In scrutinizing Austen’s letters and one complete surviving manuscript, Persuasion, Prof Kathryn Sutherland of Oxford University was interested in the fact that Austen couldn’t spell, neglected punctuation, and ignored paragraphs–implying that an editor was heavily involved.
“She has this reputation for clear and elegant English but her writing was actually more interesting than that. She was a more experimental writer than we give her credit for. Her exchanges between characters don’t separate out one speaker from another, but that can heighten the drama of a scene.
“It was closer to the style of Virginia Woolf. She was very much ahead of her time.”
Either that, or like one of my children, she was just too engrossed in the story to bother.
According to Sutherland, an editor was heavily involved in the books that have been loved for 200 years, and she speculates with some evidence as to the editor’s identity. It’s all quite interesting, but if there is any subtext that the books aren’t wholly Austen’s, I disagree. Correcting spelling, adding commas and making paragraph breaks, while necessary, don’t change anything substantive, unlike, say, the changes made by Raymond Carver’s editor.
However it’s wonderfully encouraging to me as the mom of a story-telling child who has an aversion to putting in periods (never mind commas!), and as a writer, I have to think that Austen wouldn’t get published today. She wouldn’t even get an agent to read past the first misspelled, paragraph-less page.
Amongst Austen’s grammatical misdemeanours was an inability to master the ‘i before e’ rule. Her manuscripts are littered with distant ‘veiws’ and characters who ‘recieve’ guests.
Elsewhere, she wrote “tomatoes” as “tomatas” and “arraroot” for “arrowroot” – peculiarities of spelling that reflect Austen’s regional accent, Prof Sutherland explained. “In some of her writing, her Hampshire accent is very strong. She had an Archers-like voice with a definite Hampshire burr.”
See it for yourself; her handwritten pages are here.