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?

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