In Defense of Miss Jane Austen

     Regretfully, I must put aside Henry VIII, my Heroic Hunk whose life and loves we’ve followed for the last few weeks, to defend Miss Jane Austen against recent accusations made by Oxford University English professor Kathryn Sutherland. Yesterday, in the middle of an emergency basement rehab, I descended exhausted from my high perch on the ladder to collapse for a few moments in my comfortable chair in front of the TV. Unfortunately, the news banner at the bottom of the screen continuously looped Professor Sutherland’s assertion that Jane Austen was a poor speller and erratic grammarian who got a big helping hand from her editor. 

The Maligned Miss Austen

     Upon further research I discovered in an AP article that Dr. Sutherland, who has had access to 1000+ pages of Miss Austen’s handwritten unpublished work stated that “In reading the manuscripts, it quickly becomes clear that this delicate precision is missing.” She said the papers show “blots, crossings out, messiness,” and a writer who “broke most of the rules for writing good English.” She continued “In particular, the high degree of polished punctuation and epigrammatic style we see in Emma and Persuasion is simply not there.”
     Sutherland stated that letters from Austen’s publisher reveal that her editor, William Gifford, was heavily involved in making sense of Austen’s sensibility, honing the style of her late novels “Emma” and “Persuasion.” She believes that the style in Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice which were not edited by Gifford are much closer to Austen’s manuscript hand. Sutherland then concludes that the revelations shouldn’t damage Austen’s reputation. Hah!!

     I also discovered that Austen’s handwritten manuscripts will go online today at, the result of a three-year project to digitize the author’s unpublished work. Do we have a case, then, of publicity to highlight the release of the documents or is Professor Sutherland taking advantage of the release of the Austen documents to gain her few moments of fame by defaming Miss Austem?  If that is the case, shame on you, Professor Sutherland, for using your special access to Miss Austen’s private papers to criticize Miss Austen for your own benefit.
     The beloved Miss Austen’s sharp wit pervades all of her novels, even the ones that are not up to Dr. Sutherland’s standard. Austen provides insights into the culture and world views of Regency England that would otherwise have been lost to us.  She created characters that shine, even the ones published before Gifford arrived on the scene. She crafted stories that serve as an introduction to literature for many young readers. Her books of two centuries ago grace the keeper shelves of many professional writers even today.
     While editors certainly are an integral part of the publication process, they do not create the books. Miss Austen did not have the advantage of the grammar or spell check that we take for granted so errors here and there are understandable.  On a more personal note, as an educator and romance writer wannabe, I am very particular about grammar and punctuation. My personal communications, however, are quite different. For example, the subject line of my last email was “Where you at?” I suppose that would place me on Dr. Sutherland’s ____ list. My question to her is: “How many people will remember you or Gifford in two hundred years?” Think about it.  Next week, back to Henry and Anne of Cleves. Rita VF


11 Responses

  1. Ok, don’t even get me started on this person. Of course dear Jane’s editor edited her work. That’s what editors do. However, Dr. Southerland believes that this editorial input affected Jane’s later works.more than S&S and P&P. So the two for which she is best known are actually the closest to “her” writing? Hmm, maybe if the editor had kept his paws off Emma and Mansfield Park, they would be even better than the versions we have.
    Now, I’m no Jane, but as a writer of some low degree, I am offended by anyone taking preliminary notes as a basis to judge one’s writing. You should see the notebook I carry with me constantly so I can write down the Muse’s unexpected murmurings. Or actually, you shouldn’t see it, and you won’t see it. It is mine, private, not for public consumption. The thought of someone shuffling through Jane’s notes in this judgmental fasion quite gives me the vapors. We’ve all wished Cassandra hadn’t burned so much of Jane’s writing after her death, but maybe she realized that an author’s notes are an intimate look into her soul. Jane wouldn’t have wanted her naked body displayed to the public, and she wouldn’t have want her notes read.
    So I hope Dr. S and her cohorts enjoy their 15 minutes. In 200 more years, I expect that young girls will still be daydreaming about Mr. Darcy and loathing Wickham and Willoughby for the cads they are. Wonder who’ll be reading Southerland by then.

    • Prof S (I never saw Dr in the articles.) was specifically addressing her PERSONAL & PRIVATE communications which is a disgrace. I didin’t write grants and curriculum and I’m sure don’t write your briefs in the same style we use for personal communications. Apples and oranges. RitaVF

  2. Confusion here, and a high degree of irritation. Is Dr. K.S. deliberately failing to discern between what is obviously a rough draft and the polished nature of a finished product?

    Personally, I’m excited to learn I’ll soon be able to view Austen’s manuscript pages; but not as an opportunity to tear the writer apart. Instead, I believe it will be thrilling to watch how Ms. Austen’s mind processed her storyline and characters.

    And DOCTOR Sutherland? I tend to express my interpretation of individuals with a bent toward imagery. Pardon me for oversimplifying (the way you seem to have done Our Jane), but if I apply your measure, should we restrict ourselves to viewing a few brief photographs of the RAW Hope Diamond . . . then simply dismiss it as a large unwieldy chunk of rock?

  3. Go get ’em Rita.

    Though I am not an Austen fan, I too was disheartened when I read that article. Of course there are errors, of course early drafts are less than stellar. That’s the writing process. There are a million miles between a first draft and the final polished piece and all writers go through this process. To publicly try to discredit an author no longer around to defend herself is just senseless.

  4. I agree, Marcia. I’m sure that Miss Austen will not lack for defenders. Her works are timeless, enjoyed by generations. RitaVF

    • Speaking of all that: On a personal note I owe you a great deal of thanks. Will the dedication page be okay with you?

  5. What would be interesting is to compare the manuscript of Persuasion with the published version to see what sort of editorial changes were made.

    • Great idea, Aravis. Then the truth would be obvious. Jane’s brother commented that her books were published as they came from her pen. But then, he had his agenda, also. Thanks for commenting.. RitaVF

  6. Great idea, Aravis. Then the truth would be obvious. Jane’s brother commented that her books were published as they came from her pen. But then, he had his agenda, also. Thanks for commenting.. RitaVF

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