New frontier in Austen Scholarship


Next year marks the bicentenary of Sense & Sensibility’s publication so it is of little surprise that there will be a prolific outpouring of  ‘new scholarship’ during the coming decade to mark each book’s initial publication and the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death.  The Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscript Archive was launched in October 2010. According to its curators it marks the first time that these manuscripts have been collectively available since 1845.  Accordingly, it marks the ‘first opportunity to make simultaneous ocular comparison of their different physical and conceptual states; it will facilitate intimate and systematic study of Austen’s working practices across her career, a remarkably neglected area of scholarship within the huge, world-wide Austen critical industry’.

Okay, if we accept that assertion then the opening salvo is this ‘uncharted’ area of scholarship belongs to Professor Kathryn Sutherland (St Anne’s College Oxford) who was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald  :

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," the Oxford University English literature academic said.

"The reputation of no other English novelist rests so firmly on this issue of style, on the poise and emphasis of sentence and phrase, captured in precisely weighed punctuation.

"But in reading the manuscripts, it quickly becomes clear that this delicate precision is missing."

Sutherland said that Austen’s unpublished manuscripts "unpick her reputation for perfection in various ways."

"We see blots, crossings out, messiness – we see creation as it happens, and in Austen’s case, we discover a powerful counter-grammatical way of writing. She broke most of the rules for writing good English," the academic added.

In particular, the "polished punctuation and epigrammatic style" typical of some of her novels is missing, suggesting someone else was "heavily involved" in editing her work, Sutherland said.

"Letters between Austen’s publisher John Murray II and his talent scout and editor William Gifford, acknowledging the untidiness of Austen’s style and how Gifford will correct it, seem to identify Gifford as the culprit," she added.

Mmm.  We wonder whether the archives will make a radical impact upon the scholarship and how prominently Mr Gifford will now be?


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