Oxford University professor Kathryn Sutherland has thrown doubt over Jane Austen’s authorship of her novels, her scepticism based on an analysis of Austen’s letters. The theory seems to hinge on Sutherland’s expectation that Austen’s letters should be written in the same perfectly polished style as her books. But the letters, according to Sutherland, are “littered with misspelling and grammar errors”. The books are not. Therefore, Sutherland concludes, the books could not have been written by Austen. Sutherland goes on to quote from Austen’s editor, William Gifford, who wrote of a draft of Emma: “It is very carelessly copied… there are many short omissions which must be inserted.” He offers to “readily correct the proof for you.” From which Sutherland presumes that the books were at least in part written by the editor Gifford.
I hope no one scrutinises my blog posts, emails, facebook comments, and tweets and compares them to my books. My books are by and large grammatically accurate, and my other ramblings aren’t. But would anyone conclude that my books were written by someone else? We don’t expect tweets and emails to be well-written, carefully considered literature. Why should Jane Austen’s private notes and scribblings be judged by different standards to those of today? Jane Austen’s letters weren’t written for publication. They were private. Why should she have written beautifully constructed letters in perfect elegant prose? Her books of course are another matter altogether and I daresay she – and her editor – checked and corrected them carefully.
Any serious author will acknowledge the help of their editor. Why should Jane Austen be any different?