Today I’d like to give you advance notice of a talk to be given by Professor Kathryn Sutherland of St Anne’s College, Oxford University, at Chawton House Library on the 8th May entitled ‘The Watsons': Jane Austen Practising.
The Watsons is one of the few remaining manuscripts written in Jane Austen’s hand to survive, and you may recall that it was bought by the Bodleian Library last year, to ensure that it remains in the UK for scholars and Austen enthusiasts to continue to have access to it. You can see it here on the Jane Austen Fiction Manuscripts website. The only other manuscripts of Jane Austen’s adult works that survive are the other unfinished fragment, Sanditon, together with the cancelled chapters of Persuasion. Professor Sutherland, below, has made an especial study of Jane Austen’s existing manuscripts, partly in an attempt to try to decipher her working methods and so her talk promises to be fascinating.
In her book, Jane Austen’s Textual Lives: From Aeschylus to Bollywood, Professor Sutherland deals with many fascinating subjects, looking anew and in great detail on aspects of Jane Austen’s life and works we take for granted as having “always been there”, particularly with regard to the censorship of the Austen and Knight families surrounding the release of biographical information. The part of her book I particularly admired were the chapters where she goes into amazing detail to try to determine how exactly Jane Austen wrote: how she revised, amended and fiddled with her manuscripts and what processes her works were subjected to before and after they left her care and control. The Professor has been criticised on the internet and in the press for some of her comments regarding Jane Austen’s grammar. In the book, in layman’s terms if you will allow me, Professor Sutherland details how Austen’s later works were corrected by a series of editors. Some journalists clearly decided that Professor Sutherland was on the side of the editors, and that she was agreeing with their “attacks” on Austen’s original and idiosyncratic texts. It is my understanding, on reading the book, that nothing could be further from the truth. This brouhaha has sadly detracted from her main argument, which is that Jane Austen’s genius should not and ought not to have been constrained by the workings of and the unasked for (and in many cases unwarranted) imposition of a Victorian ( or Edwardian or even modern) man’s idea of correct grammar. And that, in fact, by imposing their own standardised version of correct, written English upon her texts, quite a lot of Jane Austen’s original intent has been diminished as a result. She conducts a minute forensic examination of the novels, their publishing history and the changes various editors have imposed upon Austen( and us). The results will surprise you (and often discomfort). This part of the book is a fascinating and illuminating read. Some of the language used is undoubtedly academic and it is challenging…but then, why should reading always be a totally effortless pastime?
Reading her book opened my eyes to the terrible power an editor has, especially when the author is not available to defend her choices. These choices- her use of words, punctuation and grammar- which make perfect sense in the context of her novel, may be seen as sloppy or careless mistakes to a reader not exactly in tune with the author’s original intent. I had really not considered just how crucial the editorial approach to a text truly is until I had considered the effects on these texts. ( Forgive me, I am not always so dense). This book opened my eyes and made me think critically about the whole process of publishing a book, in detail, for the first time. As a dyslexic with some paralysed fingers, it has taken me years to try to attune myself to grammatical rules, punctuation and spelling: I once had the luxury of secretaries to point me in the right direction but I always had to ensure that their well-meaning additions did not detract from my correct legal turn of phrase. Now spell and grammar checks irritate me in a similar way ;)
I confess I waited to read the paperback edition of her book to be available because the original price for the hardback was prohibitive, and I think much of the outrage written about regarding Professor Sutherland’s comments reveals that not many of her critics seem to be familiar with the arguments in her book either. On reading her book- which though academic in tone is not inaccessible to the amateur reader of Jane Austen- I promise– it becomes clear that she is firmly on the side of Austen and her creative genius.
The book is available now as a reasonably priced paperback and also as an even more attractively priced Kindle edition. I would urge you to seek it out, and while it is an academic study, its subject matter is so fascinating and revelatory, I am convinced you will find it worthwhile and that it might very well alter your thoughts on Austen’s works and how they are edited .
Back to the Chawton House Lecture. It is to take place on the 8th May and tickets are available from Chawton House Library. Go here to see all the details. I do hope many of you can go along. If you can’t, do try to have sight of Professor Sutherland’s book. I really don’t think you will regret it.