Enough already with the “Jane Austen needed a man” to rescue her prose condemnations!

“There are a few Typical errors–& a ‘said he’ or a ‘said she’ would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear–but ‘I do not write for such dull Elves As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.'” Jane Austen in a letter to her sister Cassandra on the release of Pride and Prejudice, January 29, 1813

Jane Austen can’t spell, sucked at grammar and punctuation, and needed a man to complete her! So says Oxford scholar Kathryn Sutherland!

Hominy grits!

I was going to coldly ignore this folly and nonsense; deignfully not acknowledging its existence; but this is just the outside of enough. The media has grabbed on to Sutherland’s grandstanding publicity tripe and a full on scandal has erupted. It started on Saturday, October 23 with Richard Garner’s report in The Independent

“Blots, crossings-out, messiness and bad grammar – Jane Austen’s manuscripts were so messy that a pro-active editor must have been responsible for the polished prose of novels such as Emma and Persuasion.

That is the conclusion of an Oxford University professor who has been studying 1,100 of the writer’s unpublished original manuscripts.

Professor Kathryn Sutherland, of the Oxford faculty of English language and literature, has come to the conclusion that an interventionist editor must have come to the rescue.”

Sutherland assumes that because Jane Austen’s later novels Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were relatively free of spelling and grammar errors that the editor who worked for her publisher fixed her mistakes and polished her manuscripts. Basically, that she needed a man to rescue her bad prose!

I would like to openly ask Kathryn Sutherland a question. Did you analyze the original manuscripts of Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion published by Murray, or Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park published by Egerton to draw your conclusion? No? Gee, I wonder why? Because, they no longer exist.

What did you use? The 1,100 pages of original manuscripts mentioned in Richard Garner’s report could be her juvenilia, fragments of The Watsons and Sanditon, and the novella Lady Susan. Besides some other minor works, they are the only original Jane Austen manuscripts in existence.

We can hardly hold a brilliant author accountable for her spelling, grammar, punctuation and messiness in her juvenile writings. The Watsons and Sanditon were created in maturity, but are unfinished works in progress. Of course there would be words crossed out and untidiness. Lady Susan is the closest we can get to what Jane Austen might have presented to a publisher as a final manuscript for publication. The surviving manuscript was transcribed by the author in the early 1800’s as a “fair copy.” Would it have been the version that Jane Austen would have presented for publication? Since it was not, we shall never know.

So, as far as I can muster, Sutherland based her accusation on one line in a letter written by Austen’s publisher John Murray who mentions the “untidiness of her writing style” to his editor William Gifford (who we are not certain edited Austen’s books). Those four words have inspired this brouhaha, a damning insult to one of literature’s finest authors.

In conclusion, I would like to freely admit that I cannot spell, my grammar and punctuation suck and if I was not writing this on my helpful Microsoft Word program, there would be crossed out words and messiness. Unfortunately, that does not make me the next Jane Austen.

Shame on you Kathryn Sutherland for using a line written in confidence two hundred years ago for your cheap self-aggrandizement. Now the general public thinks Jane Austen is a sham.

Have a “nice” day, Laurel Ann

Disclaimer: No men were “ill-used” in the writing of this blog, though I would like to box a few ears of the gentlemen of the press.

Additional scuttlebutt and responses:

17 thoughts on “Enough already with the “Jane Austen needed a man” to rescue her prose condemnations!

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  1. Actually, I’d say we can hardly hold a brilliant author accountable for her spelling, grammar, punctuation and messiness under any circumstances! Let’s suppose the later manuscripts have the same problems. She’s still a brilliant writer in all the ways that count, and if a good male editor alone could make brilliant prose out of muck, there would be a lot more of it around. If I thought it could make me as good a writer as Austen, I’d happily give up every bit of ability I have to spell and use dialogue tags properly, since I personally don’t read Austen to admire her spelling, punctuation or handwriting. Though, come to think of it, I have a facsimile copy of Austen’s letters, and I don’t recall any problems with her prose in those!


  2. The most important thing Sutherland says is that Austen wrote in an innovative and new way … quite informally, in fact; more like normal speech. Compared to the more formal works of her contemporaries (Radcliffe or Burney) the immediacy of Austen’s prose is like a breath of fresh air. But I didn’t get the impression that Sutherland is claiming that Austen’s editor wrote her books for her.

    If you accept Sutherland’s thesis … that Austen needed lots of technical help … it’s clear that preparing revolutionary books like hers for publication was no easy task. How to adapt the satirical freshness of her writing to the needs of the reading public? I think the editor did a bang up job, frankly.


      1. That, presumably, is what Sutherland wants to explore. However innovative and brilliant JA’s writing, it doesn’t seem likely that she would NOT have been subjected to the editing process to some extent. It’s the ‘extent’ that Sutherland is studying.

        In the early 19th c, getting a manuscript published was pretty much impossible for a writer with no literary agent and no private means. The trajectory of JA’s career as a published author was routine: her brother, acting as agent, finally secured a publisher for S&S when JA was in her thirties, already with one unsuccessful stab at getting published.

        Once JA sold the publishing rights, much of S&S’s subsequent journey to print would have been taken out of her hands (freeing her to work on other projects … a good thing). Between longhand manuscript and the book seller, there exists — then as now — an enormous amount of labor and cost, as well as risk, borne by the publisher. The early JA novel would be grist for the editing, typesetting, structuring, printing, marketing and advertising mill, like every other book from an unknown writer. Though her body of work eventually turned out to be a very good investment for Thomas Egerton (and for her later publisher, whose name I can’t remember) … the point is, she wasn’t ‘Jane Austen’ …yet.

        She was never blind to the necessity of capturing a reading public. She dedicated one of her novels to her ardent fan, the Prince Regent, although she loathed him. To be open to such an unwelcome request — impossible without her permission — tells me JA was shrewd enough to place a value on celebrity endorsement. What other, less monstrous, suggestions might she be open to?

        JA was capable of self-revision, even early in her writing career. (The revisions of her epistolary works and the novel Susan were not done under the aegis of a publisher.) By the time she emerges as a popular published author, she is already a seasoned writer, and, of course, savvy to the way the whole publishing machine works. It is reasonable to assume that she would exhibit more control, rather than less, over her mature works. It is also reasonable that she revise her earlier works (for their first publication) to reflect the higher quality of her later writing.

        I don’t think Sutherland gives Gifford credit for JA’s prose style … that distinction is preserved for her much-studied influences, including Johnson and Swift, who had satirical wits like hers. The editor who recognized the slyness of JA’s humor would have been careful to bring it to press unscathed. That’s why I think he did a bang-up job. A good editor keeps a good writer on the rails.

        Sorry for the loooooong essay. Have fun at the conference!


  3. I agree completely that nobody who wrote prior to the invention of the word processor should be held accountable for a messy manuscript. We’ve all written them, in our own juvenilia days. But I’d like to second Buggy’s notion of the justifiable uses of editors–my own, who has published nineteen of my novels, is affectionately called Our Lady of the Red Pen by one of her authors; and no writer feels completely comfortable until SOMEBODY in authority at the publishing house has checked her spellings, her dates, her erroneous assumptions, and yes, her GRAMMAR. This isn’t news, folks, and hasn’t been probably since the Tale of Genji. I would challenge Ms. Sutherland to find the original manuscripts of Sir Walter Scott, if they’re around, and have a gander at those. Or Fanny Burney’s. Or, gasp, Jane’s letters….which were also written at white-hot speed, crossed to save space, and imaginative in their spelling. But never, never, illiterate. I imagine everybody’s first drafts were blotted copybooks…

    What a terrible disservice to her subject she has done, in pursuit of publicity.


  4. I see a very interesting parallelism:

    This need to dissect the perfection in Jane’s writing to the unending search for the ‘real’ portrait of Jane that has been polished, airbrushed, altered from Cassandra’s rough sketch…

    In the face of terrifying perfection, is it a common human reaction to turn away from it and search for something in it that can be fathomed and grasped?

    I agree that this is the most interesting thing that Prof. Sutherland said:

    ‘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’

    I wish she had expounded on why she thinks this by citing concrete examples.


  5. “So, as far as I can muster, Sutherland based her accusation on one line in a letter written by Austen’s publisher John Murray who mentions the “untidiness of her writing style” to his editor William Gifford (who we are not certain edited Austen’s books)”

    There was a little more to it than that Laurel Ann.

    I have attached an interview from the Today Programme in which Katheryn Sutherland expands on her view a little more.

    Some quotes form the interview:

    Sutherland says that Jane is “Even more interesting writer than we thought.” she is, “Even greater.” She describes her unedited writing as mostly conversation, “voices spilling over each other,” like ral conversation.Sutherland says that she thinks she is a more radical writer than we thought. She compares her to Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.

    Here is the interview. The programme is 2 hours long but if you , use the slide the bar and take it to 1:19:17 you will get the start of the interview.

    All the best,



  6. I think Sutherland had no idea how the press would run with her story and make such a big splash. Her assertions that Jane’s perfect style were somehow in question because she had help polishing her manuscripts are questionable. Every good writer has an editor who helps to prepare their manuscripts for publication. Sutherland was able to study Jane’s mind at work and see how she set her creative ideas on paper, but then made a leap and provided an opinion about the finished product that made no sense as far as I could tell. In my post, I addressed how many authors work with the help of others. Does such a practice make the final product any less theirs? No.


  7. While I do agree that that the way this story is being showcased in the media can be misleading to those not familiar with Austen’s work, The overall intention by Miss Sutherland seems to be to talk about the creative process that Jane Austen underwent in order to bring her brilliant works to life,rather than cast doubt on her abilities.

    Any fresh insights into the workings of Austen’s mind are worth looking into and if you examine the papers of any prominent writer between Jane’s time and now(even beyond that),such technical errors are commonplace. It makes her even more human to me,who blesses the good fortune to have spellcheck on hand:)

    As the classic saying goes,there is no such thing as bad publicity and as Mr. Bennett would say,we must not get missish about an idle report,but allow the folly to pass and the steady facts to remain.


    1. Thank you so much Dennis for alerting me to this great exchange on the Language Log Blog. Geoff Nunberg is a God among Janeites. I think that Sutherland’s rebuttal is eloquent, but it does not tell me anything I already didn’t know: she is making the leap that William Gifford was responsible for editing Austen’s later published novels with John Murray, (Emma, 2nd ed of Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey) and that the canceled chapters of Persuasion, an example of what we do still have of her later writing exemplify the changes from manuscript to printed book. Again, we do not know what changes William Gifford made on her behalf, nor are the canceled chapters of Persuasion absolute evidence for her argument. Persuasion was written in failing health, and the 2 chapters she chose to not include in the final manuscript may not have been polished work ready for publication. How can you judge an author by her discards – and more importantly – WHY SHOULD WE??? I would have been more satisfied with some assemblence toward admission that she made a mistake. She threw a left jab when she should have ducked. Unfortunately, the damage is done. The general public now gleefully remembers that the “perfect” and “exalted” Jane Austen could not spell and needed to be heavily edited. So what? If it is true, it does not change her stories or character one bit for me. I cannot spell and my grammar sucks. I wish it made me Jane Austen. Sadly, it does not. I wish it was that easy.


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