Pride and Punctuation; or, Sense and Semicolons

As if it’s not enough that Shakespeare’s plays were written by the Earl of Oxford1, now we find that Jane Austen’s style was not her own, but rather the work of William Gifford, apparently the Best Editor Ever. Or so says Kathryn Sutherland, Director of the Jane Austen Manuscript Digital Edition. According to some of the many accounts (h/t: I first heard of this in a comment here),

"What I’m particularly interested in is that the manuscripts do not bear out that high degree of polished grammatical style for which Jane Austen is known"—what Ms. Sutherland calls "the exquisitely placed semicolon."


In particular, the high degree of polished punctuation and epigrammatic style we see in Emma and Persuasion is simply not there.


One of her grammatical errors was the inability to master the ‘i before e’ rule and her works were littered with distant ‘veiws’ and characters who ‘recieve’ guests.

On other occasions she wrote ‘tomatoes’ as ‘tomatas’ and ‘arraroot’ for ‘arrowroot’, which according to Professor Sutherland reflect her regional accent.

‘In some of her writing, her Hampshire accent is very strong. She had an Archers-like voice with a definite Hampshire burr,’ she said.

For some healthy skepticism about such claims see Language Log and Austenblog, with good comments to be found at both. I don’t have much to add, just to reinforce that the only real specifics in the reports are about spelling and punctuation—in rough drafts!—which really don’t detract from her “polished grammatical style.” Unless, I suppose, you’re Lynne Truss.

It’s always nice when the evidence for these bold claims is easily available online; so I had a look for myself at this new Jane archive. I have to say it’s pretty neat: whatever the merit of Professor Sutherland’s claims, she and her colleagues seem to have done great work amassing and transcribing and presenting all these manuscript pages.

The first problem in deciding what to make of Professor Sutherland’s claims on behalf of Mr Gifford is that there is virtually nothing in these manuscripts to compare with published versions. That’s right, not only are these all rough drafts, there rough drafts of things that weren’t even published. Apparently she didn’t bother to keep either rough or fair copies of the ones that were published. The only exception is a bit of Persuasion, which looks to me to be very nearly identical to chapter 24, minus the very end, of the published version (at least as it appears here), with fewer commas and more dashes. It is fascinating to look at what she crossed out and rewrote. The most interesting bit is a passage about Sir Walter Eliot’s newfound respect for Captain Wentworth, pasted over in favor of what I think is a rather less piquant version. Perhaps she decided she had already been hard enough on the Bart., or more likely that it was a little repetitive with passages earlier in the book. But it is funny:

As he saw & conversed with Capt. W. more, saw his complexion by daylight — & perceived in conversation that his Teeth were as fine as ever. — he could not but feel that in any present comparison with Anne, Capt. W. must have the advantage, that he had lost much leſs of Youth & bloom than she had, and consequently might now

Back to Jane’s alleged unpolished prose and lack of “epigrammatic style,” I suppose that one could make an argument based on the style of all these unpublished (but hardly hitherto unknown) works as compared to that of the published ones, especially those that Gifford edited. [Which, by the by, do not include Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park]. Maybe that is what Professor S means to say, but if so I haven’t heard her say it.

Oh, and and typography! Or, um, not typography, but whatever you call the handwriting equivalent (I should really know the right word, shouldn’t I?). These manuscripts are full of long s’s, the things that look like a bit f’s but aren’t (they look like ſ, with no crossbar, or sometimes a little nub on the left; italic ones generally look like integral signs; and they are simply an alternate form of plain old “s”). Jane seems to have been much more regular than many printers in her use of long s, her rule being (as far as I can tell) just that ss is always written ſs. Anyway, I had never seen any manuscript long s’s before. It turns out that they look like f’s (surprise!) with the bottom loop reversed. That would make them quick to write, I should think, with no stroke reversals (is there a technical term for that?). Here’s the word “less”:


Neat, huh? Well, I thought it was interesting.


1. That’s ridiculous, of course. Shakespeare’s plays were written by Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke.


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