Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Pride and Punctuation; or, Sense and Semicolons

October 28, 2010

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.

David Foster Wallace, RIP

September 15, 2008

I just read that David Foster Wallace committed suicide last Friday.1,2 The world is a less interesting place without him.


1 I am ashamed to say I have never read Infinite Jest, despite having borrowed a copy from someone at least once.

2 Wallace wrote the single best magazine article I have ever read.3

3 Interestingly, the multiply nested footnotes work better in print than they do as hypertext links.

Oral Cultures and Us

May 17, 2008

On their respective blogs, April DeConick, Mark Goodacre, and Loren Rosson are having a discussion of orality, “secondary orality,” oral and literate cultures, and how our era of chaotic electronic communication might compare to the world that produced the New Testament (the area of study of the aforementioned scholar/bloggers). It’s pretty interesting stuff, so I won’t let my complete ignorance of the subject keep me from making a few random semi-related comments. Please do bear in mind that my only claim to expertise here is that I, you know, read and talk, so I’m pretty sure I’m way out in left field here. Oh, and I think my most interesting point as the last one, so you might just skip to that.

It’s not entirely clear to me that Professors DeConick and Goodacre and Rosson don’t actually more or less agree—Goodacre says so, respecting DeConick’s first post—and that the apparent disagreement is really over terminology and nuance and emphasis. Is that typical of oral or literate cultures? 🙂 . Insofar as I understand the issues here, I’m entirely with April DeConick (always a safe bet, as far as I can tell).

Rossen, citing this, argues “that our hypertext/internet subculture shares remarkable similarities with oral biblical culture.” I don’t buy it. The analogy is certainly interesting, but I don’t think it’s more than, well, an interesting analogy. It would be at the very least misleading to draw conclusions about the culture that produced the New Testament. Maybe when I have more time and energy I’ll respond to all the points there in detail, but for now I’ll just mention two very obvious things:

  1. Our pseudo-oral electronic communication shares one crucial feature with good old books, and not with truly oral culture—you can always look up sources. You can click on those links above and see what I garbled in this post. You should, actually, if you have the slightest interest. Then you can go to a library and read the references they cite. I should do that myself.
  2. As April DeConick comes close to pointing out, people in oral cultures had skills we don’t—our memories suck. We have no need to remember very much; we can look up anything we need, and just haven’t needed to practice memorizing things. The internet has made looking stuff up even easier, come to think of it, moving us still further away from truly oral cultures.

This does have me thinking about “oral transmission” and what it means for various ancient texts. How do the gospels compare in that respect to the Pentateuch, or to the Iliad and the Odyssey?

Homer seems a very different case from the Bible here—the Greek epics were (apparently) pretty direct transcriptions of oral versions of the story. Hence all the mnemonic devices and stock phrases: “strong-greaved Achaeans,” “bright Achilles,” “gray-eyed Athene,” “wine-dark sea.”

The gospels and the Old Testament, at least the part of the OT I find most interesting—the J sections of the Pentateuch and the story of David—also strike me as fundamentally different in origin. The gospels were apparently written down in part to preserve circulating oral tradition, and although (unlike the Homeric epics) they were certainly not mere transcriptions, their authors presumably thought of themselves much more as reporters than as poets or novelists. On the other hand, I tend to think that the Yahwist and the “Court Historian of David,”—who may have been the same personwere essentially novelists. They used oral (and maybe written, for all we know) tradition as source material, but just as modern fabulists and historical novelists do they turned them into new, creative works. I think the Court History of David (including one of its prequels in I Samuel) is in fact best characterized as the first historical novel. Or at least the first one that survives.

Back to the modern world. I think the only example of an actual oral culture that we modern Americans are exposed to is that of elementary-school children. All of you out there sang “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells,” “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, I bit my teacher’s toe,” and “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school,” didn’t you? In the days before Bart Simpson those spread (mostly) orally, all over the country, with all the attendant versions and variations that you’d expect. “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes“—maybe New Testament scholars should consider visiting some elementary schools…