Saturday, 23 October 2010

Re:Jane Austen - It's so disappointing when one's bubble is burst.

About 20 years ago, after a long time of trying, I finally 'got' Jane Austen and since then I've been proud to quote her as genuinely one of my very favourite writers of all time - her prose light as a souffle (or as the lightest sponge cake, as I like to say), an enviably delicate prose style unrivalled by anyone else writing in English. One of the very cleverest people I ever knew (a work colleague in the early 1970s) said that if he could have one wish it would be to be able to write like Jane Austen. It was he who made me determined to try to see what it was that he was seeing in her works - and I finally managed it. I have now read all six of her novels several times each and re-read them regularly in rotation, getting so much pleasure that it's a true delight to be savoured and one not to be dulled by over-familiarity.
Then this morning I hear the dreadful news. After several years of research a (female) professor at Oxford University has concluded that Austen almost certainly owes most of her style to one of her editors, identified as one William Gifford, who polished her sentences, improved the vocabulary, and corrected her grammar, spelling and punctuation, the latter of which was, according to the original manuscripts, particularly poor. Apparently Austen also never even employed the use of paragraphs. Oh dear, what a thumping great let-down! It's not absolutely conclusive yet, but I have no reason to disbelieve the results of this painstaking and exhaustive research. It wasn't so much the plots of her books which were impressive - indeed there is a certain 'sameness' about the stories of unrequited love, long periods of courtship with ups and downs and doubts, the occasional example of scandalous behaviour (for the time) and 'happily-ever-after's. It was the impeccably crafted prose style that won me and many, many thousands of others, over. So now it seems that we've got to direct the praise elsewhere. Not that it makes the actual books any less worthy of admiration, but one can't help feeling a certain deflation. I only wonder how my former work-colleague, if he's still around, himself feels on hearing this news.
Now all I need to hear is that Beethoven got significant 'help' with his composing - and that it was his cleaner who wrote on some blank music manuscript paper "da-da-da-DAAAAH"!!


  1. Wait a minute...
    Her editor "polished her sentences, improved the vocabulary, and corrected her grammar, spelling and punctuation." Isn't that pretty much the description of an editor's function in a nutshell?

  2. On;y up to a certain point, Larry. It seems that in her case we now know that her books as published were very much a 'joint-venture' where she provided the stories (which, as I say, might have been interesting but weren't particularly remarkable), but we have someone else to thank for marshalling her thoughts and expressing them in an articulate form. As far as I know, other 'classic' authors of the past (Dickens, Hardy, Thackeray and so on) produced all their own writings more or less intact before being given to the printer and publisher who might have corrected certain overlooked mis-spellings etc but rarely even 'tweaked' the essential final draft.