Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Jane Austen - and the vagaries, of 19th century punctuation

Reading Jane Austen's Lady Susan / The Watson's / Sanditon (basically, her early and unfinished efforts), I was struck by, among other things, the punctuation. It seems to be everywhere: commas; semi-colons; dashes; dashes combined with commas, periods and semi-colons, seeming at random; mid-sentence exclamation marks; you name it. A bit like my own writing, really. If emojis had been available to her, I'm sure she would have used those too.
And all this is AFTER a drastic editing process to weed out the more egregious over-punctuation. In fact, the editor (the great English novelist Margaret Drabble, in the case of the Penguin edition I read) makes specific reference in her introductory notes to the works to the fact that she had to make a bunch of edits and decisions on the punctuation, in order to attempt to tame the veritable profusion of marks and typographical devices Ms. Austen used in her rough drafts.
Now, we are used to thinking of Jane Austen as the paragon of English language construction, effortlessly stringing together complex nested clauses and sub-clauses, connected by a supporting web of commas and semi-colons, never under-utilized, never employed to excess (however much you may object to the errant commas in the immortal line: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife"). But what we sometimes forget is that, back in the 1810s when Austen wrote most of her major works, the spelling, style and punctuation of English literature was still very much in flux.
I notice, in Google, that there was a flurry of articles about Jane Austen's punctuation around November 2010, mainly in response to the publishing online of a whole slew of original Jane Austen manuscripts of juvenilia and unfinished works, with all their crossings-out, spelling errors (particularly a rather arbitrary interpretation of the "i before e except after c" rule, something that she had in common with Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Jefferson, and many others of the period), errant capitalization, complete lack of paragraph breaks, random punctuation, and dashes, dashes, everywhere.
More specifically, the media furry was in response to Oxford professor Kathryn Sutherland's allegations that Austen was really a bit of a sloppy writer, and that she probably relied heavily on an outside editor (probably the punctilious punctuationist William Gifford, or perhaps her publisher John Murray himself) to make sense of her scratchings. Drastic editing was standard practice at the time, but nevertheless Professor Sutherland's musings led to sensationalist headlines like "Jane Austen's elegant style may not her Hers", "Jane Austen massacred the English language" and "Austen revised and corrected by a man!"
Now, let is be said that we do not actually have a single page of the manuscripts that she actually submitted to her publishers, and the examples we do have are just rough drafts and youthful writings. Her own brother, Henry, gushed after Jane's death that, "Everything came finished from her pen", but in reality we do not really know. And let it also be said, in Jane's defence, that many of the conventions in spelling and punctuation that we take for granted today (like that "i before e except after c" rule", for example) were just not yet settled, and indeed were not really settled until the best part of a century later. Professor Sutherland notes that Austen's use of punctuation was actually more consistent with an attempt to signal the rhythms of speech rather than the grammatical structure of the text.
All in all, I think the intense debate was something of a storm in a teacup in the great tradition of such literary storms. When all is said and done, Jane Austen's artistry - and her style - is in her beautiful flowing sentences, her authentic rendering of refined conversations, and the elegance of her story arcs, and not in her use of the poor, maligned semi-colon.

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