they are significant:

“When I yeilded, I thought it was to Duty. — But no Duty could be called in aid here. – In marrying a Man indifferent to me, all Risk would have been incurred, & all Duty violated." —"Perhaps I ought to have reasoned thus, he replied, but I could not. — I could not derive benefit from the later knowledge of your Character which I had acquired, I could not bring it into play, it was overwhelmed, buried, lost in those earlier feelings, which I had been smarting under Year after Year. —" (Manuscript, erasures and line breaks are not reproduced)

"When I yielded, I thought it was to duty; but no duty could be called in aid here. In marrying a man indifferent to me, all risk would have been incurred, and all duty violated."
"Perhaps I ought to have reasoned thus,” he replied, “but I could not. I could not derive benefit from the late knowledge I had acquired of your character. I could not bring it into play: it was overwhelmed, buried, lost in those earlier feelings which I had been smarting under year after year.” (Printed text of 1818)

Of course, when Persuasion went into production Jane Austen was dead. But the formal differences between manuscript and print cannot be assumed to represent some final stage of the work's genesis – a fair copied transcript, say – at which point, if we are to assign them to Austen herself, she must be imagined re-styling her material in ways evidently profoundly uncharacteristic.

Between the manuscript fragment of Persuasion and the printed text of 1818 we see changes that also distinguish Mansfield Park 1814 from 1816. This is something I argue in detail in Jane Austen’s Textual Lives, from Aeschylus to Bollywood (OUP, 2005). Reformatting, teasing apart speakers' voices, syntactic regularization and hypercorrection mediated through punctuation distinguish Mansfield Park 1816 from its 1814 edition, provoking the comment from the great twentieth-century Austen editor R. W. Chapman that such changes seem 'too good for the printer'. They may also have been 'too good' for Jane Austen, but not for the punctilious William Gifford, whose reputation as an interventionist reader and editor of others' work is well attested. This should not come as a surprise: evidence of similar 'improvement' by an intermediary is available for many writers. In Jane Austen's case, however, this normal distinction between genesis and production appears harder for readers to accept. For many readers, she continues to represent what is patently impossible: pure, unmediated style; or what D. A. Miller wittily celebrated as neither container nor embellishment but substance, 'absolute style' (Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style, 2003).

My point is not that Jane Austen was a poor grammarian and speller. She lived in an age when fashions in this and much else were in flux. But Gifford may have perceived her to be so, and out of a declared and considerable admiration for her talents he wished to serve her text well. Shifts in presentation between manuscript and print and between first and second lifetime editions toned down something fresh in a remarkable fictional conversational voice. They did not suppress it. Who could or would wish to do so?

[Above is a guest post by Kathryn Sutherland.]



  1. Cleaning up the last of the mess « AustenBlog said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 3:24 am

    [...] it's fascinating). Apparently Kathryn Sutherland responded in comments, which was promoted to a separate post, in which she basically says, "But that's not REALLY what I said." While we are [...]

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    December 20, 2010 @ 7:22 pm

    [...] in her response piece, Sutherland cites two passages from Persuasion to show the differences between the edited Austen [...]

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