Sunday, October 24, 2010

Jane Austen Needed an Editor

The literary world is abuzz with new research on the notebooks of Jane Austen, revered stylist, showing that her work required some pretty heavy editing to bring it to the polish we know today. Katherine Sutherland, an Oxford professor of English literature, after studying over a thousand pages of manuscript and correspondence, has named William Gifford as the primary editor.

A lot of silliness is now arising over this finding. What? A man dabbling his coarse fingers in the pool of Jane Austen's acute feminine sensibility?

As for me, I find this new information both reassuring and intriguing. For years, I've wondered how such perfection could flow from a fountain pen - even with one or two rewrites all in longhand - while we mere mortals stare at our computers, backspace, start over, Change All, cut and paste, and rewrite a first chapter twenty times. How refreshing it is to see the smudged page, blackened with strikethroughs and tiny superscript as a master works to get the words write.

So Jane Austen couldn't spell. Lots of brilliant people can't spell. So her use of paragraphs was weak. We all have something to learn from our editors. The real treasure here is the chance to look back lik an archeologist and see how a graceful structure is built from clumsy blocks of stone and weak cement. Take a look for yourself.

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