Who Is Jane Austen?

Jane Austen has been in the news of late. An Oxford scholar has concluded from studying Austen’s manuscripts that the writer was much more an experimentalist than the printed versions of her books indicate and that unlike the popular image of her as a natural writer whose prose was perfect from the moment her pen touched paper, that her polished prose was actually the work of painstaking drudgery and multiple drafts. But as usual, the journalists miss the point.

In the Guardian article, the focus is on Austen’s “erratic” punctuation, her “eclectic” use of capital letters, and her “nonexistent” paragraph breaks, and gives the credit for the polished prose to her editor, William Gifford. The Daily Mail headline is, “How Jane Austen failed at spelling.” The BBC headline is, “Jane Austen’s style might not be here.” And a Baltimore Sun blog had, “Jane Austen would have flunked English?” The Chronicle of Higher Education has a much better story, as one might expect, that focuses on the manuscripts showing Austen to be much more of an experimentalist and ahead of her time, almost modernist in style, until reined in by her editor’s more conventional approach.

The finding is interesting for Austen scholars, but hardly newsworthy. The “dirty secret” of literary studies is that such findings are true for every writer, and one of the big questions for literary scholars is which version of a text is the one to examine. If newspapers get in a flurry over Austen, they would have a heart attack over Shakespeare. Take this for example:

To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,
To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I, all:
No, to sleepe, to dreame, I mary there it goes,
For in that dreame of death, when wee awake,
And borne before an everlasting Iudge,
From whence no passenger ever retur’nd,
The undiscovered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damn’d.
But for this, the ioyfull hope of this,
Whol’d beare the scornes and flattery of the world,
Scorned by the right rich, the rich curssed of the poore?

This soliloquy, which seems familiar but definitely off, is actually the oldest known version of Hamlet’s famous speech. It’s from the First Quarto, also known as the “Bad Quarto,” published in 1603. It is generally believed to be constructed by memory from one of the actors in Shakespeare’s company, probably from a shorter version of the play used for provincial touring. The Second Quarto, published a year later is used as the basis for the play as we know it today. In the case of Hamlet, it is easy to discard the First Quarto as lacking authorial authority (actually, it’s not completely discarded as it does offers some interesting insights, especially in its more detailed stage directions), but the same situation obtains for nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays, with early quartos of varying degrees of authority in circulation. While many of his plays were published in his lifetime, there is no evidence that Shakespeare was involved in the publication of any of them. We don’t know how much of these texts are actually Shakespeare, and how much are the work of actors, editors, and printers.

Or take the case of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was a notoriously bad speller and relied heavily on his editor at Scribner’s to fix his texts. Here are the final lines of 1925 first edition of The Great Gatsby, some of the most famous words in twentieth century American literature:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther...And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Or are they? Here is what is written in Fitzgerald’s manuscript:

He believed in the green glimmer, in the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then but never mind—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. And one fine morning—

So we beat on, a boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Somewhere in the process, a period was changed to an ellipsis, “he” to “Gatsby,” “glimmer” to “light,” “boat” to “boats,” and most significantly, “orgastic” to “orgiastic.” Since the page proofs do not survive, we have no record of how Fitzgerald and his editors made these changes. Is orgastic, a rare word meaning “resembling orgasm,” what Fitzgerald originally intended? Or is it one of his many spelling errors and he meant orgiastic, meaning “relating to orgies; marked by excitement, extravagence, licentiousness”? Which one you choose has profound implications for the meaning of the passage.

And not only is there a question of “what is the authentic text?” There is also the question of “what is an author?” Jane Austen was a historical woman who lived from 1775–1817, but “Jane Austen” the author is not really the same person. She is a combination of that historical woman and her editors, publishers, and printers. Ditto for the playwright “Shakespeare.” (I’m not talking about nonsense like Bacon actually wrote the plays. There is no real doubt that the man from Stratford did the writing, but the versions that come down to us today do so with revisions by many others.) The “Julius Caesar” who wrote the Gallic Wars is actually the creation of a number of medieval scribes who penned the surviving manuscripts a millennium after the historical Julius was gutted on the floor of the Senate. And “Homer” is almost certainly as fictional as the gods and heroes “he” wrote about.

This would have made a much more interesting story than “Jane Austen couldn’t spell.”

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