Rachel Brownstein on Austen's Style

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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.]


  1. John Cowan said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 10:24 am

    What ho, a comma between subject and predicate, right there in the first sentence of the third paragraph. But was this mark of Brownstein's unique voice an authentic part of her original manuscript, or was it inserted by the male person who arranged for the publication her work here on Language Log? The world wonders.

    The use of the word "texual" in the following paragraph, an evident blend of "textual" and "sexual", is also extremely striking and revelatory. It is, as we see, used to describe a kind of "detail" (perhaps read "de-tail", with its castratory implications) that one "goes in to" (downright Biblical!), but which may be safely omitted by anyone with "little patience" (the implications of which are evident to the plainest understanding). As for the missing comma after "much less literate age", I can only say that there is much work to be done.

    GN: The editor, who is responsibie for these oversights, thanks you for your solicitude and readerly insights. Mr. Gifford, one conceives, would have been gratified.
    P.S. But really — "What ho"?? Sounds more like Wodehouse than Woodhouse.

  2. language hat said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 10:58 am

    What a relief to finally read a discussion of this overhyped subject that is both knowledgeable and sensible. This is a particularly insightful sentence:

    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.

    It astonishes me that anyone should raise an eyebrow, much less a fuss, about the idea that Austen's prose, like that of just about any writer since the invention of printing, underwent changes of this minor sort between manuscript and publication. Whether it was the printers, publishers, compositors, or the authors themselves who introduced the changes is of course of historical interest, and whether the changes improve the text (as in most cases) or not (as most would agree is the case with the early, normalized publications of Dickinson's poems) is an enjoyable subject for discussion, but the idea that the removal of some dashes on the way to the printed page is shocking, or even especially interesting (except to textual scholars), is pretty silly.

  3. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 11:13 am

    I'm troubled by the assertion that we are in a "less literate age". People are less literature today than in the 19th century? This doesn't ring true to me. And the statement about "correct grammar" — if this is taken to mean we no longer care about correct grammar, that's certainly not true (as people rage endlessly about such matters), and if this is taken to mean to no longer use correct grammar, this is almost nonsensical, since not only have certain syntactic constraints and constructions shifted in the past two hundred years, but also, as illustrated by these two posts, it seems that writers, at least, adhere more strictly to prescriptive norms these days than in Austen's time.

  4. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    Using the "books-on-tape" criterion, Austen's style is hardly changed at all. In other words, from the point of view of the listener to an audio-book, changes in spelling, capitalization, punctuation, do not register. I think we are more literate now in the sense that we often attach more importance to certain visual conventions for representing language.

  5. Andrew Goldstone said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

    I'm very glad to see Language Log welcoming literary scholars to its conversations. Textual criticism–or, to use a more old-fashioned label, philology–is a natural area of shared interest for linguistics and literary studies. So, gratitude from this (English lit.) quarter to everyone involved!

    As for the "less literate age," of course present-day literacy rates are much higher than they were in Austen's day. Brownstein is very eloquent on how this whole discussion is worrying over the fit between a contemporary idea of authorship and Austen's different set of historical circumstances. Our idea of the autonomous, perfectly-polished professional writer is an idea of an age of mass literacy, when the "good" writers and readers develop finer and finer ways of distinguishing themselves from the more ordinary ones.

  6. Catherine said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

    Language Hat, I liked that sentence, too, but I was confused when I got to

    this [more contemporary] conversation could not take place in an Austen novel, where character cannot be pried loose from manners, good and bad.

    As I read it–character equaling morality and manners equaling correctness–Brownstein seems to say that morality and correctness were indeed inseparable for Austen as well as for us, contradicting the point she has just made. Am I misreading? Is there a more subtle point: that for Austen the qualities were separate, but co-occurring in "good" people? (If that's the case, it's not such a big difference.)

  7. George Amis said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    I agree with Language Hat. This is admirably sensible and intelligent response to a rather overblown problem.
    (Full disclosure: I knew and admired Rachel Brownstein when we were in graduate school together.)

  8. Mark F. said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 3:02 pm

    John McWhorter's book Doing Our Own Thing makes a case that our age is "less literate" in that we set less store by formal writing and formal speech than people used to. I was more convinced that the trend was real than that it was a problem.

  9. kathryn sutherland said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

    I appreciate Rachel Brownstein’s wide-ranging reflections on the recent media frenzy over Jane Austen as well as her comments on my own post, though I would like to point out that I am nowhere suggesting Austen 'relied on an editor'. However, Professor Brownstein's interpretation of William Gifford’s letter to Murray regarding Emma poses problems. She suggests that what William Gifford may have read in September 1815 was a further copy provided for the printer or even an early printing sent to him by Murray and not a manuscript copy of Emma provided by Austen herself. This is hardly likely since Austen only records an offer being made by Murray for the manuscript a month later, in a letter of 17-18 October. Wasn’t Gifford simply reading a manuscript in the copy provided by the author and offering advice back to Murray on whether or not to enter negotiations for it? Until he did so, Murray was unlikely to make further copies.

  10. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 9:27 am

    Language Hat:

    It astonishes me that anyone should raise an eyebrow, much less a fuss, about the idea that Austen's prose, like that of just about any writer since the invention of printing, underwent changes of this minor sort between manuscript and publication.

    My understanding is that this is raising eyebrows because there is a widespread legend that it didn't.

  11. language hat said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 10:59 am

    My understanding is that this is raising eyebrows because there is a widespread legend that it didn't.

    Is there really? I confess to not having followed recent developments in Janeolatry, fond as I am of her writing, but I was not aware of a legend that her prose went direct from pen to printed page without the change of a jot or a tittle. If there was such a legend, then the raised eyebrows make more sense, although the international uproar is still (to my mind) inexplicable.

  12. Geoff Nunberg said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

    Well, maybe it's the legend that's legendary. The Oxford press release quoted Professor Sutherland as saying, "It’s widely assumed that Austen was a perfect stylist – her brother Henry famously said in 1818 that 'Everything came finished from her pen' and commentators continue to share this view today." Elsewhere, she has described this as a "long-running myth… of effortless artistic orignality, the morally irreproachable spinster who, entirely unconsciously, produced exquisitely finished novels."

    Now, Henry did indeed say that in his Biographical Notice, but it isn't clear in context whether he was referring to the novels or just to the letters:

    The style of her familiar correspondence was in all respects the same as that of her novels. Everything came finished from her pen ; for, on all subjects, she had ideas as clear as her expressions were well chosen. It is not hazarding too much to say that she never despatched a note or letter unworthy of publication.

    In fact Mary A. Favret, in Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics and the Fiction of Letters (Cambridge 2005), seems to interpret Henry's claim as applying only to the letters:

    When her brother describes Austen's letters, saying, "Everything came finished from her pen," he could be referring both to the look of the letters and to the thoughts of the letter- writer, which were "clear" and "well-chosen"…

    But even if one did give the claim broad scope, so to speak, so as to cover the novels as well, the state of the manuscripts was well known to scholars long before they went up online, and as best I can tell no one has been disposed to believe that Austen tossed the novels off. F. R. Leavis wrote in Scrutiny in 1941 (in an essay that few Austen scholars will not have read):

    Henry wrote in his notice, 'everything came finished from her pen,' and we may see that this is true in one sense by reading her letters, which have on occasions as lively a surface as the novels and abound in happy expressions. But Henry's epigram needs interpreting if it is not to mislead. Almost everything she did came out finished in the end… but the whole was not put on paper in one stroke. Any one of the novels took years to reach the finished stage, and many pens must have been worn out on that novel before it came finished from the last one.

    Similarly, the classicist Kathleen Freeman, in T'Other Miss Austen (1956), wrote, "Henry, in his Biographical Notice, said : 'Everything came finished from her pen,' yet she subjected all she wrote to repeated revision."

    In fact I haven't been able to find any modern commentator who accepts uncritically the claim that Austen's novels "came finished from her pen" — if indeed that is what Henry was saying — though of course that isn't to say that no one believes this. But in any case, the posting of the manuscripts online, while unquestionably a boon to critics and readers, doesn't reveal anything about the spontaneity of composition that wasn't known already.

  13. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    December 2, 2010 @ 11:38 am

    One thing, by the way, that this discussion has led me to see in a new light is Austen's juvenile work Love and Freindship. This work, written in the form of an epistolary novel, is a parody of the romantic fiction of her day. I had always assumed that 'freindship' was part of the joke, but in the light of some of the quotations from Austen's manuscripts, it looks as if she did sometimes spell it that way.

  14. John Cowan said,

    December 4, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

    Wodehouse it is, and ever more shall be so.

  15. Aaron Davies said,

    December 4, 2010 @ 7:27 pm

    on a tangential note, "familiar" in "familiar correspondence" in the quoted passage above gave me a jar for a moment as i realized it meant "relating to the family". it reminds me a bit of a passage i once read where a boat travelling up the Nile hit a snag….

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

    December 7, 2010 @ 3:55 am

    […] Log also has a guest post by Austen scholar Rachel Brownstein discussing Prof. Sutherland's comments. We like a lot of […]

  17. Arnie Perlstein said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 6:08 am

    I am glad that Professor Sutherland has finally issued a public statement which implicitly retracts the strong implication that she put out there, and left out there for over a month, that Gifford edited many of Jane Austen's novels, and which "clarifies" that she meant to talk only about Persuasion, when she mentioned manuscripts in existence which reveal significant changes that Gifford may have made in Austen's writing style.

    However, it is unfortunate that, to the best of my knowledge, her clarification has not (yet?) made it onto NPR, where it might actually be heard and registered by many of the people in the U.S. who _did_ hear, or hear about, her original comments.

    I also note that Professor Sutherland still has not owned that it was entirely _her own_ doing, and not the fault of the brevity or the editing of the NPR interview, that her on-air comments, coming on the heels of her being quoted in several newspapers in similar fashion, created so many false and misleading impressions.

    Nor has she, even now, to the best of my knowledge, retracted any of the sarcastic verbiage ("polishing her halo", "absolute nonsense") she tossed in the direction of all the other Austen scholars and devotees who have sounded off negatively on her claims, which was all based on the fair implication of the actual words which Professor Sutherland actually spoke during that not-brief NPR interview.

    I cannot think of any issue regarding Jane Austen that has created so many interpretive "strange bedfellows" among Janeites who cannot agree on _anything else_ about her novels–we are _all_, orthodox and radical interpreters alike, united in our dismay at what Professor Sutherland suggested.

    Instead, it is noteworthy that in her _very_ late response, she rushes through a perfunctory clarification of what she claims to have really meant, and then spends the entire rest of her reply trying to bolster her argument that, essentially, the removal of dashes and substitution of normal punctuation, in some _important_ way alters the literary style.

    The example from Persuasion which she chose, which one would presume would be her "best shot", is, to me, utterly unconvincing.

    And, as I also commented in the second of my blog posts on this fracas about this a month ago…


    …what I don't believe has been mentioned by others responding to Professor Sutherland is the most powerful argument of all against her claims. I.e., that, ironically, _Emma_, the novel that Professor Sutherland had strongly suggested had been significantly altered by Gifford, is the one among Austen's novels which plays fastest and loosest with ordinary punctuation!—in its depictions of Emma's frequent streams of consciousness, and of Miss Bates's numerous Joycean streams of speaking, all of which are peppered with dashes.

    But, most of all, look at the famous Chapter 42 "Donwell Abbey strawberries" dialog that consists of _twenty four_ (count 'em, 24!) dashes:

    "The best fruit in England — every body's favourite — always wholesome. These the finest beds and finest sorts. — Delightful to gather for one's self — the only way of really enjoying them. Morning decidedly the best time — never tired — every sort good — hautboy infinitely superior — no comparison — the others hardly eatable — hautboys very scarce — Chili preferred — white wood finest flavour of all — price of strawberries in London — abundance about Bristol — Maple Grove — cultivation — beds when to be renewed — gardeners thinking exactly different — no general rule — gardeners never to be put out of their way — delicious fruit — only too rich to be eaten much of — inferior to cherries — currants more refreshing — only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping — glaring sun — tired to death — could bear it no longer — must go and sit in the shade."

    As I have suggested in online comments in the past, most readers of _Emma_ mistakenly assume that this dialog must have been spoken entirely by Mrs. Elton, because it is introduced by the following narration:

    "….and Mrs. Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking — strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of."

    But I have suggested, as part of my own explication of what I call the "shadow story" of _Emma_, that Jane Austen—who really _was_ an extraordinary innovator in writing style in a hundred ways, slyly deploying writing techniques that Joyce would be lauded for boastingly doing a century later—deliberately wrote that narrative snippet so as to be readable in _two_ ways, not merely onel and that the alternative but plausible reading would be that there were _several different_ speakers of those dialog snippets separated by dashes.

    So what an irony that Professor Sutherland has the most important point precisely backwards, because one of the most startling innovations in _Emma_'s writing style turns out to be the _retention_ of Jane Austen's "ungrammatical" dashes! And perhaps Gifford's greatest gift to the world, if he did indeed edit _Emma_ was in his _not_ messing with the many such passages in the novel which have made it the immortal masterpiece that it is!

  18. Rachel Brownstein on Why Jane Austen? ~ An Interview and Book Giveaway! « Jane Austen in Vermont said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 10:39 pm

    […] Rachel Brownstein’s response to the Kathryn Sutherland kerfuffle last November on the Language Log blog: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2805 […]

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