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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

My considered opinion on the Sutherland fracas re Jane Austen needing a good editor

In followup to two of my postings to Austen L and Janeites on October 23, when “the Sutherland fracas” first burst onto the radar screens of Janeites worldwide, and also to my later blog entry on October 30, my mind was blown today after I listened to the interview of Kathryn Sutherland that aired on NPR not long ago (and thanks to a Janeite friend for bringing the following audio link to my attention, which I now pass on to all of you):

I already knew from the comments of other trusted Janeite friends and acquaintances who had heard the NPR segment (at the JASNA AGM, it became de rigueur for speakers, including myself, to add to the chorus of disapproval of Sutherland's comments) that Sutherland had crossed an unfortunate line. However, when I heard her actual voice speaking these words, and I then carefully reread the transcript of her remarks to NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, to make sure I had read them fairly, I finally felt certain that Sutherland had intended to distort what she knew to be the reality about the editing of JA's manuscripts. So I decided to take the time to call out Sutherland's distortions in a careful, complete and nuanced way, but also giving (limited) credit where credit is due. So here goes.

First and worst, if you read the full transcript of the interview, it is clear that Sutherland was very comfortable with creating the strong implication that Gifford had edited ALL of Austen's novels. And as has been averred by many Janeites who've responded to Sutherland, such implication is patently and completely absurd. Even if Sutherland's claim that Gifford was brought in by Murray to edit Emma were correct (and I address that claim separately, below), there is no writing in existence which has ever been disclosed publicly by anyone which suggests that Gifford had any hand in editing the three Austen novels published PRIOR to the publication of Emma. Quite the contrary, Gifford's own 1815 letter to Murray makes it clear he was a stranger to Austen's novels till 1815, long AFTER S&S, P&P and MP were all published.

And, as to the posthumously published novels, we have no existing manuscript of Northanger Abbey or its earlier version, Susan, nor do we have any manuscript of Persuasion other than the cancelled chapters (more about that below, as well). So there is nothing anywhere to suggest that Gifford changed the style or meaningful content of NA in any way either.
But... the interview's vague reference to 1,000 manuscript pages of JA's writing, in close proximity to the discussion of the editing of Emma, clearly leaves that implication that someone could go to the new website and see some sort of changes Gifford made to Austen's Emma manuscript. I don't think NPR would knowingly participate in a fraud on people interested in Jane Austen, and so I would even bet the NPR interviewer and her producers STILL think that Gifford did edit all of JA's novels! Someone needs to set them straight, and give them the chance to acknowledge error and clarify things!
But back to Sutherland. Sutherland then compounds this suspicious vagueness when the interviewer asks Sutherland exactly the right question that would dispel that vagueness, i.e., she asks Sutherland for a specific example of a passage in manuscript which is very different in the edited, printed text. And here is Sutherland's reply, which sounds to me like a well-coached witness on the stand doing her best not to speak plainly, but instead trying to create a false impression without actually saying something technically untrue:

“Well, it's very hard across the phone. I mean, lots of this evidence is visual.”

Doesn't that suggest to a reasonable listener that if you go to the manuscript website, and inspect the manuscript images VISUALLY, you will readily find examples of Gifford caught in the act of editing Austen's writing—a kind of “before and after” that will be obvious? How clever of Sutherland, in a NOT good way.

But then she goes on:

“But what I can give you is a little passage from William Gifford, who I believe is the man who corrected her English for the press. And this is what he says about the manuscript of "Emma": It is very carelessly copied. Though the handwriting is excellently plain and there are many short omissions which must be inserted, I will readily correct the proof for you. ….So it does blow out of the water the idea that everything came finished from her pen. “

Sutherland has just leapt across an intellectual Grand Canyon with a single bound! Who would hear that line about JA's manuscripts not being finished writing and think it was only about normal editing? And isn't the implication also that you can see examples of Gifford editing Emma in particular? Sutherland has cleverly conflated and blurred together Gifford's letter about Emma with Austen's manuscript of Emma.

And, to make sure I was not being too harsh, I decided to find out if I had somehow gotten the wrong impression a few years ago, when I first studied the manuscript chapters of Persuasion in comparison to the printed published final version we all know. Maybe there WERE differences between Austen's manuscript, and the published Persuasion, which would point toward the hidden transforming hand of Gifford? I had to check to be sure.

So I went line by line through Chapter 24 of Persuasion in comparison to the same text in the manuscript accessed through the new website. It did not take long, because Chapter 24 is very short, and I can report to you that the four or five changes I found were with one exception each so trivial as not to be worthy of mention. They were exactly like the corrections a scholar might make to a finished article before final submission, in an excess of caution to be completely clear, but really changing nothing stylistically or substantively. Just finding a better word. But I did find ONE change that was interesting to me in terms of the shadow story of Persuasion, but that has NOTHING to do one way or the other with this fracas.....

The point is that there was NOTHING remotely resembling the kind of significant stylistic changes that Sutherland pretty clearly claims were wrought by Gifford. So, again, unless there is something I have missed in the rest of the manuscript chapters of Persuasion (most of which WERE DELETED from the final version of Persuasion, so of course they were not edited by anybody!), there's nothing other than Gifford's vague comments in his letters to Murray to support the notion that he changed JA's style in any way!

Needless to say to knowledgeable Janeites, the bulk of the 1,000 manuscript pages just put online are from the Juvenilia, which were never published until long after Gifford, Murray and JA were all cold in the grave, and mouldering hands, I hear, are not very good at editing manuscripts.

But that is not the end of Sutherland's antics. She quotes from one of Gifford's letters, and here is the full text of the relevant section of the letter she quotes from, it is from Gifford to Murray written after Gifford read the manuscript of Emma:

"I have read the Novel, and like it much – I was sure, before I rec'd your letter, that the writer was the author of P. & Prejudice &c. I know not its value, but if you can procure it, it will certainly sell well. It is very carelessly copied, though the handwriting is excellently plain, & there are many short omissions which must be inserted. I will readily correct the proof for you, & may do it a little good here & there."

Gifford sounds to me like he has good taste, and is a sensible man, when he says “may do it a little good here & there”, he is not understating, I think he is saying exactly what he did to Emma—trivial little clean-up of punctuation and writing the full surnames of characters instead of merely the initial, which JA had probably abbreviated for speed and to save space on the page of her manuscripts. He's not talking about changing the style at all!
And here's the kicker—any such changes would have been particularly destructive to the text of Emma!!! As I have previously opined on more than one occasion, the writing style of Emma is, to me, extraordinary even among JA' s novels in the elevation of its rhetoric, almost at times verging on poetry or Joycean prose, in Emma. It is superheated writing on the highest possible level of creativity. Think about Miss Bates's speeches, and think about the strawberry dashes scene. Are these passages which were edited for grammar and punctuation? JA was in full imaginist mode writing Emma, and the similarity to modern stream of consciousness in many places is not accidental.
So Emma is the LAST novel to bring forward as an example of a punctilious punctuator tidying things up and turning Austen's wild writing into restrainedly sober Johnsonian prose—the only character in Emma who sounds like Samuel Johnson is Mr. Knightley, and that is because he is a parodic representation of Samuel Johnson!!! So JA would have laughed uproariously to hear the suggestion that Gifford somehow tamed the language of Emma of all novels!
And one last point about Gifford and JA's writing technique. Sutherland reports that Gifford urged Murray to try also for the rights to Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813 by Thomas Egerton:
"I have lately read it again – tis very good – wretchedly printed in some places, & so pointed as to be unintelligible."

As I read that, I wonder now even more whether Gifford's comments somehow got back to JA—perhaps retold to her by Murray in the course of publication negotiations--so that JA may have added a sly riposte to Gifford in the form of the immortal line spoken by the unwittingly wise Catherine in NA: “I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible”. That fits perfectly with my earlier (October 30) suggestion that ANOTHER passage in NA which I quoted and now quote again, is also a mocking response to a criticism of her writing:

"...the usual style of letter–writing among women is faultless, except in three particulars---a general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar...I should no more lay it down as a general rule that women write better letters than men, than that they sing better duets, or draw better landscapes. In every power, of which taste is the foundation, excellence is pretty fairly divided between the sexes.”

I think that JA imagined herself a fly on the wall while Gifford and Murray were sitting and mulling over how to make JA's writing presentable to readers punctilious about punctuation (ha ha), and JA's spirit rose to the challenge like Lizzy's did every time Darcy ticked her off, and decided it would be a very fine satire on pompous male jerks to put those presumptuous words in the mouth of Henry Tilney, who, at that stage of NA, fits that description very nicely. Sorta like Michael Caine's character's fantasy about Shirley Maclaine's character in Charade, which is completely deflated when SHE winds up having to use her wits to rescue HIS ridiculous scheme in the end.

Sutherland, for all her brilliant scholarship, has a tin ear for absurdist irony, and so misses some crucial essence in JA's writing which leads Sutherland astray in her analysis of this Gifford connection.

And that leads to the best part, the reason why we should all thank our lucky stars that Gifford never got his punctilious little mitts on P&P. The one partially redeeming aspect of Sutherland's interview is that she also said the following in the interview:

“We have a little bit of evidence about how she felt when she saw the final printed version of "Pride and Prejudice." And there was some surprise and she said she now could see that she needed more he-saids and(ph) she-saids. And part of the power of the manuscripts is hearing the voices overlay each other and not always being absolutely certain which voice is speaking. And I think we haven't allowed the very style of that to leak into the novels sufficiently, because it's there in the manuscripts. “
Sutherland is clueless and wrong when she detects surprise on JA's part—JA is actually being very playful and sly when she talks about the “he said she said” confusions—she is not surprised by them, she INTENDED to make these passages ambiguous, and was PLEASED that family members were confused, that was her goal. Sutherland almost makes it sound like JA did this accidentally. However, to Sutherland's credit, she did at least realize that the ambiguity of the he saids and she saids was not a mistake, but was a strength of the novel, even if she did not realize that it was consciously intentional on JA's part.
So, that's my take on the Sutherland fracas.

Cheers, ARNIE

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