Stephanie Barron Defends Jane Austen at Conference

By Jason Boog 

As a controversy rages about the literary legacy of Jane Austen, novelist Stephanie Barron has written a special dispatch from the Jane Austen Society of North America conference.

Barron (pictured) is the author of the Jane Austen Mysteries series. Last week Oxford University professor Kathryn Sutherland made headlines for her analysis of more than 1,000 handwritten Austen pages, uncovering a trail of writing errors.

We’ve reprinted her entire literary op-ed below. Barron wrote: “It’s Sunday afternoon, and the end of the annual Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting–which was rife, this year, with outrage. Six hundred and fifty Janeites in one Portland ballroom, all venting about the same thing: that Kathryn Sutherland’s attempt to promote her online database of Austen manuscript pages has gone decidedly wrong.”
Barron continued:

Ever since the Oxford don started talking last week about how Jane couldn’t spell, how she crossed out some words in her text and inserted corrections above, how she preferred dashes to semicolons, which appear everywhere in her finished work–and therefore, benefited from an editor–the headlines have been screaming. “Austen’s Shadow Writer!” says one. “Jane Austen Illiterate!” ran another, on the MSN home page. At first, I figured the media was doing what the media generally does–mining the Obvious for the Sensational.

I ask you: What writer born in 1775 conforms to 2010 spelling standards? What writer forced to compose with a quill and ink is likely to run to error-free pages? What first draft is NEVER revised? Only the lousy ones. And yes–what published author among us has never been edited by her editor? My own, who has edited nineteen of my twenty-one novels, is affectionately called Our Lady of the Red Pen by a fellow author. But did she write my books? No. Did Jane’s supposed editor create Emma Woodhouse or Ann Elliot, much less Fitzwilliam Darcy? Not on your life. I assumed Kathryn Sutherland had been Spun. But then I heard her interviewed on NPR–and banished all mercy.

Sutherland professes to have examined, side-by-side, Jane’s manuscripts and her published novels, and found divergences of style she imputes to Jane’s editor. She has thrown over a thousand pages of manuscript online, which is all to the good for Austen fans; however, let us be clear about an important detail: none of these pages represent Austen’s “fair copy” manuscripts submitted to her publishers–Thomas Egerton or John Murray.

Those fair copy manuscripts, the polished and finished texts Austen hand-copied from her first drafts, have long since gone the way of toilet paper. What has survived is a collection of her rough drafts of the novels, her juvenilia–stuff written for internal family consumption when she was in her teens, including the misspelled and hilarious “History of England”–and fragments of novels she never finished. I shudder to think what anybody, two hundred years hence, would make of the journals I scribbled in high school, my wretched lovelorn poetry, or my plot discards.

Finally, when asked whether she’d examined Jane’s letters, Sutherland said dismissively that most of those had been destroyed, and moved on to her sterling comment–that she saw no reason to simply polish Jane’s halo.

This was where I abandoned Kathryn to her fate: the ire of Janeites everywhere. We have no idea how many letters Austen may have written in her lifetime, and thus cannot say whether “most” have been destroyed; but we do have one hundred and sixty-one letters in collections in the US and England that can be studied in manuscript, spanning a period in Jane’s life from 1796 to July 1817–the month she died. In some, she crosses out words. She forgets to put “i” before “e.” She inserts omissions with tiny carrots. She didn’t have a Letter Editor.

None of that matters. Because the letters sing with wit and vicious humor, intimate nonsense and sometimes sorrow–but above all, with the fluent voice of a woman whose pen was an extension of her febrile mind, a woman who was never at a loss for words.

Stephanie Barron Defends Jane Austen at Conference