Austen's "polished prose" not so polished: academic

LONDON (Reuters) - She has been hailed as the perfect English stylist, but “Pride and Prejudice” author Jane Austen was far less polished and more experimental than people realize, a leading academic said on Saturday.

Kathryn Sutherland, professor of the Faculty of English Language and Literature at Oxford, has studied a collection of 1,100 original handwritten pages of Austen’s writings and found blots, crossings out, messiness and poor punctuation.

The originals are a far cry from the revered English novelist’s reputation as precise -- her brother Henry famously said in 1818, the year after her death, that “everything came finished from her pen.”

“I think we have simply overestimated her as a perfect English stylist at the expense of how experimental she was,” Sutherland told Reuters, adding that her discovery had not dented, only changed her assessment of Austen.

“When you look at the manuscript, you realize she wasn’t writing like that at all.

“Her punctuation is much looser, the stuff is written as a complete rush and she’s doing something that is quite experimental -- creating something much more like real conversation, not in polished prose, not allowing each other one paragraph each, but people talking across each other.”

Austen set her works of romantic fiction among the English gentry, and her keen sense of satire and engaging female leads have seen the novels regularly adapted for the screen.


Sutherland believes that William Gifford, editor for Austen’s later publisher John Murray, was probably “heavily involved” in changes made between manuscript and the printed version readers see today.

“Sense and Sensibility,” Pride and Prejudice and the first edition of “Mansfield Park” -- Austen’s first three novels -- were not originally published by Murray, and some critics have argued that they were examples of poor printing.

Sutherland argues that the style in those novels was in fact much closer to the original manuscripts.

She added that early 20th century scholar Robert Chapman, who had the opportunity to view the manuscripts long ago, attempted to tidy them up before reproducing them in print.

“He was quite shocked (when he saw the originals),” Sutherland said. “He tidied away the evidence in the manuscripts and presented them in print form which would then connect them directly with the voice in the printed text.

“He was distressed -- at one point he said, ‘if only we could destroy these manuscripts because they are disturbing the view of Austen that we preserve’.”

Sutherland has spearheaded a project to reunite all Austen’s handwritten fiction manuscripts for the first time since 1845, when they were scattered by the terms of her sister Cassandra’s will.

The free-to-access online archive is a collaboration between the Bodleian Libraries, King’s College London and the British Library with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The archive will be launched on Monday.

Editing by Steve Addison