Posted in Book Stuff

*Jane Austen Couldn’t Spell

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.

Sutherland says:

“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.



Lilian is the author of Web of Angels, a novel about a mom with DID (multiple personalities). She's also the author of the historical novels, The River Midnight and The Singing Fire, about secrets, friendship and motherhood in 19th century Poland and London.

11 thoughts on “*Jane Austen Couldn’t Spell

  1. That’s so fascinating! As a linguist and a writer (and having dabbled in proofreading/editing), I love this so much. It’s great to see her accent showing through, and fantastic that the internet means we can all see these documents without even leaving home.

  2. I didn’t read the article but is there any chance that Austen was the editor…going back for second drafts. In any case, very interesting. I love the image of her being just too engrossed in the story to slow down for things like punctuation and dialogue separations.

  3. Rachel, it’s amazing what can be found now on the internet–that is the www at its best. When I was researching The Singing Fire, I had to get everything I needed at the university libraries. But now much of that material (Charles Booth’s maps and notes on London late 19th c) are online.

    Verbivore, that’s an interesting possibility and could be quite right. I hadn’t thought of that.

  4. “It was closer to the style of Virginia Woolf. She was very much ahead of her time.”

    One way of looking at it, I guess. A more reasonable one is that she was largely of her time, which was not exactly a Golden Age of orthography, for better or worse (probably better).

    I’ve always been annoyed by the attempt to “praise” older writers and artists by making them more like us. Our failure to meet their standards is usually more instructive, IMO.

    Amongst Austen’s grammatical misdemeanours was an inability to master the ‘i before e’ rule.

    Maybe that’s because she died about 60 years before the earliest known formulation of it?

  5. Phila, your comment made me laugh because of its acuteness. I was irritated by the Virginia Woolf comparison but didn’t stop to think why. There is nothing like historical context! Thanks!

  6. I saw this article too and it annoyed me – particularly this: “The reputation of no other English novelist rests so firmly on the issue of style, on the poise and emphasis of sentence and phrase, captured in precisely weighed punctuation. But in reading the manuscripts it quickly becomes clear that this delicate precision is missing.”

    And what does it matter if she spelt believe “beleive”?

  7. So fascinating, Lilian (although I couldn’t get the link to work – it kept taking me to an error message)! Might she have been dyslexic…? The ‘i before e’ lapses might be explained by dyslexia, mightn’t they? I also love Verbivore’s suggestion that Austen was the editor of her own errors.

  8. Oh I love the thought of her talking like someone from The Archers. I’ll be hearing that voice in my head now whenever I read her work (which is quite different to the polite BBC voice that narrates them there at present!).

  9. Margaret, I agree. Her reputation rests on her acute social portraits and story-telling prowess, not the placement of a comma.

    Di, thanks for pointing out the broken link. It’s fixed now. I don’t think she was dyslexic. As Phila points out, orthogoraphy didn’t have the same customs in the late 18th/early 19th c.

    Litlove, now I have to find The Archers so I know how she would speak. From my side of the pond, I don’t know who the Archers are!

  10. Very interesting. I read something recently that said we shouldn’t make too big a deal of this since the rules of spelling weren’t as strict as they are now, and people regularly varied their spelling. But still, I like the idea of Austen being a tiny bit careless about things.

  11. Dorothy, there have been some studies on literacy and how it relates to orthography. Countries where spelling is completely phonetic have a higher rate of literacy at a younger age than those that don’t. It makes sense. So much concentration and effort are going into learning to spell that could be going into other things, just as in Chinese education, even more effort and focus goes into learning the thousands of characters. Oh, all the time I spend correcting my children’s spelling! We could be baking pies!

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