Breaking news: Jane Austen was human!

It has made the rounds of the major media worlwide (see the BBC, for instance.) Even Le Monde mentions it, and yet Jane Austen is not a household name in France. In 21st century parlance, the story has become “viral.”


A page from Jane Austen's manuscript of Persuasion

So yes, Professor Kathryn Sutherland, of Oxford University, reveals that Jane revised her manuscripts, as evident on this image. Imagine that! Professor Sutherland further discloses that Jane’s publishers also edited her books for spelling and grammatical errors.

Well, this is the case for most novelists, this one included. Some scenes in my own novels have been rewritten dozens of times, though only my laptop can bear witness to my travails. My publisher provided me with editors and copy editors, all of whom, as their titles indicate, edited my novels. I never believed I was alone in this situation, nor did it make me think that the style of my works was not mine.

Truth be told, I had always surmised that Jane Austen was human. I know some in Janeite circles consider her an intellectual Superwoman, gifted with a steel-trap memory, an encyclopedic knowledge of the science and literature of her time, a thorough understanding of the subtleties of Hebrew and other languages, to mention a few of her accomplishments. Far, far beyond what Darcy and Miss Bingley ever imagined…

Others, like James Collins in this Wall Street Journal piece, consider Austen a moral guide for the 21st century. Certainly Jane Austen makes us reflect about issues of morality, money and social conventions, but why should we assume that she, any more than any other novelist, strictly espoused the views, likes and dislikes of her protagonists? Jane wrote fiction, not sermons. Unlike Fanny Price, she enjoyed family theatricals, and, to my knowledge, no Austen family members eloped as a result thereof. What would Jane do? Probably get a good laugh at much of what is written about her nowadays.

On the bright side, we now have an online digital edition of Austen’s manuscripts that “gathers together in the virtual space of the web some 1100 pages of fiction written in Jane Austen’s own hand.”

“Through digital reunification,” indicates the site, “it is now possible to access, read, and compare high quality images of original manuscripts whose material forms are scattered around the world in libraries and private collections. Unlike the famous printed novels, all published in a short span between 1811 and 1818, these manuscripts trace Jane Austen’s development as a writer from childhood to the year of her death; that is, from 1787 (aged 11 or 12) to 1817 (aged 41). Not only do they provide a unique visual record of her imagination from her teenage experiments to her last unfinished writings, these pages represent one of the earliest collections of creative writings in the author’s hand to survive for a British novelist.”

Isn’t this wonderful?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

10 Comments to “Breaking news: Jane Austen was human!”

  1. Jane Austen and me | Jackie Trippier Holt says:

    […] every novel has gone through the proof reading stage and not been spotless. Have you ever seen Jane Austen’s original manuscripts for example? Far, far worse to proofread I expect: and she couldn’t spell for […]

  2. […] Catherine Delors thinks it just shows Austen to be human, which is true. But that’s not really the point, like Carver, people think of Austen as an arch stylist. Such a distinctive writer that she’s talked about as an an archetype of a particular style of writing. The amazing thing about these reports and research results is the critical reevaluation of the role of editors. […]

  3. Penny Klein says:

    Love it and I posted it to my facebook page, truly inspired idea, Catherine, unfortunately I am having trouble getting the picture to show, only the url shows and your bio, which is interesting but not what i wanted people to know. so I am as human as JA who did not have the benefit of a computer for word processing.

  4. Lisa and Matterhorn, no matter whether we can blame this on a publicity-hungry academic or a lazy journalist during a slow news cycle, Jane Austen will endure! There is no “debunking” her.

  5. Matterhorn says:

    Some seem to love nothing more than “debunking” revered figures. It looks as though Jane Austen is the latest victim of this…

  6. Lisa Yarde says:

    I saw the reports on this as well and it’s a non-issue for me. I think Austen’s greatest skill was in her ability to understand human emotions. Regardless of whether we reading her original work or seeing the deft hand of an editor, no one can deny Austen’s skill at observing people at their best and worst, and conveying their emotions effortlessly. Whether the writing needed some fine tuning or not, who cares? I remember the feelings Elizabeth Darcy and Captain Wentworth evoked in me, not line by line of the prose. Austen will continue to be a timeless favorite.

  7. True, Molly, there no “revelation” in any of this. The manuscripts were not discovered yesterday, and the revisions had been in plain view for many decades. What piques my curiosity is the (lost) ms. of Pride and Prejudice. According to Ellen, this is the one which was the most extensively self-edited. And we have no ms. of her best-known work…

  8. Thanks for the comment and the link, Ellen! I agree, this is along the lines “see, even the most famous woman writer couldn’t write if her life depended on it.”
    Have you read Sutherland? Was she misquoted?

  9. Molly says:

    Ellen is absolutely right. It’s not the revelation itself, but the interpretation that is making waves.

    I find it interesting that many people have commented on the fact that the Austen novels with more editing require more effort to read and aren’t as funny as the others.

  10. ellen moody says:

    It’s the way it’s being talked about and how this information is being interpreted that rightly bothers some readers, especially women.

    A blog in conversation with Catherine’s:


Leave a Reply