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Tuesday, October 26

The Jane Austen Editing Controversy Continues: Thoughts From Brazil About Katrhyn Sutherland's Statements

19th century hornbook and speller
Statements by Kathryn Sutherland, professor of St. Anne's College (Oxford) and Jane Austen's Fiction Digital Edition Manuscripts project coordinator, were recently published in various newspapers. They have generated great discussion online, and controversy resulted, including in my country, Brazil.

Professor Sutherland's quotations, published on the Oxford website, are the basis for this post.

The headlines in Brazil generally said: "Escritora Jane Austen era péssima em ortografia" ["Jane Austen was bad at spelling"] Folha de Sao Paulo, Veja Magazine and Correio Brasiliense.

Two British headlines were more cautious. The BBC declared, "Jane Austen's style might not be hers, academic claims." The Telegraph stated, "Jane Austen's famous prose may not be hers after all " and The Guardian made it clear that an "Attack on Jane Austen's genius shows neither sense nor sensibility ".

The headlines, which at first I thought were exaggerated, were not. They are perfectly in line with the original Oxford declaration: "Austen's famous style may not be hers after all".
Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen
We can instantly see that fair copies of the six published books were not part of the repertoire of over 1,100 pages that Professor Sutherland studied, therefore the mastery of Jane on Emma and Persuasion obviously could not be found in these 1100 manuscripts pages." Nevertheless, Sutherland concluded:
‘But in reading the manuscripts it quickly becomes clear that this delicate precision is missing. Austen’s unpublished manuscripts unpick her reputation for perfection in various ways: we see blots, crossings out, messiness; we see creation as it happens; and in Austen’s case,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. In particular, the high degree of polished punctuation and epigrammatic style we see in Emma and Persuasion is simply not there.’
Before analysing the quote below, we must clarify that no reputable publishing house publishes a book without preparing an author's work. William Gifford's edits were thus not exceptional.

The expressions "heavily involved" and "Gifford as the culprit", and the assertion that "The famous style of Jane Austen can not be hers after all" set the tone for suspicion. Were the errors in the manuscripts so many and the corrections so deep that they modified Jane's style?
‘This suggests somebody else was heavily involved in the editing process between manuscript and printed book; and 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.’
Sutherland speaks about the first books published by Thomas Egerton:
Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and the first edition of Mansfield Park were not published by Murray and have previously been seen by some critics as examples of poor printing – in fact, the style in these novels is much closer to Austen’s manuscript hand!’
While discussing Jane's innovative writing (quotes above), Sutherland also points out endless paragraphs, blots, crossings out and messiness in her manuscripts
‘The manuscripts reveal Austen to be an experimental and innovative writer, constantly trying new things, and show her to be even better at writing dialogue and conversation than the edited style of her published novels suggest,’ she says.
‘She is above all a novelist whose significant effects are achieved in the exchanges of conversation and the dramatic presentation of character through speech. The manuscripts are unparagraphed, letting the different voices crowd each other; underlinings and apparently random use of capital letters give lots of directions as to how words or phrases should be voiced.’
Professor Sutherland concludes by talking about the satire in the author's writings, and saying that Jane Austen's last unfinished work is less smooth than her published works.
‘Austen was also a great satirist. This thread in her writing is apparent in the sharp and anarchic spoofs of the teenage manuscripts and still there in the freakish prose of the novel she left unfinished when she died. The manuscript evidence offers a different face for Jane Austen, one smoothed out in the famous printed novels.'
Kathryn Sutherland
The controversy about the style of Jane Austen is based solely on information from Professor Kathryn Sutherland and her study of the online manuscripts. In my opinion it is impossible to claim that the writing of Jane Austen has been softened or modified in such way that Jane's writing style can no longer be called her own.

And just what led to this controversy? The professor herself with her assertions and contradictions. Perhaps it was advertising for the online manuscript, of which Sutherland is the coordinator (see AustenBlog). Perhaps it was simple vanity to launch a theme that she knew would arouse public interest. (Read about the brouhaha in Jane Austen's World ).

I will end this post by highlighting two passages of the text by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian with which I totally agree:
Jane Austen’s style is not a bit of polishing on the surface of her novels, it goes deep into their structure, which is why they are so satisfying.
There is a dance between academics and arts reporters that has gone on long enough, in which scholars allow silly overinterpretations of their claims to become news, while at the same time looking down on the newsmonger. In this case the result is a pedantic assault on genius that can only diminish the pleasure of readers and confuse students. Austen is a great artist – through and through. Her voice is her own.

More about professor Kathryn Sutherland:

Posted by Raquel Sallaberry, Jane Austen em Português


Laurel Ann said...

Hi Raquel, Thanks for your thoughts on this controversial subject. I'm not sure what you mean by this statment.

"We can instantly see that fair copies of the six published books were not part of the repertoire of over 1,100 pages that Professor Sutherland studied, which included the manuscripts of Emma and Persuasion."

You seem to contradict yourself, or am I reading it incorrectly?

Sutherland studied manuscripts of Emma and Persuasion?

Besides the canceled chapter of Persuasion, I was not aware that there were original manuscripts of Emma and Persuasion still in existence.

Thanks, Laurel Ann

Raquel said...

Hi Laurel

edition problems! You are right.

Where you read

"which included the manuscripts of Emma and Persuasion."

you can read

"therefore the mastery of Jane on Emma and Persuasion obviously could not be found in these 1100 manuscripts pages."

I will ask Vic, to change this paragraph

Anonymous said...

Kathryn Sutherland is also the academic who, last year or so, accused Claire Harmon of Jane's Fame of stealing her concepts and research on Jane Austen.

I've read Jane's Fame (and enjoyed it, though I didn't always agree with it) and can say I'm happy Ms Harmon did not "steal" this tripe as well.

Can anyone say 'self-aggrandisment'? I suspect Ms Sutherland can.

Raquel said...


I don't know much about Claire Harmon and Kathryn Sutherland and the book Jane's Fame.

Vic said...

Hi Raquel, My book group will be reading Jane's Fame, which is a fabulous new book about Jane's life and how her literary reputation spread over the years.

Last year Kathryn Sutherland accused Claire Harman, the author of Jane's Fame, of lifting her ideas. Le scandale! Once Jane's Fame reaches Brazil, I highly recommend that you read it.

Raquel said...


I read a very interesting review about this book at AustenBlog and I'll await your opinion, I mean, the opinion of your group that I believe you'll publish at Austenprose.

It will hardly be a translation published in Brazil, but I know many people who read in English and I would certainly buy it when I could.

What I read until now about the affair KS versus CH it seemed
that the first said vague things and when she was asked to provide evidence, exact proofs, she did not.

Am I wrong?

Raquel said...

Sorry, Vic!

I mean you, not Laurel!

where you read Austenprose,

please read,

Jane Austen Today or Jane Austen's World!

Nonna Beach said...

The truest compliment is to copy someone's style of dress, attitude, mnners and example but when it comes to original ideas and inventions where big money is involved, it can get pretty ugly !

Claire said...

Dear Raquel,
I've just caught up with this blog, and felt moved to answer your question:
'What I read until now about the affair KS versus CH it seemed
that the first said vague things and when she was asked to provide evidence, exact proofs, she did not.

Am I wrong?'

You are not wrong. Kathryn Sutherland's smear campaign against my book was disgraceful. I took the Observer to the Press Complaints Commission for accepting the 'story' without checking if it had any substance and won the right to have my original letter of complaint (edited) put on the website, about eight months later. Not much solace when this suggestion keeps re-emerging that I plagiarised her! I keep trying to get Kathryn to say what she was accusing me of (latest attempt, the JA Society newsletter of March this year), but, not surprisingly, she has neglected to answer, just as I suspect she will never answer the considerable number of (much more important) questions being asked over her conclusions that JA 'was significantly edited'.
A blog from last year fills in some of the details:

with regrets for the agitation, and thanks to everyone who has made such appreciative comments about Jane's Fame on this blog. Claire Harman.

Denn Yee said...

more on this controversy -- from sutherland and her critics -- at