In this corner, the Janeites; in the other…

Catching up on Austenblog, I found an interesting post about the relatively recent controversy regarding Jane Austen and her style, ie was Jane Austen’s style created in part by the interventions of an editor and/or printer?

Great links here so I recommend popping over to the post.

Reading Sutherland’s, so to speak, rebuttal definitely heightened my awareness that her book would be worth a look. I want neither to criticize her unfairly – sometimes the messenger gets shot when she’s only relaying facts or reasonable ideas to a sentimental audience. But, when I looked at Geoff Nunberg’s essay on Language Log (also linked from Austenblog) I found he said a very interesting thing:

“You can repunctuate them according to the modern system without changing a word of the text”

Now, in her response piece, Sutherland cites two passages from Persuasion to show the differences between the edited Austen and the unedited Austen. The latter version, she states, shows,

“replaced by a more discreet syntactic emphasis carried by subtle shifts in punctuation”

So, I read the passages and thought, Whoa, now that’s kind of busy punctuation. I thought the second graph was so much cleaner and more easily readable, more the Austen I knew and loved. But, then I read them again keeping Nunberg’s comments in mind. And, wouldn’t you know? He’s right. About the words, I mean. There’s no change in words or word order from pre-edit to post-edit.

Interesting, actually.

I tried reading the pre-edit passages another time and found that, really, they were pretty easy to read if you just accepted what seemed to be the punctuation rules that JA was using. She wasn’t really breaking punctuation rules, it seems, as, apparently, these and spelling rules were not carved in s tone so much then as now.

So, what’s the big deal? I’m no Austen scholar – or Regency-era language scholar, either – but isn’t what Nunberg and others are saying just that Austen’s originality and contribution to literature was her newfangled way with dialogue? Well, that remains the same no matter how you punctuate it. So, the fact of her inventiveness remains the same one way or the other.

I know that, for me, this is really just light dawning on Marblehead, a sense of Hey, now I see what he’s/they’re saying. Still, interesting.

Who’s right, then? Sutherland or the Austen devotees? Who knows, really? I would only feel really confident – I mean really, really confident – in an opinion if I studied Sutherland’s book and, frankly, the original manuscripts and papers. It’s nice, in a way, though, to sink your teeth into the effort, be it a little or a lot.

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