Jane Austen’s manuscripts

3 Nov

There’s just something magical about seeing an original. It could be a painting, classic car, monument, place, or, in this case, handwritten manuscripts by one of the world’s most well-known British novelists. And while these aren’t originals per se, they’re the closest thing Austen fans on this side of the pond are likely going to see without hopping on a plane. This particular image is taken from a page of Jane Austen’s manuscript for Persuasion, which happens to be my second favorite Austen novel behind Sense and Sensibility. (You can go here to tell what the text says more clearly.)

What’s interesting about the manuscripts is that they suggest Austen required heavy editing, which goes against what Austen’s brother Henry always said, “Everything came finished from her pen.” Apparently not. Oxford University Professor Kathryn Sutherland has studied more than 1,000 original handwritten pages of Austen’s novels, and she’s found some significant differences between these handwritten pages and the finished published works—namely that the manuscripts contained misspelled words, bad grammar, and minimal punctuation. Sutherland was interviewed on NPR about her work. You can listen to the interview or read the transcript here.

While these may show that Jane Austen wasn’t the infallible writer that history has made her out to be, she was, without a doubt, an exceptional writer with a gift for creating wonderful, timeless stories. As a book editor myself, I can attest that any manuscript, no matter how brilliant the writer, always, always contains mistakes, has omissions, and requires revisions and corrections to be made. It’s simply impossible to make sure everything is 100% perfect when the deadline comes around, and it’s why so many editors and copy editors read it before it goes to press. I for one love seeing the scratch outs. It reveals the lightbulb moments writers get when they discover a better word or phrase to make their work even better. It also shows that every writer, even great ones like Jane Austen, needs a good editor.

You can read about my experience visiting Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, England here.

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